A mid-conference musing



I’m in Queensland and it’s hot. As you’d expect in a tropical state -it’s hot but not too humid. I go back to England this coming weekend where it’s not exactly warm, so I am not complaining about high 20C. One of the consequences of hot weather is thirst. In hot weather, you do have to make sure that you always have water with you, and enough of it. If you get thirsty then you’re already starting to dehydrate, and you ought to have been drinking water well before that dry-mouth point.

Now Australians are pretty aware of the need to stay well watered. All Australian academic gatherings have plentiful supplies of H2O. Often this is in the form of water fountains that simply cool tap water down. Sometimes it’s water containers, large plastic kegs that supply bottled water in bulk, dispensed in cups. Less often, much less often, it’s individual.bottles of water put out at every break. That’s the situation at the conference I’m at now.

The conference has about 900 people and there are at least 200 bottles of water distributed, three times a day. You do the maths. That’s a lot of water bottles over a four day conference. And a lot of bottles means a lot of landfill, a lot of landfill that might have been avoided if water was provided in another way. While the water is absolutely necessary for all of us to stay healthy, the way in which it has been provided is having additional effects, and not good ones.

Now this good-but-also-other-not-so-good is actually not unlike the academic conference itself. The conference can be thought of as something that nourishes and nurtures scholarly activity. People network, they meet old friends, they give papers, they hear about new research, they meet new friends, they do deals with publishers and journal editors. This is scholarly hydration. However, the form that this hydration comes in can be less than beneficial.

For a start, there’s four days of sitting down. That’s not so good for most people, and pretty poor for those of us with back problems. And a lot of academics do seem to have back problems, many of them related to sitting at computers, I dare say. Then there’s four days of eating mass-catered conference lunch. While the odd conference manages good lunch, most don’t. The one I’m at definitely hasn’t. Conference caterers also roll out lots of cake and biscuits at coffee time so everyone has a quick sugar hit before the next session. Really not so good, not so good at all. Oh and four days of being out rather later than usual with friends old and new. Good yes, but also bad. Sleep deprivation begins. Eating out in lots of different restaurants. Expensive, but also sometimes not good for the digestion. But wait there’s more, conferences are generally also tiring. At the end of a four day conference you might begin to feel a bit like landfill yourself. I know I’m starting to.

So you do need to plan for conferences beforehand, just as you need to plan to bring a refillable water bottle. You almost need a pre-conference training programme so you can take on the task of concentrating sitting and eating oddly for the designated period of time. It’s probably a good idea to anticipate the general kinds of mild conference-related abuse you inflict on your body and get it ready for the change in routine … and if you don’t, you need to build in a post conference recovery programme. I’m planning mine right now, along with packing my water bottle for the conference day coming up.