Ren’s in his office recovering after giving a lecture, which had gone well enough but will require some extra explaining next week, on top of the extra explaining he was already going to have to do because of the previous week’s lecture which he didn’t have time to cover today. But he can’t get on with writing down everything he needs to write down while it’s still fresh in his mind, because now he has to go to meet this week’s visiting speaker, and then host the weekly departmental seminar.
Being in charge of the seminars was one of the admin jobs he was given when he arrived at Grayvington. New, young members of the department are often given this role. One reason for this is that it’s a job that doesn’t require much knowledge of University procedures and rules, or much familiarity with University politics. But it’s also felt that it’s a way that newbies can get to meet more senior members of the profession, and that will help them make a name for themselves – networking is as vital in the Philosophy profession as it is everywhere else – and that in turn helps improve the department’s name. It also means that the visiting speakers get to interact with some new blood, who genuinely want to listen to what the speaker has to say, and who genuinely want to go out to a restaurant with them afterwards, rather than the speaker having to deal with the same tired old farts who are bored of departmental seminars and who just want to go home as soon as the talk is finished.
But there are some downsides to giving the job to a newbie. Some of the more distinguished and older guest speakers, especially overseas ones, aren’t so keen on having to spend time with wet-behind-the-ears kids fresh out of their doctorate, and expect to be entertained by the more eminent and interesting members of the department. Thus it was understood that if a really big name came to speak then someone more senior would be given the job of looking after them. However, this policy hasn’t been a great success in the past, as there is, unfortunately, no-one in the department who is both eminent and interesting. (This is perhaps why none of senior members of the department are taking the job of hosting a very big name in the field, Tyson Kipnis, who is coming to give a talk in a few weeks. Or perhaps it’s because Tyson has a rep for being difficult.)
Another problem is that the seminar organiser has to book the speakers for the next academic year, and newbies don’t have the contacts or the knowledge to do a good job of that, so whoever has the job depends greatly on the rest of the department recommending people they know who might be interested, and who will give a decent talk. This is something the other departmental members can’t always be bothered to do. (It’s not their job this year, okay?) If prompted enough they might recommend an old friend, who will usually turn out to have nothing much to say, or someone whose written work they have admired, who as often as not will turn out to be a terrible speaker and gruesome company.
Ren has already been surprised at how dull salaried philosophers can be. At conferences, as a grad student, you can get a mistaken impression of them, because there are always a few who are fun, who stay up drinking and talking shit with the grad students, and letting their hair down. It’s easy to think that lots of other philosophers are like that. (Maybe a lot were, back in 1972.) But eventually Ren will come to realise that such philosophers are few in number. At those conferences he and the other grad students never noticed that they weren’t socialising with the one-hundred and fifty other philosophers who have gone to bed early, or who are having torpid conversations with each other over dinner somewhere in a stuffy restaurant far away from the conference bar and the postgrads and the minor members of the profession. In the whole country there are really only three philosophers with permanent positions who are any fun, and even they are gradually becoming jaded as various responsibilities, both academic and familial, are piled upon their shoulders.
So most of the philosophers Ren has to wine and dine are not scintillating company. (Thankfully he doesn’t have to do much entertaining of any of the snake-oil merchants that the Continentalists have got in to do talks, because Verna, not trusting Ren to keep things civil, usually looks after them.) Often only a few other colleagues come to the dinner afterwards. Sometimes no-one else comes if the speaker is really dull, or unknown, or it’s essay-marking time. In that situation it can be hard work to keep the guest entertained. Most of them expect you to do the work of entertaining them. That’s partly because they’re often people who are socially awkward to start with, but it’s also because they feel that they’ve done the work of giving your department their talk, so now it’s your job to entertain them, on behalf of your department, and be interested in them. But that’s not easy when you’ve nothing much in common, and they’re less interesting than the curtains, and they have no knowledge of any topic that would engage what Ren likes to call a ‘spirited person’.
Usually what a speaker wants to do most of all after their talk is to discuss the material they have just presented. This is fair enough, as one of the points of going to another department to present your work is to get some feedback on your views (as well as getting the chance to promulgate them). So you really want some discussion of the ideas you’ve just spent the last few months working on, however critical. Usually there’s a few people around who are happy to talk to the speaker about their views, or attack them. But if no-one else is at dinner other than the speaker and the organiser, then that duty falls to the organiser. If the topic is something that you, the organiser, is interested in, then all might be well. But if it’s been some boring old tosh that you paid no attention to, or you just had more important things to think about, like the next Test match, or people you might be able to have sex with, or writing down good band names on your piece of paper so the speaker thinks you’re taking notes, then you’re in a jam. (It’s generally a good idea to pay some attention to the speaker’s talk when you’re the organiser.)
The only way out is to pretend to have some idea of what the speaker had said, but ask him or her to explain things all over again just to be absolutely sure you’ve understood it properly, and then act like everything they say is most fascinating. The speaker may well realise that you hadn’t listened the first time, but even so, they’ll still run through it all again, because (a) they want to talk about it, and also because (b) they know, just as you do, that this will fill in the time until they go to their hotel, or the train station. (But not their car; no-one in British philosophy ever drives to give a talk, except Ren and his departmental colleague Compton Hart, so it is invariably the train station that speakers who aren’t staying overnight will go to.)