practice – writing field notes

It’s the time of year when doctoral researchers – and those with new research projects – head off enthusiastically, and sometimes a bit fearfully, into their field work sites. Field work usually – but not always – involves going away from your usual location. And that’s something you need to, and can, prepare for. In this post I want to talk about getting yourself ready for the note-taking you’re going to have to do.

Now the most important thing about any field notes you take is that they become a record that you use in your analysis. While you’re going to read them over and over, you’re probably only going to get one chance at writing down what you see and hear. Your notes therefore need to be as accurate and as detailed as possible. There’s no going back to fleeting events. Instead of having to just rely on your memory, you need to make the best possible description of the things you saw and heard at the time they happen – or as close to this as possible.

Why only close? Well, you might be in a situation where you can to sit on one side of the action and watch what is going on. If so, you can take pretty good notes there and then. But actually, some – or most – of us don’t have this luxury. We can’t write down what’s going on in the moment. We might be taking part in the action, or just be in a social situation where it would be pretty off-putting to everyone if we sat taking notes. So while some methods texts will try to tell you that your notes must be accurate and verbatim, this is a norm you try to live up to – but not beat yourself up if you don’t quite get there.

So it’s likely you’ll have to find a way to write down enough at the time to help you reconstruct events afterwards. You might be able to make scribbles which you can expand later while you still remember what happened. You might find yourself rushing off to the loo or into the stationery cupboard to make a few surreptitious marks on paper. Most of the time you will work later that night or the next day to expand those notes you have managed to take into a relatively accurate record, the best that you can do in the circumstances.

It is a really good idea to get some practice taking notes before you go to your field site. Here’s one easy way to do this. You can simply pick up your notebook and pen and head off for a coffee, and observe what happens around you in your chosen café. It’s not at all odd to see people sitting in cafes with laptops these days, so you probably won’t get a second glance. It’s important that you do this with an ethical mindset – you’re not there to observe any individual people and you aren’t going to use the field notes afterwards. But you might need to check if this kind of work is OK with your institution’s ethical procedures – remembering this is a learning occasion for you, not a piece of actual research..

So there you are in the café/public park/town square … now what? It’s good to focus the writing in order to practice, and here’s a few suggestions you might want to focus on to begin with:

(1) The built environment. Begin by recording the material surroundings, the room, the windows, the furniture and so on. Draw a map of what is where. You may be able to take a photo or two if you have permission. Remember this won’t include people unless you are prepared to go through a long formal ethics process! What signs and symbols are in this space: what words, languages and images are used?

(2) The sensual environment. Write about the things that you can see, hear and smell. What can you touch and not touch? You may be able to bring a recorder and make a little soundscape of what you hear to accompany your notes.

(3) The human environment. Who is here? What kind of people are they? Can you see various roles? What do people do in this site? What are their movements in and out of the site?

(4) The social environment. How do people interact with each other? How do people interact with the physical site and all the “stuff” that is there? What are the interactions within and between the natural environment, between humans and the natural environment? Are there any conversational and/or movement patterns that you can observe and/or hear? Take this pattern and describe it in detail. Record conversations and movements as near as verbatim as possible.

Now here’s two things that are perhaps less commonly thought about by many social scientists:

(5) The natural environment. What kind of animals, insects, birds, plants are here? What are they, what are they doing and how? Is there weather, and does it make a difference to what happens here? What else is here – water, earth, air –what and how are they in this place? How do they interact with people?

(6) The temporal environment – are things fast or slow here? How does time matter, why, how and to whom? How is history here – what signs of the past can you see?

Now while you are writing your practice field notes about all of these things, you may find that you’ve also thought the odd thought, come up with a question or perhaps half formulated some kind of analytic proposition. The convention with field notes is that you try to separate these thoughts from your description. This is so that you don’t get confused later between thoughts and what you were trying to record. Some people use double column pages in order to do this, or Cornell notes. Other people use some kind of consistent signage in their notes which indicates to them, some time later when they are reading through, that this was a thought not an observation. I’ve seen people use square brackets to do this work. I’m a bit messier and always draw a little cartoon-like cloud symbol which I place on the side of the page and I write my thought inside it.

As part of your field note practice it’s a good idea to try to write from your field notes . Turn them into a page or two of prose. This means you get to see what it’s like to use the notes you’ve taken. How well do they allow you to describe where you were and what happened there? What information did you find yourself wishing was there – is there a way that you can think of to include this missing stuff next time?

