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Chris Bouton: For this week’s slack chat, we’re going to continue our discussion of academic conferences. On Monday, I wrote about the problems of being an introvert at academic conferences. On Tuesday, Erin wrote about the invisible (and unpaid) work that goes into conference papers. Yesterday, David wrote in defense of the academic conference.

Let’s get ready for all the hot conference takes.

David Mislin: Conferences are too expensive. That’s my hot take.

Chris: They present barriers to attendance that is difficult for many people to attend, especially non-tenure track faculty.

Hotels in major cities are expensive, flights are expensive, conference fees are expensive.

And then no one comes to your panel

David: Right. But I also think about this in the context of tenure-track and tenured folks at cash-strapped universities. Even if faculty aren’t paying out of pocket, the money has to come from somewhere.

The amount it costs to send one faculty member to the AHA would pay a good part of a grad student stipend for a semester.

Chris: And it ties into what Erin wrote about this week. The invisible work that goes into attending/putting on conferences. We’re supposed to organize panels and commentators, prepare papers, and rehearse them all without any compensation for the labor involved.

Why? I think the answer is in what you wrote for yesterday, that’s the custom and tradition

David: Right. I think at one time, in the pre-internet era (when travel was also more difficult) conferences served a real purpose. And I do think they still can, but not in the form they often take by default.

Chris: Yeah, I mean a Skype call or Google hangout is a lot cheaper and could accomplish largely the same purpose.

This uncompensated labor is somewhat understandable or justifiable if everyone at the conferences were receiving competitive salaries, but it’s not. Instead we ask scholars to put in all this work and forgo compensation, in the hope that one day they might be awarded a stable job.

That’s a situation rife for exploitation

David: I guess that raises a question. Assuming that the major part of conferences in the presentation of work, what is the point? Ideally, it seems that the point is to get feedback in order to develop one’s project. But rarely does one get good feedback.

Chris: Ideally that is the point, but, as we know, the reality is much different.

How often does the Q&A get dominated by questions for the least prepared presenter or take the form of filibustering statement about my own work in the form of a question?

David: I’ve seen the latter a lot.

The former can go either way. I’ve also seen the least-prepared presenter just be ignored

Chris: I’ve seen them get lots of questions because it’s easier to come up with a question to the person who couldn’t bother to come up with a coherent thesis in a low hanging fruit sort of way.

David: Yeah, that’s true. It speaks to a larger problem of people not really critiquing other people’s work on its merits but rather in terms of how it compares to their own projects.

Chris: To follow up on your question of what the point of an academic conference is, if it isn’t to present work and get useful feedback, then what is it?

David: Professional networking?

Seeing friends?

I mean, for me at this point the best part of conferences is seeing all my friends from grad school who are scattered across the country.

Chris: They also serve as a marker, a box to check on the way up the academic ladder, a line in the CV.

David: Yeah, although at some point one wonders just how many conferences you need

Chris: And are they the “right” conferences?

I’ve been thinking a lot about prestige and markers in academia recently, and conferences serve that function. They indicate that if you’ve presented at AHA, OAH, or the other big organizational ones (for me that would be SHEAR or SHA), then you’ve got the right pedigree for potentially joining the academic elite.

They signal that you’re a “serious scholar”

And they work in conjunction with things like publications in the “right” journals, going to a high ranked program, and having an academic interest in the “right” or “hot” fields

I’m really overdoing it with the quotation marks, but I do it to highlight the nebulous nature of these words in the context of higher ed.

David: I think that’s right. But conference committees themselves are quite mercurial.

Like much of everything else.

Chris: Yeah, all the major stepping stones in academia are surrounded by murky traditions and an unwillingness to be open about the process

Conference committees, dissertation committees, exam committees etc.

David: So let me shift the focus here, if I might. I suggested in my piece yesterday that conferences do still serve some function if we rethink them. I’m curious: do you accept that premise?

Is there still value to conferences in 2017? And, if so, what’s needed to realize that value?

Chris: If we’re willing to be honest about their function, then yes, they have a purpose.

David: For you, what’s the primary function? Just CV-building?

Chris: I think their primary function is CV-building and an institutional devotion because they’ve existed forever.

They also serve a social function

I’d like to rethink the idea of the 3-4 papers and a commentator and chair format.

David: Yeah. I agree on that point. And even professional organizations seem to have reached that conclusion.

But not everyone seems to follow the guidance.

Chris: I’d prefer a situation where the papers were pre-circulated and instead of listening to people talk for an hour and a half with 20-30 minutes of discussion, for the whole thing to be discussion.

It could be a guided discussion led by a commentator

David: Yeah, I agree. Pre-circulated papers really enhance a conference.

That was also the main idea behind my suggestion that conferences be smaller, to foster a sense of community among the attendees in the spirit of good discussion.

Chris: And I think my desire dovetails well with your idea for smaller conferences.

There’s more to be gained from discussion than just sitting there passively.

Research on learning and education tells us that passive learning is less effective and lecturing endlessly doesn’t encourage the higher thinking skills that we want to convey. So why is that approach okay at conferences?

Doesn’t almost everyone when asked about their best experiences in grad school say it was the seminars? Where you tear into a book or two over a 3 hour period?

Doesn’t that suggest that we should take a similar approach to the times when we gather together?

David: Exactly. I agree.

Chris: I have a hard time sitting through an entire panel. I start to squirm and get bored and if that’s happening to me, then how many others are in a similar position?

David: Oh I know. I’m terrible about attending them.

Two panels per day tends to be my maximum.


Chris: Right and what does that say about the structure and nature of conferences? That the people for whom they are designed can’t stand them.

And most conferences have at least 4 panel time periods per day

And then roundtables or plenary sessions at night

David: Well, it’s significant that, as you said earlier, most panels are empty.

I’ve had as few as three people in the audience.

Chris: That reality lays bare the absurdity of the ideology justifying conferences

If you’re there to get feedback for your work, how’s that possible when there’s only 3 people in the audience?

And yours is not a unique experience

David: And to me that is the absurdity. No one seems to really be serious about getting feedback.

Chris: To go back to what we were discussing before, because mostly they view conferences as a chance to socialize.

And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, socializing is good.

But let’s stop pretending otherwise.

David: Which is great. I love socializing. But conferences come with a steep price tag for social time.

Couldn’t we all just get a VRBO?

Chris: Exactly.

And you’re not having conference organizers beg you not to use technology because the hotel’s technology is too expensive to rent

Lucky for me, I never had the problem. I never did PowerPoints or anything else.

It’s kind of a problem for a profession that has a problem embracing technology to beg people not to use it.

David: That is another absurdity. So much of our work now involves visuals.

Chris: I guess, I’ll ask the question that has lingered over this entire conversation, will the structure of academic conferences actually change?

We’ve laid out what we think the problems are and some possible solutions, but will they?

David: I think, gradually. Because I think people won’t continue to pay money to attend them. Back to my point that started this. Even TT/tenured faculty won’t be able to get conference travel funded any more.

Chris: I’d agree with that. I think any change would be gradual.

To your point, when TT faculty can’t get funding, that’s when they’ll be in real trouble.

David: Yeah. It’ll be a slow process. Like most things in this profession.

Chris: Tradition and the status quo are powerful anchors.

Even in a profession where we value our critical thinking skills and think of ourselves as a meritocracy, we’re often blind to our own obvious faults.