Over the past few decades attending large annual academic conferences has lost its appeal to many scholars and graduate students alike.
Participants frequently complain that these meetings are:
• too expensive,
• crowded, and
• artificial environments (e.g., almost everyone is on their best behavior).
On top of this, many attendees have difficulties with the quality of papers presented, the selection criteria for paper acceptance, the poor or lack of feedback on papers/posters, and the times at which panels are scheduled.
Now that measures have been developed and implemented to deal with the COVID-19 virus, and face-to-face academic conferences are resuming, these complaints seem to be rearing their ugly heads again.
Once again conference goers are asking themselves (and their colleagues) are large scale annual academic meetings really worth attending? In particular, they ask why should they subject themselves and others to this kind of expense and inconvenience, just to present a paper, meet colleagues who don’t live in the same city, and to network with likeminded people?
More specifically, are there better ways to achieve the intended goals of academic conference attendance, and address some of the recurrent problems that academic conference goers experience?
The short answer is yes, but there are also a number of alternatives that scholars might want to consider.
First, perhaps these conferences could be held less often, or scholars might want to attend them less frequently. This way they temporarily postpone the pain until they believe that it is almost entirely necessary to attend.
Second, if academics want to meet face to face with like-minded individuals, then perhaps conferences, or at least large scale annual academic ones is not (or rarely) the best place where this is going to occur. Instead, they might want to attend smaller conferences, with considerably less people in attendance, like ones held by regional academic associations, or ones that focus on relatively narrow subjects (e.g., symbolic interactionism, ethnographies, etc.). This may be one reason why numerous small divisions of larger academic organizations seem to proliferate. These types of meetings may not be held every year, so it’s important to keep one’s eye out for them.
Third, if it’s the feedback on your ideas that you want, then short of conducting research, writing up the findings in the form of a paper and submitting it to a peer review journal, then it might be helpful to join or form an informal research groups that meets (either face-to-face or on-line) on a regular basis. Similar to mastermind groups, these groups discuss papers they have written, are going to write, and may collaborate on grants they are going to seek.
As you go about your work this academic year ask yourself what do you really get from conferences? Perhaps attending annual meetings provides a break from the routine of teaching and research, and departmental, college and university service. Maybe attending conferences is a chance to take a break from your partner or even the kids.
The truth is that you really don’t’ need to attend large scale annual conferences to do good scholarly work, nor network with likeminded people.
What about the money that departments, colleges and universities earmark for faculty travel? Put it into an annual faculty research fund and have professors, instructors, and graduate students spend it any way they want as long as it’s in furtherance of their research.
The only thing that is preventing us from changing course is inflexibility or a failure to be creative. Falling back on the same routines by going to the annual learned society annual conference is not the only way to achieve its intended goals. Like so many other things in higher education, the conference attendance must be rethought.