Saturday, October 25, 2008

A humane scale academic conference

I hate most academic conferences. Since conferences are places where important ‘networking’ is done, this is unfortunate. Here is the prtoblem.. Conferences (academic and otherwise) have, for the most part, grown too large and impersonal. They are held in large ‘conference hotels.’ There are hundreds of panels, many of indifferent quality. Much of the ‘knowledge’ being exchanged is irrelevant to all but a small in-group of aficionados. There is academic pretension and posturing. Drinking and dining facilities are overpriced, overcrowded and under served. Conference attendees are, after all, a captive audience.

There are other sorts of academic/professional gatherings. Years ago I regularly attended the annual global modeling conferences held at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, located outside of Vienna. Most of those attending had played major roles in developing an entirely new field of study (see my coauthored book, Groping in the Dark: the First Decade of Global Modeling for a recounting). Annual meetings of ‘The Balaton Group,’ an environmental network mostly founded by global modelers was another example. We limited the meetings’ size to 50 so that every member would have time for long conversations with every other member. To become a member, one needed to have done cutting edge work on environmental sustainability.

This weekend I attended another conference that rose to a high standard of collegiality and value added. I had heard good things about the annual South Asia Conference but never attended. I was told that it has been held in the same venue, Madison, Wisconsin, for the last 37 years. About three hundred South Asianists were in attendance. The time allotted for paper presentations - about 25 min - was long enough so that the information provided could be serious and substantive. Discussants had read the papers on which they were commenting and offered civil, thoughtful observations. Attendees, too seemed to be knowledgeable about the subject matter and, in many instances knew the panelists.

Madison is a virtually ideal conference site. The setting is beautiful. The town is both the State Capital and site of a world-class Land Grant university. The main drag, State Street offers a cornucopia of high quality moderately priced ethnic restaurants. The airport is humane scale and when I engaged a taxi, I was told that the service to my hotel was free! My hotel, Madison’s Campus Inn was both inexpensive and beautifully appointed.

A high point of these thoroughly delightful meetings was the annual gathering of the American Institute of Sri Lankan studies. Elsewhere, I have described the unique community of scholars who study Sri Lanka as humane scale. Though I have not been active, especially since becoming an academic administrator, I knew many of those present. There was a young woman who, researching Tamil dialects, who had lived in an adjoining Kandy apartment at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies. There were co-editors of a a book on Sri Lanka to which I had contributed. Another scholar and I had lived together in the same Colombo guest house when he was beginning his research. Many in attendance, too, were familiar with my work on Sri Lanka.

It seems so obvious what is required to put on a good conference and to create a collegial, mutually affirming community of scholars. One has to wonder why most conferences are so inhumane and why such communities are so rare.

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