Starry events lose shine

March 19, 2004

American universities are veering towards smaller conferences with more practical content, reports Stephen Phillips

Conferences represent both a rite of passage and an integral part of the professional calendar for US faculties. Many will have arrived at their initial professional footholds via assemblies such as the Modern Language Association, where departmental recruiters come out in force.

For high-powered "nationals" such as the MLA, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Association of Anthropology, annual meetings also serve as media showcases for their fields. But the changing political and economic situation is having an effect on both the content and the size of US conferences.

"Scholars have to make a choice to a much greater degree," says Rosemary Feal, the MLA's executive director. "They can no longer assume they'll be funded - there's less discretionary travel to conferences."

With institutions facing a funding squeeze and having to scrutinise the utility of conferences more carefully, professional development subjects are gaining ground.

"You're seeing more and more practical sessions that have more to do with day-to-day life than academic research," says Bonnie Irwin, an English professor at Eastern Illinois University. "At the MLA, there were presentations on teaching with sensitivity to graduate students and on how to apply for grants."

One driver of the increased emphasis on pedagogical skills, she adds, is the "greater accountability faced by the teaching end of the profession", particularly on public campuses, amid demands to know how taxpayers' funds are being used.

"you've got to look at it from the institution's point of view," says Jeffrey Di Leo, assistant professor of English and philosophy at the University of Houston-Victoria. "A presentation that will bring something back into education is easier to defend than an outlay of funds on an insulated academic topic."

Tapping into the Zeitgeist is another conference drawcard. The MLA has long prided itself on the provocative, pun-laden and hip titles of its sessions. Presentations at the most recent event included "Taking Away the Threat: Cribs and The Osbournes as Narratives of Domestication".

"It's not rocket science, but it's something academic conferences avoided for years as a way of demonstrating their aloofness from the hurly-burly of the world," says Martin Snyder, director of planning and development at the American Association of University Professors. "But it won't work anymore Ñ if a faculty member is going to go to their director and ask for $1,000 to attend, a conference needs to have currency and relevance."

Meta-professional issues such as tenure and publishing in the humanities are also crowd-pullers. Discussions of these topics were "standing room-only at the last MLA annual meeting, whereas literary criticism was much more sparsely attended", says Di Leo, editor of Affiliation: Identity in Academic Culture.

All told, there were 8,500 attendees at December's MLA meeting. But there's something of a gravitation towards smaller, often interdisciplinary, meetings. While the big meetings, whose planning and running is often outsourced to big conference organisers, will remain fixtures, they are often a chore for delegates. "The big, impersonal bureaucracy is off-putting," Di Leo says.

Some large conferences are making things easier on attendees by acting small. The American Comparative Literature Association, for instance, has introduced extended round-table discussions in its annual meetings that reconvene over successive days so attendees can examine subjects in much greater depth.

Reflecting trends within academia at large, small and more specialised conferences with interdisciplinary themes are becoming increasingly popular.

In the same vein of pooling knowledge across different fields with the aim of forging new insights, disparate campus officials are also getting together at administrative conferences. University business managers, physical plant administrators, planners and budget officers will meet at the same annual conference in 2006 after their respective professional bodies decided to consolidate meetings to facilitate collaboration and cut costs.

Militating against increased academic diversity at conferences is the global political climate. Although James Morley, president of the National Association of College and University Business Officers, says that attendance at most events has bounced back after the post 9/11 dip, US visa restrictions are reducing international attendance at events. This is particularly keenly felt in the sciences because of fears relating to knowledge relevant to weapons of mass destruction.

"It takes so long for scientists to get their visas these days that frequently conferences are over well before the visa decision is made," says Victor Johnson of the Association of International Educators.

US government officials have "yet to define precisely which aspects of science they are concerned about so everyone gets caught up," he says, adding that there are fears that leading science conferences may relocate abroad as a result.

With international no-shows increasingly common, technology permitting remote access to proceedings for those unable to attend, such as video-conferencing or live audio or video streams over the internet, may be at more of a premium. The National Association of College and University Business Officers recently equipped its Washington DC headquarters with a studio from which to broadcast seminars addressing specific technical issues over the web for members.

There is nothing quite like face-time, however, says Irwin, who views conferences as important social gatherings for academics, noting that the most popular forum for discussing ideas is often the dinner table after each day's sessions.

  • In my own words
    At an MLA convention, I went to a bar that was hosted by some association. I was still doing my PhD and I had little money. I was shocked that a bottle of beer cost $8. I joked to a woman that she would need her credit card to get a drink. She looked me up and down, tried to read my name card under the strap of my rucksack, and said, with utter contempt: 'I've got a job.' Then she walked off.

    Simon Kovesi, lecturer in the department of English studies, Oxford Brookes University
Conferences, Issue No.1
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