Back from Brisbane on Saturday night, after attending the symposium of the Australian Humanities Academy. Brisbane was gorgeous, though I took my customary approach to a conference — fly in at the last minute and leave early — so I didn't see that much of the city. Why do I do it this way? To fend off that awful feeling on the first day away, of wondering why in the world one would want to leave one's home, and hang around airports and burn up greenhouse gases, and sleep in a hotel. So I try and minimise the pain by not really committing to the city. Paul and I never seem to manage to go on such trips together, so that's another reason not to hang around.
I did manage to get in a couple of walks, though, along the boardwalk along Southbank. Restaurants, cafes, a Nepalese pagoda, and the little sandy beach built into the riverbank (where I swam, 11 years ago), though it was closed for renovation, with all the sand piled up under tarpaulins, while they sealed the base. It was mild for Brisbane, I think; a balmy 26, which made sitting outside in the evening extremely pleasant. The first evening saw me and two companions sharing a bowl of succulent mussels in a rich tomato and chili broth, sopped up with an excellent sourdough.
The theme of the conference was the nature of e-research in the humanities. There were some terrific papers showcasing wonderful projects and resources; and also some reflections on the nature of this work, too, so it wasn't just "show-and-tell".
One remark struck me, though, when a prominent Vice-Chancellor commented that the era of the lecture was dead; that students simply wouldn't tolerate being lectured to in the old way. I guess that's true, that our attention span has been horribly reduced. My companion at the conference dinner on the second night told me how Pascale had anticipated the "distractions", like email, that break up our concentration span into bits and pieces. But it was odd to speculate on the irony that the symposium was presented in a conventional lecture theatre, that had been adapted to take powerpoint, etc. So when speakers presented their sites and applications, they were in darkness at the side of the stage, while the screen was lit up. Most of these applications were text-intensive, too, so if you were sitting up the back, it was pretty hard to see what was on the screen, much of the time. Nor were the speakers miked up, so that when they were answering questions, you couldn't always hear very well. No wonder some of the academicians were seen nodding off. And in truth, it is hard to concentrate for a day of such presentations. It might have been an idea for the conference to be held in a lab, where we could have interacted with these resources ourselves.
In fact, the organisers had made several laptops available, and I got used to seeing people surfing around sites that were being discussed in front of them. Some were also checking their email, too... But if that's the best way of presenting this material, either to a conference, or to a class, then it's no wonder that the connection between audience and presenter is diluted. I'm not a luddite in such things: I do use powerpoint when I teach, for example, and I have offered minimal online sites for larger subjects; but I do also love the human connection it's possible to make in a lecture, and the way that quite unexpectedly, sometimes, the group goes completely quiet and you realise that something has struck them, collectively, and you had no way of anticipating what it would be. The symposium wasn't really concerned with teaching, though.
Oddly, it's the idea of the "distraction" that has stayed with me. I'm determined to try and exert some discipline over my own. I wonder if reading Pascale would help. Or is that just another distraction?