You can of course use time in your actual field site to practice taking notes and to work out what’s going on there – it’s a kind of reconnaissance. But if you can find the time to practice before-hand, and make that practice somewhere else, it will pay off when you first go into your real field work site. You’ll just be much more confident that you know what you have to do in order to record what’s going on. Dib, dib, dib… You’re prepared.


The usual reference to writing field notes:
Emerson, R., Fetz, R., & Shaw, L. (1995). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The problems with making field notes – start here:
Behar, R., & Gordon, D. A. (Eds.). (1995). Women writing culture. University of California Press.
Sanjek, R. (Ed.). (1990). Fieldnotes: The makings of anthropology. Cornell University Press.

Scientific field notes – some with beautiful illustrations
Canfield, M. R. (Ed.). (2011). Field notes on science & nature. Harvard University Press

And for not just writing, see:
Back, L. (2007). The art of listening. Berg.
Pink, S. (2009). Doing sensory ethnography. Sage.
Pink, S. (2013). Doing visual ethnography. Sage.

Posted in academic writing, Ethnographic kit, field work | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

a little Romantic messiness

A post for National Poetry Day.

It is pretty common for research methods courses and books to suggest that qualitative researchers read through their data – such as interview transcripts – several times. Reading through happens before you get down to the ‘real work’ of ‘actual analysis’. The idea is that you get familiar with what’s been said, as a whole, before you begin to deconstruct. It’s perhaps a bit like having to understand what a cheesecake is before you begin the cheffy separation into crumbs and mousse.

There are various reasons for comprehensive data reading at and as the start of analysis. Narrative researchers might suggest that by reading the lot you start to apprehend the overall story that is being told, and you often identify any sub-stories that are lurking in the text. Grounded theorists might argue that you start to pick up the themes as you read – they either leap out at you or gradually come into view. Arts-based researchers might say that reading through allows an early hearing of the literary qualities of speech – the metaphors, repeated words, pauses and stumbles that often get missed in coding and thematising processes.

I’m always interested in early wholistic reads as a way to think about, say, how a person being interviewed makes meaning. Of course to do this kind of activity, you have to try to do the impossible and get into the other person’s head… And of course this really is completely impossible. You can however have a go. Having some questions in mind can help in this process of mind-reading. What sense does the interviewee make of my questions? What do they do with the topics I’ve directed them to? What resources do they call on to put their point of view? What experiences do they reference, what relationships and networks do they choose to make visible, what histories and contexts are fore-grounded? What seems to be the logic of what they are saying? Or, in the case of field notes, what on earth was I thinking then? (That’s a joke, Joyce.)

But as well as some orienting questions, I reckon it also helps to be open to qualitative data as a mess, a muddle, as profoundly not logical and reasoned.

I’ve been vaguely interested in Keats’ notion of ‘negative capability’ for a while. I’ve wondered what it might have to say to very early readings of interview transcripts and other qualitative data. I’ve recently returned to the idea more seriously. This revisit came about as I was faced with the refusal of some data to make nice, neat sense. The words and images just wouldn’t let themselves be packaged up into definite know-able and name-able clumps. And negative capability came to mind.

Now, if you didn’t get Keats’ notion of negative capability offered to you in your undergraduate years, then it might help to know that it’s generally attributed to a mere couple of lines in a letter written in 1817. Keats says…

…I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man (sic) is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

I was taught in my undergraduate English degree that this fragment meant that Keats thought it was foolish to go searching for an ultimate truth. He thought that this was particularly so for poets and other artists who ought, he thought, not to bother about essential truths at all. Rather, they ought to be open and receptive to the unknowable. In other snatches of writing Keats also talked about the necessity of artists being able to empty themselves of what they hold most dear; they ought to let go of their customary ideas and aspirations in order to be open to the ineffable.

When faced with my difficult data, it struck me that something of the spirit of Keats might be appropriate. I’m attracted to Keats’ urging to resist the rush to find truths, to dispel all of the usual thought processes and to embrace the contradictions, vagueness, and elusiveness of speech/life/the world. I like his notion of being uncertain and of the receptiveness to alternative ways of talking/thinking/being that it might offer. And the notion of negative capability might also act as some solace when the analysis just doesn’t do what what it’s supposed to.

But I also thought about his idea more generally. Negative capability would certainly be useful to bring to first readings of interviews and conversations. It would put off the urge to get things sorted quickly, a virtue that methods books and doctoral training often don’t explain sufficiently.

