At the end of last month, I went to a conference in Marseilles in the South of France. As these conferences go, it went. It was not the worst I have ever attended. It was not the best. On evolution, it lasted four days, and basically consisted of one paper after another—some good, some less so—delivered at high speed in a limited space of time. To use a metaphor that the philosopher Gilbert Ryle once used about the literary style of one of my colleagues—many short sentences, crammed one after another—it was all a little bit like eating peanuts to a metronome.
There was of course a reason for the format. In Europe, as in America, if you don’t give a paper, you cannot get money to go to a conference. So everyone gets to give a paper, and the program is jammed full to accommodate all of the presenters. At least this French conference was not as bad as is promised (threatened?) by the upcoming conference in my two main areas of scholarship. I like the history of science. I like the philosophy of science. But I recognize that these are somewhat restricted areas of interest. They are minor pimples on the fair body of academia, compared say to American literature or European history. Yet, in Montreal next month at the combined meeting of the two main associations for the history and the philosophy of science, the paper giving has reached humungous proportions.
I kid you not. The historians start off on Friday morning with 10 concurrent sessions, each with four or five presentations. The philosophers are slightly behind with seven concurrent sessions, although they are getting off to a faster start with seven more sessions on the Thursday afternoon. So understand. On Friday morning at 9 you have to choose between 17 concurrent sessions—I assume since the associations are meeting together there is intended to be some intellectual crossover—and then at 9:30 you have to hurl yourself from one room to another in the hotel to get to the next paper of your choice. All a little bit like those frenetic games we used to play at birthday parties when I was a child.
The simple fact is that scholarship is not being served. First, a lot of us just don’t go to these things anymore. More senior people look at the program and blench. Save the money for something else. So right there, there is a loss. More junior people don’t get the opportunity to meet and mix with more senior people in the field. I can still remember what a thrill it was when I found myself having supper with Carl Hempel and Ernest Nagel, two of the very biggest names in the philosophy of science in the 1960s, and what an even bigger thrill it was to find that they were genuinely kind and modest men, who spent most of the meal asking me and a couple of other juniors about our work and careers.
Then plenary sessions, where two or three cutting- edge scholars interact over important topics or issues, get downgraded. Not things that we can all attend because there is so much else. Some societies I am involved with have done away with plenary sessions entirely. Not enough time or space. Again this is a massive loss. I can still remember at the first philosophy of science conference I attended how there was a session on biology and how I came away tremendously inspired, intending (as I did) to make this area of the field my specialty and topic of expertise.
And the sessions today themselves too often consist of an audience of 10 or less—often made up primarily of fellow students of the presenters. Of course I am not saying it never happens, but junior scholars simply don’t get the feedback from more senior scholars that would make the experience truly meaningful.
What is to be done? The most obvious thing is to divorce paper giving from conference support. Give everyone in the department a fixed sum and tell them to spend it as they will. The unfair thing is that someone like me with a named chair and a little cash attached to it is already in such a position. I give lots of papers, but I do so when I want to and not of necessity.
My prediction is that this could do wonders for major conferences. We could go back to having meaningful plenary sessions and the contributed papers could be properly refereed. Having a paper accepted at such a conference could be significant for the person presenting and also as a sign to the outside world that this person is giving a quality paper. Without intending to be immodest, I still remember my first paper being accepted, how it was such a confidence booster for me, and a note to my colleagues that their faith in me was not misplaced. (I will tell you sometime about what an appalling job I did as a student and how my colleagues at the university where I ended up showed faith beyond praise in me and my abilities.)
But what about junior people, these days especially grad students who need to boost up their CV’s? Well, already we have regional societies that could play that role more and more. And the major societies could get involved, with regional meetings, asking two or three senior scholars to attend, to give presentations, and to go to the papers of the junior presenters. That way the juniors could give papers and get decent feedback.
In conclusion, let me say that I am not writing this piece with great confidence in my own suggestions. I do think there is a major problem. I realize that any real progress is going to require more money and more effort. Is there ever going to be the money, are people ever going to make the effort? I don’t really know. And so in the spirit of the best conferences, I invite others to stand up and tear my thinking apart. But be constructive. You tell us what we should do.