U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History Conferences: What Are They Good For?

Here’s a little conference-related humor to lighten the mood.

Duncan Green’s June 2017 screed against conferences produced, in me, some sympathy, amusement, and irritation. I’m going to use this post to sort out those reactions, in professional terms.

Appearing in The Guardian, Green’s plaint—titled “Conference rage: ‘How did awful panel discussions become the default format?'”—faults academic conferences for “turgid/self-aggrandizing keynotes and coma-inducing panels, followed by people (usually men) asking ‘questions’ that are really comments…usually not on topic.”

There’s more: “Chairs…abdicate responsibility and let all the speakers over-run, so that the only genuinely productive bit of the day (networking at coffee breaks and lunch) gets squeezed. …Panel discussions…end up being a parade of people reading out papers, or they include terrible powerpoints crammed with too many words and illegible graphics. ” Green concludes that “the format is tired and unproductive.”

These problems are, of course, horrible. Green’s screed makes for amusing reading, but I sympathize with some of his deeper points. I’ve seen these issues arise at conferences, though not usually in a concentrated fashion.

Solutions are also offered. Green suggests making “feedback systems” available to attendees, and “shaping the format to [better] fit the the precise purpose of the conference.” He adds that conferences should be resourced properly, with “sensible conference budget[s]” to fit the event (i.e. don’t go cheap). He also advocates for non-academics (i.e. event professionals) to plan and execute these events.

Green ends his piece by asking—in his “handy 3i rule of thumb” format™—whether ideas, institutions, or interests are the barriers to change for standard academic conference formats. He finds something problematic in all three areas (i.e. lack of imagination about improvement, ham-handed professional control/gate-keeping, and papers preferred due to faulty professional excellence standards).

Given that our annual conference is a central activity of this Society, and given that I am planning one for 2018 (in Chicago), these complaints, solutions, and attempts to find obstacles to change matter a great deal. I’m intensely interested in what works and what doesn’t, practically and theoretically.

As a first principle, academic conferences are, in my experience, what you make of them. Panels are not the end, but a means to another end, which is intellectual engagement. Intellectual interest and engagement derive from content, but also reading, writing, and conversation. If you’re attending a conference, you probably came, at base, for the content. If you didn’t, the odds of any panel appealing to you are slim. If a deep interest in the main subject matter is there, even a “bad” conference will work for you. Why? Because you’re there to learn, listen, converse, and network. If you happen to be presenting, then you have a responsibility to add to the conference’s overall knowledge base by writing, speaking, and conversing about your presentation.

On the presentation format, panels are not set up to be as entertaining as a lecture or a TedTalk. Visceral pleasure isn’t the point, but rather a byproduct of good thinking. Conferences may have one stage for a keynote speaker or panel, but the rest of the event is housed in breakout rooms that seat maybe 30-50 people. Those rooms have tables to replicate, in part, the knowledge exchange format most professionals grew comfortable with in graduate training—i.e. speaking around a table. But conferences even compromise on that by adding microphones and forcing each panel member to face the audience. Adjusting to that format requires time and experience on the part of participants. The panel format and its geography are hybrids—a nod toward past formats with which academics are comfortable, but also a concession to the audience that make some uncomfortable. Only experienced, gregarious academics will be entertaining in this format.

Academics, moreover, are not trained to be entertainers—not even historians. We are not expected to have taken acting or voice classes. We barely engage in much scripted speaking during graduate work. We are not trained to appear on television or radio. Even in terms of writing, a graduate program in history prepares one to write in only one or two registers (i.e. prose for professional journals, and maybe for exhibit text). Graduate coursework rarely even mimics conference presentations. If a historian comes out of graduate school with these other skills, they likely learned them independently, or possessed them upon entry.

