Thinking about conferences as places for thinking

In this post, Richard Ashcroft reflects on the shortcomings of academic conferences. 


 

For a long time, I have been doing my work without going to conferences. Like going to bed early, this is perhaps why I do a lot of reflecting on (academic) life rather than participating in it. In the first half of my academic career I used to go to conferences a lot. But I now have very mixed feelings about them. Here I want to explore some of the reasons why I find conferences problematic.

Let me start by saying why I used to go to so many. In part this was because there was a time when I went to none at all. When I was a graduate student I was fortunate enough to be at a university which was considered a destination for the world’s academics, where famous names and rising stars would come on sabbatical, or for short visits, and where there was an almost continual stream of guest lectures and invited papers and seminars and symposia on pretty much any academic topic of interest. I was in a large and thriving department which had academic staff and graduate students from all around the world. In this environment of often heated discussion, I had a strong sense of high stakes and intellectual challenge. I’ve never known anything quite like it, before or since.

In this context I had very little need or desire to go to conferences. But this was not only because I believed that it was pointless to go there to get what I could already have here. Other factors were in play. One was that I had a feeling that graduate students were not really welcome at conferences. They were for the “grown-ups”. Although these might very well be many of the same grown-ups I saw in my university, I believed that conferences were where they went to be among their peers; all sorts of stuff would be discussed and argued about which were “not suitable for children”. It isn’t that I thought they were up to “campus novel” shenanigans – who knows, maybe some of them were – more a sense of there being a hierarchy whose boundaries it would be unwise to trespass across. Another important factor was that, status or shyness problems aside, no funding was available for graduate students to attend conferences. When some of us did go, the options were either to win a scarce and highly competitive travel grant, or to be somehow subsidised by an academic with a grant or other funding (patronage, in effect), or to be self-funding. And even in those halcyon days of grants and good employment prospects for newly minted PhDs, those of us without family money were generally skint. In all of these ways – good and bad – the conference system was a good reflection of the academic world more generally. Both self-satisfied and anxious, both obsessed with networking and with putting barriers in the way of networking, both a republic of letters and a highly stratified and economically unequal feudal system.

In the succeeding 20 or so years some things have improved. I think that today more support is available for graduates to attend conferences, it is considered more important for them to do so in terms both of networking and career development, and in terms of intellectual exchange. And my impression is that academic life has become somewhat less feudal and hierarchical, at least in the humanities. But perhaps I would say that, from the comfort of my professorial chair. Nonetheless I think the conference system itself has changed very little. When I first started going to conferences I was terribly excited. Partly this was sheer excitement at joining the wider academic community: I would be presenting my work to people who had never heard it before; I would get useful feedback; my ideas would be tested by tough (but, I hoped, fair) criticisms; I would get questions which might make me think again about some things, or open up new questions and new lines for research; I would meet like-minded people working on similar (but, I hoped, not exactly the same) things. I might even make some new friends. I was also a bit afraid – that my presenting style would be bad, or I would mismanage my time, or that I would not be able to deal with questions, or that the wider academic community would think I was a bit of a berk. With one exception, when, I can confirm, I really was both out of my intellectual depth and a bit of a berk, my experience was indeed generally positive. However, even in the honeymoon period of my relationship with conferences, I had reasons for disquiet.

Conferences are good places to see academic tribalism and status games at first hand. Time and again I have seen cadres of staff and students from well-known and prestigious departments move around en bloc, largely keeping to themselves and making critical comments about both individuals who don’t have such a cadre, because they come from a less well known institution, and about cadres from other institutions seen as “the competition”. The framing of these comments is often in terms of “who’s good” and who isn’t, and about method (“we” do these things the right way and “they” don’t). I’ve seen senior academics hold court, and I’ve seen senior academics snub people because they are low status, or because their PhD supervisor is someone the senior academic is having a feud with. I’ve seen graduate students seek out academic “stars” merely to be able to say that they have met (and sometimes, so that they can then ask for a favour later on, on the ground that they’ve met).bmwqyy6ceaauz9t

None of this is particularly surprising; humans do what humans do, wherever humans are gathered in numbers. But it is not the normative story we tell ourselves about conferences. That story is about conferences being a place where status is left at the door, where there is a free exchange of ideas, where the republic of letters is made flesh. But even if we have an unusually egalitarian and open-minded collection of academics, and even if everyone is polite and respectful, there are still structural things which make conferences frequently dispiriting affairs.

