Is it time to rethink the academic conference?
Academic conferences are a habit from the past, embraced by the administrativersity as a way to showcase knowledge and to increase productivity in the form of published conference proceedings. We have been complicit. Until now.
We believe it is time to ask ourselves: What is the purpose of the conference? What has caused us to organize these things year after year without questioning their basis? Is there another way to reformat the conference or do away with it altogether, replacing it with something more intellectually, professionally and socially satisfying for everyone? What are our real motivations for organizing a conference? For attending one? To burnish our résumés? To network? To get a sense of the current work being done in our fields?
If, as many scholars confess in private, it is an easy way to see all of one’s friends conveniently or to meet new colleagues, should the conference then be replaced by a less formalized gathering? What about a three-day long salon philosophique format? Or large working groups? A speed-dating scenario or a hiking retreat? Why should a graduate student pay hundreds of dollars — often from their own pocket — to fly to a conference, get a hotel room, and give a talk to an audience of three, two of those being friends who heard the practice talk the night before in said hotel room? If everyone is content with the conference as a legitimate custom, why do post-conference sentiments typically range from disappointment to total rage, always expressed in hushed tones?
A few quick reactions:
- While written towards the humanities, many of the same arguments hold for science and social science conferences.
- Legitimate defenses of conferences: a) Makes in-person interviewing for job openings easier, b) seeing big-name speakers you might otherwise not get to see because you can't afford to bring him/her on campus, c) hanging with grad school buddies or former colleagues on taxpayer dime, d) beer lunches, 5) beer dinners, 8) beer. Administrativersity?While I like occasional travels, the professional usefulness of academic conferences is in my past. That doesn't mean I won't go to a conference. I am just more selective and more strategic in my conference attendance now.