A Tale of Two Conferences

With apologies to Charles Dickens.

I recently presented at nearly back-to-back conferences that were not, strictly speaking, devoted to my areas of expertise. While I think it’s always good to go beyond one’s comfort zone, the experience again illustrated a principle upon which Simon and I have occasionally commented: academic conferences often don’t reflect workplace realities. To wit:

The first conference, of the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA), was held in Washington, DC. Until you found out it wasn’t. I had immediately noticed from the call for proposals, unlike my wife/colleague, that the conference site was actually a 30-minute drive south, in Maryland. Public transit, including from the airport, took 90 minutes. While the hotel itself was gorgeous, its location represented additional expense and inconvenience for attendees, especially for those with limited or no financial support from their home institutions.

But the greater problem, in my opinion: it was the usual routine of presenting obscure research, completely unrelated to teaching, to mostly empty rooms. Hardly anyone who attended the conference has or will have a career that is entirely research-focused. In other words, the conference was organized to serve an audience that doesn’t exist.

The second conference, Eastern Regional Campus Compact, was a bit better in this regard, as one might expect from an organization whose mission is community engagement. But it still demonstrated the disconnect between conference format and audience. My contribution was an interactive workshop on teaching techniques, which drew a crowd of about fifty people, with some spilling out into the corridor — a clear sign of interest. The other sessions I attended, organized as traditional panels, attracted a half dozen or fewer people.

As I mention in the post at the link shown above, the economics of these kinds of conferences are backwards and not sustainable.