Conferences are expensive. They are expensive to put on; and this usually means they are expensive to attend. They are expensive to put on because even small conferences need a large, well-serviced room, with support staff, audio-visual aids, refreshments and so on. They can require booking systems, payment collection systems, arrangements with accommodation providers (hotels or university halls), and travel partners. International conferences might need translation services. These are minimum requirements. If the organisers take equality and diversity seriously – as they should – then there are access and communication support needs, childcare, and support for accompanying adults. A meeting of any complexity usually needs a professional conference organiser. Now it is possible to reduce the direct costs of all this – especially if it is hosted by a university, which will have many of these services as a matter of course. But this does not make real cost reductions – it simply transfers them either to indirect costs, or it transfers them to simple exploitation. Student helpers, acting unpaid, so that they can “benefit from attending at the conference”. Because as everyone knows, sitting at the registration stand for hours on end really does benefit your research. And every academic who comes along to register is actually there to hear about your draft chapter. As if. Of course cost savings can be made, and it’s possible to have a lean and thrifty and thoroughly successful meeting. But this does depend a bit on managing delegates’ expectations (yes, we have a visitor programme – it’s called a bus, you pay the driver and he takes you where you want to go, if it’s on his route). And it also depends on the birthday party principle: we absorb the cost of the party (conference) because we know that we will get to go to other parties hosted by others when it is their turn. But it can be hard to persuade a Faculty Dean to underwrite the cost of a conference on this basis. The Faculty or university absorbs the cost, and conference hosting can be a significant financial risk, but sees little of the benefit. It has to decide that the benefits in terms of reputation and staff job satisfaction and graduate recruitment are worth it, and a better investment than other uses of that money. Some conferences can attract external support, from a learned society or funding body or occasionally charitable or even commercial support. But these all come with quid pro quo’s and are not easy to get. And sometimes that external support will anger and alienate a significant proportion of the delegates (which is why bioethics conferences rarely, if ever, seek support from the pharmaceutical industry).

The cost of conferences is therefore transferred, so far as possible, to the delegates. There is no right to attend a conference, in the sense of it being a positive entitlement. That said many conference organisers do try to help some delegates overcome cost barriers to attendance – bursaries for students, which may offset some part or even the whole of the registration fee. Differential fees according to income bracket, early career status, or country of origin are often tried. Nonetheless all of these things are imperfect – the link to affordability is crude at best, registrants are expected to be honest about their income or career or country-of-residence status, bursaries are usually few and not necessarily awarded to the most in need or most deserving, and so on. And rarely do any of these fee structures apply to accommodation or travel. Travel grants can exist, but they are hard to get. Conference costs might be low, if the conference is in a low-to-middle-income country, but that tends to mean travel costs are higher, and the costs of the conference are never as low as they might be given that the expectations of international delegates have to be met.

An expensive conference to host; an expensive conference to attend. Who pays for all this? As noted, mostly the costs will come from the delegate herself. But this favours the delegate who has a high disposable income, or a generous conference allowance from her employer, or research grants which cover conference attendance, or a departmental subsidy from her employer. Some employers will just give all academic staff (and sometimes graduate students) an allowance which they can use at their discretion; most require the would-be delegate to explain why attendance at this particular conference is necessary. This may be because it would involve absence from ordinary duties (occasionally it may involve political considerations as well). But it will usually involve some justification on the basis of its academic importance. What in practice this usually means is – you can go if you are giving a paper.

There are lots of reasons to go to conferences which don’t involve giving a paper. I will discuss some of these below. But giving a paper is increasingly the minimum requirement for a funder or employer to cover the cost of an academic’s attendance. In my view this is disastrous. Either you have a cap on the number of papers, which excludes many people who might otherwise come from being able (or willing) to do so. Applying that cap will, very likely, involve all those lovely implicit biases in publication which we love so much – so we end up with the usual people giving the usual papers on the usual topics in the usual ways.

As an aside, invited keynote speakers are often the worst case here: Prof. X always says the same things, because Prof. X hasn’t done original work in years, and also because Prof. X has been invited to attract delegates who haven’t yet heard Prof. X give his (usual) speech and he likes to “play the hits”. And the organisers know this, but have invited him not because he’s brilliant or original but because this is all part of the circuits of favours and marketing.

So let’s not cap the number papers (and not have invited keynotes). We won’t just accept all paper proposals – we will have a peer review process to select only those which meet our expectations about quality and relevance to the conference theme. Oh dear. Here come the implicit biases again. In addition, there’s the problem that when most of us write conference abstracts they are more in the nature of a plan for work we hope to do between now and the conference. We might do the work, and find that we don’t think on the day of the conference what we thought on the day of the submission of the abstract. Or we might not do the work. And either way, the conference is not getting what it was promised. And it might well be getting something as good or better than what was promised, or it might be getting ill-digested, under-prepared, banal rubbish. Ok, now suppose our filter is reliable. We still have far too many papers for everyone to get to give the full length seminar paper we’d all like to give in an ideal world. What do we do? We have parallel sessions. And we cut the length of the papers so as to fit the conference timetable. And what do we now have? A shambles.

