U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Conference Panel as Academic Technology

As a member of this year’s USIH conference committee, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking in recent months about what makes academic conferences work.  Thanks to vast changes in digital technology, scholars have many more ways to share work than we did even fifteen years ago. Yet I think most of us continue to find academic conferences, at least well focused and organized ones, very valuable.  For me at least, the explosion in methods of communicating ideas with each other has helped me better distinguish what conferences offer that we don’t get  from journals, blogs, listservs, social media, YouTube and the many other methods of scholarly transmission. 

What distinguishes conferences, at least good ones, from these other, often newer, technologies, is the exchange of ideas that takes at them. The first ingredient of this exchange is interesting people doing interesting work in areas of mutual interest. Good conferences attract such people as both participants and attendees. Often they’re sharing work that is in its earliest, most protean form. And though exchanges take place not only in sessions, but outside of them–over lunch, dinner, and drinks–the life of a good conference should be the panels themselves.

The best panels feature interesting individual projects that somehow speak to each other and a respondent who is able to somehow tie them together. But most important of all, I think, is the discussion that follows the papers and the response. After all, many of the other technologies that I mentioned work fine as means of exchanging papers.  We can even watch whole conferences on YouTube these days. But we still need to be in the room to participate fully in that discussion.*

I’ve been meaning to blog a bit on the panel as an academic technology, in part because of a post by Paul Campos entitled “Why Do People Read Papers at Conferences?” that appeared several weeks ago on Lawyers, Guns, and Money, one of my favorite semi-academic blogs.**  Campos decried the practice of reading conference papers and received overwhelming agreement from his commentariat on this point.

I, however, want to mount at least a semi-defense of reading conference papers.

We’ve all had the experience of sitting in the audience as someone reads a conference paper badly.  We’ve all experienced papers that weren’t written to be read out loud, that were wildly too long (leading to their being cut on the fly or, what’s worse, simply taking up way more than the allotted time), or that were simply delivered in a way that was entirely soporific. A conference paper is a theatrical form, and like any piece of theatre, it can be badly written or performed. With that much I agree.

But reading from a prepared text makes sense for a variety of reasons. It makes it more likely that complicated ideas will be communicated precisely. Due to their brief length, conference papers require more concision than journal articles or books. Due to their oral presentation, they require even greater clarity of expression.  Writing down one’s remarks in advance makes both of these things more likely. Moreover a conference paper written-to-be-delivered is one of the few ways to assure that the panel’s respondent will be commenting on what the audience will actually have heard.

Now it should also be said that history is somewhat different from other fields when it comes to the significance of conference papers. More than any other discipline, historians tend to focus on producing books. A paper, even a published journal article, is very often part of a much longer work. In the sciences, hard social sciences, and even some other humanities, academic papers play a more important role as scholarly end products.  My sense is that in many of these other fields, conference papers are, almost by definition, shorter versions of longer scholarly papers, rather than stand-alone think pieces or parts of much larger projects.  My guess is this fact plays a role in how especially unpopular the practice of reading conference papers is outside of our discipline.

A final thought on the conference panel:  what I think of as the standard conference session–three (sometimes four) papers followed by a comment and discussion from the audience–is an incredibly entrenched format.

For as long as I’ve been attending scholarly conferences (which is now over twenty years), conferences have attempted to encourage scholars to present their work in non-traditional formats.***  This year’s USIH conference committee tried to encourage such formats.  But other than a couple brown bags and a handful of roundtables (two of the more traditional alternative formats), nobody took us up on the suggestion.****

So despite occasionally griping about the format, historians, at least, seem fairly wedded to the traditional conference panel.

What do you see as the upsides and downsides of conference, panels and papers (read aloud or otherwise)?  What makes a conference a valuable experience?  How might we improve the format of conferences in the future?
* And, no, I don’t think even live teleconferencing provides the same experience.  Intellectual discussions are fundamentally embodied things. The really experience the best such discussions, you need to be in the room.

** The writers on LGM are all academics, but the focus of the blog is usually not academic.

*** In the early ’90s, poster sessions seemed to be very popular. I never understood the point of these for most historical projects. 

**** I’ve always been a fan of session which discuss pre-circulated papers. This is the format of Princeton’s Davis Seminar.  In many ways, it distills what’s best about conferences, turning the entire session into an intensive exchange of ideas. It also allows for the discussion of longer works of scholarship than a conference paper. Its main downside is that those who fail to read the paper in advance are largely left out of the conversation. I would have loved to have one or more such sessions at USIH 2011, but none were proposed.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Reading academic papers is fine because arguments need to be precise rather than sloppy and off the cuff. However, for the most part, presentation skills are very low at most conferences. I think it reflects badly on our profession. No wonder we don’t get asked to comment more in the public square. Can we work on our presentation skills? Speech 101.

