6 februarie 2010

The pseudomodern Western and Eastern academic sociologists

Probably most of the people in the academic area know David Lodge’s famous trilogy inspired from academic life ("Changing Places", "Small World", "Nice Work"). Attending conferences is part of the triptych action, and the author uses such events to make his heroes experience hilarious adventures.

Well, nowadays enrolling to conferences might let you experience extremely different feelings about human behaviour, honesty, rule of law.

Some may remember that enforcing “rule of law” instead of the discretionary power of the leader is part of the modernization process. That is that there is a set of widely recognized rules, and everyone obeys those rules, with no exceptions.

Two conference-related stories, that I narrate bellow, shows out that the academic world is sometimes far from the path to modernity and to the happy atmosphere described by Lodge.

The first event is international. Some weeks ago, I have applied to participate in a session of one sociological conference, to be held next summer. We have checked the public announcement of the conference (I have a colleague which co-authored the paper), we have identified the session that was suitable to our paper and we have submitted the abstract, about a week before deadline, and respecting the imposed format and so on. Two weeks later we have received the following message: “Sorry for answering late, it was holiday period in Belgium. We already outreached the capacity limits of our session a few weeks ago. At the moment we are informing whether it is possible to organise a second session. I will let you know by the end of January if this is possible.

I had no problem with the late answer, since it was Christmas and the New Years Eve in between. But the rest of the answer surprised me: we were not rejected because our paper was poor, but because … we have applied late (i.e. only one week before the deadline!).

I have checked and there was no announcement either that there is a session open only to some invited speakers, or that there is any statement saying the papers are selecting according to a FIFO rule (FIFO=first in, first out). These remained me about communism, when penury determined people to start queuing early in the night: they placed bags in front of the grocery stores starting 3 or 4 am, even if the store opened at 9. About 7 there were already some tens in front of the store. The official rule was that everybody has everything, the informal rule of that you have to queue in order to get something, the crude reality was that even being the first in queue did not guarantee that one may get something, because superior reasons might have distributed the products to other people even before the opening of the store.

Of course, in late January, the Belgian guy let us know, and some other four people, in a common message, that there is no place left, so we are rejected. Of course, he said, there is another conference in another place on another topic but partly close to the one of the session that interested us, and we can apply there. Politeness and “rule of law” are the criteria that I employ when recommending to avoid the Hasselt University, the university of the respective convener.

The second event is in fact a series of events, coming from my home country, Romania. Here there is a very nice understanding of how to organize an academic conference. Most of the conferences have no name or topic. They are simply called “Session for scientific communications” and they include all type of papers and topics.

Some ad-hoc session are established later on. Usually there is no need to send the paper or at least the abstract before the event. Most of the times, new papers are accepted long time after the deadline, such decisions being justified by pretty modern arguments such as “they did not know”, “we have to be flexible”, or “we cannot refuse them”.

The organizers may easily change the time and the day of your presentation, no matter if you cannot attend the conference in the respective day, or if you already booked your flight back at the time when they have reprogrammed the presentation. And, yes, they might change everything even in the day before the conference. I am pretty sure that this also happens in Portugal, or in Spain, for instance, since I have already experienced such bad habits there.

The most peculiar Romanian event happen some years ago, when they simply cancelled a whole day and the respective sessions because the prime minster, which had attended an electoral meeting in the nearby (and was the favourite for winning the elections), announced that he will come to address sociologists a few words (there was a 10-minute stupid speech).

Again, the rule of law and the respect for the other participants are just beautiful dreams.

(Hopefully, we were able to avoid most of these disagreeable events for the conference that ICCV organises next week.)

These are events which simply bridge the academic world through its traditional power relations, no matter the quality of the scientific production, and the Eastern or Western localization…

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