The early bird…

September 22, 2010

In a recent post Notorious Ph.D., one of our favourite medieval/academic bloggers, spoke out on the subject of fake conferences. As she rightly points out

“real conferences have a few main goals (not necessarily in the following order): to disseminate researchers’ new findings, to allow researchers to get feedback on ideas in progress, and to bring scholars together more informally to get the creative juices flowing. “

The kind of conference which Notorious Ph.D. defines as fake, on the other hand, has rather different goals, i.e.:

“to make money for the organizers, and to give cash-strapped academics a way to get their universities to pay for travel to an exotic locale.”

As a handy tool to determine wether a conference is fake or not she then gives out a sort of questionnaire, explaining that if you answer more than one of the questions with “yes” you’re probably in for a bogus affair. The first point on her list reads as follows:

“Is the conference location somewhere that a non-academic might plan a once-in-a-lifetime vacation?”

I must confess that question made me guiltily cast down my eyes because for most of the conferences I ever attended the answer would have been a big, fat “yes”. So, am I just an academic fraud, prone to attending bogus conferences? After some consideration I dare say “no, I’m not” – what I am is simply an art historian living and working in Europe, as opposed to Notorious Ph.D. who is a historian living and working in America. My point here being that art historical conferences in Europe always tend to take place in one of those cities where all the great art is (think London, Paris, Rome) or, alternatively, at some local research institution in one of those picturesque small towns that come with cobbled streets and timber framed houses, surmounted by the spires of medieval churches.

Bamberg, Germany: The Lower Bridge, 3 November 2006, 9:08 a.m.

In other words: As art historians we frequently find ourselves in places that most people would consider a suitable destination for a holiday or, at least, a nice weekend trip. No reason to get too excited, though. After all, those are real conferences I’m talking about, which means you do not find the time to be a tourist because you’re sitting in a darkened room listening to conference papers all day long. So more often than not you don’t actually get to see much of your host city no matter how worth seeing it may be. This is one of the reasons why – if the distance allows it – I usually go to conferences by train, more precisely by night train. Traveling that way, of course, you’ll reach your destination at an unreasonably early hour when all the shops and museums are still closed and it’s much too early to check in at your hotel, so all you can do is to drop off your luggage at the station’s deposit, have a quick coffee at the station bar and stroll about the city to take in the sights well before your conference even starts.

Marburg, Germany: View from Castle Hill with the spire of St. John's Church ("Kugelkirche"), 9 March 2007, 8:20 a.m.

At such an early hour, though, there’s much more to take in than just the monuments and sights you’ll find listed in the guidebooks. What you’ll witness is the city awakening, slowly wiping the sleep out of its eyes, is wide empty streets filled with quiet at first, then the rumble of a cleaning vehicle washing away the road dirt, the clatter of bartenders and shop owners pulling up the metal shutters that protect their premises overnight, the chatter of parents hurrying their kids to kindergarten before they need to go to work themselves, the clinking of a ladle against a pot as priests and nuns hand out a warm breakfast to the homeless*.

Florence, Italy: Piazza del Duomo, 3 June 2009, 6:48 a.m.

What I love most about that early hour, however, is that special early morning light. In winter it will be all hazy, seemingly hiding behind a veil of mist, and even in summer it will come with a certain sense of trepidation, gradually emerging into a soft, radiant glow that will be gone once the sun is fully risen.

Florence, Italy: Piazza della Repubblica, 3 June 2009, 7:33 a.m.

P.S.: Yes, all photos in this post were taken while (or rather: before) attending conferences…

* Ok, that last one may be a sight you only witness if you happen to pass by the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata in Florence, Italy, at the right time of day. But I guess similar things are to be seen elsewhere, too, though possibly with plain secular social workers instead of clerics.

One Response to “The early bird…”

  1. janet sanders said

    Seems no need to discriminate if one can arrive in the magical early morning light. I especially love your photo of Marburg with the tree subtly revealed before the shadowed buildings in the morning mist. I often think of Mr. Noro at such times.


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