  2. It is possible to read prepared remarks in a way that is engaging, and it’s possible to speak from an outline in a way that will stultify people where they sit. Presentation skills training might be of some small help, but that training can’t redeem a badly conceived conference paper — a paper that is too intricate, or too broad in scope, or that tries to do too much at once. Twenty minutes is ten or at the most 12 pages if you read in a hurry (please don’t!) — not a lot of space for a highly complex argument, and maybe not the best venue for such an argument. Those time limitations make care, precision and piquancy all the more important — no time to backtrack, hem and haw, or cast about for a way to connect with your drifting audience. So for the most part I think that reading prepared remarks is probably the sensible thing to do. However, “sensible” and “interesting” don’t always go together. But they can.

    And Ben is right — the considerate thing to do is to deliver at the conference the same paper that you sent out ahead of time to your panel chair and fellow panelists. Of course, they might not be equally considerate — there’s nothing like busting your rear to get your conference paper to your fellow panelists three weeks ahead of time and waiting (in vain) for them to send you their papers. That’s right up there with preparing a paper to fit in with the focus of a panel and then having one of your co-panelists be a no-show because s/he couldn’t get a paper written in time. Always a thrill.

  3. I used to think there was something wrong with me because I enjoyed the traditional format of history conference panels–where three people read papers, to be commented on by a fourth. I thought there was something wrong with me because everyone always said reading papers is such a poor means of communicating ideas, or, wouldn’t a non-traditional format be more compelling. But eventually I learned to quit worrying and love the history conference panel.

  4. I find the process of distilling a complicated idea into a conference paper to be a valuable form. Because I do value the theatrical part of conference presentations, I work really hard to communicate exactly what I mean in those seven pages. In other forums, I tend to be long winded.

    The thing I hate about conferences is when I work that hard on a paper and there is one person in the room to comment on it. I’ve rarely had good comments on my papers from the audience, but the very experience of writing a conference paper has been useful.

  5. This is an interesting post, especially as just a few minutes ago I was commenting on another blog that was extolling the virtues of urban neighborhoods as communities–not just houses existing side by side. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

    What I think we need to recall is that an academic discipline is a community of scholars. Like any community, we need to be able to talk with each other and to interact in order to be able to function as such. While technologies such as the print journal (dating from at least the 19th century, in the American context) or the internet (late-20th), have allowed us to expand the size of the scholarly sphere, or to create a larger “republic of letters,” I do not think that they can replace the act of being in the same physical space as other scholars. When we come together in one place, we can talk to each other, and even read body language, in a way that we can’t when we are writing/reading or speaking through a telecommunications device.

    It is also at those times that we can remember that other scholars are not just names on a page, or mere generators of printed words. Or, for that matter, faces on a screen. Rather, they are real human beings who exist in a world that is not entirely consumed by ideas. When I am stuck in my basement office, I feel like a grunt in the trenches; but at a well-organized and thought-provoking conference, when I get to hear people discussing their work, I get excited to learn new things and am reminded of why I got into this profession in the first place. In some cases, the tone of a question or a response can even indicate just how important a particular topic is to the community. Is this just a ho-hum matter, or is it something that is invigorating many of us?

    I also find it exciting, say, to see a “big-name” historian presenting her ideas at a conference in a way I had never seen (or heard) when they were on a written page. As a young scholar, I find that in many cases (although not all), established scholars seem much more approachable when they are people talking, not just a name or a collection of words and ideas sandwiched between book covers.

    By the same token, in the past I have found it liberating to see an “eminent” historian dripping food on his tie as he slurps wine at a conference reception, or wearing a suit that was last fashionable when his “groundbreaking” book came out 35 years ago, or making a small-minded and semi-incoherent rant at the end of a conference panel. It was at those times that I realized that maybe that person’s ideas weren’t as unassailable as I had once thought they were. Maybe, just maybe, there is room for mere mortals in the academy. (This is especially relevant to someone, such as myself, who is from a working-class background and had barely ever met a professor until my first week of college.)

    That said, your point about delivery is spot on. The conference paper, because it is presented in person, to other people (not readers), needs to be conveyed in a way that listeners can understand it. The same way you would write and rewrite your book or article several times, do the same with your conference paper. But with a paper that is meant to be read aloud, read it aloud as you are writing it. When revising, try to rewrite it in the same kind of language that you use when you speak. That way even if you end up reading the paper (which I usually do, because otherwise I will state things imprecisely or start talking in circles), it doesn’t necessarily sound like you are reading. This is also an effective way of writing lectures, I have discovered.

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