A competing manifesto on the value of academic conferences (essay)
Last week, the New York Times‘s “Opinionator” published an essay  in which Christy Wampole decried the present state of humanities scholarship by holding up the worst forms of conference behavior to ridicule.
Let’s be honest: all academics have groaned at plenary papers that go over the time limit or senior colleagues who assume their listeners will fully absorb their arguments even when delivered in a monotone with no attention to rhetorical context. These examples of inconsiderate academics are certainly not the norm, however, just as misbehavior or nastiness are not often the norm in any other professional arena.
Wampole herself admits to engaging in the narcissistic habit of answering emails during plenaries and having “listened for the first five minutes of the talk, just long enough to seize upon a word around which [she’ll] construct a pseudoquestion in the Q and A.” She includes herself among those who sometimes give a paper and then spend the rest of the conference at the pool bar.
To suggest as she does, however, that we should judge the quality or the future of the humanities by these unfortunate instances of a professional lack of grace is irresponsible. It is judging a profession by its lowest common denominator, and it obscures the good, important exchange of ideas and generation of knowledge that occurs at academic conferences year in and year out, throughout most academic careers.
It also feeds the worst stereotypes about academics that subsequently become fuel for political agendas across the country seeking to defund education at the great expense of America’s future.
Of late, public critiques of the humanities have taken the explicit form of assertions that the disciplines have no practical value or contemporary relevance in a technological world. Implicitly, such critiques also manifest in persistent funding cuts to arts programs, in calls for exclusively STEM-based initiatives to improve our educational system, in claims about the unemployability of humanities graduates, even in assertions by some defenders of the disciplines that humanities knowledge is primarily good for business, economics or public-policy makers — which imply that such knowledge and experience has no value if it cannot be turned to moneymaking.
But in the last few years, there has also been what feels like an exponential increase in those willing to engage in national conversations that ask, and attempt to answer, tough questions about these issues. Academics and nonacademics alike have filled the pages of The New York Times, Inside Higher Ed,The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Atlantic and scores of other outlets with meditations on the costs of higher education humanities study, who is served, who is left out and the role of the humanities in shaping young minds  or good citizens  or brilliant scientists  or desirable employees .
We are encouraged by this general willingness to engage in these tough intellectual conversations. At the same time, we are disheartened by the propensity of so many, both within higher education and outside of it, to rely upon the dismissive premise that academics largely exist in a secluded world in which they care only about their own infinitesimal research interests, which are esoteric at best, incomprehensible and a waste of taxpayers’ money at worst.
This is not to suggest we should not all, as professionals, always strive to make our practices better, to keep pace with the times, to question our own assumptions and habits, to identify honestly what is not working, and to change it where we can. However, it is to suggest that perhaps a better model for doing so is one that is based on the notion that academics — as teachers, researchers, mentors and institutional colleagues — go into their chosen profession with the desire to advance knowledge through collaborative means.
Contrary to the misrepresentation of academic conferences as attended only by dreary caricatures of the out-of-touch professor rambling on about irrelevant ideas, most conferences we attend are places where we try out ideas among our colleagues, launch collaborations, consider the pedagogical and public import of our findings, mentor graduate students, and participate in the transformations of our fields in ways that make us better teachers and better researchers.
Many of us value conferences for both private and professional reasons, as David M. Perry points out in his May 6 Chronicle of Higher Education response to Wampole’s essay , and as Devoney Looser has recently enumerated in her Chronicle guide to conference etiquette . We, like both of them, encourage thinking about conferences as an important means of entry into our disciplinary communities.
Conferences help to provide what many faculty cannot find at their home institutions: a community of minds focused on a particular issue. For faculty members everywhere but the Ivy League or a very well-funded public university, inviting speakers to campus who can give lectures and seminars on the latest research ideas or programmatic innovations is not a given, nor is access to a world-class research library. These facts are especially true in the context of many states’ perilous hollowing out of the financial support for public colleges and universities.
As faculty numbers continue to shrink, academics often find themselves a party of one in their departments, working as the sole representative of a particular field, without immediate access to colleagues in their fields of expertise. Done well, an academic conference offers a chance for collegial dialogue of the sort that can lead to tangible progress. When faculty members attend conferences, students and their institutions also directly reap the benefits.
Conferences can be particularly important for scholars of color and others who find themselves disenfranchised by administrations and by institutionalized injustices on their own campuses. Although we recognize that unfortunately many conferences have a long way to go to truly support marginalized academic communities, we are encouraged by those we have seen working explicitly to foster this kind of inclusivity.
For many faculty members struggling with the isolation of being seen as a “representative” member of an underrepresented group, conference networking can be a crucial path for figuring out how to navigate their own institutions, for dealing with the microaggressions of students, administrators and other faculty, and for coping with the additional and unique responsibilities they often face alone of mentoring minority student populations or administering programs. Conferences also have the potential to be sites for the birth of activism, where communities both formal and informal unite to make changes in how things are done, how people are treated and how certain ideas are valued.
