The Current State of Academic Conferences

April 19, 2015, 2:04 pm


Some panelists were missing, but Benjamin Franklin showed up at this year’s OAH.

I am just back from St. Louis, where the Organization of American Historians (OAH) had its annual meeting this weekend.  A brief review:

  • The program was good. I did not go to any bad sessions, and I went to 2-3 every day, which is unusual for me. I didn’t hear anybody complain about any bad sessions. Congratulations, program committee, and many thanks to Marc Stein of San Francisco State for the queer history stream.  Marc has been a relentless promoter of our field, and has made it far more prominent at this and other conferences than it would have been without his efforts.
  • The Renaissance Hotel was still under construction, and they had booked two conferences back to back, which made checking in on Thursday a drag. There was a particularly ugly moment in the late afternoon when a large group of prominent scholars, women of color who had arrived hours earlier, had not yet been given rooms, while white scholars who had arrived a second ago were being given rooms. Since we were also about ten miles away from Ferguson, one tried very hard not to draw the conclusions we were drawing. Let’s just say: had I been the hotel management I would have gone way out of my way to correct this situation before it developed. Once alerted to it, I would not have argued, I would have acted.
  • Another feature of the hotel being under construction was that the big open spaces that hotels normally have for running into people and schmoozing were temporarily absent. The convention center, where everything was happening, had such places, including free coffee for most of the day, which was very nice.
  • Attendance seemed sparse. In fact, a number of people seemed to be flying in and flying right back out again.
  • On Saturday, the publishers were giving books away. Literally giving them away! I, who am so averse to carrying things that I travel with three tee shirts, a toothbrush and a comb, loaded myself down with books I have been eyeballing in the last year.
  • Best decision ever? Going to Busch Stadium to see the Cardinals Friday night. Dumbest thing I said there? “Oh crap, all they have is Budweiser!” The people around me gave me what we used to call in high school The Hairy Eyeball. I ordered a Coke.

As usual, I am exhausted today. But here are a few thoughts about conferencing:

I have always liked the OAH because it is not the AHA. Don’t get me wrong: I really like the AHA too. But the size of it, the job interviews, the networking, the noise, the fact that it is so much bigger, can make it overwhelming and induce ADD. OAH has a smaller program, which makes me feel more focused, and I have less business to do, which allows me to go to more panels. That said, April is a pain of a time to have a conference, and it seemed really small: I will be curious to see what the attendance figures are. One year OAH and National Council of Public History (NCPH) held a joint conference, and another year, the Southern and the ASA coordinated. I though that was a superb idea, in part because it brings people to the more specialized conference who might never attend it, and diversifies the bigger conference.

Is the conference tote bag over? Unless it is of a size to carry groceries? Just think about it.

Should we make an effort to do less business at major conferences? I think  so. I dislike running from thing to thing, sandwiching people in here and there for an hour, and leaving panels to go take a meeting. Part of why I had a nice time this weekend, despite some bumps, was that I went to lots of panels. When I socialized, the encounters were extended and satisfying. There were several friends I spent 2-3 hours with, which made me extremely happy, particularly since I am at an age when people are going through major professional and life transitions. I like feeling really caught up with —  not just informed about –their lives.

Convention centers: dislike. Perhaps one of the reason the conference seemed sparsely attended is that these are huge, cavernous spaces, both in the interior rooms and the public gathering places. Big noisy fans turned on and off, and the speakers seemed very far away even when you were up front. Hotels tend to have small rooms and big rooms, and in many of the small ones, the speakers’ table is at eye level. This doesn’t mean that there is never a mismatch between crowd and room in hotels, but all the rooms in this convention center were big. Panels with low attendance had people scattered all over a space as big as a small house with extremely high ceilings. It’s a crummy vibe for everyone: scholarly organizations, please stop doing this. Go back to the hotels.

Roundtables: like. OK, I was on one and brought in to a second when the chair dropped out, but I love this format. Sitting and listening while someone reads me a paper taken from a book chapter is far less appealing to me than the kind of active thinking you do in a roundtable, although in part that is because few people give papers really well. But you know what? The lively informality of the roundtable is not an excuse to come half prepared or unprepared. There were several moments when it was completely clear to me that the speaker had dashed off a few choppy remarks hours before, perhaps on the plane. If you are one of those people, and you are reading this blog post, please be honest with yourself about whether you really pulled it off, because you didn’t. Conferences are not all about showing up, they are about  being interesting and coherent too.

That said, showing up does count. No-shows are a common feature at conferences nowadays, but nearly every panel I went to was missing someone and most of them canceled at the last minute and could not be replaced in time. Several of these MIA’s were said to be in the grip of personal emergencies. I am not saying that wasn’t true, but Facebooking pictures of the “emergency” that took you on vacation this weekend was a truly bold move, I must say. There was some discussion in what remained of the hotel bar as to whether the emphasis on collecting vita lines in grad school has led to  a general belief in the younger generation that one must be constantly applying for things and agreeing to make presentations — a practice that then founders when the realities of a full time job and/or a full time family intervenes. Here’s my advice: schedule less and make your commitments.

Readers, should there be fewer conferences? I am wondering if what seemed to be sparse attendance, plus the people who bagged, signifies that we are all over-conferenced. I know I am tired after a year of giving talks and commitments to three separate conferences that were less planned than they were accumulated. A week does not go by without a CFP or a Save-The-Date for some kind of academic gathering, a day long event, a mini-conference, or a conference in honor of one of the many wonderful historians who are retiring over the next several years.



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