From The Mail Box: Reader Questions Whole Concept Of Academic Conferences

November 16, 2012, 12:30 am

#2012ASA agreed to wait until after the election to deconstruct empire. Subsidize with tax dollars hasta pronto. Hillz

It’s very rare that I get a response to a post on academic conferences like this one. In the comment thread to yesterday’s post, archie_kelvin asks:

A long, long time ago, on the dear departed “Brainstorm” site, there was a long, long thread (in response to a post somewhat like TR’s) about attending an academic conference in a sunny clime, far away from the campuses of most attendees.

archie followed up with a bunch of questions, which I will attempt to answer (and yes, archie, my panel went very well today — thanks for asking.)

Aren’t these things just boondoggles, mini-vacations wholly or partly on somebody else’s tab?

All conferences, in all professions, are at least partly subsidized by people other than the participants. But unlike many professions, academic conferences are not subsidized by corporations that hope to make a profit off these meetings. Congress flies hither and yon on the tab of the military-industrial complex, AIPAC, the Chamber of Commerce, and various corporations. The American Medical Association meeting is partly subsidized by Big Pharma and other corporate interests who are driving up the cost of medical care. Such  organizations use such meetings to win and dine elected officials about policies intended to enrich or otherwise benefit those who pay the tab — while playing golf.

I’ve never attended a humanities or social science conference where corporate money and influence buying was part of the equation.

Astonishingly, the American Studies Association meeting is wholly supported by membership and registration fees, along with fees paid by book publishers who have booths in the exhibit hall. True, some of us  are lucky enough to be fully reimbursed by our university employers, but many of the attendees pay wholly or partly out of pocket, thanks to teacher-hating cuts in public funding for higher education.

Finally, I don’t know about you, but the last time I went on vacation I didn’t spend twelve hours at a stretch talking about work, and as I recall, the rest of my family was there.

Why aren’t [conferences] held in the center of the country? At a university?

Name a university that can house and feed 3,000 extra guests in November. Would the university host the meeting for free? Where would people sleep? Where would the students at that university attend classes? And actually, wherever in the United States you hold a conference, even in the middle of the country (an otherwise empty space perfect for conferences or penal colonies), 2/3 of American members have to travel a substantial distance to get there.

In an age of and MOOCs, why are in-the-flesh-in-a-hotel conferences necessary?

In the days of online everything, why don’t we just close all schools and have everyone telecommute to all jobs? That way we won’t need schools, roads, bridges or stoplights anymore and everyone can stay in their houses. Why shouldn’t everyone date online, Skype and sext each other rather than assume that meaningful sexual encounters require flesh-to-flesh contact? These are all equally important questions.

There is no research I know of that demonstrates that meeting on line has the same intellectual impact as meeting in person; in fact, it is the opposite. Do you know that online universities have a drop-out rate 50% higher than bricks and mortar universities? The act of meeting, as a community and  in small groups, and having conversations, face to face, has not lost its intellectual value despite the fact that technology may make it possible to do it otherwise. I say “may” because it isn’t even clear to me that what you suggest is possible with a group this large. What do you think it would cost, in time and technology, to set up feeds so that 3,000 people could meet, simultaneously, in 12-15 sessions in every time slot? Who would pay to make sure that every person’s hardware was up to date with the technology and their broadband had the capacity for the bytes that would have to be transmitted?

Just wondering what you think about this.

How much do attendees cost their respective institutions in “travel support” and the like?

It’s different for different institutions. A university has budgetary guidelines for what they spend on professional development: the wealthier the university, the bigger the budget. Many people who attend conferences do it, in whole or in part, with their own money, and that has become more true in the last five years.

But I’m curious: what does the military spend on professional development? Where do military officers go to do it? North Dakota? Where does the money come from? Oh I know — taxpayers! I bet academics spend a boatload less, and almost none of it comes from the government.

With conferences held during the academic year, how many classes are missed, and how are they covered (cancellation note on the classroom door, TAs take over, take-home exam, etc.)?

Hard to say how many classes were missed for a conference of 3,000 people. But let’s try to imagine a rubric that would allow us to estimate the damage done to the education of thousands by an academic meeting like this one.

On most campuses, the majority of classes are held M-Th, with Fridays reserved for discussion sections, language instruction, labs and (wait for it!) — travel to athletic events! With the possible exception of discussion sections, none of these implicate the members of the ASA.

So worst case scenario, since this conference began today, a Thursday, a few Thursday classes would have been canceled in some departments. An astonishing number of people arrived late last night and this morning so that they could meet their Wednesday commitments. Several people I know will not be here until tomorrow night, as they are teaching their Thursday classes.

My courses meet Monday and Tuesday, which means that I didn’t have to reschedule anything and I had the added pleasure of doing a whole week’s work in two days. But if I were to have missed a class, I am required by university rules to inform my chair and explain how the class will be covered, either by a colleague coming in as a guest, by a make-up class, or by meeting in a digital environment.

Perhaps the students whose classes were canceled will take that vacant 70 minutes and read a newspaper or a book.

But here’s a question for you: how is education harmed when educators enhance and refresh their scholarship, technology and pedagogy? When widget salesmen go to the widget conference, who minds the widget store? When police go to the FBI academy for courses, who is watching the crooks? When David Patraeus was working on his biography with Paula Broadwell, who was minding the CIA? These are all questions we can ask — but do the answers really have a measurable impact on anything important?

What legit info do professors get at panels that they couldn’t get by reading the papers, e-mail, etc.?

I’m kind of fascinated that you think that academic meetings are one big Groupon, or a bonus section of USA Today. How much legit info do you think people get in medical school that they couldn’t get just by watching Grey’s Anatomy?

How academically valuable–other than schmoozing for jobs–is the hallway conversation?

In what profession does a person get a job by schmoozing?

Carbon footprint?

Binders full of women?

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