Big Academic Conference–Shoot Me Now!

You drew the Sunday morning session. There are a dozen people in the room, panelists included. Through the open door you see people rushing by, rolling suitcases behind them, heading to the airport.

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?

Some similar arguments from:

Larry Cebula

Dan Cohen


  • Meredith wrote:

    You forgot to mention the din of the “pit” and the humiliation of its “bullpen.” It is a wonder that the “humanities” can create settings of such inhumanity and degradation. The middle-aged interviewees are the most heartbreaking, because you can practically hear the marriage crumbling, the house falling apart, and the kids complaining of yet another move. For its exploitation of talent and dreams amidst only the slimmest chance of having a real life, let alone success, academia is rivaled only by the casting couches of L.A. and Broadway.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dan Cohen, Brian Croxall, Jeff McClurken, Jason Heppler, bdarcus and others. bdarcus said: RT @dancohen: RT @jmcclurken: Great post about the problems with big academic conferences by @theaporetic […]

  • Excellent post, but just to prove that you can never escape other academics plugging their own work, I want to mention my idea of hacking a scholarly conference with a kind of simultaneous underconference. The underconference as I envision it is playful, collaborative, and eruptive (rather than disruptive).

    But you don’t have to resort to ARG-style playfulness to hack big academic conferences. Twitter can be a low-stakes, low-investment way to invigorate a scholarly conference. There’s the conference backchannel, of course, but I think pre-conference Twitter activity can go a long way toward setting the tone for a conference—or at least for a subset of the attendees of the conference. I’m thinking of the fake conference tips that I and others began posting in the weeks leading up to last year’s Modern Language Association Conference. By the end, even Rosemary Feal, the Executive Director of the MLA, was joining in on the fun. As I wrote in my roundup of the fake tips, the collective activity was a great example of academics making fun of something we often take far too seriously: ourselves.

  • While I am in the social sciences rather than the humanities, I think it is rather naive to suggest that participants should read papers prior to a given conference session. I attend these sessions so I *don’t* have to read through a pile of papers; if a presentation sparks my interest enough, I’ll read it later to get the full narrative, but there is no way I have that kind of time to spend reading papers which may not be relevant to my own research interests/not be “good” research/not be well written, etc.

    Personally, I don’t think a presenter should ever read a paper at a presentation. It signals a lack of preparation (I realize this may also be different norms for different disciplines). The point of the presentation is to provide a (relatively) short synthesis of your research with a focus on interpretation and, specifically, how your research extends and/or raises new questions about a given topic, things that should be inspiring discussion among the presenter and audience. Nothing makes me lose interest in a presentation more than seeing the presenter’s head in their notes, reading word for word what they wrote.

  • Lone Hansen wrote:

    Great post. I agree with most of this. Conferences should be all about facilitating discussions and they should experiment with formats for this. This could even work at big conferences because big conferences would just allow for more interest groups.
    The most difficult conferences are the ones where you submit an abstract 8 months prior to the event and then this abstract is all people have access to. It is difficult because half of the presentations you attend will begin with “When I wrote this abstract, I was thinking something else than what I do now, so this presentation has taken a different direction”.
    At conferences where you have to submit a full paper with “results”, which are peer reviewed in order to get a presentation slot, it would be fab to have papers before registration where you most often get a dvd/usb stick and then you have no time to read any of it. I mean, people submitted full papers months prior to the conference so that should be easy to do. Perhaps when you register you get a download link.
    Noun-verb word clouds is a fab idea as well. I’ll keep it in mind for when/if I ever get the possibility to organize a conference.

  • Indeed! Another strategy for making the big conference not quite so dreadful is the seminar within the conference: 12 participants around a theme. The seminar meets each of the three conferences days for about two hours. It in effect creates a small conference atmosphere–a sustained and developing discussion–and promotes intellectual exchanges that carry on long after the conference is a distant memory. This is what the American Comparative Literature Association does for their annual meeting.

