An Audience of None

Empty Conference RoomThis post is about one of two recent experiences that are easily-overlooked signs of the coming apocalypse for traditional higher education. I’ll write about the other experience in a separate post.

Last week a colleague and I participated in a regional conference of a large academic association. On the conference’s first day, my colleague attended a panel for which four of the six presenters named in the program did not show up. In the room were the other two presenters, the panel’s chair/discussant, and an audience of three people.

The next day, at the panel session in which my colleague and I were jointly presenting, again four of the six panelists were no shows. The room was populated by, in addition to the two of us, the other presenter, the panel’s chair/discussant, and an audience of five.

I’ve seen the same pattern at two regional conferences for my colleague’s main disciplinary organization — sessions that consist of a few people listening to themselves talk to a mostly empty room, with little to no actual dissemination of knowledge. The process is a charade — people list conference papers on their curriculum vitae, regardless of whether the papers or the people who promised to write them ever materialize. The money used to pay conference registration fees in effect goes straight from colleges and universities to the academic associations that sponsor the conferences.

I suspect that at some point in the near future cash-strapped non-elite colleges and universities are simply going to stop subsidizing these kinds of events via faculty reimbursement. Email and digital repositories are frequently much more cost effective methods of sharing information.

One thought on “An Audience of None

  1. Most academic conferences are very poorly designed for the purposes they are supposed to fulfill. If you look at how the medical or physical sciences organize conferences, the picture is very different. They have a few plenary sessions built around on-going research programs where the main factors at the head of the efforts give an overview of what they’ve found out, what they are doing now, and where they are going. These are always a packed house since they are directional beacons for entire fields in the sciences involved. Everything else is posters, with substantial prizes ($1000 or so) given for the best work. (They are able to do this because of the support they get from outside companies, of course.) Political science conferences don’t compare favorably to this model; hence the constant complaints about how no one can tell where the discipline is going. As I’ve told the folks at APSA several times, that’s because nobody is organizing panels that will show the way.

    On the other functions of conferences, however, political science does ok. The main reasons why all kinds of organizations have conferences have little to do with the stated purposes for them. They are largely there to foster personal ties, catch up with or establish contacts with colleagues to foster research opportunities, get advice on problems with teaching, or to simply relax with a clear conscience. Most of this takes place outside the panels, just as in other disciplines and businesses.

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