22 July 2017

Against Academic Conferences


There's a lot I love about academia — more than I dislike, or I wouldn't be about to start my 5th year toward a PhD — but it is an often vexing world, particularly to those of us who've spent a lot of time outside it. If you've never gotten outside the groves of academe, you're likely to internalize academic practices and not simply think that they're normal, but be utterly convinced that they're acceptable and even, perhaps, the only way to do things. Academic publishing, for instance, is even more whackadoodle bonkers and exploitative than trade publishing, and back in the days when I only knew the world of trade publishing, I wouldn't have thought such a thing was possible. Most academic publishing makes trade publishing look positively noble, generous, and big-hearted.

A recent piece by Pamela L. Gay on "The Unacknowledged Costs of Academic Travel" got me thinking once again about one of the things I most dislike in academic life: traveling to conferences.


Generally, the stuff I dislike about academia could fall into one of two (potentially overlapping) categories: neoliberalism and the logic of the winners. (I know the term neoliberalism is controversial, condemned as vague and meaningless, but it doesn't have to be vague and it certainly isn't meaningless. It is a bit clunky, though. Call the thing it points to whatever you want — rampant economism or the logic of the business class or arugula — I don't care, but there is a there there.) The logic of the winners is what I'll focus on here, because academic conferences are a perfect example of Things Winners Like So Much They Insist Everybody Must Like Them.

Winners are people with academic jobs that pay a living wage, people with tenure, people with power over academic decision-making, people who sit on hiring committees and on promotion & tenure committees, people with travel budgets. They often don't feel like winners, because unless they're the president of Harvard or something like that, there's always a bigger winner up above them, but don't be fooled. If you have an academic job that covers all of your living expenses (if not your mound of student debt), you are a winner.

I'm sure there are winners who don't like academic conferences, but lots of them do, or else conferences wouldn't be such a central part of academic life. In an age when we can instantly share our work with each other, when we can zap our video image across the world, when anybody with an internet connection can set up a website and publish just about anything, there's no great need for academics to get together and read papers at each other, as they do in my discipline. The scholarship can be shared and discussed otherwise.

Some people might enjoy the social aspects of conferencing, and good for them. I'm not here to condemn them. If you've got the spare money to travel and you want to go have fun with your academic friends at some convention center somewhere, see a new city, splurge on a few nice dinners or a few too many overpriced cocktails, go for it! YOLO!

But don't make it mandatory. Don't judge people's CVs by how many conference papers they've presented. Don't create an expectation that to be a good academic we must all join the jet set.

In my experience, conferences are mostly a waste of time and money. I admit that might just be me, or mostly just me. I'm something of an introvert, I am often socially awkward, and I am usually anxious around people I don't know well. All bad things for a conference-goer, though not insurmountable challenges. If more conferences were dependably worthwhile, I wouldn't worry about it so much, I'd suck it up, I'd deal with the little obstacles and annoyances for the sake of the bigger stuff. But conferences are not dependably worthwhile — they are dependably not worthwhile — and they require serious investments of time and money.

The first academic conference I went to as an academic — that is, with the goal of presenting research — was a gigantic popular culture conference almost ten years ago now. It was nearby and friends of mine were going, and I'd never tried to go to such a thing before, and I decided I'd give it a shot. I was so excited when my paper got accepted! Wow, maybe I am a scholar, I thought! This is the world for me! They like me, they really like me!

What I discovered when we got there was that this conference probably doesn't reject any papers. There were an uncountable amount of papers and presentations scheduled into all sorts of concurrent tracks. The panel I was on was scheduled at the same time as the keynote speaker, a famous Hollywood guy who probably charged the conference tens of thousands of dollars to be there. They could pay him tens of thousands of dollars because they accepted so many papers and everybody attending paid a lot of money in conference fees. A pretty good scam.

I had toiled over my paper, creating a gigantic Powerpoint presentation to accompany it so people would have something to look at other than boring old me. The day came and I arrived at the panel, where a couple of grad students, I (an adjunct teacher at that point), and a faculty member of some sort presented to a room in which my three friends and a couple of other people kindly listened to us. One of the papers was so incoherent and off-base that I remember its awfulness to this day. The others were fine. Mine was naive but okay, I suppose, for a first attempt.

My most recent conference (this spring) was a smaller one, fairly specific in its focus. The panel I was on was scheduled in the first session: Thursday at 1pm. The conference was at a big urban university, one of the most famous in the world. I arrived and found the registration desk, which was a table in a corner of a hallway. I checked in and picked up the registration materials. I wandered around, looking for the room where my panel would be, then finally returned to the registration desk to ask for directions. Nobody at the registration table knew where my panel location was because none of them were from this university. They asked around, though. It turned out that my panel was in a building about a quarter mile away, maybe farther. I went searching for it with the help of Google Maps, found the building, discovered the room we were in was on a third floor accessible only by one particular elevator, around a corner or two, somewhere past a ceramics studio. Nobody from the conference had thought to post signs anywhere.

Finally, I got to the room, and our panel of four participants and one moderator presented to an audience of three people (two of them friends of the moderator, who had cajoled them to come by).

In each of these cases, for the privilege of presenting work to tiny audiences, I paid conference fees and travel expenses. For the first conference long ago, I actually got reimbursed for some of it, because there were modest travel funds for adjuncts that hardly ever got used, and I happened to know about them. For the second conference, I paid everything myself because I'd already maxed out my travel funding to go to the MLA Conference in Philadelphia. It was nearby, so I just took the bus there and back for the day ($32 roundtrip, plus subway fare), but the conference fee and required membership in the professional organization came to over $100. That's about as inexpensive as it gets in academic conferencing. (Don't ask what I've paid to travel farther afield.)

