The Said and Unsaid conference: reflections
I must admit I had not expected much of the conference in Vlora. In part, it was because it was organised by relatively junior faculty members in a peripheral university, so I assumed they wouldn’t have access to the requisite know-how. It was also partly due to that typically Greek prejudice against other South Eastern Europeans (Greeks are prejudiced by default against just about anyone not Greek, and most other Greeks as well). Mostly, it was because of my own experience with Greek universities where it is not uncommon to round up a few promising postgraduates, those members of the university faculty with whom one is still on speaking terms and a couple of invited speakers from abroad, get everyone together in an island or coastal town and call the meeting an ‘International Conference’. If those were my expectations, all I can say was that I was proven very wrong.
The Said and Unsaid 2010 conference brought together approximately a hundred participants from 25 countries. Granted, this is the Balkans, so you can drive through two or three countries in a leisurely day’s drive, but there were speakers from Japan to Canada, and from Cambridge to Qatar. There were no other Greeks besides me though – thankfully. Despite occasional problems and miscommunications, which I suppose are to be expected everywhere, the conference organisers were very professional and their attention to detail was truly impressive. Oh, and the food was lavish. It was simply inspiring to see how much can be done, even with minimal funding, if one is willing to work hard.
I had rehearsed my own presentation quite a few times, and I was doing quite well. I had two out of four keynote speakers in my session, I was speaking with uncharacteristic confidence, the audience were following me with their eyes as I paced up and down in the small classroom, some were taking notes (!), and I was thinking that this might very well be the best presentation I had delivered so far. Suddenly, ten minutes into my 20-minute talk, the chair discreetly placed a ‘five minutes’ note on my laptop. ‘Are you SURE?’ I asked in an authoritative and slightly annoyed tone that was intended to intimidate and conceal the fact that I was panicking. The chair, who had been raised in Argentina under the última junta militar and was living in New York, was unperturbed: we will be shortening each talk by five minutes to allow for some discussion at the end of the session, she said. The presentation went downhill after that…
Most of the other presentations were quite interesting, but I think that the main learning value of the conference was in the networking that was taking place during the coffee breaks and lunch. In the words of one of the senior academics with whom I exchanged emails after the event ‘some of the conversations … were a bit more profound than the small talk that necessarily must accompany such events’. I think the part of the reason for this success was the number of participants, which meant that it was easy to get to know everybody in the space of three days, and the fact that we were all in related, but not identical sub-fields, which meant that one could always learn something new from each encounter.
And the Unsaid
If the presentations and the conversations at the sidelines of this conference was inspiring and useful, the implicit propositions that seemed to underpin this discourse were perhaps somewhat disconcerting, as there appeared to be an undercurrent of inequality in many of the interactions that were taking place at the conference. For instance, it seemed as if almost every other speaker felt compelled to preface their presentation or question with an apology for their non-standard English. I was also intrigued by the fact that people were very hesitant to challenge the views of participants who came from large Western universities (typically in the UK or USA), unless they happened to come from such universities themselves. By contrast, they seemed much more comfortable correcting, interrupting or giving advice to people from peripheral settings.
But what I found most intriguing on a personal level was how people seemed extraordinarily keen to defer to me: there was, in fact, a speaker who kept pausing her presentation every couple of sentences, looked at me sitting at the first row, and she would only resume after I had nodded. I’m also quite certain that I was always the first to be given the floor during question time whenever I happened to have a question, and the delightful undergraduates that staffed the refreshment stations tended to serve me before many others.
In saying what follows, I am not in any way trying to depreciate my own worth, but frankly this attitude was totally inconsistent with who I am and what I brought to the conference. Several of the other participants were much smarter, most of them had started their academic trajectories from much less auspicious beginnings, and in quite a few cases their work was -simply put- better than mine. Nonetheless, many of these people seemed not to be afforded the same degree of respect, and this behaviour is –for me- both puzzling and theoretically significant. I think that it was implicitly assumed that I must be an important academic, because by accident of birth I have fair hair, blue eyes and a red passport, because I use academic discourse relatively fluently and effortlessly (even when I have nothing worthwhile to contribute), and because the name of a rather prestigious university featured prominently on my nametag. Whereas for many others academic standing seemed to be conditional on their ability to prove themselves, in my case it was apparently awarded by default, and that felt like cheating.
So, what have I taken away from this conference? Primarily, the pleasure of having met several scholars from all over the world whose knowledge and passion for their work is an inspiration for me as I make my own way into the academe. I also take with me a sense of increased confidence as regards what little expertise I have amassed, as well as heightened awareness of the implicit and highly inequitable propositions that seem to define the distribution and flow of such knowledge. And, with that, an uneasy consciousness of the ethical burden associated with expertise, the duty (in Julian’s words) ‘to raise awareness, to reveal the workings of hegemony and thus allow people to act, at least, with increased awareness’.