Thursday, July 23, 2009

What is the point of conferences?

There has been some discussion in comments lately about what the point of conferences is. Some people have suggested that the point is just to get a line on the CV. But while I like getting lines on my CV, I don't see that as the point.

For one thing, I don't see it as just a line on the CV. I hope that my conference activity demonstrates to search committees that I am an active participant in the profession. I hope it shows that I am out there presenting papers and doing stuff. (In addition to getting stuff into journals.) I hope that they don't just think I wanted to go on a junket to Omaha.

For another thing, I typically find conferences to be extremely helpful. Although I've been to some clunkers, I've also gotten excellent feedback from commentators and during Q & A sessions.

For another thing, I enjoy commenting on the work of others. There are gaps in my philosophical education, and commenting helps me to fill those gaps by forcing me to write a short paper about something I usually don't know an awful lot about going in. (Now, I don't comment on stuff I literally know nothing about, but I've learned a lot by commenting on papers in areas related to those I work in, but haven't thought deeply about.)

For another thing, conferences provide a nice opportunity to catch up with old friends. One of the drawbacks to the academic lifestyle is that you usually don't end up living very near your friends from college and grad school, and the right conference can make otherwise impossible reunions happen.

So I guess I think conferences are pretty valuable.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

While *ideally* conferences would be the things you mention, generally they are a complete waste of time and have even less worth than "a line on the CV" since no one really cares about *those* lines on your CV, anyways.

Generally, a conference consists of presenters who are trying to make themselves look as good and as smart as possible with questioners who are trying to do the same (the two often at the expense of each other). This is not to say that occasionally there is genuine dialogue at conferences...but it's rare.

Conferences, like most of academia sort of a joke and nothing serious tends to ever happen at them.

Anonymous said...

Some people are surely going to make the comment that conferences do not offer anything over and above what you can get by talking with the graduate students and faculty in your program. That might be true for people in very good programs or programs well-stocked in their area, but it's simply not true for many others. Conferences are useful because you get feedback you wouldn't have gotten otherwise. (No, it's not that easy to just send a paper to someone random you've never met.)

Asstro said...

Ai, ai, ai. Anon 8:43 needs an attitude adjustment.

Zero has it about right, I think. I'd add, though, that conferences get better as you get past your grad school years. I see many of my friends from my AOS every year at some annual conferences, and it's a great way to catch up on life-related issues, as well as on research-related issues. The best part about conferences generally isn't the papers, though those can be nice too. The best part is being able to get shit-faced drunk with people in the profession and to talk about whatever research is currently floating your boat.

Also, I agree with Zero that conferences can be really helpful for working on a paper for publication. Many academics simply don't have a great route for feedback on their work. They're isolated by their jobs, stuck in some rural department with only two or three colleagues. The conference offers an opportunity to hash out some ideas, to be informed about the most current research in the field, to be inspired to write new stuff.

It is almost always true for me that I will maybe not _learn_ something from someone else's talk, but rather be inspired to write on a topic or issue that I otherwise hadn't considered.

Finally, many conferences invite influential keynotes. It's nice to have an opportunity to meet and hang with these people. Even for those of us at faculties where we have regular passers-through, or where we perhaps have a budget that allows us to invite out people we respect and/or are interested in, it can be nice to attend a conference where all that legwork is done for you.

Dunno. I like conferences. They're a way to get away from the family and just geek out on philosophy with people who understand and like philosophy too.

As for the line on the CV, I think I'll disagree with Zero a little bit. The lines on your CV may demonstrate some degree of involvement in the community, but a search committee probably won't care all that much about your involvement in the community -- at least, so far as it's reflected by lines on your CV. Where they will care about your involvement in the community is in the extent to which this is reflected in more tangible areas.

That is, it is likely that if you go to conferences, you will be productive paper-wise; and if you're productive paper-wise, it is likely that you will also publish these papers. Search committees like this. Furthermore, if you go to conferences, it is likely that you will be engaged with people who may get to know your work, who may talk about you to others, who may write you letters of recommendation. This too can be influential with search committees.

All this to say, I think conferences are generally very good. I think Anon 8:43 is being grumpy, or hasn't really matured much in the field, or at least hasn't honestly considered the broader benefits of being engaged in the way Zero suggests. Seems to me that Zero is doing exactly the right thing.

John Turri said...

I usually get a lot out of a conference. I get just as much out of the conversations between sessions and at dinner or over a drink, as I do out of the sessions themselves.

There's also typically a flood of intellectual energy in the wake of a conference. I find it very easy to write a lot and well for at least a couple weeks afterward ... so long as I don't run into a wall of exams to correct!

Jamie said...

I agree with just about all of the positive comments so far.
I wonder whether (rather than just being grouchy) the negative reactions are to quite different sorts of conferences. I'm thinking of the Madison Metaethics Workshop, for instance, or Syracuse's SPAWN (the latter is by invitation, the former by refereed submission). I just can't imagine anyone who attended saying that either of these is a "waste of time."

It's true, as asstro says, that conference presentations are important for the sake of other CV lines they'll eventually lead to, but if you're on the market for your first TT job and don't have much in the way of publications, the conference presentations show that you really do have stuff in the pipeline. (Please take this as a single data point, though -- I don't pretend that it's anything more than a report of the way I read a CV.)

