Rethinking academic conferences
Dec 16, 2017-Every few weeks we seem to have an academic social science conference in Nepal. In November, our sociologists met in Pokhara. In early December, our anthropologists met in Kathmandu. In April, 2018, Martin Chautari will organise its annual conference in Kathmandu. The largest conference of all, the annual one organised by Social Science Baha in collaboration with other organisations, will be held in Kathmandu in July, 2018.
Is all this conferencing good for the future of Nepali academia? Are conferences the most important collective activity for Nepal’s academics from the social science disciplines?
First some clarification is due. I have attended many conferences in Nepal and abroad in various capacities. Two of the organisations I am associated with in Nepal, Martin Chautari and Social Science Baha, have organised many conferences in the past 15 years. Hence I do recognise that conferences are part of the international academic infrastructure. However, their frequency, their current organisational efficiency and their location in the research pipeline in Nepal—the pipeline being from raw research to a published article or book—need to be rethought since we practice academia under conditions of intra-national and international inequality. If our conferences don’t contribute significantly to knowledge production, we have a problem to think about collectively.
First, some words on the poor organisation of our conferences. Most of our conferences, with the exception of the one organised by Social Science Baha, are poorly organised. The conference dates are announced not too many days in advance; venues are mostly uncertain until days before the conference and they are usually not presentation-friendly (in one of the recent conferences in Kathmandu, presenters were asked to talk in the passage way to an auditorium).
Many factors contribute to our organisational lack of efficiency. Most of the conference organisers are folks who are completely busy and organising the conference is only one of the 1000 simultaneous things they would be doing at any given time. Because of the relatively inclusive spirit at play, most if not all abstracts submitted are accepted by conference organisers and the schedule for the conference is jam packed with four papers to be presented in each panel with two parallel panels at one go. The papers requested do not arrive on time and for the most part, never get written as full papers by the presenters. Increasingly, some slides are all that the presenter has prepared and he (usually it is a he) shows them to the audience while speaking.
Since the schedule is cramped, most presenters get 15-20 minutes to present their paper and when I attend such panels, I rarely feel like the presenters have enough time to share the most interesting findings of their research. Typically the audience is taken for granted and, as at other public functions, are expected to patiently sit through poorly prepared panels, as par for the course.
Now don’t get me wrong. In conferences elsewhere I have seen some academics from other countries deliver fascinating material and analysis in 20 minutes. More often than not, these folks would have prepared full written versions and would read from printed texts without beating around the bush or else have a polished verbal talk that keeps to the time limits. They would have practiced their presentation against the clock. So I know it can be done.
In conferences I have attended in Nepal, I see that the presenters rarely have a properly written text that has been timed against the clock. More often than not, the presenters would have been told to prepare 15-minute versions but when their panels start, the chair announces arbitrarily he is allowing only 10 minutes for each presenter. Why: To catch up on the time lost in the previous sessions and to allow the chair to add his thoughts on the papers. All of this reduces the question and answer phase to a farce.
Our poor time-keeping skills would have begun from the opening session of the conference. The lateness in the start can of course be attributed to our lackadaisical attitude to time and the delay in concluding the introductory session is often because the obsequious introduction of the key-note speaker is usually as long as the key-note talk itself. When the key-note speaker is a senior Nepali academic, no one has the guts to tell him (it is usually him) to stop even when what he is saying makes little sense.
All of this allows me to suggest that unless we can back up our organisational skills with efficient people who have been given enough time and resources to meticulously plan our conferences, their frequency should be reduced. There is no point in poorly organising your disciplinary conference in a ritualistic manner. If you only have resources to organise conferences every two years, so be it. If students or young researchers need to learn how to present papers, university departments can always organise additional in-house departmental seminars for them. In addition, they can present their work in workshops organised by themselves or by academic NGOs.
Now some words on the relative location of academic conferences in the pipeline of research. While the relatively poor quality of the papers is palpable, there seems to be a new “smartness” developing among the young Nepali students. They present so that they can list their presentations in their CVs. This is not problematic in and of itself. However, the same folks show little or no inclination to enrol in academic writing workshop opportunities where they get suggestions from senior colleagues and peers regarding the revising of their works. Most conference papers then remain unrevised and do not even enter the highway that leads into publication in a good journal. As the editor of two journals published from Nepal, I can speak from experience and say that not even five papers get submitted to Studies in Nepali History and Society and Samaj Adhyayan annually that come from the conference highway.
This means that while our current conferences are useful for gaining exposure to poor quality academic organising and relatively better quality socialising among colleagues (when they are not fighting about non-academic issues), their contribution to the making of robust knowledge production in our country is very little. That suggests that the investments (both personal and organisational) being made on these conferences are misplaced. Instead, those investments should be going towards the execution of better supervised MA and above level theses, and academic writing programmes in university departments. They should also be going to the organising of writing and editing workshops where young researchers learn how to revise their texts for publication. In other words, what we need is not more conferences but more writing, re-writing, and self-editing opportunities to generate good academic papers and analysis. If such programmes are offered effectively, the attraction for presenting bad papers in poorly organised conferences will hopefully diminish.
There are many things that are deficient in our higher education and research landscape. However, bad conferences are collective events we can choose to change now without waiting for a revolution.