The Value of Conferences

The case against philosophy conferences is depressingly formidable. I say “depressingly” because I love philosophy conferences. Here are some of the considerations against them:

  1. Institutional Cost. In an era in which the budgets of many philosophy departments are shrinking, one may wonder whether the opportunity cost of funding travel to conferences, or the hosting of a conference, is worth it. Perhaps better things can be done with the money.
  2. Fairness and Funding. Academics vary in their access to institutional travel funds, as well as in the personal funds they have available for professional travel (these probably go together for obvious reasons). Insofar as the attendance at conferences is beneficial (e.g., for substantive feedback that improves one’s work, or for various kinds of networking), conferences may widen some unfair professional disparities.
  3. Fairness and Family. People’s differential familial responsibilities may make travel excessively burdensome or costly, with the result that the advantages of conference attendance are skewed to those who lack or can easily offload these responsibilities.
  4. Environment. Flights and drives to conferences harm the environment, a largely avoidable outcome were the conference conducted entirely via video (e.g., Skype).
  5. Time. Travel to the conference, along with the back-and-forth between lodging and conference space, plus social events like receptions, take time that could be put to better use.
  6. Accessibility. Not all conferences take measures to be adequately accessible to people with disabilities, which may place extra burdens on disabled attendees or make it practically impossible for them to attend.

What are the considerations in favor? They may be less tangible than some of the considerations against, but not thereby less important. Here are two broad categories of benefits of conferences (not the only ones, I’m sure):

Work Quality. There are some things about being in a room of people who are there to discuss your work that may lead to an improvement in its quality. People may feel the pressure to participate, and so be more likely to contribute their thoughts. Speakers may be concerned about embarrassing themselves in front of others, and so be further incentivized to produce higher quality work. Having to talk through your ideas with others, rather than just write them down, gives authors a better sense of whether they are being clear or otherwise successfully communicating. Beyond your own particular session, you have the opportunity for further face-to-face conversations about your work.

The thing about a conference is that its participants’ attention is directed to others’ work in a way that it is normally not. In our day-to-day lives we, of course, engage with the work of others, but we are often doing this for our own sake, and we don’t often take measures to protect our attention, and so we allow ourselves to be constantly interrupted by emails, social media, our personal lives, and other professional tasks. That stuff doesn’t go away entirely when we’re at conferences, but it does, it seems to me, take a back seat to engagement with the work of others.

Community. There are a few things here. It’s nice to have friends you can do philosophy with, and conferences provide more opportunities to make such friends. You spend time in others’ company at the sessions, you walk to and fro and around the conference grounds talking with others, you go to meals or get some drinks with others, you take breaks from philosophy and get to know others. You have time, so you make friends. You come to see the profession as not just a testing ground for your ideas but also as a community, a group of potential friends. And so maybe—just maybe—your attitudes towards even those others in the profession you don’t know warm a little, countering the inadvertent coldness of our philosophical truth-seeking machinery. These are people that may come to be more inclined to check out your work, sure, but more than that, they may also come to care about you for more than, say, your devastating facility with the counterexample.

And that’s really nice. (I know people vary in their social preferences, and with it whether they’ll agree that this is nice.)

A mantra of mine is “Philosophers are people, too.” Keeping this in mind would improve many aspects of our professional lives. But here it just speaks to our tendency to find joy and fulfillment engaging with people who understand you, who do the same kind of thing you do, who understand how you think, who find you interesting, who care about you, and who find joy and fulfillment engaging with you. Yes, it is possible to have such engagement with non-philosophers. Yes, it is possible to do this without conferences. But conferences are a particularly good way to get this rare and important good.

Heart by Jim Dine

Heart by Jim Dine

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