Academic Conferences

June 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

Hey all!  First things first– I’d like to apologize for my extended absence.  I haven’t posted here in the past week or so because I’ve been busy preparing for, attending, and recovering from attending the biggest academic conference in one of the academic subfields that I’m part of.  (In my case, this was the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, which used to be the umbrella group for American diplomatic historians, and now holds everybody who studies interactions between Americans and the rest of the world).


So, I figured that this would be a perfect time to talk about what academic conferences are, what happens at them, and why they’re important to academics.


What is a conference? 


An academic conference is an event where scholars who are researching the same thing meet up to formally discuss their research.  What the “thing” is can be very broad– “history” at events like meetings of the American Historical Association, or relatively narrow– I once briefly attended one on Chinese divination.   Conferences can be many different sizes.  Some will have only about a dozen people in attendance.  Others, like the meetings of professional associations which represent an entire academic discipline or area of study (like the American Historical Association, the Modern Language Association, the Middle Eastern Studies Association, etc) can have hundreds of attendees.   These meetings usually go on for 1-3 days.


What happens at conferences?


The most important official events going on at academic conferences are formal presentation and Q&A sessions called “panels.”  At smaller conferences, there are usually only one or two panels going on at the same time, while at larger conferences, a dozen or more might be happening simultaneously.


In each panel, a group of academics each give a brief (ie: less than 20 minute) talk about their research.  These talks are usually scripted presentations, because academics usually talk about complicated issues in great detail, and without a script, it’s easy to say something false, or worse, something stupid.  The academic talks that happen at conferences tend to be fairly information-dense, use lots of jargon, and presuppose a measure of knowledge from their listeners.  This is because their main audience is the other academics at the conference.  Sometimes, a presenter will show images or a PowerPoint, but in the humanities, this is far from obligatory.  Many presenters will simply stand at a lectern and speak.


Usually, the presentations at a panel will have a common theme.  When they do, the presenters will often ask a respected scholar to offer a “comment” on their conference papers (the documents which they present at the conference).  The commentator reads the presenters’ papers in advance (it’s considered very rude to not give your commentator your paper ahead of time, or worse, to make major changes between submitting your paper for comment and presenting it), and prepares a response which highlights common threads in the presented papers and offers some praise and some criticisms for each.


After the comment, another academic, the moderator or “chair,” will open the panel up for questions.  Audience members raise their hands, and the chair picks out some of them to ask questions for the panel, whose members try to answer to the best of their ability.  And that’s basically how panels go.


Of course, panels are not the only thing going on.  Every conference will have breaks for snacks and lunch, as well as a post-conference reception– usually with free food provided by the university or another sponsor.  In these lulls (and at dinner and over drinks after the conference lets out for the day), attendees search for like-minded spirits, converse about their research interests, make new friends and professional acquaintances, and solidify their existing relationships.

Big conferences are also places where professional things that require a lot of academics to be together at once happen.  Departments frequently conduct job interviews at the big conferences (like the AHA for history), and academic presses have book fairs.


Why do conferences matter to academics?


So, why do academics make the effort to prepare presentations and travel to conferences?  There are a few reasons.


Feedback: Conferences offer academics an opportunity to show one another their research in its early stages and get feedback on it, without making a permanent record of it.  This feedback can help academics improve their research before they publish it.


Attention: Conferences also allow academics to alert each other to their research– which could draw more readers (and more citations) whenever they publish it as a book or article.


Networking: Conferences are places where academics can make professional connections which will help them out later– whether they need a reader for a manuscript, advice on finding documents to investigate, or a job.


Resume-building: Academics can put conferences they have presented at on their resume, which allows them to show grant-givers, hiring committees, and other members of their department that they’re actively doing research.  This tends to be useful for getting money, jobs, or tenure.


Community-building: Scholarly work can feel awfully solitary.  Being in the company of people who work on the same things that you do can create a sense of warmth and companionship.


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