Imagine this scenario: After weeks of preparing your talk and struggling to cut it to fit the 20 minute time slot of your three person panel, you arrive in the conference room to find that not only is your session chair missing but there are three people in the audience, one of whom is your best friend from grad school.
Think I’m making this up? Well, I’m not. It really happened. I was one of the three people in the audience at the above named conference panel and I felt bad for the presenter. I did my best to ask her insightful questions but I couldn’t help wondering where the other attendees had gone. Where was the loyalty to intellectual inquiry and more important where was common courtesy, which should have dictated to the panel chair that he contact his panel in advance to let them know he would be absent?
Although I have no way of knowing exactly what led this scenario to occur, it is possible to make two assumptions. The first (in the venerable tradition of Stanley Eugene Fish) is based on the Convention program which was well over 1,000 pages long and listed hundreds of events each day starting at 8am and ending around 8pm. Even the most dedicated audience member couldn’t help but crash after about four panels. I tried to listen in on five or six a day but found myself succumbing to the “museum effect.” All of the talks started to merge into one huge cluster of meta-discourse in my brain.
Some professional organizations such as the MLA (Yes, I am complimenting them. Try not to gasp too loud.) have made positive steps to ameliorate this effect by implementing new conference presentation formats. The dominance of Digital Humanities at this year’s MLA convention made this change much more prominent than it might otherwise have been as presenters in these fields are quite frankly much better at using audio-visual equipment than traditional humanities scholars. They also seem to have learned how to be succinct without omitting essential information in their talks. This allows more time for discussion and is less overwhelming for the audience.
The second assumption I gleaned from listening to conference attendees talk in the hotel lobby. As I sipped a coffee and prepared for my own presentation, it became clear that cost concerns or job pressures forced many to attend simply for the day of their talk. It was also clear that some convention attendees were more interested in sightseeing than their were in listening to the latest scholarship in the field.
Bearing all of this in mind, it is worth asking–What exactly is the purpose of the large academic conference in 2012? In the age of social media such as Twitter and Google + why not simply hold a “tweet-up” or create a “google hangout” for scholars in a particular field of study? These virtual arenas would cost participants far less and could be used at any time during the year.
The short answer to these questions seems to be career networking.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the value of face to face interaction with scholars in my field. I value it greatly. However, $800, which is the average amount I’ve spent attending academic conferences, seems a steep price to pay for networking. Almost as much, in fact, as my monthly rent. That is why I make a habit of attending conferences only if I’m either presenting or chairing a panel.
I wonder how many make the same choice and are thus shut out of the opportunity to network and exchange ideas in real-time. Yet another way that non-elite faculty are prevented from full participation in the discipline they help sustain.
Among the many changes that I hope will take place as the discipline of English is forced to evolve or disappear is a reexamination of the annual convention model. It seems at best overly bloated (a point made by Fish that most of his readers conveniently ignored) and at worst hopelessly out of date. Fewer panels of shorter duration, new presentation methods, new division structures, less pressure to conduct face to face membership business one time a year. These changes are all desperately needed. Maybe regional conferences affiliated with national ones could pick up the slack. Or perhaps a lot of the work needed could be done online.
In any event, if we want all the members of the profession to have a say in its future, we need something better than the traditional annual convention. The premium for attendance is too steep. Even if you might get to shake hands with Michael Berube.