Back from a successful conference
One of my first blog posts this summer was about a conference I was helping organize. Well, last night I returned from that conference, and I -- and I think most attendees also -- regard it as a great success. The webmaster of the organization, the American Scientific Affiliation, has completed the posting of all audio files recorded, including both plenary addresses and parallel sessions. Over the next few weeks, I believe video and/or slides will be included there as well. It was particularly gratifying to see how thoroughly the chosen conference theme was appropriated by the speakers. In particular, it was exceptionally interesting to see how, partly by planning but largely providentially, a thread of "sustainability" was woven through many sessions and pulled together expertly by 78-year-old agronomist and theologian as the audience hung on his every word. I invite you to listen to Freudenberger's presentation yourself.
Given that these resources are now freely downloadable, why would anyone bother actually going to the event and paying the registration fee? It is true that the recordings can be valuable for those who could not or chose not to attend the conference, and will also be useful to those who attended and wish to review some of the materials. However, there are just so many other things about this gathering that cannot be obtained in this way. And I don't mean the cafeteria food!
I would argue that perhaps the most valuable aspects of any meeting are those which are not even on the agenda, and which are not planned or predictable. Even more than the question period after the talks, it's the actual personal encounters and interchanges which are irreplaceable. For example, I met a historian of science named "Ted" whose name also appears elsewhere as "Edward"; I had no idea they were the same person! But that's minor. The conference was an excellent opportunity to be re-engaged with colleagues and friends from near and far, and to have lengthy conversations about deep philosophical, scientific, and theological issues. Mealtimes found us seated in serendipitous groupings in which summaries and critiques of the talks we had heard led to deepening insights. Networks were expanded. News was shared. Upcoming books were mentioned. Advice was asked and given. New vistas were opened. I could go on; you get the idea.
So, a conference cannot be reduced to the talks in the program, because the human person cannot be reduced to an information receiver and analyzer. It is the full multi-aspectual interaction between people which permits these other benefits to flow as meals are shared, hands are shaken, and as appreciative glances, subtle grimaces, and laughter are shared in fellowship. (For more on reductionism, see this posting.)
I'll just close by saying that it was most rewarding to share hours with a TWU colleague -- a biology professor -- who traveled with me and shared my dorm room!