The Point and Practices of Conferences

Christy Wampole (Princeton) lays out a series of complaints and concerns about conferences in the humanities, including:

We have sat patiently and politely through talks read line by line in a monotone voice by a speaker who doesn’t look up once, wondering why we couldn’t have read the paper ourselves in advance with a much greater level of absorption.

We have tried to ignore the lack of a thesis or even one interesting sentence in a 20-minute talk.

Our jaws have hung in disbelief as a speaker tries to squeeze a 30-minute talk into a 20-minute slot by reading too fast to be understood.

We have been one of two attendees at a panel…

We have passed or received notes during a particularly painful session that read “Kill me now.”

There are more in her column, “The Conference Manifesto,” in The Stone at The New York Times. (On a related note, see Mallory Ortberg’s “Every Question In Every Q&A Session Ever,” in case you missed it in the Heap of Links last week.)

Wampole then raises the question: “What is the purpose of the conference?”

What has caused us to organize these things year after year without questioning their basis? Is there another way to reformat the conference or do away with it altogether, replacing it with something more intellectually, professionally and socially satisfying for everyone? What are our real motivations for organizing a conference? For attending one? To burnish our résumés? To network? To get a sense of the current work being done in our fields? If, as many scholars confess in private, it is an easy way to see all of one’s friends conveniently or to meet new colleagues, should the conference then be replaced by a less formalized gathering?

These are questions worth asking. There are better and worse conferences. Many (but not all) of the best I’ve been to are small, highly focused, and involve everyone reading everyone else’s paper in advance so that no actual talks need to be given. The political philosophy workshops I’ve taken part in at the Joint Sessions of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) are models of this. Some larger conferences also manage to provide a valuable experience, usually ones that involve commentators on the papers and whose organizers put in the effort to encourage a sense of community among the participants, which has been my experience at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (RoME), for example.

Wampole offers some suggestions, most of which I agree with. But there is a more general point that is helpful to keep in mind, as both conference attendee and conference organizer (and pretty much in every professional interaction you have): philosophers are people, too. So they get bored, they require non-intellectual stimulation, they can be more or less motivated to do what they’re supposed to do, they have feelings, they have other things going on in their lives besides your work (and theirs), and pretty much all the findings in social psychology about situations and biases apply to them, too. They may know and care more about philosophy, but pretty much in every other respect they are just like ordinary people.


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