On conferences and proceedings

Attending conferences, giving presentations, and then watching, and working, to see the proceedings published is part of the art of academia. In the time it takes (often two years, sometimes more) between presenting at a conference and the publication of the conference proceedings I have moved on to other things (though usually not more research). This time though, the chronology worked beautifully.

On Wednesday, September 26 I attended Instances religieuses et d’origine confessionnelle sur les routes de la migration africaine (download the conference program here). The conference was organized by Migreli, an international research team based in Montpellier which studies aspects of religion in migration across Africa and beyond. The conference was hosted by the Institute of African Studies in Rabat.  It so happens that just-published proceedings from a previous conference on the very same topic, held at the Institute of African Studies less than two years earlier, were available at Wednesday’s gathering.

Just published: “Disciples transnationaux et la mondialisation de Touba”, in Religion et migration, Série colloques #16, Rabat: Institut des Études Africaines, Université Mohammed V, 2012.

Several of those attending Wednesday’s conference, including Sophie Bava, its organizer, and myself, had presented at the previous conference in Nov. 2010. Moreover, much of the research presented at Wednesday’s conference grew directly out of initiatives planned at that earlier conference. Whereas Sophie has moved on to other research since (she was studying the religious life of migrants in Cairo at the time), I unfortunately have not. I helped organize the first conference but since then have not had the time to follow up on the study I presented there.

Even at that time, my little study on globalized Muride institutions was two years old. I had first presented it, very fresh, at a conference on “Globalizing Mystical Islam” held in New York City in May 2008. Had it not been for this conference, I never would have conducted the study at all. The English version I presented in New York was eventually published in Urban Studies in 2011 (see post on mapping Murid expatriates in Europe and North America). As follow-up to the Rabat conference of Nov. 2010, and in view of the publication of its proceedings, I translated that study into French and reworked it. This just goes to show how conferences make publications happen. Without them, some research would never take place, or would go unpublished and would therefore never be fully carried through.

In this case, publishing the study in both languages (in fact translating the English write-up into French write-up, not the first time I do this), required that I reformulate many key concepts. Also, the intended readership in each of the languages being quite different, the two texts do not run exactly parallel to each other. Thus translations aren’t always treasonous. Translating my work from English to French has helped change my understanding of it.

I take the opportunity of the happy coincidence of Wednesday’s conference on religion and migration with the publication of the proceedings of the previous conference on the same topic to reflect on the role of conferences in academic life. Far too often in academia “Research & Publications” is reduced to the level of measurable outcomes, items posted on a C.V. and listed in a self-evaluation form. Yet I have no doubt that research drives academia, and that conferences make research happen. I know that, were it not for the call of conferences, my bread-and-butter teaching and administrative duties would always take precedence over conducting research or writing it up. Attending a conference forces me to get my research written-up by the conference deadline. I then get direct feedback about it at the conference itself. After the conference, the research paper is often sent off for anonymous peer review. Thus I am given ample opportunity to confront my ideas with other researchers and to revise my study prior to its publication in proceedings or in an edited volume. Conferences make research happen and they help get it published.

It is not just the papers presented which makes conferences so central to research. Conferences are occasions for what the dry literature calls “interactive learning” but which is more evocatively known as “buzz.” Buzz is the face-to-face interchange of ideas by people involved in the same “trade,” whatever that trade may be. It can occur regularly, in a fixed place, or only occasionally, in different places. Such opportunities to freely share ideas and experiences are considered drivers of innovation and problem-solving. Buzz can happen at international trade fairs as it can happen in bars. And buzz certainly happens at research conferences. Academics, who may very well exchange emails and research regularly together in any case, meet up there and make Research & Publication happen.

To my taste, small conferences which focus on a specific theme or problem have better buzz than the large eight-ring circuses of the grand Annual Conference type. Over a few intense days (though this past Wednesday I was only able to managed a few intense hours), often in a delightful setting, researchers get to share research and to buzz about… research: the concepts we use, the data we collect and the manner in which we collect it, but also joint projects, funding, etc. As most of us have day jobs as teachers, we also discuss pedagogy too, usually over lunch. Many research conferences in my fields of interest (urban geography, heritage, cultural studies) include field visits, offering yet more opportunities for interactive learning.

Looking back now, I can see how conferences have driven my bouts of research and spurred its publication. To prepare this post I went through my albums looking for photos I happen to have of research conferences I have attended. The visual record below is only partial. I don’t have photos of several memorable conferences (notably at University of Texas-Austin and at UCLA in April 2003) which advanced my research and led to a publication. Nonetheless, the sample-by-accretion I offer here is sufficient to illustrate the role of conferences in research.

In January 2002, a team of AUI faculty researchers (professors John Shoup, Driss Maghraoui and myself) traveled to Amman to attended a conference on Conservation and Regeneration of Traditional Urban Centers in the Islamic World. We presented a study of tourism in the Moroccan city of Essaouira which we had just completed. The study was published by Al Akhawayn University later that year.

Conference participants visiting the heritage city of Salt, Jordan, January 2002.

