Well, it’s the day after CSEDU and the remaining attendees are all checking out and leaving. All that remains now is lunch (which is not a minor thing in Spain) and heading to the airport. In this increasingly on-line age, the question is often asked “Why do you still go to conferences?”, meaning “Why do you still transport yourself to conferences rather than participating on-line?” It’s a pretty simple reason and it comes down to how well we can be somewhere using telepresence or electronic representations of ourselves in other places. Over the time of this conference, I’ve listened to a number of talks and spoken to a number of people, as you can see from my blog and (if you could see my wallet) the number of business cards I’ve collected. However, some of the most fruitful discussions took place over simple human rituals such as coffee, lunch, drinks and dinner. Some might think that a travelling academic’s life is some non-stop whirl of dining and fun but what is actually happening is a pretty constant round of discussion, academic argument and networking. When we are on the road, we are generally doing a fair portion of our job back home and are going to talks and, in between all of this, we are taking advantage of being surrounded by like-minded people to run into each other and build up our knowledge networks, in the hope of being able to do more and to be able to talk with people who understand what we’re doing. Right now, telepresence can let me view lectures and even participate to an extent, but it cannot give me those accidental meetings with people where we can chat for 5 minutes and work out if we should be trying to work together. Let’s face it, if we could efficiently send all of the signals that we need to know if another human is someone we want to work with or associate with, we’d have solved this problem for computer dating and, as I understand it, people are still meeting for dinners and lunch to see if what was represented on line had any basis in reality. (I don’t know about modern computer dating – I’ve been married for over 15 years – so please correct me if I’m wrong.)
Of course, for dating, most people choose to associate with someone who is already in their geographical locale but academics don’t have that luxury because we don’t tend to have incredible concentrations of similar universities and research groups in one place (although some concentrations do exist) and a conference provides us with a valuable opportunity to walk out our raw ideas into company and see what happens. There is also a lot to be said for the “defusing” nature of a face-to-face meeting, when e-mail can be so abrupt and video conferencing can provide quite jagged and harsh interactions, made more difficult by network issues and timezone problems. That is another good reason for conferences: everyone is away and everyone is in the same timezone. The worst conference to attend is one that is in your home town, because you will probably not take time off work, you’ll duck into the conference when you have a chance – and this reduces the chances of all of the good things we’ve talked about. It’s because you’re separated from your routine that you can have dinner with academic strangers or hang around after coffee to spend the time to talk about academic ideas. Being in the same timezone also makes it a lot easier as multi-continent video conferences often select times based on what is least awful for everyone, so Americans are up too early, Australians are up too late, and the Europeans are missing their lunches. (Again, don’t mess with lunch.)
It’s funny that the longer I stay an academic, the harder I work at conferences but it’s such a good type of hard work. It’s productive, it’s exciting, it’s engaging and it allows us to all make more progress together. I’ve met some great people here and run into some friends, both of which make me very happy. It’s almost time to jump back on a plane and head home (where I turn around in less than 14 hours to go and run another conference) but I feel that we’ve done some good things here and that will lead to better things in the future.
It’s been a blast, CSEDU, let’s do it again. Buenos dias!