Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Uncovering the First World War (2)

Further thoughts on Dublin.

Some thoughts about how to improve the next conference:

The conference organisers did a great job of putting together a stellar cast of conference attendees. About 60 academics and students attended in total, including more than half of the world’s leading authorities on aspects of the First World War from the UK, Ireland, France, Germany and the US. I’ve thought in the past that a spot of food poisoning would be an excellent career development opportunity. At one sweep, you could create the room for all the junior academics to move up the ladder and all the postgrads to get jobs (presumably I will keep chuckling about this until I’m at the top, at which point I will start checking the kitchens).
This is one of the best features of the conference: the opportunity for young researchers to have their work commented on by their seniors.
I wonder, however, if it hasn’t rather outgrown itself. The problem with having 60 scholars, some of them big names, in one room, is that it doesn’t necessarily encourage discussion, particularly from postgraduates who are sometimes just starting their research. Many people will make points, but any discussion that starts has to be curtailed reasonably quickly so that the next paper can begin. And you have to have a chairperson with a hand of iron to force senior academics to be succinct. It struck me that very often we were saying ‘we need some comparative information about this topic’ and that the basis for that information might be in the room. But to access it, you have to have an environment in which scholars are happy to speculate.
(Personally, I always operate from a minimal knowledge base and I suffer from a pronounced inability to keep my trap shut, so I have no problem floating ideas which are subsequently shot down. But a conference room full of mes would be absolutely unbearable. And very noisy.)
So here’s a suggestion for whoever gets the ‘opportunity’ to organise this next time. How about parallel sessions, capped at a maximum of 20 participants each, with the academic big guns spread between the two, and chairpersons empowered to ask experts to provide that comparative perspective?
Please note that this is in no way intended as a criticism of the conference organisers, who I will continue to praise to the high heavens. It’s aimed to be part of a continuing dialogue which will improve the next occasion.

Incidentally, those interested in finding the full conference programme can download it here.

Uncovering the First World War in Dublin post 1


Blogger Spangly Princess said...

I believe that the very idea of this format - and of the society -was born from the founders' mutual hatred of parallel sessions. They were determined to find a way of presenting a larger number of papers without resorting to them.

I agree that the format in Dublin was almost too successful in presenting papers and the best general discussions arose not in the panel sessions but during/ after plenary sessions. In Oxford two years ago the conference was much smaller and more informal, and perhaps that encouraged a greater openness of debate.

On the other hand the professionalism and efficiency of the Dublin conference was amazing and did allow us to cover a lot of ground. The organisers must have worked so hard, and all credit to them.

It's hard to see any other way that so many scholars of differing interests and levels of seniority could be brought together. As soon as we start having parallel sessions, people pick and choose which subjects they're interested in - for me, one of the great things about these conferences is that you end up reading about/discussing topics you would never normally encounter. I'm not sure there's an easy solution to this one - large and informal doesn't really work.

6:32 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Point taken about people choosing what to go to. But my idea was that you would somehow forcibly allocate the expertise to the relevant subject area. I have not quite worked out how my control-freakery would pan out when postgrads started telling the elders what to do... The field is so large that I think you'd end up seeing new things anyway (the one area I missed because of my early departure was the more 'military' papers - no matter how you'd set up the parallel sessions, there'd still be something new for me).
Further posts coming from conference participants and organisers, so let's see what happens. And if anyone has any pictures, please mail them to the qm address

10:28 AM  

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