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Monday, September 22, 2008

VIIIth Polish Philosophical Congress & other conferences this year. Afterthoughts.

(or: What to do when you organize/attend a large conference and you don’t like the participants.)

So, after a few years it’s the first time I’m back in Poland doing philosophy. It’s the last day of a week-long conference in Warsaw. The congress had around 700 participants and up to 25 parallel sessions. Since I’m already tired of conferences this year, and this one is particularly frustrating, I’m using my lunch break to write a list of things that you can do to irritate conference participants. Some of my examples apply to the VIIIth Polish Philosophical Congress, some come from other conferences I went to this year. So, here we go.

  1. If you expect a few hundreds of participants to register within a few hours, the best strategy is to have only one or two persons at the registration desk and tell them to register only one person at a time. To make things even more convenient, either make them register during their 20 minutes long coffee break, or force them to choose between having a meal or registering during the lunch break. Under no circumstances consider asking some of your students to help with registration.

  2. Speaking of coffee. Make sure there is at least three times more participants than cups of coffee available. Also, it’s wise to distribute free coffee only at one table from one container only, thus lowering an average participant’s chance of having a coffee to minimum. In case you’re not sure this will work, make each coffee break 20 minutes long and do not require of session chairs to mind the time, so that by the time an average participant reaches the coffee place, they have approximately 5-10 minutes before they have to leave to find the room where the next session begins.

  3. It’s worth emphasizing: make sure the session chairs have no idea that the reason why they are supposed to watch the time is that people may want to change sessions and catch other peoples’ talks. This way when a participant wants to change the room in the middle of a session after somebody’s talk and head to some other session, they’ll either have to leave before the talk is over or be unpredictably late for the next talk.

  4. Another point about session chairs. Ask them specifically not to leave any time for discussion. The view that discussions are important part of a conference is obviously outdated.

  5. Wireless. If you organize your conference in a building where wireless is available, double-check that it’s not available to the participants. One way to do that is to make sure that no one has any idea what the login and password are. A neat strategy is to have the registration guy answer to questions about wireless `I don’t know, I’m also new in this building’.

  6. To make reimbursement claims impossible for your participants, do not, I repeat, do not even think about providing them with receipts at the registration desk. NEVER. One of the best strategies here is to tell them that without informing them about that you sent the documentation somewhere, but you aren’t even sure where. Here, if the participant is still not irritated, give them a list of possibilities: the participant’s department, his home address, the address related to the bank account from which the payment has been made and tell them it’s their fault that they haven’t checked (this one works particularly well if the participant has moved from one continent to another lately).

  7. Exhibitions/extra events. If you want to spice up your conference program, make sure you organize an interesting event, like, for instance, a meeting when you play records of Tarski’s lectures or something like that. However, when you think about scheduling it, double-check it overlaps with 24 other parallel sessions so that even those who might be interested actually don’t show up.

  8. If you are only a participant and yet you want to help the organizer to mess things up, you can for instance start talking loudly about something when you’re in an audience at somebody’s talk. This not only distracts everyone in the audience, but, if you’re lucky, helps the prelegent to lose their train of thoughts.

  9. A particularly interesting form of this behavior is receiving cell phone calls during somebody’s talk, running towards an open window and leaning out of the window while talking on the phone, pretending that you’re not aware that everyone in the room can still hear your conversation.

  10. Another nice thing you can do is not wearing a name tag and expecting everyone to know you anyway. That way the conference participants form groups of people that know each other already. Also, a fine strategy is to treat anyone who doesn’t know your name already as a person who is by the same token incompetent. As in ‘he doesn’t know who I am, so he has no idea about philosophy’.

  11. A variant of this move, apparently widely practiced in Poland, is to actually wear your tag, but precede your name with a ‘Prof’ or ‘Prof dr hab’ or some other fancy abbreviation meant to represent the awe with which everyone should approach you. A neat strategy that goes along with this one is to treat anyone who doesn’t have their academic title on the tag like they were idiots. I don’t think I have to mention that addressing people who look young condescendingly is obviously a sign of prime intellectual powers and impressive academic record.

  12. This one’s for Polish philosophers. If you’re Polish and are at a conference abroad, where there are very few peole from Poland, make sure you ignore completely those Poles who don’t look important. Don’t you even dare to say ‘hello’ (even in response to somebody’s ‘good morning’, especially if it’s a woman who starts talking to you). If you do, this will certainly make non-Polish philosophers think you’re incompetent or not worth talking to. Even worse, they might actually think that Polish philosophers can be nice to each other! This also makes non-Polish philosophers interested in the Polish philosophy world: they approach the Poles you don’t talk to and ask ‘so what’s this shit that’s going on between you guys?’ And Polish philosophy obviously needs this sort of advertising.
I’ll keep adding stuff if I think of something else.

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