If academics are not trained to be entertainers, and conferences derive from academics attempting to find a format in which to trade knowledge and interact, it is unreasonable to attach consumer expectations to conferences. No conference will engage you like a game show, movie, lecture, or concert. But most of Duncan Green’s complaints derive from the fundamental fact that conferences are not entertaining enough. The only substantial way to correct this is to add theater and communications training to graduate programs, both as coursework and practicums. Perhaps improv or stand-up workshops would help. Adding that kind of training wouldn’t solve the problem of having knowledge relayed and consumed such that real intellectual engagement could occur. That skillset would only make presentations a bit easier to consume.

If you don’t want papers read, or summarized, at conferences, then you force attendees to choose their panels well ahead of time and commit to reading the papers in advance. This is a dicey proposition. How can attendees sacrifice that kind of time in the midst of other professional obligations? How many history professionals even know, for sure, what panels they will attend before they arrive? The current conference format provides something of an escape for professionals, and allows for seat-of-the-pants decisions upon arrival. We can perform in our day jobs, and then drop out for 3-4 days for a conference. While there, sufficient knowledge is relayed to them through readings, during the panels, for a substantial conversation to follow. The conference format assumes busy attendees who can’t perform a lot of advance work. With this assumption, if one likes the conference’s subject matter, then some pay-off occurs in the last part of every panel.

On Green’s solutions, it is true that every conference would benefit from the touch and expertise of event planners. Academics are not good at planning happy hours. We do not always find the best hotel deals, or food caterers. Even so, fusty professors will have to help event planners select relevant content. And that process will likely involve the selection of ill-humored content specialists with zero personality and a propensity to mumble. So the professors will frustrate the peppy event planners.

As for funding, perhaps Green isn’t aware of the budget pressures felt by universities and colleges? Those pressures translate into fewer funds for conference attendance, as well as deal-searching by academics to spread thinning allotments of remaining monies. With that, charging more for events may dissuade attendance, killing the very thing Green wants to improve. The climate of decreased funds also puts pressure on the usual sponsors of academic conferences, causing a further downward spiral in the overall money pool. In sum, going “cheap” is the modus operandi for academic conferences. Most all of them are working in a climate of austerity. (If more money is available, it probably should be used on food and drink, not fancy technical feedback systems or wonky technology.)

On feedback systems, I suppose Green is referring to something akin to Yelp, or perhaps Guidebook? Either way, panels are unique occurrences due to the nature of participant selection, topics covered, and panel timing. An electronic rating system might supply a rating, but the results won’t translate for future conferences. Panels are rarely reproduced at future events. Most academic conferences exist on the upsurge of churn—they float on novel perspectives and new findings. Planners crave uniqueness. If a conference exists on a plane similar to some other form of entertainment, they might be like jam bands who produce unique content at each event. Conferences exist because knowledge is always in motion, and attendees want a glimpse of the current scene. Feedback then becomes unique to the event, and useless for rating the particulars of future conferences.

Duncan Green’s screed, in the end, simply underscores what conferences are not (i.e. entertainment). They are not conventionally entertaining for non-academics, and therefore can’t be measured against consumerist standards of engagement. Each conference is a unique intellectual event that can only be graded, ultimately, against itself. And its ritual format—meaning panels, keynotes, small-group discussions, and networking events—grows out of particular circumstances and professional norms. Academic conferences exist as relief from some of those norms, even as they are attached to them.

While academic conferences, as they exist, are not perfect, they suit the purposes of their peculiar attendees. In the case of historians, those professionals come to recharge, or rest, in a familiar format with colleagues who meet certain professional criteria of interest, training, and credentials. I predict any technological advance will only make it marginally more entertaining. Why? Because conferences are what you make of them. They are good for you in relation to the energy and interest you bring. – TL

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. A few more things (to shake the dust off my long break from comments, if nothing else):

    1. In case it isn’t clear, I love the traditional conference format. I’ll defend it to the very end.
    2. I wanted to address the subjects of time management (in panels) and the distinct advantage of utilizing hotels for conferences, but this write-up is already 1500 words.

