What’s the point of conferences?

I know we’ve been around this one before, this is an increasingly common question.

This week, it’s been brought back to the front of my mind by a couple of things. First, there is the impending departure by my significant other across the seas to a conference about which a degree of ambivalence is being expressed. Second, there was this thoughtful post from Jenny Thatcher which I heartily recommend:

The crappy response to Jenny’s critique would be ‘pfft, sociologists’, but it would also be to deny seeing pretty much all of this at politics/IR conferences over the years (like Jenny, it’s not finger-pointing at particular things, just more the general vibe).

Academic conferences were built for a different time, like a lot of other bits of academic life: before we had the internet, physical co-location was the only viable way to have discussions about research at any speed. Sure, you could write a letter, but it’s not the same.

Add in a big dose of commercialisation for all involved and the tightening of the labour market and the mix that Jenny describes can be found across the sector: systemic inequalities, predatory behaviour of all too many kinds, stasis.

If the piece resonates, then it’s also because I chair an research association that holds its annual conference as a key part of what it does. While it’s not as central or as exclusive an activity for our overall profile as it is for other associations I know of, it still is A Thing.

So what to do?

The issue remains that while we can point out problems, it’s not so obvious what the solution might be.

Supporting early career colleagues to attend might mean money, but it also means finding ways to give them time in their regular work to prep and to have the headspace to really get into the intellectual stimulus of a conference. Assuming we can also change the behaviour of those who free-ride off of them. And that we can fix a programme so it’s not stupid. And that we can also avoid barriers to participation by visa requirements. For example.

In short, it’s not a money thing, but a structural thing. To address such challenges needs us to work from the ground up.

Again, I’m fortunate that our association isn’t driven by its conference: we make a small profit most years, but work as hard as we can to contain costs for everyone. If we had a way to generate comparable benefits without the negative effects, then I’d be all ears.

Maybe part of this is about thinking about colleagues as being part of a community: the more we can build that, the more we can encourage organic, self-sustaining patterns of mutually-supportive behaviour that don’t require a flight to another country.

That would need a thriving online space, where a strong ethic of constructive debate was present and where a more accommodating and flexible system of sharing and collaborating might grow.

To go on a detour here, I’ve seen such a thing work, albeit not in academia.

Back in the winter, a number of cycling journalists got canned by their employers, and decided to set up their own group.

Unlike pretty much the rest of the cycling press, it’s all (and only) subscription-based. That means no ads and no pandering to the companies that place ads. It also means a walled garden of content (and a thriving Discord) that seems much more pleasant than other parts of the internet I could think of.

Obviously, cyclists aren’t intrinsically nicer people than the general population [although I think we are] and academia has some different incentives to chatting about bikes. But I still take it as part of a response to how we might proceed differently.

Yes, that chat over a cup/glass of something on the edge of a conference can be really amazing – it’s why this blog exists if you want any further evidence – but we do have to ask whether that’s a good enough reason to carry on with a system that’s failing as it does.