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No-Show Conference Panelists: a New Trend?

Today's featured speaker (photo by Flickr CC user Brett Jordan)

How do you know if somebody who says he or she delivered a paper at a conference— whose paper was accepted, whose name appears in the conference schedule, who includes the item on an official c.v,–actually wrote and presented the paper?

Over the last two months, I have heard of six people who canceled their appearances at the last moment and it left me wondering: If a hiring, or tenure and promotion, committee were evaluating these individuals, how would we know they hadn’t shown up?

How would you know this person was lying?

OK, so I was going to write “misleading” rather than “lying,” but I thought that would be misleading. Let’s face it: When you don’t show up to give a paper, as far as I’m concerned you must remove the item from your CV. It doesn’t matter if you “meant” to go or even if you wrote the paper and then didn’t show up: If your CV says you gave a paper at a conference, you better have been there.

Sure, life happens. Flights are canceled; kids break legs. There are legitimate reasons for breaking a contract—which is,  in effect, what you’re doing when you agree to be part of panel.

But if indeed you do agree to be on a panel at a major conference, shouldn’t it take something along these lines, take one of life’s bigger events, to keep you from showing up? To keep you from the unprofessional act of disappointing your colleagues and, as the Brits would say, letting down the side, shouldn’t you need more than a head cold, a husband who feels a little poorly, a child who has a tummy ache, or a long drive in lousy weather to prevent you from keeping your promise?

Remember the character from David Lodge who writes only the first paragraph of his conference paper and then prays  for something, anything, to happen to save him from having to humiliate himself publicly by proving that he never finished it? When Rodney Wainright is indeed “saved” by an act of God, he at least has the dignity to feel relieved. And to convert.

I wonder whether the many folks who didn’t show up at the last minute for these recent conferences have the same reaction or whether they find their absence easy to justify.

Perhaps this is part of our profession’s changing landscape. Perhaps people feel as if conferences are outdated: If you can exchanges ideas  instantly via electronic pathways, why bother to show up at a stuffy overpriced hotel in some small town?

If that’s the case, then why bother sending in a proposal in the first place? Why bother putting it on your CV?

And no, I’m not advocating mandatory sign-in sheets, hand-stamps, tokens for attendance, or the formation of the Conference Police. I’m just wondering whether this is a new trend, an old one I’ve missed, or something others have noticed. It’s a real question.

Maybe we should have a panel about it at next year’s MLA.

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