I’m not wanting to argue here for negative capability – read as a resistance to some kind of approximate and contingent attempt at truthfulness – as a permanent research sensibility. I might argue that at some other point in time, but right now I’m just thinking that it might be a pretty helpful notion to insert into some of the highly technical conversations I hear in research methods training. A focus on negative capability as an early stage of meeting-and-greeting-your-data would certainly slow down the leap to decide what the stuff ‘says’. A focus on negative capability might also encourage a little scepticism about the processes that are used to force data into apparently resolute categories called themes and codes.

And of course in my case, negative capability might also legitimate tolerance of mess and ambiguity – which is after all an inevitability for data (words, images and numbers) which rely on human interpretation.

See also:
Doctoral training and the messiness of research

Mess in a PhD as a good thing

messy research – following your nose

mess and recruiting participants

writing about mess in your thesis part one and part two

Posted in data, interview transcripts, John Keats, mess, negative capability | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

what’s the use of ‘out of office’ notices?

I’ve had a pretty busy September. I was on leave for a week in late August and then went straight to a conference in Portugal. After a brief and frenetic period at home/work, I had two back-to-back conferences in London.

For most of late August and September I’ve had an out-of-office notice on my email saying I was away and that I would look at emails when and as I could, but I wouldn’t be able to deal with any attachments. So what did saying that accomplish?

Well, not much as it turned out. The rate of emails slowed marginally. One person actually cut and paste what would normally be an attachment into the body of the email so it could be read. Another couple of people apologized for needing an answer while I was away. But many still required me to respond straight away to requests for meeting dates, answers to questions, comments on documents – and several made decisions for me if I didn’t answer immediately. Everyday work just seems to have continued as usual – the customary expectations of turnaround time and responsiveness were the same as if I was actually present. I know this is a full-time academic first-world problem, but it is a bit of a problem nevertheless… Let me explain.

The thing I really need to say here, just in case there’s someone out there who doesn’t know this, is that academic conferences ARE work. They might be away from home, and there might be the odd dinner in restaurants or a moment of sightseeing, but giving and attending papers, networking, talking to publishers, meeting with potential collaborators – that’s academic work. And what’s more, the work doesn’t just benefit us. The conference is academic work that’s good for our institutions too. Universities get reputational benefit from their academics being out and about, and there are future benefits for them in the form of bids, publications and citations. The more citations and league tables matter to university reputations and enrolments, the more conferences matter too.

Being away at a conference meant that my workload substantially increased – because there was the work at the conference and then there was the relatively undiminished everyday work that needed doing at home. I know from talking to colleagues that I’m not the only one who experiences this double-trouble phenomenon. Lots of people find that being away at a conference is a very mixed blessing.

I don’t think this additional load was necessarily anyone’s individual fault. Everyone who sent me emailed demands was beavering away doing their own jobs. Some just couldn’t adjust deadlines and processes to account for one absent member of the group/task they were managing. They had to go with the set process. Others however seem to have internalised a set of very speedy institutional time-frames – I’m not convinced everything had to be this fast – and everyone inevitably depended on digitally mediated communications to conduct their speedy transactions … aka email.

Do you remember the time before email? When someone was away their office door would be shut and they just wouldn’t turn up at a meeting, and this wouldn’t matter. Only if the situation was extremely important would their away-activities be interrupted by a telephone call. These days however, the sheer ubiquity of mobile technologies means that the expectation more often than not seems to be that no-one is ever truly away doing something else or on leave. We all carry phones, tablets and notebooks everywhere so we’re always contactable.

It sometimes seems difficult to even contemplate that we might not all actually want to live on these gadgets, that we need a break. An example – I just noticed from the bounce-back on one of those routine group emails – now the way we routinely communicate with each other – that one of my colleagues had an out of office notice saying that they weren’t available over the weekend! The weekend …

I plead guilty to pandering to this be-available-all-day-all-year situation. When I was away over summer in a remote part of the country where there was pretty patchy mobile access, I and my mates ended up at the local pub each morning to check our emails. That’ll be four coffees please, and an hour or so dealing with queries, demon diaries and the please-respond-even-though-I know-you’re-on-holidays-because-I’m-desperate. Some ‘leave’.