It is 11:30. Or rather it isn’t, it’s 11:40 because the last session finished late and morning coffee has overrun. We have to fit four papers in before 13:00. Each of those has now lost 5 minutes. We can reduce the question time at the end of each, or maybe we just have a single question time for all the papers together. So each paper, either way, gets even less discussion time than before. One of the speakers is giving her paper in his or her second or third language, and this slows her down. It’s not her fault but there it is. One of the speakers drones on and one for 5 minutes beyond his allotted time, because the chair can’t get him to shut up; he’s a junior colleague who doesn’t know the topic but has been drafted in because the person who was supposed to chair is actually giving a paper in the other parallel session. She’s doing this because her co-author is ill and couldn’t come to the conference, pulling out at the last minute. It’s no one’s fault, and it can’t be helped. Half the audience walk out half way through because they are off to the other session to hear their friend, a fellow PhD student, give a paper and he needs moral support. I have seen very bad papers which are obviously and irredeemably unpublishable; but I have also seen senior professors humiliate graduate students who are presenting work in progress and need a bit of mentoring. And so on. I am not exaggerating – this is normal. There is very little obvious “bad behaviour” here. It’s structural. The conference is badly designed; and I don’t mean this particular conference – I mean the conference-as-we-know-it.

In effect, for structural and economic reasons, we have a formal requirement on delegates (that they each be giving a paper, or have other sources of funding) which excludes many (most?) people who could usefully attend, and destroys the substantive rationale for having the conference in the first place – which, ostensibly, is to allow the presentation of papers and discussion of their merits and interconnections. I have been in parallel sessions in which the only people present were the chair and the speakers. I have also been in keynote speaker sessions in which there were 800 people in the audience. For different reasons, in neither case did we get the interactive, multi-party discussion we tend to think the conference is there to generate.

Having said this, the conference can produce other benefits. For instance, after hearing Prof. X burble on about his hobby horse for 40 minutes, for the second time in as many years,  I had several enjoyable chats with my peers over drinks about how Prof. X was past it, how scandalous it was that he’d been given a platform again, how he and his colleagues seem oblivious to any work outside his own self-referential bubble and so on. This kind of conversation, though unworthy of us, unscholarly, and vicious in all sorts of ways, did go some way toward building affective bonds of community. It is arguably this that conferences do best. Conferences bring people together who might not otherwise have met; and it also brings people together who do tend to meet only at conferences. Some of my oldest academic friends and interlocutors are people I have met at conferences. This has enriched my life, and also my work, though I think it has done so in that order. Conferences can give you a sort of oil check on the what’s going on in the field and whether it is running smoothly. They are an opportunity to meet potential new colleagues and collaborators, and some conferences are effectively hiring fairs.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if we got rid of the papers altogether and met anyway. Some mid-points between that and the status quo do exist – meetings in which papers are pre-circulated and only introduced very briefly just to prime discussion (these tend to be small workshops rather than conferences, however, and that’s a very different animal). Or “poster sessions”, though these are, it is generally held, bad mechanisms for communicating discursive argument. They can work perfectly well for formal arguments however. Indeed, if you can put it in a PowerPoint presentation, you can put it on a poster. Since so many people just read out their damn’ slides anyway… But poster presentations are despised by many, and they feel insulted if they are asked to give a poster instead of a paper. Yet done well, a poster can bring people together for precisely the kind of intimate discussion of detail which is impossible in the 5 minute Q&A after the sainted 20 minute paper. There are no timing problems, no problem if people want to come and go, no problem if you think of your question five minutes after the session is over or want to ask another. Still, a lot of people (at least in philosophy and applied ethics) are decidedly chippy about flying 10 hours and spending thousands of pounds to go and stand next to a laminated sheet of A0 and hope someone stops to talk to them. And, more importantly, a lot of departments would refuse to fund such a trip.

