This weekend I attended the Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions in Cardiff, which this year had the theme of narrative. It was, I think, the best conference I have ever attended. And before you object that I am just saying that because it is the Spalding Symposium, of which I am the overall convenor, let me make it clear that I can take very little of the credit for this year’s event, which was effeciently organised and warmly hosted by Simon Brodbeck and James Hegarty. Indeed, one of the reasons it was so enjoyable was because I had very little to do except enjoy the stimulating papers and conversations!
But it set me wondering, what makes for a really great conference experience? I have come up with the following points that matter to me:
- Relevance: An obvious starting point is that the most enjoyable conferences have enough of relevance to one’s own research to be interesting. This doesn’t mean they should be narrow, but their parameters should in some way align with the parameters of one’s own interests. The Spalding Symposium has always been a favourite of mine because it addresses South Asian religion in its entirety, and because it always has a fair number of papers on premodern South Asian texts. It is rare to find a conference where scholars of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism all talk to one another, and where connections and comparisons can be made. And of course this year’s theme – narrative – was spot on as far as my interests are concerned.
- Novelty: At every conference I attend I always want to learn something I didn’t know before, and through that to be made to think differently about my own work. At this symposium I particularly enjoyed hearing papers about texts and narratives with which I was unfamiliar. New material was not only interesting in itself, but also spoke to several emerging themes around the use of narrative in South Asian religions, which then reflect back onto my own research materials.
- Substance: I see the point of all those conferences with twenty-minute papers, but we all know that there are limits to what you can really say in such a short time. One of the things I have always enjoyed about the Spalding Symposium is the fact that speakers have hour-long slots, allowing for a forty-minute paper and twenty minutes of questions and discussion. The result is that all the papers have real substance, and all are exposed to extensive responses from the audience. And this year we had a particularly high quality of papers.
- Congenial engagement: I have just invented this phrase, to sum up that careful balance between proper critical engagement/exchange, and a congenial and supportive atmosphere. At some conferences we see quite aggressive questioning, defensive answering, hostility, even downright rudeness. I have never enjoyed such environments. Call me British if you will, but I’m a big fan of being polite. That does not, of course, mean I think we should not point out flaws or problems in each other’s work – there would be little point of sharing papers if nobody felt able to respond – but I find that any comment, however critical, can be phrased and delivered in a supportive and polite manner. As I see it, we are all working towards the same aim – progress of scholarship in our field – and so we should work as a team, not as a series of competitors.
- Sufficient breaks: This is not just to ensure full concentration during the papers, but also to allow for ample conversation with fellow attendees. Letting the discussion sessions overflow into the coffee room or the lunch hall allows real connections to be made, personally and intellectually. Obviously good quality coffee and freshly baked Welsh-cakes help as well!
- Physical surroundings: We have all been to conferences in small airless rooms with uncomfortable chairs, punctuated by watery and bitter coffee and stale sandwiches. It actually makes a real difference to my ability to engage with a conference if it is held in comfortable surroundings. I don’t think many venues will be able to compete with the delicious food we had at St Michael’s College, nor with the opportunity to amble around the corner on a sunny Welsh afternoon to admire Llandaff Cathedral. (Ah yes, sunshine is always a bonus, too, though I can’t imagine how many pūjās Simon and James had to carry out to ensure that!) A comfortable conference venue is not an indulgence, but a necessity.
- People: A conference is made by who attends and who presents. This particular gathering brought together some of my favourite scholars (including a big intellectual hero of mine, Phyllis Granoff), a pleasant mixture of those I already knew and those I had not yet met. All the conversations were enjoyable, and laughter mixed well with serious discussion of research and other aspects of academic life. Simon and James made us all feel very much at home, as did the wonderful staff at the venue. With such a personally lovely and intellectually sharp bunch of people, we couldn’t help but have a great time!