Episode 57. RAI 68: Looking forward to Leiden: transcript

0:13  JJT

Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.

0:31  JJT

In the cycle of the assyriological year, July is conference season. It’s a great opportunity to hear about the latest research, to plan projects, and to make friendships. The big international conference known as the Rencontre is being held in Leiden, in the Netherlands, this year. Organising something on that scale is a lot of work. I ask the organising team what we can expect from the Rencontre this year, why they made the choices they did, and what it takes to make it all happen.

1:06  JJT

The theme of this year’s conference is inequality. That inevitably provokes reflection on the conference itself. Who can and who can’t attend? How can we make the system fairer and more equitable? What should a modern Rencontre look like? 

1:24  JJT

So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.

1:37  JJT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us. Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?

1:45  CW

Hi, my name is Caroline Waerzeggers, and I teach assyriology in Leiden.

1:51  ME

Hi, my name is Mark. I’m a research master’s students in assyriology here at Leiden University.

1:57  NT

I’m Nolke Tasma. I’m a research master’s student in Hebrew and Aramaic studies. And I’ve done a minor in assyriology as well.

2:03  JJT

So you’re part of the team helping to organise the Rencontre, the annual international conference for assyriology in Leiden this year. Could you tell us what we can expect from the Rencontre in Leiden this year please?

2:15  CW

Yes, it’s going to be a full program. We are happy to welcome almost 400 attendees. Many lectures; about 240, also poster presentations, brief project presentations. It’s going to be four days fully packed with sessions; five to six parallel sessions a day. And also many workshops. We received 15 very good applications, and they will all be running in Leiden between the 17th and the 20th of July.

2:52  JJT

Okay, looking forward to it. Are you doing anything different from what people are familiar with from previous Rencontres?

2:59  ME

Yes, there are some changes to the traditional Rencontre program. So, for example, in the past, sometimes there were two different parties: for senior members of the community and the early career people. But now we’re making it one big party. I mean, after all, the theme is inequality. And that’s something that maybe it’s not preferable. So one big party at the end for everybody to join. This is also an important part of the conference, of course, and we really hope that everybody can go here and stay until closing time.

3:33  JJT

Okay, I’ve seen from the circulars that some thought has been given to childcare for attendees. Can you say something about that, please?

3:40  CW

Yes, of course. So there was a request, during one of the member meetings of the IAA, the International Association for Assyriology, to provide childcare. So we did so. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any parents willing to entrust their children to us. {LAUGHS} But anyway, we do hope that they will bring their children as anyway, always during the Rencontre there are many children and teenagers around and we hope this year will not be any different. So we welcome everybody, including their offspring.

4:16  JJT

Excellent. I’ve not brought mine yet. I’m not sure quite how interested they would be in assyriology.

4:22  CW


4:23  JJT

Nevermind. Can you tell us then, though, the topic for this year’s Rencontre, as you said is inequality. How did you choose that as a topic?

4:31  CW

Well, choosing a topic for the Rencontre is not so easy. So it needs to be suitable to be approached from different disciplinary angles: archaeology, philology, art history, linguistics. So we had many, many discussions about the topic. There were also other suggestions: for instance, water and water management. We thought that would be a very Dutch concern to talk about. And of course, also relevant for the ancient Near East. But in the end, we settled on inequality. Of course, also, because of the relevance for our current day and age. It’s, of course, also a topic that is much discussed in scholarship for at least 10 years, if not longer. And it gathers a lot of interest. Also, Leiden has always scheduled topics that are more of a social economic nature. Think of households in the ancient Near East; state and society. So we thought this would fit our local tradition and also be interesting for as many colleagues as possible.

5:41  JJT

Okay. Following on from that, this has been organised as primarily an in-person conference, with some live-streaming for remote access. Could you talk us through the thinking around that, please?

5:54  ME

So sadly, the previous two Rencontres were not being able to be hosted fully in-person. So it’s really quite special that this year, we’ll all be able to get together again for the full duration of the conference, which is a really special and exciting prospect. Because after all, the Rencontre in the original sense of the word is about meeting people. So we’re happy to see that graduate students, postgraduate students are also taking this opportunity to come and present their research. And it’s really an honour that Leiden is the first RAI that they can attend.

6:28  NT

But and next to that, we’ve also found it very important to offer most of the lectures as online as well, so that people be free to attend the lectures online through our live streaming. Thanks to our university support, we can offer this service free of charge. And thankfully, most colleagues who will speak at the RAI have agreed with live-streaming of the lecture, which is not at all self-evident. But we are grateful for the co-operation that was given. And we are happy to be able to offer so many lectures to people wanting to attend the RAI remote.

6:59  JJT

How many papers then will be live-streamed?

7:02  NT

I’m not quite sure on the numbers, but it will be five of the six parallel sessions will be live-streams. And then only a handful of lectures will not have the live-stream option in those five sessions. So by far the most of it. I think you have 250 lectures in total, and definitely 200-220 will be live-streams.