So much for the people who actually get to the conference. Who’s left? Practically everybody. I’ve stressed the cost barrier. But the geographical problems go well beyond price – time is a scarce resource for everyone, and even if you could give up the four days for the conference, two days either side for travel are a serious obstacle.  Then we have a centre/periphery problem, or what we might call geographical moral luck. As I said, I was very fortunate in where I did my graduate studies – I didn’t really have to travel, as people would pretty much come to us. But this confirms a particularly insidious kind of arrogance: because we were where (some of) the action was, we could tend to assume that whatever action there was, was where we were. And our location, both geographical and intellectual, would be assumed to be normative for everyone else. Hence the unlovely sight of British and North American universities claiming some special role in addressing Grand Challenges in Global Health; an imperial mentalité which just doesn’t seem to be dying away. There is an elision between being in possession of the financial and technological capital, being historically responsible for much of the world’s current political and economic condition, and being in possession of moral insight into and authority over “what is to be done.” The conference system perpetuates this. Oh, and it does its bit for global warming too. Adversely.

Who else doesn’t get to go to conferences? Two obvious groups: those who are effectively disabled by the conference system (Deaf people and people with mobility impairments, to name but two groups of people). And those who have other responsibilities for others. Some of the biggest and most important conferences are hosted at the most family-unfriendly times of year – in North America there is a particular practice of holding meetings between Christmas and New Year, conferences which it is effectively obligatory to attend if you are either hiring or being hired – which is everyone. Because who is not either looking for a job, or looking for students or junior staff?

Conferences – for all their flaws and for all their kinds of mechanism of exclusion – attract a particular kind of presenteeism. There is a strong academic version of the Fear of Missing Out. Apart from the social media plague of all your peers posting selfies in smart restaurants with all their (and your) friends having a great time while you are at home unblocking drains and sitting in curriculum design meetings, there is a sense that your work will go unread, and lose currency, if you don’t make an appearance at the conference to remind people that you exist. One solution to this is to chip in while they live tweet or post on Facebook and Instagram, making sardonic remarks. This works for me, but not so much if you are a beginning graduate student who nobody knows and who has to maintain a reputation for being bright, promising and a good potential colleague. Many people have written about the difficulty of combining home and academic life and staying sane. The long hours culture in academe is becoming notorious, and the effect this has on people’s hiring, promotion and tenure, and salaries, is much debated. What I want to highlight here is that if your family life is in any way complicated, then going to conferences becomes much more difficult, and if it is a requirement (either soft, in terms of maintaining reputation in the field and awareness of what’s going on outside the restricted domain of publications, or hard, in terms of it being obligatory in one’s job role), then there is a structural injustice: conferences disadvantage you.

In conclusion: the conference, as we know it, is broken. It can be fun. It can be a context for genuine discussion and enlightenment, for sharing new ideas, for meeting interesting colleagues, for challenge and reflection. But in my view it currently does these things by chance and accident, and its design inhibits, rather than facilitates these things. I don’t know anyone who actually likes conferences. The people I know who go to most conferences seem to do so mainly so they can write their papers in airport lounges, those liminal spaces where they may not have a mobile signal and can be left in peace. This gives me a clue to why they continue: conferences are precisely a holiday from normal rules, they are a perfect excuse not to be doing something else we may be under an obligation to do normally. But just because they are sometimes a remedy for problems elsewhere, doesn’t mean they aren’t equally sick in their own way.

 

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3 thoughts on “Thinking about conferences as places for thinking

  1. Reblogged this on Tom Hewitt – PhD Research Blog and commented:
    Since I shall (with a fair following wind) be submitting my PhD thesis next year at the age of 60, I am immune to many of the pressures faced by senior academics and ECRs alike which Richard Ashcroft describes here. I’m not looking to pursue a career in the groves of academe and so I am lucky enough to follow my nose in terms of future research. But his description of the “conference-as-we-know-it” rings true. Perhaps our time is better spent sailing… or at the cricket!

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  2. This is some excellent excellence. I have largely stopped attending conferences since I no longer see the point. I live in Johannesburg with a young family so travel has to be worthwhile. However, I do travel for “tours” where I give a talk at as many regional departments as I can arrange. This is much more beneficial for me, both for feedback and for reputation/career, but obviously means I don’t get to listen to other people. I have often wondered how one might be able to create the “true conference” where people really reflect on things. Small subject-specific workshops can do this – some are great, and if there are only 8-12 of you then all can give papers. But they are usually a closed shop and not accessible to the uninitiated. Perhaps we should have a conference on conferences?

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  3. This precisely mirrors my own experience. These problems are can also be linked to University administrations, which automatically count conference attendance for things like promotion and tenure, but would never count (let alone authorize funds for) participation in a working group of graduate students and faculty. Philosophy departments who truly value deep and diverse scholarship must work as actively as we can to craft and utilize better P&T criteria.

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