Lessons learned in Oxford

The Conflict Research Society Conference in Oxford was a generative, 2-day event, full of interesting panels and conversations. Yet my time in Oxford still left me with some difficult lessons to learn. In proper social scientist form, I have enumerated these lessons below.

By the end of my panel, in the middle of the first day of the conference, I was losing my voice. The croaks and sniffles had started on the flight from New York, and while I got all the words out for my presentation, I didn’t have all that many words left in me by the end of the day’s programing. After the last panel, instead of hanging around, to meet people and resume some of the threads of conversation from throughout the day, I decided to scuttle off back to my Airbnb place.

Lesson 1: Always loiter at the conference.

I had booked the Airbnb spot on something of a whim. It was a rather charming studio, unnecessarily spacious for the short amount of time that I would have in Oxford. It was also rather far from town centre – at least a 30 minute walk.

Lesson 2: Don’t fall for the charming, distant studio.

My voice was failing, but my legs were fine, and in fact needed a stretch. I figured that I could walk back to the studio, and still have enough down time to recuperate my cords. I took a different route from my morning walk into town; this way was only 3 minutes slower, according to Google Maps, and would let me see a little more of Oxford.

Lesson 3: Never rely entirely upon Google Maps.

Phone in hand, I wandered through town, and into a large park. There were no lights in the park, but the way was clear, the night was pleasant, and all I had to do was keep heading in the same direction, cross the river, and I’d be through.

I found the bridge. There was a gate across it. The gate was locked.

I briefly considered climbing over the (fairly low) gate, but decided that my conference experience would be better overall if I did as little trespassing as possible. Unperturbed, I turned back, checked in with the map again, and headed for the closest exit to the park. This gate was unlocked, and lead onto an alley, beyond which I could see the street.

The gate at the end of the alley was locked. Fearing that the park may have been locked up just after I entered, I decided to climb this (fairly high) gate.

Lesson 4: Expect there to be gates.

I picked my conference attire because it looked both professional and casual. There was nothing professional or casual about the way I heaved myself over the gate, but I did escape the park. I carried on my way, phone in hand.

As I passed down another alley, I decided to snap a (very average) photo, as a reminder of my detour through the park. I took the photo. My phone shut down.

Lesson 5: No photos on 25% battery.

I was on the wrong side of the park to easily find my way back to the town centre. I did remember, however, that one of the paths (by far the slowest) that Google had traced, from the studio to the centre, followed a ring road on a long, steady arc out of and back into town. So I walked until I found the ring road, and I followed that long, steady arc out of and back into town. It started to rain. But I found the studio.

Needless to say that by the early start the next morning, my voice was not much improved. The second day of the conference lay before me, however, and I packed my bag, locked up the studio, and stepped outside to call an Uber.

There were no cars available (and there may never be).

Lesson 6: lesson 3, but for all apps.

The Conflict Research Society Conference

Last week saw me dozing on flights, stumbling through airports, and taking the tube to a train to a bus to another bus to another train, to arrive in Oxford in time for the Conflict Research Society Annual Conference.

This was my first time attending the CRS conference, and it didn’t take me long to decide that this was one of the best conferences in which I have participated. The easy-on-the-eye setting at Pembroke College certainly didn’t hurt; it wasn’t only jetlag that, between sessions, had me scuttling out to bask in the sunny quads. And I couldn’t resist the utterly unnecessary Hogwarts analogies, when presented with the formidable array of desserts in the college dining hall

More to the point, however, the thematic, rather than disciplinary, focus to the conference, coupled with its modest overall size (only two days – quite the relief after some of the more monstrous conferences), meant that it was easy to meet, and to get to chatting, with other academics interested in similar topics. Perhaps most importantly, this was also a conference in which (post)graduate students, doctoral candidates, and junior and senior faculty intermingled readily. There was little of the sense of hierarchy that at other conferences can see attendees sorted or sorting themselves according to the letters after their names.

There’s also something refreshing about crossing the pond (the actual sleep-depriving, jet-lagging crossing notwithstanding), and getting a taste of how academia is done in other places. While we might study the same topics and read the same scholars, some of the frames of reference shift, some of the assumptions and fixations diminish. An important reminder that, as massive as it is, American academia is not the full extent of academia.

The paper that I was presenting includes a fairly detailed case study of the Zetas criminal organization in Mexico. From what I can see, mine was the only paper on Mexico at the conference. Despite ten years of raging violence, Mexico doesn’t quite have an agreed upon ‘conflict’ status yet. At the opening plenary, Prof. Anke Hoeffler drew a distinction between collective and interpersonal violence, with the implication being that the former refers to conflict or war, and the latter to crime. The levels of violence in Mexico, however, are almost inconceivable as interpersonal crime. Rather, part of the problem appears to be proliferation of highly armed collectives, willing to target each other and civilians.

Still, it is a testament to the sense of the community that the CRS has knit together, that some interloper, who doesn’t even study a proper conflict, was welcomed to the conference. And that the other attendees found plenty to ask about, and plenty to share.