Fifty shades of conference feedback


It is a steamy intellectual moment when a conference presentation concludes and that taut, expectant silence descends. “Yes, I’ll take questions,” you reply – breathlessly – surveying the array of bored, bemused, envious and angry expressions.

For ingénue PhD students and early career researchers, such raw, inescapable exposure to the merciless probing of academia’s numerous Christian Greys can be a particularly troubling introduction to the dark, sadomasochistic side of academic life. But there is no need to meekly surrender, Anastasia Steele-style, to such treatment. The tools of this torturous trade are mostly clichés, wielded by tiresomely predictable archetypes. Once pegged (preferably to the ground), such characters can be dispatched with ruthless and rapid intent. Like reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy – or, even worse, sitting through the films – the best response to them is laughter. Cruel, raucous laughter.

The severe spotlight depravation (SSD) sufferer

In one of Julie Burchill’s more vitriolic moments – and there have been some scorchers – she described an antagonist as suffering from “severe spotlight depravation”. This is also the malaise suffered by the largest group of academics at conferences. They bounce between sessions, coming alive during question time. Attending for the sole purpose of drawing attention to themselves, their questions rarely carry content, and are always delivered from a standing position, so that they can display their ill-fitting polyester suits and introduce themselves in great detail. Name, title and university affiliation are rarely enough. The audience receives an elevator pitch on the questioner’s fabulousness and depth of knowledge on the topic. Which topic? Well, any topic, really.

I confronted a SSD sufferer recently. I was delivering a keynote. The questioner was not – and his ostentatiously displayed knowledge was as dated as his shiny silver suit. After, he approached me in the lunch room and stated: “It will be great to see how your career develops from here.”

I had published 17 books when he offered that comment. He had not. If I was any more developed, my breasts would occupy two time zones. But the mediocrity of SSD sufferers rarely allows facts to inform the movements of their restless tongues.

The whispering witches

This archetype is dominated by women. Sitting in twos and threes, they gossip and titter through presentations, trading Post-it notes and scowling at the speaker as if he or she were having an accident with a chainsaw. Their occasional, spiteful grins as they exchange in-jokes confirm that they brush their teeth with hair removal products.

Upon the commencement of question time, the hydrochloric acid from their cauldron bubbles to the surface. They offer callous, seething commentary involving such statements as: “You are offering nothing new here” and “I developed this approach in 1978 – I’m surprised you didn’t cite me”. But mostly it is their non-verbal behaviour that skewers you. They continue to titter, sigh, shake their heads, roll their eyes and pass their bloody Post-it notes.

The thief

Silent and stilled by tautly fastened leather straps of ignorance, the thief sits in the corner of conference presentations and takes really good notes. Within months of the conference, the thief publishes an article founded on your research. In that stolen piece, there may be only a single reference to your presentation – but that is enough to make it difficult to prove plagiarism, especially since your talk never appeared in published conference proceedings. Creepy and slippery, the thief is not very bright, but is smart enough to know that when you have little to give, you must take, use and abuse.

The sadist

The bona fide Christian Grey of feedback, this ghoul has a single focus: public humiliation and torture. Sadists are ruthless, brittle, brutal and illogical. Perspective is lacking. Immediate, asphyxiating gratification is the goal. They pinpoint vulnerable, nervous conference presenters – the ones who sweat and stammer – and aim to destroy their life in the space of one question and – perhaps – a supplemental one. Why? Their pleasure resonates with the pain of bleeding nastiness.

The #random

These dizzy men and women have little interest in the conference itself. Being popular on the Twitter feed is their kink. They stare at their phones throughout your presentation, barely offering you a glance as they compose their random, pointless tweets about pandas, autonomous vehicles and flat earthers. They are like meth addicts without the dodgy dental work, their brains too addled to realise that they could have attained their self-absorbed ecstasy without clocking up a single air mile or troubling you with a single, unwanted glimpse of their greasy crowns.

The Labrador

Labradors lick everything. They love your work, love your paper, love your eyeshadow, love your frock, love the conference venue, love the conference organisers and love the city. He or she is excited – an enthusiast for everything and everyone – but without much expertise undergirding the energy. They are great at conferences during the first day. The morning after the conference dinner, their dripping excitement becomes more like waterplay – Donald Trump-style.

The xenophobe

I am an Australian. When I speak to a British person, they often give me a look like I’ve just dragged my reptilian carcass out of a swamp. When elongated vowels are uttered, I feel my perceived IQ nosedive 50 points. The moment too great a deviation from the Boris Johnson school of English diction (and masculinity) is detected, the feedback comes loaded with xenophobic needle. Pitying nods and affirmative noises confirm – with surprise – the colonial delegate’s grasp of English.

The impoverished dowager

More Pride and Prejudice than Downton Abbey, these academics wander around conferences – and the rest of their professional lives – decrying: “When I went to Imperial” (to buy a t-shirt), or: “When I went to King’s” (to buy a graduation bear for my friend). In the good old days – that never existed – they were important and respected. They were never important and respected. They listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird and got confused. Beware: they will pin you to the wall for two solid hours, ruining your hopes of doing any useful networking or getting anywhere near the buffet.

The Yoda

These even more pitiful souls sleep through your seminar, distracting you with their grunts and dribbling from the corner of their mouths. At question time, they suddenly stutter, splutter and wake up, only to mumble incoherently about Wittgenstein. They then roll over and go back to sleep, satiated.

The self-citer

A large and troubled subset of the SSD sufferers, these men – and let’s be honest, they are all men – make grandiose statements that, had he uttered them, would make Donald Trump seek therapy for self-absorption. “There are only three experts in this field in the world,” they declare, giving you a hard stare and daring you to disagree. “I’m one of them, and I’m friends with the other two.” They know this because they have heard themselves repeat this phrase at every conference they have attended. They come so that they don’t have to conduct research. Reading is as foreign a concept to them as it is to Trump – and their behaviour towards women is potentially just as disrespectful and predatory.

The reader

In some ways the opposite of the self-citer, this character can be helpful. He or she is as excited by your project as the Labrador, but actually has some useful pointers. However, readers can’t help but then torturously pile on to you 212 further weighty tomes, whose contents could strengthen your argument further. They then proceed to something approaching digital stalking as they continue, over the next few years, to send you relevant articles and links – even though your project concluded when Trump was still president. And, as we all remember, that was a short presidency.

Author Bio: Tara Brabazon is dean of graduate research and professor of cultural studies at Flinders University, Australia.