7:21  JJT

That’s rather more than I’d thought, actually, from reading the initial descriptions. Well, it’s quite positive, actually. Because I agree with you definitely, that as a general principle, it’s nice to be together in person. It’s much easier to communicate, and you get more out of it, etcetera, etcetera. But on the other hand, it is the case that some people find it quite hard to get to a Rencontre, maybe because of visas, because they’re early in their career, they don’t have access to the funding to help them or you know, coming back to one of the earlier questions, they have childcare to consider. There’s lots of reasons why people can’t make it. And I guess given that the topic is inequality, one of the reasons I wanted to ask that question is because it’s all very nice to be together if you’re in the position already, where you can afford to do that. It’s a very positive move, I think, that so much of it is live-streamed now.

8:08  CW

Yes, of course, we think so too. Of course, another conversation that we can have with our colleagues, maybe when we are together and Leiden is to ask ourselves, do we want to change the format of the Rencontre in the future? Do we want to have fully hybrid events? Because of course, there’s still a difference between live-streaming and different types of remote presentation. We offer that to a limited degree. But yes, I think this is a very fundamental conversation to be had. You don’t want to lose the occasion to really meet each other. But you also want to involve as many people as possible.

8:47  JJT

Yeah, something that is very difficult to do actually, with the hybrid option, or the remote option, is that there’s also the question of how you integrate people. It can be very awkward having the less formal academic side online. I don’t think there’s really been a great solution to that yet.

9:02  CW

That’s right. We’re still searching. And also, well, the organisation, or at least our organisation, doesn’t have so much means. I mean, we are just a limited group of people with limited time and limited funds. So we felt that we could handle live-stream without any problem. And we also expanded it beyond what we initially had envisioned. But to do a fully hybrid event is a different story. And that would be much more intensive to organise. And at least we wouldn’t be capable of doing that in a professional way.

9:37  JJT

Yeah. Okay. Thank you. Let’s move on a little bit from remote access then. You mentioned quite how many papers you’ve received. There are parallel sessions. There are always lots of papers, lots of parallel sessions. So that means inevitably, you get some time slots that are more favourable for various reasons than other time slots. How do you assign talks to time slots fairly?

9:59  CW

Well, first of all we ditched the Friday morning session. {LAUGHS} So our conference will end on Thursday with a big party. So we hope that everybody stays on till the very last hour. And yeah, not already pack up when some people are still presenting their papers. So that’s the first thing we did.

10:20  ME

Yeah, because of the number of submissions we received, we required to fill five or six sessions every day, at the same time to fit everybody in. So this program, putting it together, it’s really a big puzzle. And also the logistics are quite a challenge. So we started programming the Rencontre this year by placing the 15 workshops that we have into their slots. And these workshops cover a vast range of themes; for example, hygiene, or trees and shrubs. But also the more classic assyriological themes like accounting, third millennium studies, literary criticism. And actually the organisers of these workshops, they have their own ideas of how to structure their meetings. They bring forward their own session moderators. And we were very happy to implement all this organisation into the program.

11:14  CW

Yes, and then we build the rest of the sessions around to the workshop programs. And of course, we try to avoid clashes as much as possible by not scheduling sessions that deal with the same time period or with the same theme together. For example, we have a workshop on intertextuality, but also a session on inequality in literary texts. So we place those on different days. So people who are interested in literature can attend both events. But of course, it’s inevitable, I think that our guests will have to pick and choose the sessions that they want to attend. It’s kind of what happens at the Rencontre. You always have to make these tough decisions. But we really hope that, yeah, we make as many colleagues happy as we possibly can.

12:06  JJT

Yeah, it’s always tough, isn’t it? Inevitably, whilst you’re scheduled to be giving your own paper, you really wish you were in the next room listening to somebody else. But with the live-streaming, are you able to record that so that people have that opportunity to listen back to the other session? Or is that just too much?

12:21  NT

No, that is too much. We do not record the sessions, because of privacy reasons. But people will be able to watch them online, of course, if they want to exclude themselves.

12:31  CW

Yes. And then they can switch easily from one lecture to the other. {LAUGHS}

12:35  NT

Yeah, of course, with online, there is the opportunity for that, but there wouldn’t be any recording.

12:41  JJT

Yeah. Okay. We mentioned earlier that a key part of any conference is the networking that goes along with the academic presentations. What is the Rencontre doing to make these opportunities as easy as possible for those building new networks?

12:56  ME

Yes. So the Rencontre really invites a mix of people; those who have been in the fields for quite a long time, the established scholars, the people working at universities; and those who are a bit later to the field, who are just starting to get to know their colleagues, the people that they will be working with later, or the professors that they’re still working with. And this is a really nice mix of people. And the Rencontre itself, you could argue, exists to facilitate the intermingling, the interactions, the creating of relationships and connections between all these people together. But for the early career scholars in particular, we’re very happy to host a separate social drinks event where they can actually build their network. And we’re really looking forward to this. It’s still at the moment in the planning stages. But as the Rencontre will happen, this will all be very clear to you.