Conferences are, in other words, even more important for those not privileged by mainstream academic cultures than they are for the elites. A researcher at Princeton has regular access to communities of scholarship that would be completely unknown to most attendees of a scholarly conference. Perhaps most depressingly, such intellectual communities are often nonexistent for the contingent faculty who are rarely fully integrated members of their own departments and who, despite being engaged in rigorous research, cannot attend conferences even when they want to because their institutions do not support the professional development of these integral members of their communities.
Wampole submits that “conferences feel necessary, but their purpose is unclear.” While the exact form that conference collaborations take might usefully be retooled, their purpose in supporting innovations in research, teaching, administration or activism could not be more clear. The process of making a productive contribution to research depends upon knowing what people already know, and this is significantly aided by the feedback of other scholars working on similar or related questions. Even as we acknowledge the legitimate problem of the environmental impact of that much travel, we don’t think anything can fully substitute for the intellectual experience of hearing a good plenary talk followed by a vigorous debate that is the catalyst for deeper conversations throughout the conference. Published scholarship is essential, but it takes time to develop, and face-to-face conversations and the accountability conferences provide are a great way to incubate ideas that are just being formed.
Could conferences be better? Of course they could, but they are organized and run by groups of committed faculty members or the staff they have hired to help them, who do their best despite inevitable budget constraints and competing time demands. Instead of focusing on the problem of boredom, how about addressing truly meaningful problems, like the economic barriers to participation for graduate students and less financially privileged researchers, or lessening the impact of mass travel on the environment, or the lack of child care resources, or the way such conferences are misrepresented in the anti-intellectual popular media?
Here is the bottom line: conferences are created by the faculty they serve. They are not merely events where we put ourselves on display or where we criticize from an outside position — they are collaborative ventures. Faculty researchers do not just attend their conferences; they own them. And so, we offer the following countermanifesto.
A Conference Manifesto for the Rest of Us:
(1) We will consider the quality of the conferences we attend as our own responsibility. If we are unhappy with the structure, we will contact the organizing committee or form a coalition to initiate changes to the obstacles that limit the conference’s success. (We know of one such coalition currently forming in response to a lack of female presenters at a major conference, and this is not an isolated example.)
(2) We will strive to be precise and productive. We will offer meaningful rather than petty critiques, strive not to generalize from extreme examples and, as much as possible, focus on useful alternatives rather than finger pointing.
(3) If we are not in a position of power, or we feel too disaffected to contribute to positive solutions at a structural level, then we will be the change we seek in our individual interactions. If a scholar presents a paper in which the larger purpose is not clear, we will ask him about that purpose during the Q and A. If it is clear that a speaker is having trouble articulating an argument, we will help her see what it is. We will attend as many events as we can, offer real feedback and participate in real discussions. Put more simply, we will continue to be generous.
(4) We will acknowledge academic generosity where we find it, namely:
- in the organizers who laboriously put together meeting programs, speakers and events to foster collaborative dialogue and the exchange of ideas;
- in the keynote speakers, senior colleagues and established scholars who routinely engage more junior members of the profession in meaningful conversations;
- in the conference-goers who ask thoughtful questions;
- in the professors who mentor students;
- and, institutionally beyond the world of conferences, in the faculty who work to improve conditions on their campuses, in the anonymous reviewers who provide constructive feedback on essays and in the adjuncts who spend endless unremunerated hours facilitating learning.
(5) We will be humble. We will recognize that although humanists are excellent at being critical, we are fortunate to have these communities to help us improve our research.
(6) We will attempt always to get over ourselves. Our presentations may be great, but they aren’t perfect.
(7) And finally, we will be aware. We will continue to think carefully about how we use the resources invested in us as scholars. It appears to us that the humanities are at least beginning to be recognized as having both intrinsic  and extrinsic  values, and it is up to us to communicate those values to people who doubt both, rather than to reinforce stereotypes through exclusionary rhetoric or condescension. We posit that there is real value in the thoughtful public intellectual, and we will work to be scholars who are willing to ask hard questions about our own work, to engage in thorny debates about priorities, to radically reimagine what higher education might look like in the 21st century and to challenge the parameters or privileges of our own positions. We will make sure that we can clearly show why our work matters, because no matter how frustrating conferences can be, they are places where humanities scholarship does some of its most important work.
Cora Fox is an associate professor of English and associate director of the Institute for Humanities Research at Arizona State University. Andrea Kaston Tange is a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University and editor of the Journal of Narrative Theory. Rebecca A. Walsh is an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University and co-chair of The H. D. International Society.