However, there were lots of things I didn’t do during my leave and conference time. I’ve now forgotten what a lot of them were and if I don’t get re-contacted about them – well they can’t have been that important. And I did just tag a lot of emails while I was at conferences so that I could follow them up later. And that ‘when’ means, I’m afraid, when I have time to squash them into the everyday work that is already in my diary for the coming weeks.

But I figure I need to do something about this situation. My un-new years resolution is to get more ruthless about the continuous stream of communication. It’s clear that out-of-office messages are utterly useless as a means of controlling the onslaught of stuff that ends up in the mailbox. More hands-on tactics are required. I’m not sure how I will adjust to a new less responsive routine, as I have been well-trained to respond like Pavlov’s dog to the churn and to feel overwhelmed if it turns into an unanswered glut. I’m already one of the professionals who has highly permeable work/private life boundaries – Christina Nippert-Eng’s classic study documented this problem a long time ago. So it won’t be easy to change. But I’m going to try.

You heard it here first. Don’t always expect an immediate response to your email. Maybe you won’t get a response at all. Maybe you will. So, if you really want to know what I’m thinking, maybe you could ask me for a conversation and a coffee instead. But then, *shakes head*, how will we set the date and time???

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conference blog – post conference follow-up

So you’re home. The suitcase is unpacked and the laundry put in the basket. You’ve turfed out all of the surplus conference detritus you inadvertently brought home and hung the conference bag up with its new companions. Now what? Oh hang on, there’s just a few more things to do…

Here’s a beginning list of those other things – six ways to follow up the conference:

1. Email the people you met and want to keep in touch with. Dear x, it was great to meet you at the conference. I was really interested in y and would love to keep in touch with how the project is progressing/any papers you might write/plans you might have to for future conferences etc. You might decide to send one of two of these people some of your own work – I thought you might be interested in…

2. Email anyone whose sessions you didn’t get to and whose paper you want – Dear x, I noticed that you had a paper on y at the recent conference., I really wanted to come to your session but it clashed with… I’d really like to read your paper because… could you please send… Tell them about any relevant work you are doing too so they have the option to open a conversation.

3. Email anyone with whom you were having a conversation about co-presenting at another event, developing a special issue with, plotting a bid with etc… and fix a time and process for proceeding.

4. Salvage the conference programme – it helps if it’s digital – to note in a well-labelled file any relevant work that is close to yours that you want to keep track of – these are projects where you don’t necessarily want to contact the authors but want to know what happens and what gets published.

5. Allow yourself a few minutes to reflect on your presentations. What did you learn from them? If there are changes that you need to make to your paper(s), note them now before you forget.
If you were co presenting and haven’t already, make a time with your co-presenters to debrief the presentation. Do the above exercise together.
Draw up a timeline for getting the paper to the stage where it can be finished off and submitted, if it isn’t in the publishing pipeline.

6. Email any publishers you connected with and say how pleased you were to meet them and that you expect to have a proposal for them within x months.

And now you get to do your expenses. Allow a lot of time for this if your university online system is anything like mine!

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conference blog – who’s coming to my paper?

You know those insecure feelings you get when you throw a party… that anxiety that no-one will turn up… You’ve got more than enough supplies for everyone you’ve invited as well as for some uninvited hangers-on. The food is arranged in appetising formations, the drinks are stacked in the fridge and cooling on ice in the bathtub. But here it is, the appointed time, and nobody’s here. Are they going to be fashionably late? Or is it your worst fear – nobody, but nobody, is coming!

Well, of course, they always do turn up. They might be an hour late, but eventually there everyone is, crushing crumbs into the carpet, spilling the red wine on the furniture, and generally having a good time. It’s a party.

The same is not always the case with the academic paper. Sometimes your worst fears are realised. Nobody does turn up. Or perhaps hardly anyone. You’ll probably feel awful about this lack of audience and suspect that maybe it’s the topic of your paper that’s to blame. But it is worth considering that the lack of warm upright bodies may not be about you at all.

An audience absence may happen for any number of reasons. Your paper might be up against a session with the most famous people in the field. You might be scheduled at the end of the day when everyone is shattered and has gone off for a lie down in a dark room before going out for dinner. You might be in the furthest room away from the conference centre of gravity. The lift might have broken down or gone so slow that people have given up. You might have the graveyard shift at the end of the conference when a lot of people have had to go in order to get the cheapest train ticket home.

So the first thing to understand is that you shouldn’t feel like a failure just because your session doesn’t have a big audience. It happens to just about all of us at some time. Indeed, just yesterday our (my and my colleagues) paper was presented to a very small audience indeed.

