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:
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.