  • […] heartfelt plea from Mike O’Malley about academic conferences in the history profession; amen, […]

  • Great post, as always, Dr. Aporetic! I would only suggest that the one problem with recommending better means for exchanging ideas at conferences is that it is predicated on the utopian assumption that conferences are actually designed for the exchange of ideas–let alone presenting them. Those of us weary souls who have been going to these things for decades long ago recognized (and to some extant have acted on) the recognition that the most important aspect of a conference does not occur in the sessions. As the great academician Lenny Bruce once opined, “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls”–and, indeed, that, too, is the location for the real business at these conferences: the real enue where one is seen, where one may schmooze, “network,” etc. In any case, in keeping with this notion about the opportunistic nature of academic gatherings, may I offer an old saga called “The Conference,” published in several installments in the Radical History Review in 1985 and 1985:

  • I am still a graduate student and have been to both the AHA and smaller conferences. The AHA is overwhelming, but my fellow students and I use it to find out where the profession is and what new research is out there. (Some historians may say we are being misled, perhaps.) At the AHA I am certainly on the outside looking in. I see disappointed graduates and hear about the horrors of the job market, but this is nothing new. I’ve been told since I started my phd that I’m essentially doomed to fail, and that negative attitude does seem to be perpetuated at the large conference. I’m not saying it’s not deserved, I’m just saying it is already ingrained in most grad students’ minds and it would be nice if someone, once and awhile, reminded us that being a historian doesn’t always suck.
    The smaller conferences are certainly more fruitful. I’ve made excellent contacts at them and had historians with similar interests – those I look up to – show genuine interest in my work. Graduate students actually present with tenured professors and are given equal respect.
    I just wanted to share the prospective of a grad student who is new to all of this, and presenting my first paper next month at a small conference.

  • Lynn, I think you rightly called me out for being too cranky and cynical. Even the big conferences can be great, but I think most people would agree that the best intellectual interchange is often in the lobby or in fleeting moments here and there, almost accidental. There ought to be a way to make that more consistent.

    And the format: chair, comment, papers–is stale. It’s all about hierarchny–give papers, wait for comment (judgement pronounced) and the chair does what? I’ve seen it work well a few times, but more often I’ve sat there thinking “there must be a better way.”

  • Just want to put in a quick mention of THATCamp, which is working hard at fixing these problems, and has spread very quickly around the world because of them.

  • I wonder if some of the digital enrichment to the conference should not come after? Film the sessions and put them up on YouTube and iTunes U.

  • […] O’Malley, Mike. “Big Academic Conference—Shoot Me Now.” The Aporetic 22 October 2010. Web. […]

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  • […] for instance, critical takes on the current structure of academic conferences by Michael O’Malley, Dan Cohen, and Larry Cebula—I thought it might be worthwhile to share a few thoughts on the […]

  • Ну как прошли праздники ?
    Кстати со старым новым годом 🙂 Будет повод еще раз отметить праздник и посмотреть фильмы 😀

  • Ваша информация на тему – Big Academic Conference–Shoot Me Now! – The Aporetic вашего сайта просто классная. Правда жаль что видео нет.

  • […] prac­tices, and as far as I can tell, it’s becom­ing less and less rel­e­vant. I’ve posted before about the con­fer­ence. I’ve not been a mem­ber of the AHA in years. I read the jour­nal online via my uni­ver­sity, […]

  • I recently attended a conference in Chicago on the American Revolution. The purpose of the conference was to gather all of the authors of a new companion book to the revolution. It was the best conference I have ever been to and made me realize what is missing in other conferences.

    First of all, no one read their papers, and most papers were in draft form. So presenters talked about their thought processes, where they were stuck with sources, how they were trying to frame an argument and were worried they had failed. I don’t know how someone such as yourself would like this, but it was AMAZING for a graduate student to witness. It was collaborative history and debate – the internal worries, concerns, and questions of grad students presented openly by some of the best historians of the topic.

    The atmosphere was also very collegial. I quickly got over the “I’m just a grad student” feeling that most conferences give me when I realized that no one was keeping score. Although at the end of the conference, grad students were asked for their opinions on the essays and the project in general. I was completely shocked. Someone cared what we thought?

    This was a very unique conference, but it was also the best I’ve attended. It was less about out-arguing each other and more about working together. It was about history and not ego. Usually I leave a conference feeling physically and mentally exhausted. I left Chicago feeling invigorated and excited about my own research. THIS is what history is supposed to be!

  • Lynn, I think your experience would fit most people’s–the smaller conferences, organized around a specific topic, can be really great. I think that’s because the thing that gets people to the conference is actual interest in the subject, rather than the demands of professional hierarchy. I’m delighted to hear how well it went!

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