Friday, 13 July 2012

When is a Conference not a Conference?

Whilst academia is, by definition, a rarified and cerebral place, it is not immune to the tides of fashion. Thus, when it comes to organising a meeting or a conference, the hosts reach for the most zeitgeisty, a la mode nomenclature. Gone are the days when you called a conference a conference and a meeting a meeting; that's sooo last century! To attract the flighty fashionistas of academia these days you've got to work those analogies. So, in keeping with its public service remit, Fundermentals brings you a cut out and keep guide to the brave new world of academic gathering.

  • Research Festival: like this ESRC Research Methods Festival (a one day event consisting of three plenaries), this is basically a conference. However, call it a festival and it sounds much more fun. I'm picturing bunting and coconut shys. Far more interesting than a boring old session on data mining. I wonder if anyone ever asks for their money back.
  • Research Showcase: similarly, showcase sounds a bit like you're in line for a mix of shopping and Paris Fashion Week. Oh! The disappointment. Here's King's taunting their students  with one.
  • Research Carousel: look at the pretty horses! All golden and beautiful! See them spin, round and round! Oh, uh, no wait: it's a parallel session on 'Building Oral Fluency and Competency in a Second Language.' 
  • Research Charette: a Charette is, apparently, 'more than a one day event'. It's a 'multiple-day collaborative design workshop.' Beyond that I can't help you.
  • Unconference: a conference for anarchists with a love of Post-Its. 
  • Research Slam: Really? Yes, really. Taking their cue from poetry slams, The Below the Radar Research Group have come up with this marvellous neologism. Reminds me slightly of the Flight of the Conchords Hiphopopotomous vs Rhymenoceros.I'd be very disappointed if it wasn't actually like that.
  • Town Hall Event: I'm seeing pitchforks and burning torches. Or have I just watched too many Frankenstein films? However, rather than burning a monster that never wanted to be created, you get to hear the latest on the REF. As John Lydon said, ever get the feeling you've been cheated?
  • Big Conversation Event: Like a Town Hall Event. Much favoured by government departments, to give the impression that interaction is two way when it probably isn't. Here's an example from the NHS
  • Sandpit: a favourite of the Research Councils, this is a chance for academics to - if you will - 'meet', and (ahem) 'talk'. To - so to speak  - 'think outside the box'. You know, push the envelope. Blue skies thinking.  And play with outsized plastic toys in a safe, caring, creative environment. I made that last bit up. 
  • Greenhouse: basically the same as a sandpit. But hotter. And less toys.
  • Makefest: once again, sounds a little like a primary school activity but, according to the 'Centre for Geospatial Science' at Nottingham, a 'makefest' is 'an event devoted to practical tests of ideas and the development of ideas of interest to demonstrate the possibilities for new research.' You know, like a conference. 
  • Brown Bag Lunch: a lunchtime meeting organised by skinflints. Bring your own. And no rustling.
  • Round Table: King Arthur, right? Knights? Valour? Chivalry? Damsels? Dragons? A holy grail or two? Possibly death? Wrong. It's a meeting. And often the table isn't even round.
  • Workshop: this has become so ubiquitous that it may take you a moment to register that it's not normal. You are not an artisan carving a piece of wood. 
  • Bootcamp: if you don't mind your metaphors mixed - and in this context, the more mixed the better - a bootcamp is a series of workshops that conjure up images of tough, militaristic training to hone your body and mind. And your research. Here's one from the ASHP Foundation, complete with white coat (tick) and army boots (tick). 
  • Surgery: I have to 'fess up: this is one I've used. A drop in session, or what someone living prior to the year 2000 might quaintly have called an 'unscheduled meeting'. 
  • Captain's Table. Nope. You've got me there. I think this is a specialism of the University of York. Thanks to two Tweeters - who probably want to remain anonymous - for highlighting this.
  • Grandfather's Chat: I think I'm having my leg pulled now. This was suggested by my colleague Carolyn Barker, who says it refers to a meeting with your supervisor's supervisor. By a fireside. With a bag of Werther's Originals. Possibly. Can anyone confirm?
Please send in any examples you've come across. Perhaps we could have a Blog Slam with the entries?


  1. You omitted summer schools. Once I missed one on the Azores...

  2. Don't forget Crucibles, pioneered by NESTA ( Where researchers are pulled into the PVC's ofice and forced to reveal the names of other conspirators (I may have got this a bit mixed up) ...

  3. Brilliant, many thanks.
    Don't forget the policy picnic - a charming chat round a blanket with gritty sarnies and lemonade? For eg:
    ("Watch presentations, ask questions, and share your thoughts and experiences in a small, intimate setting.")