Here we are once again, another national conference. I’m waiting out a three hour delay on my first flight with the second rescheduled, so fingers crossed. And let’s not even get started about the return trip. I don’t want to curse my luck that badly!
Tell me again why we do this? I mean I understand it’s a professional obligation. It’s part of my job to go to conferences. So I suppose the short answer is that it’s just another onerous, unproductive part of the academic bureaucracy, another holdover from a past century. I guess that’s enough of an answer. After all, we all have stupid things we need to do as part our jobs. So as I sit in this terminal at least I can console myself with the fact that I’m getting paid.
But let’s try to summon up the fantasy of academic freedom one last time and imagine that we could actually set the terms of what we considered valuable in terms of scholarly work.
There are two obvious alternatives to the national conference meatspace meetspace. The first is the fully online conference. We stay home. We do videoconferencing to discuss papers/presentation that are posted online. The second option really just adds the dimension of a regional meet-up (i.e. something you could comfortably drive to and maybe not even need a hotel). E.g., maybe there’s a 3-4 day conference with 1 or 2 days where people get together.
What would be the point of adding that part? I don’t know. What’s the point of a meatspace meetspace? The short answer is socializing. It’s certainly not the presentations or the discussion following the presentations, which, for whatever value you can attribute to them, can easily be replicated online. So the value all lies in the informal dimensions of the conference: the serendipity of meeting a stranger who shares your research interests and becomes a new colleague/collaborator; catching up with colleagues; and maybe some esprit de corps of being surrounded by so many people in your discipline. It’s catching a drink or meal with friends you only otherwise see on Fb.
In other words, people enjoy socializing. I also enjoy socializing at conferences (for certain values of enjoyment). But if that’s what it’s about, then maybe we could just look to get group rates on cruises or something.
Setting aside the minor irritations of air travel and hotel stays (which compare to 21st century teleconferencing in the same way that air travel compares to 19th century train travel), there is an expanding list of drawbacks to national conferences:
- The direct costs, especially for graduate students and contingent faculty;
- The indirect costs of time taken away from other work;
- The political and material concerns that now arise regularly with each convention location.
- The carbon footprint.
I don’t know. I’m sure I’ve been writing roughly this same blog post for at least a decade. I like to go to conferences. I’m looking forward to enjoying my time in Kansas City. Maybe someone will have something interesting to say about my presentation… probably not but whatever. Hopefully I will catch up with friends.
But seriously… To me, the practicality of national conferences will eventually wane. It’s a when not if scenario. It’s really only a matter of tweaking some technical matters and figuring out the social mechanics.