The Celtic Conference in Classics

A conference model for our times?

Scholars in Humanities are seldom trained to collaborate in their research. At least in the English-speaking world, they are assessed until doctorate and beyond (almost) entirely as individuals in isolation. Most will expect to teach in a university department as the only specialist in their field. In the average-sized department, if there are two specialists in (say) Virgil or Sparta, there may appear to be an over-concentration, with no specialist perhaps to teach (say) Silver Latin literature, or the history of Athens. Lucky, then, the scholar with a fellow specialist colleague at hand, with whom to discuss.

The problem here crudely outlined is deepening, and will deepen further as specialisms themselves deepen and grow further apart. To use the same two examples: 40 years ago there were Sparta specialists; now there are specialists in Archaic Sparta, Spartan art, Spartan ideology, 5th century Sparta, 4th century Sparta, Hellenistic Sparta, Roman Sparta... capable (shall we say) of learning a surprising amount from each other. In Virgilian studies divisions of a less tractable kind exist, as around the question whether the poet's work should be treated as reflecting political intentions, and if so which. Such divergences of subject and method may be compounded by differences of temperament. In short, the average-sized department may often be inhospitable to specialist discussion in ways impossible to rectify by a purely local initiative.

As specialisms within the study of Antiquity become deeper and more separate, what is common knowledge or method in one field may become a rare and valuable aperçu in another. The Celtic Conference in Classics (CCC) is structured to promote cross-fertilisation between separate fields. This is the reason for the CCC’s tradition of having all sessions begin and end at the same moment, with a few minutes free for migration between panels. The aim, however, is not simple `interdisciplinarity’ - `all “inter” and no “discipline” ’, according to the caricature. It is to transmit specialist knowledge between specialisms: to invent a term, `condisciplinarity'.

Divergence from `the Science Model'

Scholarship on Antiquity (as in Humanities more generally) is increasingly remote from the science model which many university administrations promote. Most in Humanities are far from having carefully-constructed teams on the one campus, chosen to research convergently and harmoniously, to complement and as appropriate to compliment. What might seem to outsiders an obvious recourse, for scholars to build small networks with neighbouring campuses, may even be viewed askance, at least in the English-speaking countries, as a spirit of commercial competition between campuses casts neighbours as rivals. In France les fiefs mandarinaires sometimes have a similar effect, in spite of the laudable system of inter-university équipes of researchers.

As pressures grow for more intensive output both in publication and in administration, university scholars may see it as less and less practical to volunteer to oversee, whether at home or away, the nuts-and-bolts of organising conferences even on congenial subjects. The modern phenomenon of the fixed-term head of department may likewise militate against volunteering to create research groups designed to last; tenants seldom plant trees.

As our specialisms divide and deepen, and preferred collaborators become, if not fewer, certainly more remote on the globe, the internet of course helps mightily. But electronic media (including phone) are not best at promoting one crucial element of fertile, enduring, scholarly exchange: personal trust. Quite why even skype does not work so well as conversation-in-one-place is perhaps for physiologists or anthropologists to explain. The phrase `personal chemistry' may turn out to be no mere metaphor. But we need a new term to express growing awareness, that `face-to-face' is not enough; that `talking in a shared location' has a value of its own.

The spread of English as a lingua franca opens possibilities for exchange that we are perhaps only beginning to analyse. Even where vocabulary is largely shared, our near-parallel studies in diverse countries involve divergences which may need patience to overcome, and learn from. Such patience is more likely to exist when interlocutors are present together.

From its origins in 1998, the CCC has been structured to include informal, sociable discussion as the ally of sharing between disciplines. It is now good to note an unplanned convergence with an eminent model of physical science. A Nobel laureate in chemistry (for 2017), Professor Richard Henderson, commented after receiving his award that `having a tea-break was very important' for his own discoveries `because a lot of the best ideas come from discussions from across disciplines'.

A recurrent, carefully-structured institution as an attempt to address modern problems and opportunities in Humanities

Study in isolation will probably long remain the norm in Humanities, but it can be fertilised by the firm prospect of a sociable outlet, and test-bed, for our findings and questions. By being seen to be largely composed of panels conceived ad hoc by researchers with no special attachment to the recurring Conference, the sense is encouraged that the Celtic Conference in Classics – and conferences like it – will quite likely provide a roof for any new combination of studies good people may devise. That sense is likely to cause such devising to multiply. By taking care of housekeeping matters, lodgings, food, fees and the rest, the Conference shelters panel-organisers from the more daunting aspects of administration. Also, because a Conference of 200+ members is likely to be modestly (sometimes significantly) profitable for host campuses, in material as well as in moral terms, intensive and experienced administrative help is forthcoming, from host campuses themselves.

The Celtic Conference in Classics was conceived in Wales, convened first in Ireland and (so far) most often in Scotland, with three conferences also in Francophone lands – Aquitaine, Brittany and Québec. Rotation of the Conference between countries and campuses is meant to signal shared ownership. Stability in ways of organising, and long continuity among volunteer organisers, promote (we hope) collective memory, to note and take to heart things which go right (or the opposite).

The Celtic Conference in Classics claims no monopoly, no profit, and would be happy to be imitated in its methods. If such conferences can be refined and multiplied, they may promote the work of universities – and of scholars extra muros, a group which may be increasingly important, as universities change. `Human Resources' may be elegantly complemented by human resources, of specialists as volunteers. By being not quite the same as universities, conferences may perhaps come a little closer to universality, in the access they give to colleagues around the globe and to the collective topics which they define.