After receiving repeated e-vites to a big meeting of scientists, I looked at my dance card, and seeing some openings, decided I could attend. My hope was to come back with a few nuggets of news that would dazzle my clients in the field. The theme for the meeting, predictably, was “Collaboration in This Scientific Field.” Collaboration the watchword. Everybody collaborates. Or says he does. Lonely scientists, solo researchers, single investigators – they all labor intensely, writing in their respective garrets, get their project almost done, and then get colleagues to say they’re partnering.
The real purpose of conferences, of course, is getting those presentations on one’s resume to ensure promotion and tenure, and, more important, to meet others with whom one could say one was collaborating.
For me, the sub rosa agenda was to meet a prospect – that is, a faculty member who wanted to apply for a grant. Having done this dozens of times in the past, I set about registering. None of the options on the e-vite were exactly right for me, so I needed to make arrangements with a human being, above and beyond the web. I looked through the e-vite…no phone number. I noodled through the website. No phone number. Finally, I checked my personal rolodex and found the number for the person listed as the conference coordinator. I called, and, of course, got no answer. Keeping up with the times, albeit reluctantly, I accept the reality that no one answers a ringing phone any more, not even administrative folk. But still of good cheer, I left a voicemail indicating I wanted to register for selected sessions – but not the whole three days. I had done a number of favors for the person’s boss, and I had requisite funds liquid…so I was feeling pretty optimistic. Of course, the absence of a phone number should have been a tip off. Predictably, instead of the courtesy of a return call, I received an e-mail suggesting I register on-line. No getting around the system for me, no matter how special I may consider myself.
As a humble English major, I find that techie-talk pretty much just washes over me. However, I do genuinely love luncheons, and big shots from Washington (the Federal Bureau of Scientific Wonderfulness) were coming to speak …so I thought I would go to the luncheons, and do a litte networking, possibly meeting a prospective client or two.
And here, surprisingly, is where I got into trouble. I did have expectations, which, according to my advisors, is usually where my problems start. Was it naïve to think that this particular set of expectations was safe, just because it was based on several hundred luncheons I’ve attended over the years? I pictured myself asking the person at the conference registration desk if she knew the scientist from a neighboring university who had called me the previous week. I would inquire whether he was in attendance…and then, if lucky, seek him out among the 100 or 200 people at the luncheon, casually following up on our phone conversation which ended in a vague, “I’ll call you” way.
Were my expectations out of line? I pictured the lunch: tasteless “chicken,” covered by an inchoate, lumpy white sauce; overcooked, limp green beans on the side; unintentionally sticky rice; and a salad of greens flown in from Chile during Pinochet’s administration. Was this overly optimistic? I envisioned schmoozing for 10 or 15 minutes prior to the luncheon, wandering around greeting old friends and former clients. I knew that odds of finding last week’s caller were slim, yet I thought that either way it would be an educational experience.
I felt confident that the trickiest part of the outing would be to pick a strategically promising table. Of course, the eternal challenge…what does a prospective client look like? Thirty years in consulting, and I’m still scratching my head. But if I were lucky, I would plunk myself down, be charming, and exchange a few business cards.
We would hear The Word from On High (or is that the wrong direction?) (D.C.) and then proceed to the balance of our intellectually stimulating day.
My first surprise was the e-mail confirming my registration. In addition to paying for the overpriced lunch, there was a 28 percent “service fee” tacked on. Since it had been impossible to reserve by phone, one had no choice. But I am, perhaps, being petty. Then again, isn’t usury out of fashion?
When I looked at the conference agenda, I experienced a moment of doubt. The name of the building where the luncheon was being held conjured up images of recitals, lectures…but I didn’t recall any rooms large enough to accommodate 200 people at tables. Regardless, I forged ahead. Perhaps my memory was inexact.
The day of the event came, and I realized I had been blocking how much fun it is to find a space on the top floor of the vertiginous parking garage. The speed bumps loosened a filling. I forged ahead. Trekking across the campus, approaching the designated building, relief washed over me as I noticed gaggles of guys with wingtips, pocket protectors and name tags. Whew. Right date, right place.
Then I entered the door. It was, as I had recalled, an auditorium. No registration desk. (Really, who in their right mind would crash such an event?) No tables. Just Leaning Towers of box lunches. Two hundred odd (aren’t they always) scientists, some in rows, clearly members of a department, who didn’t need to speak to one another. Tenured members of the same department are like people long married -- they know the contents of their colleagues’ minds. No need to chatter. On the other hand, those who have not yet obtained tenure are understandably reluctant to share, since they know that only a small percentage will be anointed, with the rest relegated to one of the Dakotas for a non-tenure track slot (and no, as Seinfield would point out, not that there is anything wrong with the Dakotas). The rest of the attendees were seated, each with an empty seat on either side. Just the sound of soda cans being popped open, stale sandwiches being unwrapped, the occasional under-the-breath curse as gravity overtook the precariously balanced sandwich, plastic container of warm potato salad (no question how those foolish enough to consume it would spend the afternoon), and chips scattering. Of course, politically correct “Sun Chips.” Has anyone ever savored a Sun Chip?
Dismayed but undaunted, I tried to strike up a conversation with the attendee to the right, and then the one to the left. Clearly, both had gone into a technical field because chit-chat was not their strong suit.
I thought about leaving. But the poobah from D.C. had not yet spoken. I needed to rest and refuel before my cross-country sprint to retrieve my car from the seventh level of the parking garage. I sat a spell while munching on a part of the sandwich that appeared harmless, and left the warm potato salad, chips, and stale cookie for someone a lot hungrier than I… although as a mother I did have a twinge of guilt picturing a starving, scavenging grad student coming down with ptomaine.
The point, however, was the planning. Exactly how did anyone think that collaboration would be fostered by this set up? If attendees were willing to pay $32 for a truly inedible box lunch, wouldn’t they be willing to pay $42 for a table seated meal? Was there nowhere in this major university that would accommodate 20 tables? Clearly, an educational experience…just not in the way I anticipated.
Are conferences and convenings delivering on what they promise? Tell us how you think they can do better.
--Susan L. Golden, Ph.D., Principal, The Golden Group