Academia and Exclusivity

At this past conference, there was a period of time when security guards were checking badges before allowing people to enter. Not for all events, or even all floors at the conference venue. It’s the first time I’ve had this happen at a conference, and I’ve been to conferences that have had an equally large number of people. I do know they do so at other conferences, so it’s not particularly odd. However, what it did, was seem to emphasize the exclusivity of academia.

I find this sort of an odd thing. Academia, at it’s core, really shouldn’t be exclusive. It’s being done for the ‘greater good’ after all. And it’s generally funded by federal and provincial grants. Which, of course, means public dollars. It should be open and inviting and about spreading news about what’s being done, what’s discovered and so on.

However, if you’re in academia, you realize just how exclusive it really is. It’s not the fact that the research doesn’t get discussed as widely as it should that’s the problem. It’s the fact that each conference, each research group, each person acts as their own entity. I find this most noticeable when attending conferences. And it’s not the security guards keeping outsiders “out” that’s the problem. It’s what happens to all of those “outsiders” that should be really be insiders.

I was at a workshop last fall where I was definitely the outsider. Sure, I had my paper accepted and I was scheduled to give a talk. But everyone else there either had been to the workshop before (and for multiple years) or was a student of one of those people. For each talk by an insider, there was much discussion. For my talk, there was exactly one question, which I had already answered earlier in the talk and so just repeated the previous statement. For meals, this group already knew who they hung out with and what to talk about. I was left standing at the side and sort of tagging along with a group when I could. It was an awkward experience at best. And isolating at worse.

This is a small workshop, and so really, they should be looking for expanding their group. More people, means more research, and more competing views which allow for better progress. But, more people also means that those who’ve been there before might have the status quo shaken. Or that their research may no longer be the “best” of the group. In a sense, a lot of this exclusivity, is to protect ones own stature within the community.

This can be seen in how hard it can be to break into a new area and publish. Sure there’s “double-blind” reviewing, but we all know there are times when it’s still crystal clear who wrote the paper. And if you know someone, you’re automatically going to be looking at the paper differently than the one where you have no ideas about the authors. Probably favourably (if your past experience was good). All of this just works to make it difficult for those on the outside to become one on the inside. And the longer people are kept on the fringe, the less likely they are to want to stay within the field and try to move inwards.

Of course, if you’re one of those on the inside, it’s much harder to see the problem. After all, you have never had problems with having your views heard, finding people to hang out, with accepted. But, next time you’re at a conference or a workshop, or even just a research meeting, take a moment to look around. How inviting and open is your environment? Are you an insider? What could you do to change it?

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