This month I’m attending two academic conferences in the span of two weeks. That wouldn’t be particularly remarkable, save for the fact that it marks the end of a nearly two-year long self-imposed moratorium on conference attendance.
After the 2016 meeting of the American Historical Association, I’d had enough of conferences. I’d reached the point of doubting whether they served any professional purpose for me. Academic conferences are expensive: registration typically is around $100. Travel to the host city is likely at least as much. And hotels are often in the ballpark of $200 per night. (I actually really like staying in hotels so spending money on them is less objectionable, but I’d rather spend that money on a vacation). Attending the AHA that year set me back close to $1000 (and that was with my department covering my registration, a luxury many scholars do not enjoy).
Beyond the expense, though, I found the very purpose of conferences to be increasingly elusive. Despite efforts by the AHA and other professional organizations to move away from them, the bread-and-butter element of such gatherings is the traditional panel. These are between 90 minutes and two hours long. Three or four scholars present papers on work in progress, another scholar might offer commentary, and then the audience asks questions (in theory anyway; often audience members just make speeches about their own work, thinly disguised as questions).
While I’ve heard many intriguing papers, I’ve heard just as many that were under-prepared and under-rehearsed, and which bore little connection to any of the others on the panel. In grad school I was counseled not to worry about my paper. “No one cares what you say,” a senior academic once told me. “It just matters that you present something so you can put it on your CV.” That attitude seems to be one that many folks have taken to heart.
Still, though, despite my feeling that academic conferences are a relic of the early twentieth century, I’ve recently found a new appreciation of them. Done well, they offer opportunities for things that are increasingly rare in academic life:
Non-Social-Media Social Time: I am, I freely admit, a Twitter addict. I tweet constantly. I compulsively check it in the middle of the night. One of the things I most appreciate about Twitter (and, to a lesser extent, Facebook) is the way it’s allowed me to connect to countless colleagues I’ve never met in person (hello, editors of this blog!).
Conferences provide an ideal venue for making in-person connections, and for finally putting a face to the names I encounter on Twitter, on blogs, and in academic journals. Much as we might forget it, there’s value to personal connections. I’ve had far deeper discussions of history and gained many more insights for my scholarship through in-person conversations than through social media.
Sharing In-Progress Work: With the proliferation of academic blogs and online journals, and with the ever-increasing need to produce new content in support of one’s academic brand, historians are called on more and more to produce polished work. Conferences represent a venue where the work need not be polished. Presentations are understood to be works-in-progress (though the growing popularity of live-tweeting academic gatherings has changed this somewhat). This, in turn, allows presenters to ask questions, test arguments, and, ideally, to be less on their guard about their work.
The question, then, is this: what can be done to sustain the benefits of conferences while eliminating the components that seem out-of-date in 2017? I have many thoughts on this, but here are just a few:
Make them Affordable: This one should be obvious. As contingent faculty make up an ever-growing percentage of academic professions, conference organizers can no longer assume that attendees will have fees and travel expenses covered by their institutions. Moving conferences away from convention centers and downtown hotels would lower costs, making attendance easier.
Make them Smaller: Many of the best features of conferences would be enhanced by keeping them small. Workshop-type gatherings, where everyone attends the same panels and hears all the presentations (as opposed to massive conferences that schedule dozens of panels at the same time) not only allow professional connections to develop but also allow sustained academic conversation. (Smaller, more frequent, regional conferences would also have the benefit of being less expensive.)
Don’t Allow Job Interviews: For decades, academic conferences have served as venues for first-round job interview. In the pre-internet era this made sense: they brought together both job-seekers and academic institutions. But now, first-round interviews can be done just as easily with Skype or Google Hangouts. The presence of job interviews adds a certain toxicity to conferences. As someone once remarked to me at an American Historical Association meeting, “you can smell the stress and unhappiness in the air.” Especially in this competitive job market, the environment fostered by the presence of interviews is the antithesis of that which makes for a productive conference.
Far from having outlived their use, academic conferences are perhaps more useful than ever in 2017. But like so much else in academia, they’ve run on tradition and custom for too long.