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.