It’s fun to mock academic conferences. They are quite mockable, because academics are nerds. At our best, because we all know that we are nerds, we work hard but don’t take ourselves or our rituals too seriously.
And yet I was concerned when Christy Wampole, an assistant professor of French and Italian at Princeton, asked, in a widely shared essay in The New York Times, “What is the purpose of the conference?” Her purpose was to call for better behavior, promoting a manifesto of best practices (and they are good practices, over all). But I took the question seriously.
For professors from small colleges (like me) or geographically isolated institutions, as well as graduate students and adjuncts, one purpose of the conference is that it allows us to be scholars.
Everything I have ever published has direct origins in one or more conferences, a lineage I can trace through my CV, mapping the formal and informal ways that academic gatherings have shaped my work. And I know I’m not alone. Although expense is an issue (and we do need to strip the job-fair aspects out of the big conferences), I’ve spoken with graduate students, adjuncts, and professors at teaching colleges, and we generally agree — we get to engage with our scholarly community best at conferences, and our work blossoms as a result.
For example, in 2004 I was lucky enough to attend a conference in Istanbul, held 800 years after the Fourth Crusade. I was a graduate student just finishing my archival research, and I had found a few new things to share. For three days, scholars from around the world debated and discussed a single event that shook the medieval world. It was thrilling. My conference paper became my first article. The article led to invitations to be part of other panels, and from there to more articles. Now I have a book on the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade.
As a professor at a teaching college, I sometimes feel worn down by the drudgery of grading and the academic bureaucracy. Conferences revivify me as a scholar, reminding me why I got into this profession in the first place. For the Princeton author, on the other hand, something seems to have gone awry. She writes, “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?”
I cannot remember ever feeling rage about a conference. I have heard good papers and bad papers, seen good behavior in Q&A sessions and bad behavior, but rage? I think our memories fixate on the bad, a pattern exacerbated by the tradition of telling “bad conference” stories. I always get laughs when I describe the first paper at the first panel I chaired, when at minute 30 (10 minutes over time), the speaker got up, grabbed a piece of chalk, and headed to the blackboard to start drawing maps. We remember these egregiously awful events precisely because they are the exception to general competence.
The big conferences, the types that Dr. Wampole seems to be criticizing most directly, may risk having too many sparsely attended sessions, but even they have papers packed with new ideas. It might be worth considering how the prestige economy pushes us to attend such high-status conferences if the experience there is unsatisfying. The best conferences I’ve attended were small, focused, and relatively low in status, with one to three concurrent sessions at most.
Still, at my most recent conference, a high-status affair with lots of concurrent panels, I presented one of four closely related but not overlapping papers. The questions were not occasions for audience members to show off their erudition, but were genuine, thoughtful, provocative, and helped make the panel more than the sum of its parts. Most important: At this gathering, good papers and good questions were the norm, not the exception.
Not everyone is a good performer. In my experience, though, everyone who studies something deeply is interesting, so I always try to look for that kernel in every paper, no matter how it’s delivered or how disconnected it might be from my own scholarly interests or methodologies.
That said, there are plenty of ways that we might improve conferences to be less dependent on solo oral presentation to a passive audience. We know, as teachers, that active learning works better than passive learning, and I welcome thoughtful conversation about how we could apply active-learning norms to the academic conference (or, for that matter, any other academic meeting).
In fact, around academe, people are experimenting with form all the time. I have participated in all kinds of alternative formats over the years, sometimes at small gatherings but often as subsets of big ones. People are already going for hikes (on glaciers in Iceland, no less), doing mini-manifestos, or participating in large salon-like gatherings. People have long participated in seminars and symposia based on shared papers with commentary. If you don’t like the traditional conference, the good news is that there are lots of people experimenting already, and most of them are eager to share their ideas.
Here’s the real shame: Although Dr. Wampole concludes her piece by linking the bad conference to the death of the humanities, perpetuating the myth of the conference as boondoggle — a myth entirely unsupported in my experience — serves to undermine the very thing she’s trying to save. It provides a narrative to administrators already hostile to conference funding, a narrative of the bad conference as if we all simply agreed with her characterization.
I can’t say what conferences Dr. Wampole has attended, but I can say that a few bad papers or self-aggrandizing questions would never fill me with rage. I would just hope the next panel is better — and it usually is.
Author Bio: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University, in Illinois. His blog is How Did We Get Into This Mess?