Why Academic Conferences Matter

I’ve just returned home from my annual pilgrimage to the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University (colloquially known as “the ‘Zoo”). As always, the  four-day conference was at once all-too-brief (so many people I didn’t get to see or spend much time with!) and a test of stamina (up at 7:00 for a quick breakfast; panels, sessions, and meetings all day; dinner with colleagues and societies each night; late-night collegial get-togethers until the wee hours; lather-rinse-repeat.) And as always, I leave physically exhausted, but intellectually recharged. I am fortunate that my own home institution offers me (limited) funding, making it possible for me to attend and benefit from academic conferences. Many critics of academia level the charge that scholars spend too much time at conferences and not enough time in the classroom, and many colleges and universities that are not in the top research profiles don’t adequately fund their professors (some don’t fund them at all) to attend such events. These criticisms and reluctances to fund scholarly conference activity fail to take into account how important the academic conference truly is to professors. Every professor, whether employed full- or part-time, should at least be funded to attend one conference per year in his, her, or their field/ discipline, and here’s (in part) why, broken down into the major categories higher education uses to evaluate professorial competence.

Teaching. Attending conferences can offer significant positive returns in the classroom; to wit:

It helps us rededicate ourselves to the work we do in the classroom. Yes, paradoxically, attending these conferences away from our home institutions actually can recharge our enthusiasm for teaching. In particular, those with heavy teaching loads–4/4 and 5/5–often don’t teach in their own area of expertise as much as they would like (in some cases, at all). When you’ve dedicated a good portion of your adult life acquiring expertise in a particular subject area, that’s what you really want to be doing. When instead you are teaching a slate of introductory subject courses, it can become discouraging, and your passion for teaching anything can become diminished. When it gets to that point, it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for your teaching, and that in turn affects your performance and your students’ experience in the classroom. When you can step away from the teaching and enter a professional arena where your own scholarly interests are foregrounded and you are taken seriously and understood for having them, it makes a huge difference in morale. I know some scholars for whom this annual pilgrimage makes all the difference–it’s something to look forward to after a long academic year, and it offers that little surge of positive scholarly and collegial energy they need to keep going.

It gives us ideas for how to incorporate our subject into our classes. In my field, medieval studies, it is rare that a conference, or even a two-day symposium, doesn’t offer at least one or two roundtables, panels, or other types of sessions devoted to pedagogy. I have both participated on these panels myself, and attended them, and they always jump-start some pedagogical innovation in my own classes. Even attending paper panels can sometimes yield exciting new classroom ideas, and of course when professors gather together over coffee or dinner, the conversation often turns to teaching as well. In my own experience, some of my most successful classroom practices and assignments have derived from the discussions I’ve had with colleagues both formally and informally at conferences–among them using Twitter to help my students learn to condense sometimes quite-intricate thought into bite-sized, manageable writing; the Chaucerian Miscellany that my entire Chaucer class last term reports as the best assignment they’ve ever done for a class; and the Arthurian create-a-knight assignment that helps my introductory students form a personal connection with the subject matter for my Global Arthurian Legend course. This year, in a panel on female friendship on which I participated, Carissa Harris of Temple University presented on 15th- and 16th-century “Ale-Wife” poems. I’m not sure if I just forgot they existed or if I’ve never read these poems before, but they certainly form an important (and entertaining!) bridge from the medieval to the early modern period regarding the “women’s question” that is at the heart of reading clusters in many of my classes, and I will be incorporating at least one of them into my summer online Brit Lit I survey as a link from the Wife of Bath’s Tale to the later poems by such women as Aemelia Lanyer. These poems are slightly more accessible in tone for a student readership than the later ones, and I think will help ease that transition very well.

