Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Rethinking Academic Conferences has been set up to facilitate discussions about possibilities for making academic gatherings more human, humane, fun, interesting, accessible, eco-friendly, accountable, and responsible.


Sybil Amber said...

Dear Anthony,
Thx for informing EAnth, I would like to contribute. I am an undergraduate in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the U in Vienna/AT/Europe. Would you like to publish about EAnth on my A. L. J., which is read by students over here?

Bernadette Buckley said...

This is a very welcome initiative. For too long, academic conferences have been tied to a rather restrictive set of conventions, which do not best serve the research community.

Papers are often read directly from written texts - a convention which does not support the full communication of complex materials, but rather ensures that the speaker's case is tightly defended. Such a set-up means that 'closed' arguments are too often presented and the exchange of ideas is not sufficiently encouraged. Thus, the conventional format for conferences can minimise, if not impede opportunities for audiences to really engage with the speaker's case - particularly where difficult ideas are being introduced to an audience for the first time. Indeed, given that many conferences are 3 days long, one wonders to what extent, speakers may even rely on any potential for misreadings to occur, as a mechanism for ensuring that they retain authority over their texts.

Why are there so few round-table discussions and/or longer, chaired Q+A sessions? Why is there little scope for testing new or 'working hypotheses' in a supportive collegiate environment? And why are there so few opportunities for 'unscheduled' discussions to develop? Often the coffee-break is the only opportunity for such discussion to arise.

Furthermore, the possibilities of video conferencing and of screening communication via instant messaging, are rarely exploited. Thus to attend a conference one often has no choice but to rely on modes of transport which are expensive (and therefore socio-economically restrictive) and also unfriendly from an environmental perspective. The outcome here is that conventional conferences effectively limit the constituency of their audiences.

Messaging and video conferencing, while not perfect, at least in principle, provide an opportunity for western scholars to meet with their non-western colleagues. I rarely for example meet colleagues from South Africa, from the middle east and even from many non EU member European countries. And even if such colleagues do attend, there is little opportunity for interaction, if one has had no formal introduction. Some of the best learning experiences that I have had, relate to collective readings of particular texts, where colleagues both produce and challenge each other's readings. Another terrific way of promoting cross-disciplinary debate, is by including film screenings. In this way, themes can be explored while still allowing for specificity of argument. Respondants could in such a setting, be invited to lead and promote (rather than to dominate) discussion. This method is particularly effective in multi-disciplinary settings wherein different academic communities use very different languages and often have difficulty in communicating with and engaging one another.

None of these suggestions are difficult to arrange and in my experience can be extremely effective and enjoyable ways of 'playing' with conventional conference formats.

Jabbott said...

I'm a geographer at Temple University in Philadelphia. To me, this topic always resonates the most, when I am in the airport departure lounge, post conference, having packed/unpacked and taken my shoes off twice for security.

The challenge to me is to harmonize the positive and negative characteristics of conferences:

Conferences bring together like minded people in a structured framework, yet at the same time allow serendipitous exchanges. At the same time, conferences are costly (economically and environmentally) as well as time consuming.

How can we make 'virtual' conferences have the best aspects of real ones, rather than just a videoconference? I think insight can be gained from those multi-player games online, where it seems like the overall structure also allows for individual activity.

Many thanks to Anthony for putting this together!

Tara C. Goetze said...

Since attending my last conference, I've begun to consider this issue more and more, along with several of my colleagues, so this is a timely initiative. Excellent idea!

I believe, much like Bernadette, that the current format of academic conferences is restrictive. It both constrains active cross-disciplinary debate and discussion as well as public access to the epistemological production of the academy. It creates divisions, rather than inviting wider participation. It reifies modernist notions of "expertise" to its own detriment, in my opinion.

In addition, the prohibitive cost (I just registered for the AAAs at which I'm co-organizing a session which cost me $300+USD) of many academic conferences discourages attendance of many people without the personal or professional budget.

