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.