It offers us a glimpse into what other professors are doing. Teaching is–or at the very least, should be–a collaborative, academy-wide affair. When we stay put in our own home institutions and never interact with or see other professors from other institutions in action, we become more limited and contained, more insular, in our scholarly approaches. Seeing what other people are doing, working with, and thinking about yanks us out of our comfort zones and patterns and shows us other ways, sometimes better ways, of engaging with our subject matters, fields, and disciplines. We often subtly shift the way we approach classroom practices in response to what others are doing, recalibrating our own teaching to align with that of other professors we respect and admire; and in this way, our own institution can remain abreast of the larger pedagogical approach of the academy in our particular field, through our adaptation of what we experience at each conference. It’s essentially a self-regulating system, moderated by and through each participant. In order for that to happen … we all must at sme point participate. Colleges and universities that don’t send their professors to conferences risk falling behind the trends pedagogically.

Research and Publication. Attending conferences is essential for research purposes; to wit:

It offers us the primary platform from which we develop and are judged by our peers as scholars. The reputation of any given professor rests on how his, her, or their work is received by the discipline. That reputation is developed through exposure, and it is upon that reputation that job security rests. If professors must rely solely on publications to engineer their academic reputation, the simple reality is that it can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to develop a strong presence within the 6 years or so before one goes up for tenure (in the case of full professors) and even more so for those who are juggling the pressures of part-time, adjunct work with the pressure to be respected scholars in their field and excellent teachers in their employing institutions. When we present our work at conferences, it’s heard and considered by the immediate audience in our panel; but we also discuss the papers we give and have heard throughout the conference period at various points–over coffee or during the reception; during dinner; between sessions; after hours. In turn, we’ll often run into scholars who were not at our panels but who “heard your paper was excellent; would you send me a copy?” From such moments, incrementally, our research interests and approaches are disseminated. Then, too, it is at conferences that many publication opportunities arise; at business meetings, journals decide on special topics issues based on what’s trending; if your paper is among those offered on such a topic at a given conference, the editor may ask you to send it in for consideration; many conferences publish proceedings; many ideas for edited collections or co-authored books begin as or are generated by the response to conference panels; sometimes acquisitions editors attend panels or their eye is caught by a paper topic in the program, and they contact the presenter to discuss a possible monograph. It’s much easier, and faster, to find a venue for publishing your work through your interactions at a conference than it is to send it out cold to a journal; both approaches are necessary in order for scholars to become visible in their fields.

It ensures that we are abreast of and participating in the most recent developments and shifts in our field. Although open-access digital publishing, blogging, social media, and other quick-access platforms are slowly changing how we receive information about current scholarly questions and interests in our field, the academic journal and monograph are still the most prevalent forms of scholarly dissemination. If we bear in mind that it can take anywhere from six months to several years for work to come out from the time it is accepted to the time it is published, then we are aware that this means there is a significant lag in terms of the material that is being published, and what is currently being examined and worked on. Conferences provide a bridge for that lag, keeping scholars “in the loop” in terms of the direction a given subject field is taking; and often, working collaboratively in panels and business meetings, scholarly groups and colleagues can jump-start new projects that build on what they are seeing at a given conference, ensuring that academia remains a vibrant, living body of inquiry. Professors who attend conferences benefit enormously from being involved in this process first-hand, and through them, their home institutions stay current in terms of scholarship. While this work certainly can and does occur through correspondence and other such means, it is really at the conferences that we see it hapening “in real time.” This keeps us–and our colleges and universities–visible in current scholarly activity.

It gives us new ideas for new research projects and publications. It can be hard to come up with ideas for new projects on your own, especially if you face a heavy workload at your home institution that leaves little time for thinking, reading, and writing. The range of scholarship and formal and informal discussion of ideas (and the book exhibit!) at academic conferences offers a wealth of inspiration to draw from; it’s rare that we don’t walk away with at least one new project germinated.

