The Strange Case of My Wife Going to an Academic Conference to Learn New Things

Why do you go to academic conferences?

November 29, 2017

Recently, I accompanied my wife to the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH) conference.

If there is not a term for one half of an academic couple traveling with their partner to their academic conference, a conference outside of one’s own discipline, then there should be.  Trailing conference spouse maybe?

I’m here to testify that there is not much that is better in this life than going to a conference where you know nothing about what is being discussed, and none of the attendees.  It is sometimes easy to forget that our own little world of academia is just that - its own little world.  There are entire academic disciplines that have their own languages, methods, norms, cultures, and subgroups - and which have little to no overlap with one’s own.

Plus, when you conference trail your partner the hotel room is paid for.  If you are smart, like we were, we were able to turn extend the conference in to a short vacation.  So one half of the airfare for vacationing was paid for.  Did I mention that the conference was in Thailand?

What was really interesting about this conference were the reasons that my wife chose to attend.  (Besides the Thailand thing).  She went to the conference because the conference was the best way for her to learn some critical things that she needs in her job as an academic physician.

Let me repeat that.  She went to the conference to learn things

The reason that I go to conferences is to learn things that I can only learn in face-to-face conversations with colleagues.   Conferences, in my experience, are terrible places for information transfer.  Rather, they are places to create new knowledge and understanding through discussion.

At this Thailand conference, my wife learned what she needed to know by sitting in a room and taking notes while presenters presented.  In some sessions there was time for questions, and she reported that they were useful.  Mostly, however, she learned by actively listening to lectures.

I asked my wife why we needed to go all the way to Thailand for her to sit and listen to lectures?  Wouldn't it be more efficient to sit quietly and read the papers that the presenters were basing their lectures on?  Or failing that, couldn't she watch videos or voice-over PowerPoints of the talks?

What do you think was her answer?

I was surprised when she confided that yes, she could have absorbed the amount of content that she got in the ISTH conference without going to Thailand.  The thing is, if she did not leave New Hampshire and separate herself from work  (8,435 miles distant) that she would have never been able to take the concentrated and uninterrupted time necessary to do so.

Traveling to this conference for her was a bit of work hacking. She used the conference to eliminate the thousands of other demands and distractions that comes with being an academic physician.  While at the conference in Thailand she was not trying to juggle committee meetings, the demands of her students, or the emergencies of her patients.

Yes, e-mail followed her to the conference - but the requirement of sitting in a room for hours while intensively trying to absorb dense and complicated information was enough to keep her off e-mail.

She went to the conference not because conference talks are the best way to learn in general, but because it was the only way she could learn in her specific situation.  At this conference, my wife experienced great pleasure in the difficult task of learning new things - mostly because she was able to enjoy an uninterrupted focus on the information that she was absorbing.

Why is it that for some of us academic conferences are about building and nurturing a network, and for others academic conferences are about concentrated information consumption?

Why do you go to academic conferences?


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