Anonymous said...

Conferences can also provide you with deadlines to spur writing once you're done with classes. (Good both for writing the diss and for the tenure track.)

Anonymous said...

I have very mixed feelings about conferences.

For folks who are not only talented, but also especially sociable and outgoing, regular conferencing seems to translate into lines that matter on CVs (maybe more than they should): lines about invited talks and book chapters. (In my experience, people make decisions about invited speakers and contributors to edited books based not on blind reviews of CVs and published articles, but rather on personal interactions--which occur at conferences.) I'd like to think I'm not entirely talentless; however, I'm definitely not especially sociable and outgoing. It's nice to see friends, but mostly conference trips are rather hard on the nerves, I find.

Also, while I do think there's a lot to learn at conferences, I don't seem to have much of a talent for attending to long papers read aloud. (Of course, not everyone does that, but many still do). I learn a lot more from working through things once they're already in print. (Conferences in which full papers are made available a month ahead are way too rare--those are always the best for me.)

I've given papers at all sorts of conferences (peer-refereed and open, regional, national, and international), and I've had commentators whose work I admire a lot. But I've almost never received any useful comments. The comments I've received in the form of peer reviews of submitted articles and book manuscripts has been briefer, but really generally much more helpful.

My position is at a University that really does care quite a lot about "those" lines on the CV, by the way. (People who give 2-3 2,500 word papers at regional, peer-refereed, conferences receive more annual review points than those who publish a single 10,000 word paper in a major peer-refereed journal. And at my U, we get extra points just for giving a paper really far away (at an international conference) rather than a short drive or flight away to the site of a regional or national conference.)

Anonymous said...

I'm just curious why I (Anon 8:43) would need an "attitude adjustment" when Asstro himself writes that the best thing about conferences "is being able to get shit-faced drunk with people in the profession and to talk about whatever research is currently floating your boat."

Look, I'm not saying that ALL conferences are horrible, just that MOST are. If the best part of a conference is the social aspect and the aspect of inspiration (i.e. not actually learning something as Asstro seems to acknowledge), then I'm all for them: but let's call a spade a spade. Maybe some of us happen to think that there are better ways to socialize (and, frankly, better people to socialize with than academics), and better ways to get inspired (e.g. by reading philosophy)...or I guess I must be grumpy, immature, and/or inconsiderate/unthoughtful.

The Brooks Blog said...

I believe conferences are invaluable because of the people you meet and discuss ideas, what's happening, etc. with. While one always hopes for good, stimulating papers at conferences, I go for the people, rather than the papers. I am never disappointed.

Anonymous said...

This is Anon 8:43 again -- Brooks -- I can completely agree (and drink to that) -- but I happen to think that what you've just expressed is true about life in general. :)

Asstro said...

Ah, but Anon 8:43 is changing his tune midstream. He said that they were a "complete waste of time." I'm responding to that. I don't consider getting drunk off my ass with fellow philosophers a waste of time. Sure, I have other things I like doing too, but I do like hanging out and talking shop with people at bars. Conferences give me a way to do that with people I don't usually have an opportunity to do that with.

the spice is life said...

Conferences are definitely a mixed bag, and much of their value depends upon the stage of the philosopher. As a graduate student, conferences can be wonderful tools for hearing work as it is being done in the profession. This is especially exciting if given the chance to hear a paper or presentation given that is on one's own new subject of interest. I think a great mistake that many graduate students make is immediately gravitating towards members of their own departments during conferences, which curtails any real chance to meet new people (other grad students, professors, etc.).

During that time period between grad school and entering the profession, conferences can be rather taxing. Small conferences can be fun because one can actually enjoy the papers if they strike a chord, but larger conferences tend to be more about networking, being heard, not making a fool of oneself, etc.

For myself, I am at a point where I actually enjoy organizing conferences rather than giving papers. To orchestrate a group of thinkers who have something to say about a particular topic is wonderful, and even if a few of the papers fall flat or end up being slightly different from what was expected, the dinners and late-night conversations are often worth the trouble of putting the conference together.

FWIW: I have found small conferences to be much more worthwhile in terms of inspiration than large conferences, and I find that comments from people at smaller conferences are usually beneficial for preparing papers for publication. Large conferences, although nice for the 'large stage' effect, have not offered the same worthwhile criticism as the more intimate conferences. I have also found that one can take more risks in terms of new ideas, content, etc. at smaller conferences.

Re: a line on a CV. Yeah, a conference presentation becomes that, but I don't think it's all that beneficial to utilize a conference simply for that purpose.

Anonymous said...

Asstro - that's great...I'm happy to know that you find academic conferences to be so socially stimulating. My apologies if my original post seemed to be unclear and that I took the point of addressing a post about ACADEMIC conferences from, well, an ACADEMIC (i.e. intellectual as opposed to social or social-networking or pleasure maximizing or whatever) standpoint.

- 8:43, yo.

Asstro said...

(Why bother with this guy?)

Anon. 8:43: yep, they're socially stimulating, but they also offer several of the other benefits I mentioned above, some of which are facilitated by social interaction; or did you just forget to read that?

Mr. Zero said...


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