Friday, November 11, 2011

Keeling over

I was at the UCL Keeling colloquium at the beginning of the week.  It was an excellent conference and it made me think about what makes a conference good.  I think there are various possibilities, and they aren't by any means all related to the excellence of the content of the papers or talks being presented.  I certainly don't like conferences that are too big.  I like to think that I've spoken to or met everyone there, more or less, by the end.  That way it feels like a properly shared social enterprise.  And I don't like conferences that are too long.  Three days is plenty, usually, because any less isn't really long enough to feel properly immersed and much longer is too exhausting if you're thinking hard.

In the end, my thoughts about good conferences came down on other characteristics that are important to a gathering's success.  It's important to have time outside the formal bits to chat, make friends, gossip about jobs and the like (lots of all of those at the Keeling) and, perhaps most of all, to make the job a more interpersonal one.  Fortunately, my field is small enough that over time we do mostly get to meet each other properly.  And it seems to me important to remember that, alongside all the high-minded stuff about pursuing the truth and the importance of following an argument wherever it leads, it's important to remember that the article you're reading and criticising what written by a person, after all.  And putting faces and voices and personalities to the names in journals and on book-shelves is rather useful too.  We can still engage critically and robustly with one another's work, of course, but writing that footnote that begins 'Pace X...' or 'As X mistakenly claims...' feels very different once you've had dinner with X and talked about his or her kids or shared a joke.

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