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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Tony
Tony
5 years ago

I don’t think fairness counts as a reason against the value of conferences. Circumstances give some people certain advantages over others. But why should this fact count against the opportunity for an advantage (conference)? Unequal outcomes shouldn’t count as a reason against those things that played a part in shaping those outcomes.Report

Robert Noggle
Robert Noggle
5 years ago

I agree with the items on your “benefit” side, but I would add two more:

Conferences can also rekindle one’s enthusiasm for the field. This is especially important for people in smaller departments and at schools where most of the teaching consists of introductory and service courses. Many people work in departments where they don’t routinely interact with people working in their own specialization, and where they seldom get to teach anything beyond the rudiments of their specialties. For people in such positions, conferences can play a valuable role in keeping them connected with–and enthusiastic about–their fields. And greater enthusiasm carries over into both research and teaching.

Also, going to conferences can also expose you to work that you might not hear about otherwise. I’ve often had the experience of going to a session to hear a paper I probably never would have gotten around to reading simply because it’s on the program and I don’t feel right about skipping sessions, only to find the topic and paper so fascinating and thought-provoking that I want to know more, and perhaps even try to write something about it myself someday.

I’m one of those people who opted out of conferences for several years due to family responsibilities. I’m happy to be attending at least a couple each year again, and having done without for several years has made me appreciate them all the more.Report

Scott
Scott
5 years ago

But it’s so fun!Report

Michel X.
Michel X.
5 years ago

I’m not so certain about work quality. My own experience has been that although my work improves substantially from the paper –­­­> talk conversion process, the actual conference feedback doesn’t contribute much, even at specialist conferences. And I think the same is true of the other conference talks I’ve seen and the comments people have given there… including my own comments, I’m afraid. (But n=1 and all that. The problem may well just be me.)

Partly, I think it’s just because in a 20-minute presentation you don’t tend to have time to do much more than present the core of your argument. I think this is compounded by the tendency to read papers, which just presents the audience with too much information in too dense a packet. And partly, I think it’s because the conventions of conference talks are such that we’re discouraged from telling our audiences what we’re struggling with, and soliciting their advice for solutions. And they’re not really encouraged to comment in that fashion either; instead, we just tend to present objections and wait for some kind of response, secretly hoping that none is forthcoming so we can pat ourselves on the back.

By contrast, quite a few of the colloquium talks I’ve seen have gestured to areas the author wasn’t certain how to address, and the subsequent discussion tried to work through some of them. Since colloquium talks are at least twice as long as conference talks, I’m inclined to think that the length of time makes a significant difference. But I guess the atmosphere is a different one, too, and governed by different conventions.

FWIW, Robert Noggle’s added benefits ring very true for me. I learn *a lot* at conferences, just not necessarily from the Q&A portions of my own presentations.Report

Scott Forschler
Scott Forschler
Reply to  Michel X.
5 years ago

My experience has been similar; I get some of my best ideas from the environment, the milieu of being around other philosophers thinking philosophically, not necessarily because somebody stated a particular inspiring proposition that struck me as true. Q&A can be helpful, but only for 45-60 minute sessions. One conference gave only 30 minutes for paper, Q&A, and getting to the next sessions, which I found was exactly enough time to be completely misunderstood by everyone.Report

Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift
5 years ago

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

Institutional Cost. In an era in which the budgets of many universities are shrinking, one may wonder whether the opportunity cost of funding a philosophy department is worth it. Perhaps better things can be done with the money.

Fairness and Funding.Philosophers vary in their access to department funding, as well as in the personal funds they have available to train themselves enough to get a department to fund them (these probably go together for obvious reasons). Insofar as being in a philosophy department 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.

Fairness and Family. People’s differential familial responsibilities may make being/becoming a member of a philosophy department excessively burdensome or costly, with the result that the advantages of being a member of a philosophy department are skewed to those who can easily offload these responsibilities.

Environment. Flights and drives to philosophy departments, and to maintain one’s professional status enough to remain in one, harm the environment, a largely avoidable outcome were research and instruction conducted entirely via video (e.g., Skype).

