Why Have Academic Conferences?

One of the common experiences in academic life is attending conferences.  Setting aside conferences attended for the purpose of getting a job (a subject for another post), most conference attendees are there to give a paper and listen to papers.  The critiques against this model are many.  I want to look at some of them and then respond about why, ultimately, I think academic conferences are a good thing.

First, even if conferences do good, the cost is often extraordinary.  Flights (with their baggage fees), hotels, ground transport, expensive lunches (not because of faculty running up the bill but often just a function of limited food options), etc. all add up.  With universities looking to be especially conservative with their limited resources, it is hard to justify to administrators the cost of flying across America to present on your most recent findings in your specialty.

Second, all have heard of the story of a faculty member who didn’t really attend much of the conference at all except for their own paper and perhaps a friend’s.  One peril of having the Pacific APA, for example, in downtown San Francisco is that the city is often more interesting than what’s happening inside the hotel conference rooms.  It is hard to say that the cost is worth the benefit if what the university is really paying for is a faculty weekend vacation.  Even if the city isn’t interesting other duties such as grading and email compel one to spend more time in one’s hotel room than in the conference rooms.

Third, listening to papers is incredibly inefficient for everybody.  The best comments I have received on any of my papers have come from my colleagues in department colloquiums and anonymous referees.  I give better comments and questions when I read a paper and have time to write and think through my response.  Given that as a profession we are doing more of our interviews of candidates over Skype, philosophers aren’t allergic to electronic interaction.  In the relatively low stakes of a conference paper, it seems our focus on presenting in person is misguided.

Fourth, conferences as they are typically practiced bring out the worst in us.  It is not only job candidates who feel they are on display at the philosophy smoker at the APA East.  This feeling of being on display can cause us to be more aggressive in our questioning, less charitable in our interactions and more focused on our selves rather than on helping our colleagues and participating in a shared enterprise of pursuing truth.

Despite the above critique I’m excited about sending faculty to conferences and hosting the Third Annual Philosophy conference this March (www.hbu.edu/philosophyconference).  Let me try to resolve some of my cognitive dissonance here.

First, there are many great goods that can be had only by meeting in person.  One does not “hang out” over email and so projects that arise out of friendship are not likely to be started unless you give scholars a place to get to know one another.  Talking in person still is a great way to communicate with others and information is lost when we only rely on electronic means.  Its also hard to break out of your own patterns of thought and research if your only research space is your office.  It helps to be in a different geography among colleagues you are not used to so that you can have different ideas or see the same idea in a different way.

Second, the worries in the first part of this post can be mitigated by intentionally crafting a conference that aims to serve a community.  A conference should not be just a collection of miscellaneous papers.  One of the things we’ve done the last two years, and will do this year, is incorporate a worship service as part of our conference.  We are worshipful beings and in coming together to give glory to God in Belin Chapel (http://www.hbu.edu/About-HBU/The-Campus/Facilities/Morris-Cultural-Arts-Center/Belin-Chapel.aspx) we remind ourselves of the point of our scholarship and encourage one another as a Christian community.  Additionally, we’ve planned a meal on campus as part of the conference.  By building in the space for social interaction we help encourage the goods that come from in person contact.  Finally, we have carved out space each year for an undergraduate prize and presentations.  Loving our students is one of the most important activities of a university.  In providing mentoring opportunities as part of the conference we remind ourselves of that.  Further, very few things humble me as much as working with undergraduates.  There is something good for the soul about teaching and joining in our student’s struggle to understand.  I at least am a better person when I’m doing that compared to when I’m fretting about how I’m being perceived.  Note, there are many ways to serve a community and the ones above are just some of them.  For example, conferences that are “invite only” and intentionally designed to pursue a particular research question also serve a community and help mitigate the issues above.

Third, one must work to keep costs down both as an attendee of conferences and as host of a conference.  We owe those who fund the universities we work for, be it the taxpayer, the student, or the donor, our best stewardship.  There is no magic bullet to balancing the virtues and vices in, say, the publishing of a program in color or black and white.  Rather, I think we have to commit to being intentionally conservative with funds, to not just always think of money as an answer to an organizational challenge and, as conference goers, to choose wisely where we use our universities resources.

There is a place for the traditional academic conference in today’s higher education ecosystem.  I hope you’ll consider joining us at ours.  Abstract submissions for our conference are due Jan. 31 and more information can be found at hbu.edu/philosophyconference  We welcome papers from not only philosophy but from other disciplines such as theology, English literature, and history.

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