What’s the Point of Academic Conferences?

At research universities in the United States, most departments in the humanities have a travel budget that supports professional activities for their faculty members.  Most of it goes to help professors attend academic conferences and deliver a paper to colleagues and attend sessions as an audience member as well.  For a department of 30 people, the amount may run to $50,000 or more, enough to fund at least one trip by every individual who requests support.

From what I’ve seen of the conferences, though, the amount of genuine research inquiry that is shared and remembered is negligible.  Yes, some papers are strong, but more of them are thin, half-hearted, or hastily-composed.  Those that are strong are often too dense to follow, especially when they have to share time with three other papers at the panel.  This is not to mention, moreover, those sessions that are attended by less than ten people. 

No, the main purpose of the meetings, it seems to me, is to provide academics scattered around the country but in the same general field the chance to gather and re-connect.  The actual research preparation they put in before the meeting and the research effort they expend during it are minimal. They have enough general knowledge of the panel topic to be able to listen with some understanding to the deliveries and formulate a question.  Their own papers may be part of a larger project, and the activity of composing and presenting a conference version of that part is, though helpful, often a last-minute composition to fill 12 minutes at the podium.

That’s about as far as the scholarly side of things goes at such affairs.  On those grounds, it’s hard to justify the expense.  Should universities offer a scholar $750 to fly to Chicago, book two nights in a hotel, and eat well for three days, just in order to foster some collegiality and get a little feedback on an ongoing project?

Of course it is, academics would respond.  And they would dispute the reductive description of conference purposes outlined above.  People say that conferences are, indeed, substantive affairs, with penetrating discussions and valuable insights happening all the time.  People attend them for the intellectual value, not the social pleasure, and administrators who cut back on funding those trips have an insidiously cynical impression of them.

But news this week from the American Historical Association belies that claim.  A few years ago, the Association began a practice of offering “precirculated papers” at its annual meeting.  If people could access the paper before the meeting, the AHA reasoned, attendees could read it and form deeper responses that they could if they were hearing it for the first time at the session.  So, in 2006, the AHA encouraged participants to submit their papers online for distribution in advance to interested scholars.

Yesterday, the AHA suspended the practice (see the notice here). The policy hasn’t worked, not at all. 

First, hardly anybody every reads them, AHA found in its informal surveys.

Second, most presenters failed to meet the deadline for online submission (after having promised to participate).

Third, fully one in five of them didn’t ever submit their papers at all.

The outcomes fly against the sanguine versions of conference activity.  Given the chance to prepare as speaker or as listener, AHA members failed.  Even at the major meeting of the major association of the field, with the organization making research-sharing easier, academics didn’t comply.

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Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

6 thoughts on “What’s the Point of Academic Conferences?

  1. I too am skeptical about $50,000 budgets for faculty travel for most but the largest history departments.
    In the event, the AHA conference is unique among scholarly conferences, for the reasons mentioned by Shane. The other conference I attended early this year was the BritishScholar Conference at University of Texas, granted my alma mater and personally gave me an opportunity to reconnect with fellow alum as we’ve dispursed around the world. But it also was an opportunity to meet others in the field, to learn from the more experienced, and to mentor the newly inducted.
    And I believe that the papers were extremely well prepared and well presented. In some cases, if a research project was “ongoing” or “in progress” the panel facilitators ably promoted an excellent audience discussion that stimulated ideas for the group and further research for the presenter. Isn’t collaboration as valuable as hearing full-stop, “complete” papers?
    Conferences are about more than presented papers. I would never say there was no “social pleasure” as Professor Baulerlein calls it. But just as easily as corporate execs conduct business on the golf course and in the gym,academics can (and do) share ideas, make plans, and generally support each other at the conference dinner or field trip.

  2. @Dave H: I can’t figure out what Bauerlein is talking about either. I don’t know of *any* department *anywhere* that has $50k a year for conferences, and Bauerlein doesn’t provide any references to support this claim. I know that my own department of 25ish has a few thousand at most, and that’s cadged from other accounts. This level of funding does not support lavish travel (nor should it).
    I’ve also never heard of a conference as weak as the one that Bauerlein described. In my experience, people do their best to present their latest work as thoroughly and as clearly as possible, and they spend lots of hours preparing. If someone gets up and presents a weak study, or one that is hastily put together, people will walk out in droves. I should say that I mostly attend conferences in science and medicine; perhaps it’s different in the humanities.
    All that is somewhat beside the point. Universities do need to cut budgets, but they’re not going to make much headway by cutting travel funding. Even *if* departments had $50,000 allocated for travel–and they don’t, as far as I know–they’d still save more money by laying off one superfluous administrator per department. Since there is no shortage of superfluous administrators, universities would save millions, and they’d probably be more efficient to boot.
    [Excerpt and revision of a post at Phi Beta Cons]

  3. It should be taken into account that the AHA is a strange beast. The overwhelming majority of people who attend are there either to interview job candidates or to be interviewed for a job. Attending a panel is something that people squeeze in if they have time and their nerves aren’t too shattered. Precirculated papers work quite well at ‘real’ conferences, like the Society for Military History’s meeting, or the above-mentioned Berkshire conference.

  4. At the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women ( http://berksconference.org ), held several weeks ago at UMass Amherst, I found the precirculated-paper workshops— all held concurrently on Sunday morning, the last day— to be some of the most productive intellectual time of the entire conference. Papers were precirculated online, which also made them available for attendees who attended the workshops and hadn’t had time to read the papers in advance.
    To my knowledge, the AHA’s precirculated-papers sessions have never included any form of support for open-access online precirculation— which makes a huge difference in attendance. If you have to have emailed the session’s chair ahead of time to get a copy of the precirculated paper, and you didn’t do that, then of course you can’t easily make a spur-of-the-moment decision to attend the session.
    This point about the importance of small details may not necessarily run counter to your argument about sustained intellectual engagement. Michael O’Malley has argued that we need to be envisioning the future of the AHA and other scholarly societies as Professional Organizations 2.0:
    http://theaporetic.com/?p=1590
    I think you and he are both getting at an important issue: the need for reappraising what in-person scholarly conferences are good for and what can be done just as well (or better) in an ongoing online format.

  5. I’m not sure what university you are talking about but in these bad budget times faculty travel money was the first thing to be cut, since it’s just sitting there in a pool easy for the admin to scoop up. I don’t know any school that gives $1,500/year/faculty member for travel.

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