Time. Travel to one’s philosophy department, along with the back-and-forth required to maintain one’s professional status enough to remain in one, take time that could be put to better use.

Accessibility. Not all philosophy departments take measures to be adequately accessible to people with disabilities, which may place extra burdens on disabled philosophy department members, or make it practically impossible for them to be/become philosophy department members.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Jonathan Swift
5 years ago

It’s not satire if they’re all true. As with the original post, philosophers should take these reasons seriously, and so make sure the benefits of philosophy departments are enough to outweigh those reasons.Report

Matt
5 years ago

2 & 3 are “leveling down” type arguments – if not everyone can do it, no one should. I’ve never found those the least bit attractive.

1 and 5 are real reasons to not put on or attend conferences for some institutions or groups, but are surely not good reasons for people and institutions for whom these are not problems. (If going to conferences prevents you from doing other things that would be more useful for you, don’t go. That seems pretty simple.)

6 is a reason to improve existing conferences, not to get rid of them.

Only 5 seems like a general reason, but I wonder if it’s not too general, applying to too many things.

One pro-conference point that isn’t made explicitly in the above is that it can give attendees the chance to learn about different areas of philosophy. At big APA like conferences, I’ll often attend sessions in areas that I don’t have time to keep current in or study otherwise, and so can learn more about what other parts of philosophy are doing. That seems pretty useful and important to me.

As far as feedback goes, I agree that the in-session comments are often not terribly useful, but formal comments often are, and later discussion, brought on by the session, has often been very useful to me.Report

Phil
Phil
5 years ago

“A friend is one before whom I may think aloud.” -EmersonReport

Jon light
Jon light
5 years ago

Not everybody can have a Mercedes, so nobody should have a Mercedes. Doesn’t seem quite right.Report

Fabio Gironi
Fabio Gironi
5 years ago

I think that we are taking something for granted here, i.e. that conferences as we know them are intrinsically good. The arguments you propose against them presuppose it, and then go on arguing “but consequence X is too high/unfair price to pay, so maybe let’s drop them”.

There has been a similar conversation here before, and I’ll post again my comment from that post, since I think we ought to rethink the very idea of a conference, rather than its complications/consequences.

I strongly believe that conferences are a vestigial remain from a time (say, the late 1800s) when exchange of ideas between academics working in the same field was far more difficult and slower than it is today — with telephones, email, skype, facebook, and whatnot.

Therefore, the very structure of a conference should change, to reflect the change in function: assuming that no amount of emailiing or skype calls can really replace face-to-face conversation, especially among more than 2 people, the aim of conferences should emphasise the social aspects over the frontal lecture let-me-read-out-loud-you-what-I’ve-been-working-on aspect.

I recently organised a conference which, while by and large orthodox in its structure, put a lot of emphasis on non-lecturing time: so lots of Q&A time, generous coffee breaks *after each paper*, no more than 4 papers a day, a conference dinner, and a long allotted time for a final roundtable for free-wheeling discussion.

Let’s be honest: how many people *really* listen when forced to sit through 6 or 7 papers per day? No-one keeps their attention focused for more than, to be generous, one hour without breaks in between. I have been to more than one conference where pre-eminent philosophers in their field (and keynote speakers!) were doing crosswords, watching live sport, or facebooking during some other speaker’s paper (I saw them while sitting behind them). No-one, no-one enjoys hours and hours of sitting and listening to someone reading out loud. Especially when you could’ve asked your colleague to email you the paper and read it in your armchair at home.

Conferences are still necessary and could be pleasant and productive occasions for intellectual exchange, but the very idea of a conference should be revised.

How? Well, I am not sure, and I am not sure whatever change in structure would not incur again in the counter-arguments you list above. Because whatever happens in a “conference”, the basic point is: bring together in the same physical space people working in the same field that would otherwise be separated (so the money, planes, etc arguments all apply).

