Ravindran wants to know how these words are distinguished: convention, conference, workshop and seminar.
Do they all mean pretty much the same or are there real differences between them? After checking through several dictionaries and spending many hours surfing the internet, he says he is no wiser than before.
I am not surprised. Years ago when I was studying at UCLA, Martin Kay, then at the IBM think tank at Pasadena, walked into the class and said: ‘I’m supposed to handle this seminar on semantics, but what is a seminar? I don’t know, having never taken or given one.’ As it turned out, that is what a seminar is - an interactive session among a group of people, a teacher and his students, for example. I will come back to this later.
A convention, in its usual sense, as used today, is fairly well distinguished from the other words mentioned above. In American English, especially, it denotes a meeting of the members of a political party to elect their nominee for a forthcoming election. Many will recall the Democratic convention at Boston in 2004 where Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois made a great impression on everyone.
In British English it can denote a meeting of delegates to discuss political, religious or other matters. Historically the word is used to refer to the meeting of the Parliament in 1660 and 1688 without a summons by the King.
A conference has a wider meaning. It describes a meeting of persons with a similar interest, who meet at regular intervals to discuss matters pertaining to their common interest. The Annual conference of Aeronautical engineers, The All-India English Teachers Annual Conference, etc. I still remember a conference of Linguists held in Calcutta (many years ago) when, on the last day, the chairman of the session gave a choice between listening to three papers from some delegates from the south and going on a sightseeing trip of Calcutta. Without an exception they all voted for the trip, even the delegates from the south. I can assure you that all conferences are not like this. Papers are read and even discussed.
A workshop is a gathering where ‘a group of people engage in intense discussion and activity on a particular subject or project’. Note the twin points made here: discussion, activity. But quite often (among us) a workshop degenerates into a lecture. A far cry from what it should be, as described in the Longman dictionary. “A meeting at which people try to improve their skills by discussing their experiences and doing practical exercises.’
Back now to seminar. Here is what the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English has to say: ‘A seminar is a class at which a small group of students meet to study or talk about a particular subject’. So when Mr. Kay asked “What is a seminar?’ and Richard Ogle, sitting next to me, began answering the question, the seminar had begun.
In the strict sense the term is applied, as in my example, to a class in a university where a teacher and his small group of students discuss a topic. The word is closely related to seminary – a college for training priests and ministers.
In an extended sense the word is used to describe any such group discussion on a topic, subject. The group need not be university students and their teacher.
Looking back, you will find that the most general assembly is a convention; a more restricted one confined to persons with academic interests is a conference. An even more narrowly defined group is indicated by a seminar.
A group of the kind indicated by seminar, if it engages in practical work and discussions results in a workshop.
There is also another word which may be mentioned in this connection: symposium. In classical Greece a symposium was a philosophic discussion where, over the dinner table, wine flowed freely... (The word was also used of a drinking party with lively conversation.)
Today a symposium refers to a discussion by a group of experts who formally assemble: a symposium on autism.
Recall that in a seminar, in its strict sense, the participants are university students holding a discussion under the guidance of a teacher.
It is interesting to note that most of the terms discussed above, with the exception of convention, relate to academic activities. Some of them have close connection with church activities.
Although the words discussed above have specific meanings, in common use, they are freely used with no strict adherence to their meanings. The most widely used term is workshop which is often no more than an extended lecture with minimal interaction with the participants. Seminar, in IE, has lost its university moorings.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org