The High Cost of Networking–Some Thoughts on the Academic Conference

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.

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  1. #1 by Stacey on January 16, 2012 - 3:04 pm

    There is a convention registration rate for “adjuncts and the unemployed”–which is both funny and sad at the same time, and there is a competitive pot of funds for adjuncts, too. Go here for information about this last convention.

  2. #2 by VanessaVaile on January 13, 2012 - 8:23 pm

    Not to mention sessions on the adjunct question that adjuncts can’t afford to attend whether to put in 2¢ worth or throw eggs. Those too could be more inclusive and affordable using technology and social media to open them up, even taking questions by tweet.

    However you might feel about alt-as, this is an intriguing notion: Moving toward a broader humanities community, “One transformative idea has really stuck with me, and it’s something I hope the MLA will consider. In his presentation called “Five Questions and Three Answers about Alt-Ac,” Brian Croxall proposed that the MLA shift its membership scope from those engaged in teaching languages and literatures, to those who have studied languages and literatures.”

  3. #3 by Stacey on January 13, 2012 - 7:54 pm

    Thank you for your thoughtful post, Dr. Casey. As you note, many of your ideas are already being implemented or are under discussion at the MLA.

    Since I recall you tweeting that you were unable to attend the MLA this year, I assume you went to the AHA? Were you able to attend any electronic poster sessions? That format is wonderfully engaging, and the hundred or so folks attending the Building Digital Humanities in the Undergraduate Classroom e-poster session suggest that there is a wide audience for new presentation formats.

    The MLA Delegate Assembly also had a discussion on re-structuring the division/discussion group structure, and a task force is working on presenting some options to members within the year.

    While I enjoy the face to face contact and the informal, spontaneous discussions that happen at the convention, there are years when it’s cost prohibitive, and during those years I choose to only attend a regional conference (such as PAMLA, CCHA, TYCA): regional conferences can have many of the same benefits, but also many of the same problems as the larger conventions, of course.

    But speaking of the MLA convention specifically, I wouldn’t want to replace the face to face option entirely, if that is what you are suggesting. I’d miss the discussions that happen after presentations, and, yes, at social gatherings. I’d miss the insights I gain when I can engage with colleagues who are at institutions outside my region about shared concerns.

    As more folks tweet and blog the convention, it will become easier for those who cannot attend to “participate” in discussions, which is essentially a form of “networking”. But when I attend the national convention I purposefully engage with new ideas, and with people who are not necessarily tweeting and blogging, discovering new interests, approaches, connections, collaborations. At this year’s convention, for example, I met with members of the Community College Humanities Association, The MLA Committee on Community Colleges, and the MLA Two Year Discussion Group—all groups with a shared agenda who have not yet truly collaborated. Next year, watch for what we hope will be a collaborative panel. The discussions we had after our individual panels, and yes, at the hotel lounge one evening, were simply invigorating. It would not have happened with an electronic chat, at least not with the same level of energy and, I fear, the same result: often when we have chats on the community college listserv, the discussion fizzles because too few folks participate, and/or because as community college faculty, we are swamped with our infamous teaching load. Attending the convention gets us out of the office, away from Blackboard, office hours, and meetings, and gives us the time to focus on developing new ideas, strategies, pedagogies, etc. Electronic meetings are too often interruptable by that knock on the office door….

    That possibility for collaborating with colleagues outside your institution (which was truly the front and backchannel theme of #MLA12) is the sort of “networking” that I look forward to at the annual convention. [Not to dismiss the possibility of shaking Michael Bérubé’s hand.]

    • #4 by johnacaseyjr on January 13, 2012 - 11:42 pm

      Thank you Stacey for your reply. I wouldn’t want to eliminate conventions like the MLA entirely. They do have value both as avenues for exchange amongst scholars in very different disciplines as well as possessing networking potential. However, the existing convention needs to shrink and become much more focused to reflect the disciplines of language and literature as they exist today. Stanley Fish was right when he said that some panels and sessions are like stepping into a time warp. Let’s hope that during MLA 13 we won’t be able to say that anymore.

      I also think that something needs to be done to evaluate convention costs. Admittedly there isn’t much the MLA can do to lower hotel and airline costs, but there are ways to greater minimize the impact of both these factors on the membership. One might be holding the convention in a non-A list city that is desperate for convention business. St. Louis and Charlotte come to mind off-hand. I’m sure there are many other places off the tourist track as well that would cost less to host the event than Seattle, LA, or Boston.

      Smaller and more focused, more conversation (formal and informal), and an increased emphasis on pedagogy. Whatever the conference these are the factors that would make my $800 plus investment worthwhile.


      John Casey

      ps. Just out of curiousity, how is Berube’s handshake?

      • #5 by Stacey on January 15, 2012 - 12:12 am

        It’s true: going to any convention is expensive. For us in rural Oregon, we either must drive for many hours (7 to Seattle, 8 to San Fran, over possibly snowy/icy mountain passes) or fly from our local airport to PDX, then to another city. Interestingly, the MLA recently did a survey of members about convention locations: the survey included some smaller cities like Denver and San Antonio, but the overwhelming majority voted for the usual cities (NY, San Fran and Chicago). In some ways, that’s understandable (there are only a few hundred MLA members in the state of Oregon, but many, many more in Illinois, New York and California). But despite being expensive cities, it’s also often cheaper for us in small towns to fly to NY than it would be to fly to Denver or North Carolina. So while hotel and food costs may be less, the travel costs outweigh them.

        Also on costs: The MLA does offer reduced rates for adjuncts: my husband took advantage of that deal this year. And there is also a fund for part time faculty and graduate students: I’ve contributed to that fund since I’ve been able to do so, and wish that I knew about it (if it existed?) when I was in graduate school and adjuncting. It doesn’t cover all of the costs, of course, but it covers nearly half of what my college contributes to my travel.

        The regional conferences do provide those smaller experiences that you mention, and I highly recommend those: the Community College Humanities Association regional conferences are wonderful opportunities to share research and classroom innnovations to a small group of colleagues (often under 200) and I welcome that intimacy. But I also want to spread my wings and test ideas to a larger, perhaps less accomodating, audience, at times.

        Ultimately, there is room and a place for both types of conferences: I aim for balance, attending at least one regional and one national conference a year or every other year.

        And about that handshake: it was pleasant and professional, and I’m sure Professor Bérubé’s was quite flattered when I offered him my hand;-)

      • #6 by johnacaseyjr on January 16, 2012 - 1:47 pm

        Excellent point on travel costs. Before moving to Chicago for grad school, I lived in Vermont where the popular saying is “you can’t get there by here.” It costs me more to fly home to visit my parents in VT from Chicago than to fly to Europe. So I suppose you’re right. Big cities are the way to go with travel costs.

        I knew about the MLA travel funds for grad students but was not aware that any money was available for adjuncts. Is that info up on the MLA website?


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