Participants of the Amman conference were taken to see urban regeneration in the historic city of Salt (especially late Ottoman-era buildings surfaced in yellow limestone).

In December 2004 I attended a conference in Dakar in memory of archaeologist Guy Thilmans: Anthropologie, Archéologie, Muséologie en Afrique de l’Ouest. I presented a study on Senegal’s arboreal heritage (see post on historic baobab trees of Senegal). My panel actually presented in Saint Louis, not in Dakar, as the conference venue was divided between the two cities.

With Cyr Descamps (center) at Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar, December 2004. Cyr Descamps, who co-organized the Guy Thilmans conference with Abdoulaye Camara, is now curator of the archeological museum in Gorée.

Participants of this conference visited a number of historic sites between Dakar and Saint Louis. Among these were the great serpent pit in Ndande and a 19th century water-works system at Makhana, upstream from the city of Saint Louis.

Visiting the makhana, on the Senegal River upstream from Saint Louis, December 2004.

The proceedings of the Dec. 2004 Dakar conference were published as an edited volume in Guy Thilmans’ native Belgium in 2006. I wrote my chapter in French. I had presented the English version of the study at the Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association in New Orleans in Nov. 2004 (just months before Katrina). This was published in an edited volume in 2008.

Conference participants gather in front of historic turf-roofed Hofstadir Church in northern Iceland, summer solstice 2006.

Going to Iceland for a conference on Technological Aids to the Geographical Study of Saints’ Cults was a real treat. It was hosted at the Agricultural College in Hólar, on the island’s northern coast on 21-25 June 2006. At the end of the conference the organizer, Margaret Cormack, took us on a tour of the region’s historic churches and shrines. In all I spent a week in Iceland, feeling somewhat a descendent of Eric the Red as my Norse ancestry kicked in. A few years later I posted an observation about trees at Icelandic cemeteries I had made while there. Other than attending this very focused research conference on the use of geographical tools for the study of shrines, I don’t think I ever would have visited Iceland–and I got to see it before its economy went bust.

Linking up with Margaret Cormack in Iceland turned out to be very stimulating for my research. Margaret invited me to attend her research workshop on Muslims and Others in Sacred Space, scheduled to be held in her home institution, the College of Charleston, in March 2007. In order to prepare for this conference I did a small field study in Senegal in Dec. 2006-Jan. 2007. The workshop at the College of Charleston was attended by many students and was a great success in terms of interactive learning and sharing of research. The edited volume which resulted will shortly be published, in shâ’ Allâh (done! see this post about it).

In April 2008 I was in Sharjah for an International Forum on Islamic Architecture and Design. My presentation on “Contemporary Sufi-inspired Urban Design in Touba” was received politely by this overtly Hanbali/Wahhabi audience (this was the first and up till now only time I ever experienced gender segregation at an official university event). I don’t think the conference proceedings were ever published. I later translated this study into French and presented it at a conference in Dakar in Dec. 2011 (see this post related to this latter event), the proceedings of which are currently being prepared for publication.

In discussion with architecture students from Iran, Sharjah, April 2008. To my left is John Shoup.

I am glad I got to see Sharjah and neighboring Dubai in full folly, just months before their real-estate bubble burst (do you see a pattern emerging here?). I never got around to posting my observations of that visit. I stay in irregular contact with the organizer of the Sharjah conference, architect and scholar Hassan Radouane, who is a friend and a former colleague at AUI.

In June 2009 I was invited to a research workshop on Islam, Sacred Spaces and Urban Life by the newly established Berlin Graduate School for Muslim Cultures and Societies, part of the Freie Universität Berlin. I presented on the gridiron plan in Senegal’s urban design history. Prayer in the City, the edited volume resulting from the Graduate School’s workshop, was published this year (see previous post). I presented this study a second time, at a conference on The Art of Citizenship in African Cities held at Columbia University in May 2011. Following upon this second conference, publication of the French version of the study is now in the pipeline.

Teachers and graduate students attending the Prayer in the City workshop, Berlin, June 2009.

Attending the Freie Universität Graduate School workshop allowed me to visit Berlin for the first time. Its opening session was held in Mshatta Hall, in prestigious Pergamon Museum. I had read much about Berlin’s urban development and architecture over the years, but nothing quite prepare me for the beautiful city I encountered–a thrill I got to enjoy again when I visited Berlin a second time a year later for a workshop on a different topic held at Humboldt Universität. I was especially impressed by the leafy medium-density residential neighborhoods and by the three levels of light rail public transit (U-bahn, S-bahn and tram lines). Ever so briefly, I got to experience Berlin, the textbook case of excellence in urban planning, because of the conferences I attended there.

The next photo of a conference in my collection dates from the November 2010 conference on religion and migration in Rabat, the publication of whose proceedings sparked this present post. My turn to play host, at that conference’s end I took participants on a tour of heritage sites in and around Rabat, including the Chella and the Abu-l Hassan Madrasa in Salé.

Taking visitors through the Chella in Rabat, November 2010.

My experience with conferences and publication must be similar to that of academics the world over. Conferences pump blood through research. They make it pulsate. They have the best buzz.


About ericrossacademic

Professor of Geography at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco
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