But at least I've got those lines on my CV. They look nice and impressive and don't include the information that hardly any people were in the audience.

The winners who run the professional organizations don't care that their conferences are as likely as not to be useless, because they get their money — they require you to join the organization and subscribe to the journal and pay the conference fee. (If you're a grad student, sometimes they'll even reduce costs to the great bargain of $75 instead of $150!) If you're a winner, this doesn't seem burdensome, because you've got a good salary and/or a slushfund to pay for it. No big deal.

And we all get to contribute to the advancement of knowledge!

Do we? Honestly, I would do more to advance knowledge by posting my research as a Facebook status update, even with all the algorithmical shenanigans that keep most people from seeing such things. Alas, Facebook status updates don't count on the CV.

This is not to say that all of my conference experiences have been terrible. I wrote here about the joy of being part of a seminar on Jane Marcus at the Modernist Studies Association conference a few years ago. An International Virginia Woolf Society conference I attended 20 years ago influenced work I'm still doing today, even though I only attended as a volunteer worker because I happened to be working that summer at the campus bookstore where the conference was held. I've enjoyed some panels at MLA conferences I've attended. I've had fun hanging out with friends and chatting about our interests.

Other conferences shall not be spoken of. (Remind me again why I drove the 10 hours to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to present a paper to a handful of people who didn't know or care anything about anything I was presenting on? I met a couple of nice folks and had a good meal or two, but...)

Though I enjoyed my time at the Modernist Studies Association conference and the long-ago Woolf conference, I've never been to another of either because in recent years they've always been too far away, too expensive. If I'm lucky, I can get about $400/year from my university for travel, drawing money from both the English Department and the Graduate School. That's enough for a conference in New England.

("Scrounge!" the winners tell us. "I remember the days of living on granola bars and sharing hostel rooms with seven other people and walking three miles through snow to get to the conference center! Ohhh, I miss grad school!" the winners say. "I'll trade places with you!" I say, and they go silent.)

I've had (a few) good experiences and (mostly) mediocre experiences and (occasionally) bad experiences at conferences, but I can think of only one panel or presentation that I've ever seen that seemed to me actually necessary, useful, and productive. It was at the MLA convention a few years back, and various scholars of various levels spoke about the term "global anglophone" as it is used in job listings. It was illuminating because so many people shared a real diversity of information and many different experiences, and in conversation together they discovered things they would not have discovered otherwise. It was a vital discussion trying to figure out the place of global/world/postcolonial literatures in the US academy, it felt like a great beginning to something, but it's not a discussion I've seen developed into more public work, which is a shame. (Perhaps it was stuff they wouldn't want to say more openly, for fear of repercussions from administrators, search committees, etc. It's also possible that my feeling that the conversation was vital was not shared, and that's why nobody has apparently gone on to write about the topic and develop the information further. Or I may have simply missed a large body of work that came out of the panel. Or perhaps, given how slow academic publishing works, there's a special issue of a journal in preparation coming from this very panel, and it will appear sometime before the youngest member of the panel is eligible for retirement.)

Previously, I've privately shared my feelings about conferences with people more senior in academia than I, and they've almost always been surprised and sometimes quite hostile in response. Sometimes, the response is along the lines of, "Yeah, it sucks, but if you want an academic job, you've got to do the conferences," but now and then it seems I've spoken a terrible blasphemy and offended some core ideal, and they make great claims for the ways conferences advance knowledge and provide the opportunity to network and allow us to interact with the great minds of our day and and and—

But I can't help feeling when such folks get onto their soapbox and lecture me about the sanctity of the conference scam system that they are either pining for a lost age (fondling their well-stroked copy of The Structuralist Controversy — o child, you do not remember when we sat at the feet of Jacques and Roland and Tzvetan, o be still my throbbing nostalgia!) or are otherwise blinded by their own status as a winner.

Or maybe somewhere deep down in their ivy-covered heart they realize that this is a wasteful system, and they feel some guilt at their own good luck within such a wasteful system, and their annoyance at my questioning the wastefulness of this system is the off-gassing of their repressed recognition that yes, they are winners in a system that steals money, time, and energy from the rest of us.

Yes, it's true, some people who aren't (yet) winners are good at striking up random conversations, at drawing attention to themselves, at hobnobbing and asskissing, and they may thus find a few people to edit an anthology with, or they might get invited to submit to a secret special issue of a journal, or they might chat with an editor who invites them to submit a book proposal (it's happened to me! then said editor realized I didn't have a PhD yet and told me to go away!) — or they might even, if they're doggone super-lucky, meet a group of people with whom they can create a panel proposal for another conference.

Despite my sarcasm and occasional bitterness, I recognize that those conference-based achievements can be good things. But are conferences the only way to make them happen? Are they the only means by which we can do things so important that we must make conferences a major part of CVs, hiring, and promotion?

Must we continue to pretend that it is useful — indeed, imperative — for people to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on conference fees and travel to read a paper at 3 people for 20 minutes?


Update: Pamela Gay's post in particular seems to have sparked a lot of conversation, and Inside Higher Ed has a roundup. (Hello to folks finding this blog from there. I am usually more temperate and less sarcastic than I was in this post, but this is what happens when I write quickly...)