But what do you do… if there’s no one there, if there’s you and one other person, if there’s you and a few others? Well the right answer here is that unless no one at all comes to your paper, you do the paper as planned and scheduled. And if there’s no one, you should wait for a bit till it’s really clear that no one is coming. Don’t give up too soon. And even if there’s only one person, it’s one person who came to hear what you had to say. With one person you might structure the session as a more informal chat. If it’s two or more, you can do the paper just as you would if the room was crowded.

It’s not the end of the world if there’s not a big crowd. And you never know, the few that turn up may make for a great discussion.

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conference blog – dealing with ‘post paper’ questions

I like lippiness. When I was a teacher I liked the lippy kids the most. They had a bit of spark and energy. They were often smart and funny. And of course I’ve been more than a bit lippy myself on occasion so I always secretly thought we had something in common.

I remember being asked in a job interview whether I thought I could handle the leadership demands of a new school, given that I had a small child. A question that, even then, wasn’t supposed to be asked. Interviews were meant to be about public, not private lives, and there was legislation that said so. So interview questions about childcare were really off limits. But there it was! A naughty question. Should I have refused to respond? Reminded the questioner that this was the kind of question they shouldn’t ask? Politely said I had it covered? Well I did none of the above… I said “Oh, it’s no problem. I’ll just tie him up to the clothes line with a bucket of water and a sandwich and he’ll be fine till I get home.” You see, I was lippy. Definitely lippy.

Now it’s that kind of lippy response you probably don’t want to give in answer to some of the questions you might get asked after you’ve given your conference paper. You know already that not all questions will be benign. Some will of course. They’ll be genuine inquiries seeking more detail. And these kinds of information-seeking questions will be pretty helpful because they’ll provide a few clues about what you might need to do to improve your paper. And similarly helpful, but sometimes less easy to hear, are comments or comments-disguised-as-questions which point to things you haven’t thought of, connections you haven’t yet made, or books or papers you haven’t yet read. Best not to be lippy in response to those. Control the urge to be defensive and simply thank the person for their contribution – or say you’ll follow the suggestion up, think about it some more or talk it over with your supervisor/ co-researchers.

However, it’s the gratuitous supervision advice, the long speech about superior work (theirs), the snide comment about the research you didn’t do rather than what you actually did, that produces the urge to bite back. You might want to say “Oh, was that a question?” “Sorry, I wasn’t aware we’d already started the next paper,” “Thankyou, that would be helpful if that was actually the question I was looking at”… These kinds of retorts might be at the forefront of your mind and on the tip of your tongue, but just don’t give into them.

The urge to be lippy to ill-mannered audience members can be almost overwhelming. There’s nothing you’d like better than to verbally smack the competitive, the patronising and/or the self absorbed questioner into submission. However, it’s better to take the moral high ground. Be polite. Yes, be polite. Acknowledge the input and then swiftly move on. Hang the Bad Conference Questioner out to dry as quickly as you can with your polite response, and then get back to talking with the rest of the audience.

There are of course exceptions to the Be Polite rule. If questions or comments are sexist, racist, ableist or ageist then there’s no reason to put up with them; there’s no call to give the speaker any more time than they’ve already had. And rather a lot of conference questions are subtly or not so subtly about reinforcing status hierarchies. You don’t have to put up with that either. If you spot these power plays, you can choose to draw attention to them…” It might be interpreted that what’s going on here is… I’d hate to assume that your comment was actually…” Or you could be polite. Or you can just get lippy.

Not everyone likes or approves of lippiness, but I find you can often get away unscathed with the lippy come-back if it’s delivered with a smile and in a friendly tone. The real trick to being effectively lippy is being quick enough on your feet to put your thoughts into the right words. Being a teacher allowed me to engage in daily banter practice with the kids – good natured joking kept my lippy skills honed. And practice might work for you too. Practicing banter with your friends might help get you in the right frame of mind and be an entertaining pre-conference diversion. Verbal karate rehearsals can be good fun, and knowing what’s going on and having some different ways to respond can take the sting out of the post paper rudeness situation when it arises. But if this kind of practicing will make you nervous, then don’t do it – do just think of a few polite responses to the rude question/comment, and don’t worry too much. You’ll get along fine with polite.