I think the future of conferences lies in shifting towards more open, public formats organized around broad topics that encourage multi-disciplinary participation. Rather than a mere 15 minutes to read a paper in which its difficult to make any substantive argument, there would be a series of panels, during which participants would debate issues or present working ideas/experiences based on a pre-reading of each others' papers. Members of the audience would be encouraged to read the papers and there would be a significant period of time for questions/comments from the floor.

Finally, I also agree with Bernadette that more needs to be done to leverage existing technology so that conference attendance doesn't necessitate travel. I'm a Mac user, and the new format for iChat is quite simple to use, and elegant in its presentation. Of course, this assumes one has the appropriate computer, the program, the webcam, and high-speed internet capacity.

One very positive conference experience I had was at the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries annual meeetings at which about a dozen Belizean fishers were bussed to the conference in Mexico, as were several Mexican fishers (the costs were covered by a global environmental NGO). They were encouraged to contribute their experiences as speakers and during panel discussions. A few made presentations, a few only listened and replied to answers. Unfortunately, their participation was restricted to the social science section of the conference (only one day out of five), though many were approached by biologists, policy makers, protected areas managers, and NGO reps for discussions outside of organized sessions. This was facilitated by the fact that everyone was at the same hotel. While several of the fishers were clearly uncomfortable and overwhelmed, most later commented that they enjoyed the opportunity to convey their ideas and experiences with, as one fisher put it, "these research experts, who don't know half of what I know about the sea". It wasn't perfect, but it was an innovative move that produced many positive outcomes.

Carrie said...

Anthony - Thanks for bringing this up. As a PhD student, I have just begun to get the hang of the conference conventions. I am most dismayed by the amount of time and resources (environmentally-speaking) that we all use to physically get together for so little actual knowledge exchange (as many sessions are not well attended,which is insulting as well as dissapointing).

It seems the main advantage to the conferences are 1) padding resumes (my pessimistic response) and 2) networking with peers (my optimistic response).

I prefer smaller conferences where everyone attends the same session and discussions can ensue.

I also find most conferences highly anthropocentric, as very few papers address nonhuman animals and nature. Additionally, we participants eat a bunch of animals and use a lot of paper and other resources. I would like to see an emphasis on green conference planning, which includes vegetarian and organic food purchases.

- Carrie Freeman (Communication and Society at Univ. of Oregon)

Martha Monroe said...

I have an interest in figuring out how to use technology to connect people together instead of fossil fuels and jet travel. I recognize conferences offer face-to-face time that is essential, but it comes at a huge cost. If we could develop a non-travel technology that offers the same benefits: sharing, exchanging, publishing, and presenting, perhaps we could alternate formats or have in-person conferences less frequently. Or perhaps the answer is to adapt conferences to better serve those who aren't present, so that we can pick the ones we travel to. Any ideas?

Helen Oz said...

Thank you Anthony for setting up this blog. It's great to be in the company of like minds and I hope we can journey together towards a more optimistic place where our academic gatherings are joyful, stimulating, career enhancing, cheap, environmentally beneficial and fun. Utopia, no less.

I am a music education researcher from Monash U in Melbourne, Australia, but my hopes and concerns are broader.

There are some great ideas and practices out there. In Vienna, a conference where NO honorifics are used, putting grad students and professors on an equal basis. E-papers, where a paper can be accepted, read online and published for a registration fee without the cost of travelling to the conference.

As Bernadette points out, video-conferencing is rarely used to advantage. After 20 years in our universities it's scandalous that its use has not been expanded. We use Web 2.0 to develop course materials, watch video-on-demand in our airline seats, then arrive at the conference to listen to people read for 20 minutes. Crazy.

I'd like there to be a research project that examines what scholars need from academic conference, what they want and what they don't, so that rethinking academic conferences can begin with some hard data. Or are there already publications on this? Anyone know?