This past weekend I had the privilege to attend and present at a conference at Renmin University in Beijing. It was different in some ways from conferences/symposia I have attended in the U.S., and I think that these differences were largely positive. I thought I would write a “conference review” (if not an accepted genre I think it should be) to unpack some of the characteristics I found particularly rewarding and then in my next post reflect more broadly on academic exchange across national boundaries from the perspective of a(n) (American) graduate student.
Theme: The theme of the conference was “Are Differences Ineffable!?: Diversity, Hybridity and Current Issues in History Writing.” I have to admit that I am a bit cynical about conference themes and calls for papers (CFP’s) generally. CFP’s – at least for symposia or conferences that are larger than workshops that bring scholars together to discuss a specific topic in considerable depth – often lay out broad themes of more or less self-evident significance. These themes can encompass a seemingly innumerable set discrete concerns, which the CFP-writers may or may not undertake to enumerate. What I don’t like is that these themes are general to the point of being vague, or even uninteresting and, when read in the context of other recent CFP’s, repetitive. (Try googling “history, conference, boundaries,” and you’ll see what I mean.) Unfortunately, this is exactly what conference themes have to be. Right?
I was similarly skeptical of “Are Differences Ineffable!?,” but however vague the theme appears at first glance, it worked quite well in practice. I think there were several reasons for this. First, the conference began and ended with reflections – both in keynote addresses and a roundtable – about the theme itself. These both referenced and were referenced by presentations over the course of the conference, lending both an intellectual and social coherence to the conference. Second, as I’ll discuss more below, the CFP included what were essentially pre-chosen panel titles, making it clear that the conference wasn’t just about anything and everything. Finally, if you’ve read my blog much, you know that I like to play with discussing multiple topics at once. (e.g. In these posts I’m trying to discuss both what makes for a good conference and questions of transnational intellectual exchange.) Running throughout the conference, I think, was a healthy balance of attention to difference as encountered in both history itself and writing history, which was especially productive given the international and multilingual nature of the conference.
Panels: To be fair to large professional conferences, the thematic coherence I praised above is simply not possible at an event featuring hundreds of panels and panelists. This conference was considerably smaller: ten panels organized into five time slots (so there were always two panels running simultaneously), punctuated by roundtable discussions about issues in publishing. I found this scale conducive to a feeling of partaking in a common intellectual experience without feeling overwhelmed and fatigued by the amount of choices or being held prisoner to whatever what was being presented at a given moment.
Each of the panels was curated by a member of the Renmin University faculty, which I think contributed to the coherence of the individual panels. This is quite unlike (at least in my experience) professional conferences where panels are organized by the presenters themselves and a chair/discussant is chosen to help tie them together and maybe add a touch of prestige. Personally, I like the idea of a panel that is greater than the sum of its individual presentations. I wonder if we would see more of that if we took the responsibility for curation out of the hands of the presenters and had members of the field recruit the panels they would want to chair. In any case, I thought that method worked quite well at this particular conference.
Discussion: I think this is one of the harder parts of conference panels to handle effectively. The presentations themselves have to be substantive (long) enough to generate discussion, then there need to be comments by someone who has read the paper in advance to get things moving, then the panelists have to respond to those comments, then maybe there will be a little bit of time to take questions from the audience and even respond to them before everyone has to rush off somewhere else. That’s a little bit of a caricature, but not too much. Given any sort of reasonable time constraints, it’s hard to manage all of these things satisfactorily.
I think this was true of “Are Differences Ineffable?” as well. To the credit of the organizers, the conference moved along briskly and on-schedule. But that also meant that there wasn’t copious time for open discussion among the panelists themselves or with the audience during the sessions. C’est la vie?
There were a couple things that this conference did a bit differently that I found refreshing, though. First, there was never only one discussant for the entire panel. Unless you are particularly looking forward to hearing a certain discussant, it can honestly be disheartening sometimes to sit through four twenty-minute individual presentations only to realize that there is still a fifteen to twenty-minute monologue describing said presentations yet to come. Having multiple discussants at least broke things up a bit. I was a bit concerned that this would eat up too much time, and in some cases that was true. In general, though, the discussants were (at least for academics) efficient in their remarks. This format also freed the moderators from the burden of commenting extensively on individual papers and allowed them to focus on providing more general remarks. Second, in many cases presenters commented on each other’s papers. Again, this gave the panels a more coherent feel and provided the opportunity for direct interaction between the panelists, which I think is too often lacking in conference panels and is why some people prefer roundtable formats.
Down/networking time: An essential part of conferences is having the opportunity to meet and interact with other scholars outside of the formal sessions. As an introvert, I don’t necessarily look forward to this. Being in a multilingual setting only ratchets up the pressure. This was, however, one of the most rewarding parts of this conference.
Ok, I can’t pretend that part of the reason wasn’t that the conference graciously provided fabulously delicious lunches and dinners (most at an on-campus restaurant, a couple informally catered). Beyond the food, though, what stood out for me was how social interactions worked compared to the typical wine and cheese reception. At a formal Chinese meal the usual format is to sit at tables of eight to ten people who all share the same pre-ordered dishes. On face, the static nature of this arrangement seems like it would be less conducive to social interactions than a more free-wheeling reception, especially since it was difficult to talk across the table. Over the course of several meals, though, I suspect that I got to know more people than I would have at a corresponding number of receptions, even if it was only two or three at a time. Moreover, since I didn’t have full control over who wound up sitting next to me, I talked to people I might not have otherwise. Because of the relatively small size of the conference, though, these were people I had seen in or around panels, not complete strangers. I never regretted having sat at one table instead of another.
And I certainly don’t regret having attended this really interesting conference. In my next post, I’ll share some of my reflections about academic exchange across national borders and where graduate students fit into this.