But in the interest of sharing lippy and not so lippy responses to irritating and inappropriate questions and/or comments, can I ask, what are your favourite ways of handling tricky post paper situations? Any favourite ripostes you’re prepared to share?

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conference blog- should I go to the conference dinner?

Most conferences have a dinner. Oh no, they don’t, I hear you say? Well yes, it’s true the giant ones don’t, that’s simply a matter of logistics. You just can’t find venues and caterers able to deal with the teeming hordes that over-populated conferences attract. And, well yes, relatively large conferences don’t even try for dinners, but they can and sometimes do put on drinks and finger food for their couple-of-thousand attendees. But the majority of conferences generally do offer a dinner as an additional optional extra, knowing that a limited number of people will sign up for it.

So should you be one of them? What’s the conference dinner about and is there any reason at all to think about going?

Well, there’s lot of reasons for thinking you mightn’t. For a start, the conference dinner is seldom cheap. It’s rarely even good value for money. And you know before even looking at the menu that it’s not going to be a taste sensation. It is mass catered after all, so it’s going to be something that can be pre-cooked, kept hot and then doled out quickly. The conference dinner also has to cater for majority tastes so it’s going to be predictable… in the UK it’s likely to be chicken ( a thick lump of relentlessly chewy beige) or perhaps pollack (don’t expect chef-fy crispy skin here) followed by something very sweet with savagely whipped cream.The wine, limited quantities thereof, will be average. In other words, the conference dinner is highly unlikely to be the kind of meal you’d choose yourself for that amount of money.

So if gourmet delight isn’t the reason to go, what is? Well, like the conference itself, the dinner is all about the networking – it’s either an opportunity to see people you don’t get a chance to catch up with very often or it might present an opportunity to get to know someone new.

But if the conference dinner is going to work as a networking occasion you might have to work at it. Plan. Think ahead. You absolutely don’t want to be a Johnny/Janie-no-mates who’s wandering around after everyone else is sitting down, still trying to find someone you know. So it’s good to organise beforehand to be with at least one or two other people who can be at the same table. You can do that bit of organisation during the day, or at the pre-dinner drinks if there are some – and there usually are. Just make sure that, towards the appointed dinner time, you’re standing with a group that you’d like to spend the evening with. You can then nonchalantly shuffle into the dinner hall with them. Or, if you’re standing with someone like a supervisor or mentor, then you ought to be able to rely on them to broker some new acquaintances and to usher you into dinner at their table. Trust me, it’s very bad form for experienced conference-dinner-goers to leave novices standing.

Now, if this planning strategy doesn’t work, don’t despair. It is actually possible to meet new people at the conference dinner. Just confidently sit down in a vacant spot, introduce yourself and talk. And here’s the rub. It’s OK to make small talk. It’s OK to talk about something other than your research and the politics of higher education and the crappy working conditions at your university. And it’s also equally acceptable to talk about research, politics and the crappy stuff if that’s where the conversation goes. Just talk, OK?

You ought not to expect, of course, that you’ll emerge from your conference dinner with a new friend; it might just be a pleasant evening and a new acquaintance. But making new friends can happen…

So this is the point in the post where I produce an anecdote to add veracity to my comments, and I try to convince you that the conference dinner needn’t be a three hour ordeal in which the conversation is as limp as the lettuce accompanying the unnaturally orange salmon roulade. And here it is.

I remember being at a conference dinner in Greece. The menu consisted primarily of lamb. Several courses of lamb. One form of lamb after another, served at a leisurely pace. Lamb kebabs, lamb stew, courgettes stuffed with lamb, lamb meatballs, roast lamb. Hardly a vegetable in sight. Just lamb. There was however quite a bit of wine. And quite a lot of time to drink in between lamb. I was sitting next to someone I didn’t know well. By the time the third course of lamb arrived we had developed a fine line of repartee, mainly lamb puns, which stopped very marginally short of us both standing on the table singing a version of the Monty Python Spam song. Lamb lamb lamb lamb… Needless to say all this lamb-i-ness was a deeply significant bonding experience, and we have remained friends ever since.

So that’s my anecdote, probably slightly embroidered in hindsight. And it was convincing, eh. Proof, in the form of n=1, that it might just be worth risking the conference dinner. Naturally, there is also a moral to the anecdote, and this post, and it goes like this: the key to the conference dinner is to be prepared to take a social risk. After all, you have nothing to lose but a few hours of your time and some hard-earned cash. And you might just get something worth much more.

And of course, you don’t have to go every time!

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