One thing is certain: as it stands, we have far too many conferences, much more than it would be necessary to have, considering how a lot could be replaced by online events, from videoconferencing to online discussion venues (and let’s face it, “impact” and “dissemination” metrics push many of us to organise events which are not strictly speaking necessary to the progress of the discipline.Report

Sam
Sam
5 years ago

I think Fabio’s comments are dead-on, so I’ll throw my two cents in. As for the original post, (1), (2), (4), and (5) don’t do much for me. (3) and (6) seem like reasons to change the structure of conferences rather than throwing the whole institution out (as someone else mentioned).

In thinking about the conferences that have been best (from my perspective), a few things seem key. First, the keynotes need to be actively engaged in the conference. I’ve been to a few conferences where the keynotes say very little and don’t do much to galvanize the group (organizing outings for meals or post-conference activities, little interaction with junior people or grad students, etc.). Good conferences have active keynotes. Second, there needs to be ample ‘social time’, as Fabio notes, where this amounts to coffee breaks between papers, good amounts of time for meals, and a limited number of papers. This allows for discussion, which has always been the time that I’ve gotten the best feedback (partially because it allows for good back and forth). Third, there needs to be a solid effort to get everyone in the conference to interact. Sometimes, especially at specialty conferences, people will not know each other well and it’s up to the conference organizers (and keynotes) to figure out a way to get everyone interacting with each other. Sometimes, this is simply to foster collaborative networks that can lead to future research, but it also contributes to the quality of discussion and feedback at a conference.

All of these sort of cluster around the idea that conferences are mainly to bring people together to engage in conversation. Reading papers in a traditional Q&A format is obsolete given the technological advances in communication. But nothing beats a good face to face conversation where people can engage in extended discussion. In particular, one of the most valuable features of a conference is connecting senior people to younger people that might not otherwise get the chance to engage with those people in a serious way.

And, as a final note, this wouldn’t extend to conferences like the APA, SPA, AAR, and other large meetings, but my sense is that the smaller specialty conferences are more prevalent anyway. So fixing those would do a world of good for philosophers.Report

Mark van Roojen
5 years ago

Conferences are a good way to find out about things that you don’t yet know much about. I often go to papers well outside of my areas of “expertise” (yes in my case the quotation marks are needed) to learn about approaches to issues that help me think about stuff I’m puzzled about.

I think that they are also a good way to get out of one’s own home department and get a better sense of how things look from different places. I mean two things by this. Every department I have been in has had certain ways of answering questions that go unchallenged. But each differs in which ways of answering questions these are. It is good to get out a bit and have to answer questions you would not get at home. And second, people (typically younger people) in departments with difficult politics can get a bit of perspective on them when they talk to people from other places who either can lend some perspective or suggest ideas for how to deal with those situations.

But, I think contributing to climate change is a big worry. Currently it is relatively cheap to buy offsets for travel. I do it sometimes, but not as often as I should. In the future . . .Report

babygirl
babygirl
5 years ago

I think local, specialist conferences are invaluable — they cut down on travel, you meet people in your area who do similar things, your exchange of work is generally fruitful, and you can make contacts and offer to read each other’s work. Meeting people in person has a great benefit. It gives you a sense of “we all just want to know more about X” and makes research a collective endeavor, rather than a “I want to publish this idea before I get scooped” individual, competitive endeavor.

I’m not sure what the case for a large, general conference (like the APA) would be. Perhaps you get a general sense of what’s going on in the discipline. But this could be done in much less costly ways.

For a woman who may be pregnant or breastfeeding, conference travel is difficult, perhaps impossible. I see this as a reason to make more contacts and keep up with them via email, etc. In other words, find a substitute activity, and put effort into that. It’s less ideal in some ways than in-person meetings, but I’ve had very positive experiences.

Several job ads are up, which list “presentations at significant conferences” as, it seems, requirements for a TT position. Whether or not philosophy conferences are valuable, I wonder if they should be seen as a marker of excellence in this way, such that an dearth of conference presentations on a CV would count against someone? Someone might have very good or unavoidable reasons for not participating in conferences.Report