The Real Conference Crisis

We are weary of manifestoes.

This isn’t another rant about how pointless and depressing the General Election in the UK is: I’ll leave that to people better qualified and less disillusioned. No, this has been prompted by a piece in the New York Times which has been popping up on social media a lot recently. Entitled ‘The Conference Manifesto’, it is a thorough critique of academic conferences in the humanities (http://nyti.ms/1IcUYYS).

I get it: hating conferences isn’t just an American thing, but am I the only one who was a little bit annoyed, and a little bit frustrated by this?

Christy Wampole runs through the kinds of standard eye-rolling behavior every academic has seen at conferences: long-winded speakers, rude questions, boring talks. Yes. Sometimes academic conferences aren’t very good.

But these kinds of criticisms tend to be funnier on the many academic Tumblrs and Twitter accounts dedicated to taking the mick out of ourselves (my personal favourite remains @AcademicsSay).

When I read this as a serious opinion piece, it makes me think two serious things.

  1. Quit complaining and start changing. Clearly Wampole has a lot of ideas about how academics should behave that I agree with, ideas based around respecting one another’s ideas and time. But pieces like this also tend to overinflate the negative and project a vision of crisis. I don’t think there is a crisis in the conference model in the UK (or rather, I think the crisis should be described in slightly different ways – see below). Perhaps this is because fewer students and academics feel obliged to attend conferences in order to have job interviews, or to fill out their CV? I have never heard of a job interview at a conference here, and I don’t think anyone cares how many papers graduate students and academics give. Articles remain our hollow god. So why write as if this is a crisis? Why not say, “Hey everyone, let’s remember some basic groundrules here”? That is, indeed, what I have seen conference organizers do, and I like to do when I am organizing events.
  1. The real crisis comes not from long-winded questions and other awkward and inconsiderate behaviours, but the fundamental inequalities of the university system. The real crisis is men being more long-winded than women, senior academics bullying young researchers, the dazzling whiteness of many humanities conferences, the unaffordability of most events. The real crisis can be seen in the statement that a group of graduate students had to read at the Renaissance Studies Association Annual Meeting about the gender imbalance of their plenary speakers (http://bit.ly/1OWlIAP).

We don’t need a polite notice: we need to collectively address bigger problems than poor eye contact.

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3 thoughts on “The Real Conference Crisis

  1. Though I’d suggest that the problems of power are related to the problems of performance. Long-winded senior academics can dominate conferences simply because no one knows what to do with them.

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  2. Yes, I’d totally agree.

    As several people have pointed out on Twitter, the NYT piece makes this all about eye-roll-worthy behaviours as if those behaviours were divorced from the more serious underlying problems, and that seems to me the important point.

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