1st Mini-TLC at APSA and the Future of Conferences

In line with Simon’s last post, something of a continued meditation on conferences and academic disciplinary associations in the USA, relative to last weekend’s one-day TLC, which was embedded within the APSA annual meeting:

Bridge to nowhere

Conferences reflect perverse incentives that do not reflect the realities of the academic labor market. Only a small minority of people who obtain PhDs, regardless of field, end up working as tenured professors at elite research universities teaching one or two, or zero, courses per semester. Yet to have even a chance of being hired or tenured by any institution, regardless of its position in the reputational pecking order, one is supposed to present (at conferences) and publish (in journals) research. The research is almost always irrelevant to anyone outside the discipline and much of the time also irrelevant to those within it.

These norms allow academic conferences to prey financially on graduate students, who are led to believe that they must attend, to both present research and to interview. In an age of digital communication tools and decreasing numbers of tenure-track positions, neither search committees nor disciplinary associations should be encouraging graduate students to pay out of pocket to attend conferences, the costs of which can exceed $1,000 per event.

But therein lies the rub: the more people who register for and attend a conference, the more profitable the conference is to the disciplinary association that has organized it. Whether a conference enables graduate students, their advisers, or other faculty to become more effective at what most academics spend most of their time doing — teaching — is not a concern. To claim otherwise is to ignore the economics of the system.

Conference attendance by full-time faculty is subsidized by their employers in the form of professional development support. Yet the way in which most conferences are structured means that opportunities are lacking for enhancing the teaching skills used on a daily basis in the workplace. Given the declining fortunes of many colleges and universities in the USA, this subsidization is likely to decrease, and decrease substantially, at some point in the near future — or maybe it’s occurring already.

3 thoughts on “1st Mini-TLC at APSA and the Future of Conferences

  1. What a grim post! I agree with everything you wrote, and have attended (and presented) every year at APSA as a grad student and post-doc, most years at my own expense. This year was the first year I didn’t really worry about it, ending up only coming to the mini TLC conference where I met some nice people, which was nice. I wouldn’t have traveled for it but since it was in Boston and easy for me, to attend.
    In any case, I had some mixed feelings about the mini TLC conference – even though I met some nice people and made good connections, I felt like overall it lacked coherence and the attendance in it was kind of uneven. I was wondering why the decision was made to hold it during the time where all the other panels were held. Curious to hear your thoughts on the specific conference rather than conferences in general.

  2. I agree that, compared to the stand-alone version of the TLC, this event lacked coherence — like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. At the stand-alone TLC, at least in the simulations and games track, there is more of an opportunity for community building. And I think fundamentally the traditional format of panel session presentations, where the audience is totally passive, is simply incompatible with learning how to be a more effective teacher. However, many colleges and universities in the USA provide more financial support for paper presentations in panels than they do for interactive workshops. It makes no sense.

    This leads to why the TLC was folded into the APSA annual meeting: as a separate event consisting of a limited number of weekend-long workshop tracks, attendance at the TLC was too low to cover APSA’s costs. The structure does not encourage mass attendance in which people drop in to present papers and then leave, simply to add lines to their cv’s.

    I’ll give a personal example of how traditionally-organized conferences are in many respects a sham. Since 2001 I’ve attended national and regional conferences (mostly to present, but occasionally just as an observer) of associations that have ranged from APSA to ISA to MLA to the Association for Asian Studies. At these conferences, the audiences for the panels I have participated in or watched have ranged from one to ten people. I suspect my experience is the norm, and this indicates that the true incentive driving attendance at these conferences is lengthening one’s cv, not collaboration on best practices.

    1. I agree with everything you said! I have presented to an empty room in a big hotel in Vegas, as part of WPSA once, on a ‘residue’ panel that had four papers that weren’t just unrelated, but also from different subfields. But I also had good experiences – I presented as part of pre-planned panels that were not only well-attended and engaging, but also sparked joint work afterwards. I have lots of thoughts about the structure of conferences, and I agree with you that overall the current structure is broken – though there are some movements towards better forms. I keep attending mostly because it’s a way to see lots of people, and you can always make the best of a bad structure.

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