As a side note–Research also affects the student experience, and is in many ways integral to the pedagogical (and, by association, economic) concerns of colleges and universities. Students benefit from their professors’ visibility in current research activity both because their professors are aware of and bringing into the classroom the most current approaches to a given field, and because their institutions are recognized as staying on top of things, rather than falling behind in scholarly reputation by not participating in such endeavors, which are at the heart of the academy–you can’t teach without content; there’s no point in teaching content that’s out-of-date and not immediately useful and relevant to your students. Schools with strong or, at the very least, visible research profiles attract and retain more students. Every school should at least send each professor to one conference per year as an investment in itself for this, if for no other reason.)

Service and Collegiality. Attending conferences provides unique opportunities for scholars to participate more fully in the academiy; to wit:

It is most often at conferences that organizations decide upon scholarly focus areas, new officers and editors. The business meetings of many academic organizations are where they decide which conferences they will host a presence at and what panel topics they will sponsor; call for nominations and hold elections for new officers and advisory board members; and call for nominations, appoint, or elect new editors for their journals. Scholars involved in these various activities are often those who are most active in, and on top of (even, in some ways, responsible for) developments in their fields. In turn, such scholars are valuable to their home institutions because they raise the home institution’s reputation within the academy. This visiblity and reputation, in turn, attracts students (who will then stay if their professors are good teachers; their professors will be better teachers if they are on top of recent scholarship in the field and have good morale because they feel supported and valued….. it’s all connected.)

It is often at conferences that scholars invite other scholars to guest-lecture or serve as plenary speakers at other events. If a professor is in a position to plan a special speaker series, or runs an institute or program that features speakers, or can bring guest speakers into his, her, or their classes, conferences provide an important opportunity to make contacts towards such ventures. Attending panels and sessions, and even in casual discussion of current, ongoing, and future projects, allows us to determine whose work is significant or important for a given speaker series, plenary for an upcoming conference or symposium we are hosting, or guest-lecturing in a class. This activity, in turn, continues the work of sustaining a dynamic, interactive, and collaborative academy from which scholars and their students, alike, stand to benefit–which in turn, reflects well upon the host institutions that support and sponsor it.

Perhaps most importantly, it is at conferences that more senior, experienced scholars can mentor and support the newer ones. Many organizations offer graduate student and junior faculty mentoring at conferences–opportunities to learn about teaching, research, service, and administration from more experienced professors, and opportunities to make contacts that can support one’s development as a scholar and teacher in a given field. Such experiences foster academic collegiality and a sense of responsibility towards one’s discipline and profession. Mentoring at conferences offers junior faculty the chance to interact with established scholars, who in turn can introduce them to people they may want or need to meet–people who work in their subject area, editors of journals, scholars looking for contributors to publications. They are a means by which we can support newer members of the profession, particularly when they are in more tenuous positions–graduate students, non-permanent faculty members, independent schlars trying to gain an academic position–by listening to and responding to their concerns, offering advice and encouragement, and keeping them connected to their chosen field. They can also prevent junior faculty from making sometimes costly mistakes in their development as scholars and towards tenure or permanent faculty status. It is in mentoring junior faculty–not only at home institutions, but also at conferences and more broadly across the academy–that professors stand the best chance of promoting decent academic manners, excellence in research and scholarship, effective and ethical teaching, and the importance of what we do. In turn, it is in professorial activity and behavior that any given college or university’s standing rests.

Academic Conferences: they matter.

We’re not just sitting around sipping Mai Tais; we’re creating and sustaining the academy, itself. Every professor, regardless of rank, should have a seat at that table, and every institution should invest in that outcome. As a medievalist, I’ll end with a Piers Plowman analogy for how academic institutions might think about funding conference activity:

Do Well: funding for every faculty member regardless of status, for one conference per year.

Do Better: funding for two conferences per year (the major national conference in their field and one smaller, discipline-specific one) for every faculty member regardless of status.

Do Best: funding for three conferences (the major national conference in their field, one smaller disciplinary conference, and one international conference) for every faculty member regardless of status.



About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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