  2. Thank you Tim for a very sensible essay and for taking on the big task of the S-USIH 2018 Conference. Academic conferences are ease to complain about. But like you said they are not about entertainment. They are about exchange within a narrow field. Having produced many non-academic conferences and having served on S-USIH conferences including the future 2018, I understand the challenge of keeping people’s attention.

    Conferences are a moment reflecting what is on the mind of the field. One complain is people reading their papers, again it’s not a Ted Talk. When one is trying to convey complex ideas in 15-20 minutes you really can’t wing it. Sometimes panelist try to say too much, I rather have that than a breezy thin presentation (last minute prep) that waste of my time.

    My strategy for the S-USIH conference is based on how I learn best, it’s difficult for me to get information auditorially. I prefer to read your book or chapter and I am sure others have the same issue. So I love book tables and book related sessions for future reference. I pick my panel attendance based on what seems of interest, sit through the panel while trying to find points of connection, then I like to listen to the discussion and talk to people during social time. Panels are launch pads for informal conversation later or reconnecting after the conference. It’s work to listen and take some notes. I always come away with something really useful for my own work. This is all not unique to me. The size of the S-USIH conference is ideal. Big enough to have variety of topics and people; small enough to make meaningful connections. Please no Yelp ratings! Everyone should be able to make a mistake and not be penalized. Safe space? Looking forward to seeing everyone in Dallas, October 2017.

    • Thanks for the comment, Lilian. It’s clear that I’m no disinterested observer, given my role in helping plan S-USIH conferences from 2008-10, and for the next year. But if one can set aside, or bracket, my interests momentarily, I do think that Duncan Green’s complaints are more heat than light. His is a list of necessary evils in relation to academia and the format (i.e. questions as comments, violations of time rules, sometimes crappy food, some less-than-savvy presentations).

      I think your strategy is best: take ownership of your preferences, and make the best of an imperfect but adequate system.

    • The article suggests that attending conferences hosted at universities would help ameliorate costs (versus those held in expensive hotels). I don’t think so. Why? Two reasons: (1) The article’s authors must not be familiar with costs levied by universities (i.e. charging room rental rates, forcing use of one caterer, transportation to/fro since lodging is not available on-site); (2) Why not just choose a less pricey hotel for hosting?

  3. I’d like to push back on the idea that wanting conference presentations to be entertaining is consumerist and anti-intellectual. I certainly don’t think they should be TED talks, but if you’re asking people to listen to one or two dozen oral presentations in the course of a long weekend it’s hubristic to put the attentional burden so squarely on the listener.

    Perhaps interesting-ness would be a better framework here. And at that level, I don’t think it’s possible to separate form from content so cleanly. Interesting-ness is a virtue of good argument, and it can facilitate intellectual engagement in a deeper way than just sweetening the pill, i.e. by focusing attention on the important pieces, making it clear how all the evidence fits together, etc. These are virtues of good writing as well, but the burden is actually higher for oral presentations, since people can’t go back and reread to make better sense of things. I get that we’re specialists, we’re pressed for time, the spoken word isn’t our primary skill set, and nobody’s perfect. But dismissing complaints about presentation as surface-level strikes me as handwaving at a real problem that actually does impede scholarly communication in many instances. Not nearly as badly as paywalls, but still.

    The suggestion of theater and communications training seems like a joke, and it might be if it were just for the sake of conferences. But given how much time many of us spend lecturing, I think it is 100% worth taking seriously.

    (Caveat that I admit I don’t live up to my ideals! But the point of conversations like these is to change structures and incentives)

    • John: Thanks for your long comment. For the record, I was 100 percent serious about history graduate students obtaining training in theater or communications. – TL

      • Thanks for your long blog post! I appreciate hearing your defense of the panel format and its practical considerations.

        Glad to hear you’re serious about comms training as well. I wonder what would be required to institutionalize it? Perhaps it could be pitched as part of a shift to stronger instruction in pedagogy, or as a skill transferable beyond academia (though the latter presents TED-type temptations). Either way, it seems like it could be done by individual departments. Perhaps some departments already have that I don’t know about?

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