June 14, 2013 6:50 pm

What the (academic) papers say

Tedious papers and a hotbed of illicit sex? Definitely not the experience of this conference attendee
Illustration by James Ferguson of Mrs Moneypenny looking at a note on a door©James Ferguson

Academics, in my opinion, are a breed apart. Last month I visited Hamburg for a conference, although I freely admit that perhaps not all of the 1,000 people who descended on the university were there to hear me present my paper.

This annual gathering goes by the very grand title of Sunbelt Social Networks Conference of the International Network for Social Network Analysis and is aimed at people who study networks, of which I (in my few minutes of spare time each month) am one. This is the methodology I used for my PhD, and it does me good every few years to attend and remind myself why I didn’t pursue an academic career.

It was interesting to monitor which rooms – and, in particular, their capacities – had been allocated to the various papers. I went to a very large room to hear “Career Mobility, Social Identity and Organizational Performance. How Does the Career Trajectories of Hedge Fund Managers Impact their Firm Performance?” This was written and presented by the very dashing Vanina Torlo, a senior lecturer at the University of Greenwich with a PhD from Bologna. Since when did the lecturers at Greenwich get so sexy? I assume that the room allocation in her case was done with all the red-blooded males at the conference in mind. Yet they failed to completely fill the space – perhaps because the conference brochure had not included Torlo’s picture.

I thought I would go and read up on Torlo, not least because of the inconsistency of the English in her paper title, which I thought was charmingly Italian. Torlo’s page on the Greenwich website makes for even more confusing reading. She is clearly a successful academic but her biography veers back and forth from the first person (“I acted as supervisor of two PhD students”) to the third person (“Vanina focuses on the performance implications of centrality at firm level”). Greenwich, you get full marks for academic recruitment but only two out of 10 for website editing.

Another ungrammatically titled (or translated) paper I attended in Hamburg was so packed that many people had to stand. This was clearly a case of room misallocation. “Analyzing Spain Soccer Team Through the Lens of Network Analysis” was presented by Mathias Dharmawirya, from Binus International University in Indonesia. It was a fascinating analysis of who passed to whom in what international game, using mathematics to identify who were the key players. I learnt a lot about footballers I had never heard of.

But what can I tell you about Hamburg? Not much, other than to confirm that it is indeed the case that Germans never proceed across a pedestrian crossing unless the green man indicates that they may do so. Clusters of people wait obediently at the kerb, even when there’s not a car in sight. This is blatantly not the case in Paris, where I went next, to speak on a panel at the OECD conference. Pedestrian etiquette there is pretty much the same as it is London, ie, “Sorry, do traffic lights apply to us too? Surely not!”

Anyone who reads David Lodge’s novels will have a view of academic conferences as hotbeds of illicit sex and tedious conference papers. Neither of the papers I’ve mentioned were remotely tedious and I cannot comment on any illicit sex. But it’s safe to say that any large gathering of people in a residential setting over several days does indeed offer the possibility of such liaisons.

The truth is that other people always seem to have more interesting sex lives than you. I met people at both Davos and the OECD conference with way more interesting sex lives than mine. And academics? I suspect that before they tear each other’s clothes off at conferences, they show each other their data sets and discuss what papers they have seen or plan to see. They are, as I said, a breed apart.

Mrs Moneypenny returns to the Edinburgh Fringe in August to perform at the Aga showrooms; www.edfringe.com; mrsmoneypenny@ft.com

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