The panelist next to you bulldogs along, head down, reading word for word. Soon the commentator will gamely attempt a synthesis, and then the chair, an almost entirely symbolic personage, will authorize questions from the audience. The audience’s questions, almost without fail, will constitute a plug for their own work.
Or you’re a graduate student, and your friend is giving a first paper. Like you, the friend is on the job market, and anxiously scanning name badges for anyone doing hiring. The audience, alas, consists mostly of fellow grad students enlisted for moral support, ever prepared, of course, to ask questions which advertise their own work.
Outside, down a confusing maze of hallways, thickset middle aged professors with graying hair (your correspondent) loudly greet and gossip. To anyone who professes “the humanities,” the juxtaposition of backslapping conviviality and job-seeking supplication is morally grotesque.
Then there’s the book exhibit! Land of the constantly shifting eye and the sidelong gaze: “Isn’t there someone more important here I should be talking to?” Let us head for the rumored free coffee, and then pass on to the lobby.
If you’ve read this far you’ve probably been all these things at one time or another: the anxious grad student, the self-promoting questioner, the paper-reading drone, the desperate synthesizing commentator, or the chair, trotted out to preside like Bentham’s mummy. I’ve often had very good experiences at big conferences, but they most often involve seeing old friends for drinks: actual intellectual interchange is stunningly rare given the critical mass of scholars present.
This is far less true, in my experience, at smaller conferences–generally the smaller and more specialized the conference, the less old-boy backslappery takes place and the higher the octane in the intellectual tank. But the larger conferences? The AHA? the OAH? the ASA? Excuse me, whilst I doff my badge and firm up some dinner plans.
The big academic conference was probably a good idea when it was invented, back in the days before widespread use of the telephone. But it’s not working all that well today, at least not as a tool for intellectual exchange. There’s nothing wrong with seeing old friends. But there should be a way to combine the social pleasures of face to face contact with the richer level of interchange found at smaller, more specialized conferences.
Here’s a very simple answer: post the papers beforehand. Upload them, to a gated site if you must, but upload them, well before the conference. The individual session would then consist of the authors of various papers meeting with people who had already read and understood the work, and possibly (ideally) already asked their self-promoting question via email. Actual intellectual discussion could take place, instead of everyone in the room wasting time listening to someone read a paper[1. Wasting time because if the paper is really good, I need to read it myself; if it’s really clever, I need to read it closely to understand it. If it’s not really good, well, doodling is no substitute for skimming ahead].
That simple change would make a substantial difference. But why not also have different kinds of sessions–sessions where interested persons posted their thoughts about a specific historiographical problem in their field, then met to discuss it? How about a tag cloud, drawn from all the papers submitted?
Or better than that, a software tool that parsed the papers, stripped out nouns, verb and adjectives, and presented them as a word frequency cloud? You could instantly see both the topics, the methodologies, and descriptive cliches then in vogue. [1. At OAH the words would still be “race class and gender.” At ASA? probably “queering” At AHA? I bet it’d still be “nationalism”]
The same site posting papers could include queries from scholars looking for others studying the same subject, or requests for information: “scholar of the Smoot-Hawley tariff seeks same for lively discussion and bibliographic exchange.” They could be “clouded” as well.
As long as we all have to meet to do the job-search tango, [do we?] there’s no reason why we could not share alternative forms of expression, something besides formal papers. Imagine that before the conference you visited the conference website and entered keywords pertaining to your interest. The results would steer you to all sorts of things–formal papers, but also less formal work: “research findings,” tentative conclusions, talking points, polemics: the very things out of which lively, vital intellectual exchange is made.
Just to be clear, this next year, 2011, marks the 125th annual conference of the AHA. I like the past as much as the next guy, more in fact, but does it not seem strange that we are still following a format devised by gaslight and arrived at in the age of the horsecar?
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