13:50  JJT

Okay. Is there anything else you think a Rencontre could do to help students or early career scholars build networks with more established members of the field? You mentioned you have this, you know, one single party for everyone at the end? Is there anything else you do to help people make that step to maybe some of the more … I don’t know, the more established figures … you know, the famous names. It can be slightly intimidating as a student to approach professor so-and-so and you know, introduce yourself. Is there anything you think a Rencontre could do to help that now?

14:18  CW

We did think about it when we were programming also. So we took care that we would have mixed sessions, so that more junior and more senior colleagues are together in sessions. So that would be a great opportunity for new colleagues in the field to have scientific discussion with more established colleagues. And also we took a more liberal approach to chairing. So we also asked postdoctoral researchers to chair sessions, so that that would be a little bit more of a diverse leadership fostered in this way. Yes, we could also do a meet and greet with the … gray-haired elite, but that we didn’t do. {LAUGHS}

15:03  JJT

Right. Save something for the next one. All right. Okay, so every Rencontre has a team to organise it. There’s a lot to do. Who’s on the Leiden team? We have, you know, a few of you here today. But is there anyone else helping out?

15:16  CW

Yeah, so we have an organising committee and many colleagues are part of it. We have Bleda During from the Faculty of Archaeology, Willemijn Wall from the NINO, the Netherlands Institute for the Near East. And we have the David Kertai from the National Museum of Antiquities, and our colleague, Jan Gerrit Dercksen, who is our diligent Treasurer, and also a research fellow of the NINO Geert De Bruecker. And then we also have student members on the committee.

15:48  ME

Yeah, so I’m one of those student members. And my main job as so to say, is to recruit and to manage all the volunteers that will be present, and will be helping us out during the Rencontre, and also in the preparations before. So there’s really a big team of volunteers, and we couldn’t organise the conference without them. There’s 27 in total, and we’re going to need every single one of them. {LAUGHS}

16:13  NT

Yeah. And I’m responsible for making sure that all information ends up in the right place at the right time. So I’m in charge of the website of the Rencontre in Leiden. And also the social media management. We have a Twitter which will be active during the Rencontre. I was responsible for the submission and the online registration forms. So making sure that all information regarding the sessions was where it needed to be at the right time, and so that everything could be planned as swiftly as possible.

16:39  JJT

Super. Can I ask how are the less-visible team members acknowledged for their contribution to this massive effort?

16:48  ME

As for the organising committee, some people are standing more in the spotlight than others. And this is also proportional to the work that they contribute to the organisation. And this is, of course, absolutely fine. All the names are on the website, there are links to their personal information, and also links to places where they can otherwise be found. And as for the volunteers, that might actually be the most visible members of the Rencontre, because those are the people that the attendees will most often be in touch with. So they’re acknowledged by also having their names be present on the website. And also they get all sorts of perks, like receiving the T-shirts and getting to keep them. But this is, of course, part of every conference. That’s basically it, yeah.

17:35  JJT

Okay. The Rencontre takes place in Leiden quite regularly, doesn’t it? Every 10 years. And Leiden has very strong links with RAI. It right goes right back to the beginning. What’s the history of the connection between Leiden and Rencontre?

17:49  CW

Yeah, so the oral history of this is that … so the first Rencontre was organised in Paris in 1950. That’s why we have this nice French name for the conference. And then the next year again, in Paris, the Leiden delegation shouted at the end of the meeting, “See you next year in Leiden, because we’ll have a nice birthday party for the recently retired professor Boehl,” who would turn 70 in 1952. So that happened, they had a nice conference on Dumuzi. And since then, usually the year like 62, 72, 82, etc, was always the Rencontre went to Leiden. This year, it’s 2023, because the Rencontre skipped one year during the height of the pandemic.

18:44  JJT

Yeah. Okay. Is there anything else that you’d like to say to colleagues? What else do you have on offer in Leiden?

18:51  CW

They can register on Sunday afternoon in the Museum of Antiquities. They are welcome to visit to the museum at any time during the conference. There will be a nice opening reception in the main hall of the museum, and you can also visit the rooms of the museum during the reception. There will be a social event for students on Tuesday. On Wednesday, we will have the general meeting of the IAA. And on Thursday, we have a swinging party with DJ Miss World, who is none other than the daughter of Marten Stol. So we’re much looking forward to lifting our feet off the ground on the dance floor on Thursday night with everybody.

18:51  JJT

All right. Well, thank you very much. And thank you very much for everything you’re doing to organise the Rencontre. It’s a huge amount of work, isn’t it? So thank you very much for all the time, the effort and the stress you’re going through to give us such an enjoyable week. I look forward to meeting you all in person soon.

19:50  CW

Thank you.

19:51  ME

Thank you so much.

19:52  JJT

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21:05  JJT

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21:43  JJT

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