re-imagining the academic conference in the networked era 02.04.2007, 3:16 PM
posted by bob stein
Last spring i gave a talk at the Getty Research Institute organized by Bill Tronzo, an art historian at UC San Diego. Bill told me about a conference he's planning for 2008 on the subject of fame and said he was interested in exploring new ways of presenting the conference proceedings. i invited Bill to come to NY to discuss this with me, ben, dan, ray and jesse. In the course of the discussion we convinced Bill that it would be really interesting to re-think not just the form of the proceedings that get published after the conference, but the structure of the academic conference itself. For anyone whose been to a big academic meeting lately and sat through endless panels where anywhere from five to as many as ten people get a few minutes to read or summarize a paper it's clear that the form is need of an overhaul. Academic conferences, just like academic presses, have been perverted and turned away from their original purpose -- to encourage and enable intellectual discourse -- in order to become key vehicles in the tenure/review process.
The connection between re-thinking conferences and re-thinking books goes much deeper. As regular readers of if:book know a lot of our work involves expanding the boundaries of "a book" to include the process that leads up to its creation and the conversation that it engenders. Why not try to expand the notion of a conference to include various aspects of pre-meeting effort and the conversation that goes on during the conference and afterwards. From one perspective, we're not suggesting profoundly different action but rather attempting to capture a lot of what happens in a form that is likely to strengthen the impact of the effort.
We suggested to Bill that it would be interesting to co-sponsor a meeting of a small eclectic group to discuss how we might re-imagine a conference. Gail Feigenbaum and Tom Moritz, the two deputy directors of the GRI were enthusiastic and we held a one-day meeting last week with ten people. meeting planning blog and notes are here.
Following are some notes i wrote after the meeting:
. . . for me the most important outcome of the day was to loosen up long-standing preconceptions about conference formats; we've just touched the surface here and i hope we might find a way to continue the process and deepen our understanding of these issues in the coming months. following are a few thoughts i jotted down on the plane back to NY today. in rereading quickly i think i may have said the same thing six slightly different ways . . . . hopefully at least one will make sense.
is the principal purpose of a conference to provide an excuse/motivation for the writing of a paper or is it to enable face-to-face discussion about questions and themes within a particular discipline. i think it might be too easy to say that of course it's both. i'm wondering which is primary.
the traditional conference which is structured around the presentation of papers might be putting the emphasis on the wrong aspect; focusing on the presentation of the author/speaker while leaving the discussion for the hallways, dinner tables and cocktail lounges. conferences officially capture the one thing which you don't need a conference to capture - the written record of the formal paper. we can do better than this.
what would happen if we saw the principal purpose of a face-to-face conference getting people to look at discipline-specific problems in new ways; i.e. not mainly generating new knowledge in the form of papers, but encouraging a re-thinking and/or deeper analysis of the key issues in the field. from this perspective, the role/goal of the organizer is to ask good questions and create an environment for a vigorous discussion, sending people home with fresh perpectives for approaching their work.
what happens if the stars of a conference aren't the writers of papers but rather brilliant discussion moderators who know how to lead engaging discussions? what happens if the important yield of a conference isn't pre-prepared papers but a "record" of a complex discussion which deepens everyone's understanding of the questions.
what happens if we see papers not as what happens "at conferences" but what happens between conferences?
what happens if we begin to see the most important aspect of knowledge, not the content of papers but the discussion about the ideas in a paper?
i'm quite sure that many of these questions i'm raising are too simplistic, but am hoping that they might help continue the process of trying to understand the essential purpose of academic discourse and the forms it might take.
virginia kuhn on February 12, 2007 4:42 PM:
I think this is a really provocative endeavor. Since my field is one that hinges on conferences and often, journal articles (as opposed to say, monographs that take forever to see the light of day), many of the conferences I engage in do serve some of the roles that bob mentions here. As a member of the field of rhetoric and composition, we use conferences to share and disseminate new knowledge, which then fuels our pedagogy when we return to our various institutional homes; for instance I met bob years ago (pre-Institute of the Future of the Book) at a conference and began teaching with TK3 soon after, which was origin of my long-standing relationship to this august group. The work of the conference often takes place in the hallways between sessions and while the rigid paper format is, in some ways, stifling, it also helps to ensure complexity (papers require reflection and often research) and can also save a session from being hijacked by someone who simply wants to hear himself hold forth, often exerting his own agenda, which may or may not be relevant to the others in the room.
But as a member of a community of new media scholar-teachers, I am also interested in new forms of conferences that make the most of emergent technologies to extend and enhance the traditional form. In this latter role, I have participated in two somewhat fresh conferences in the last few months. One was strictly online and hosted by the New Media Consortium. There were many benefits and problems with this event, but it did help to bring many scholars geographically disparate scholars together for an interesting series of events. (Check out the url--not sure how to/if I can embed the link into a comment here so forgive the clunkiness!
The other was a one-week workshop on Cyberinfrastructure that brought together tekkies with humanists to speculate about the best uses of emergent technologies for humanistic goals. While the basic premise was difficult and complicated (we just don't seem to speak the same language) the method for presenting the talks was great. As a speaker, my talk was attended by a lively f2f audience and a great conversation ensued. But the talk was also broadcast, in real time, on the Cyberinfrastructure cable channel, with my slides appearing next to my talking head . This form opens up numerous possibilities for the academic conference.
In any case, I will watch this thread with anticipation, particularly since I am (tentatively) participating in one soon that will be tied to a themed issue of a journal on digital-visual scholarship and pedagogy.
Andy Polaine on July 24, 2007 6:34 AM:
I wholeheartedly agree with the need for a re-think of academic conferences, which have mainly become vehicles for gaining research quantum (or money, depending on which side of the economics you are on) and less about actually discussing ideas.
However, that's the result of a flawed system and expectations of academia more than it is conferences themselves. Conferences could hugely benefit from a much strong building of an online community before and after the physical event, much like the projects we have run within Omnium Project (except that we never meet face-to-face). Ideally, a conference would be a place to meet people for more intense discussion having already helped to build relationships and shared interests beforehand. The main flaw of multi-session conferences being that you don't know what you missed until it's too late. It's not rocket science to work out a better system.
Re-thinking the Future of the Academic Institution is the harder part being, as it is, so bound up with complex areas of government policy, funding, etc., etc. But without that re-thinking conferences (and, I should add, the value - or not - of peer-reviewed journals) is not going to make much difference. I wrote a paper/essay about this as a starting point. Like Virginia, I'm not sure if a link will be stripped out of this comment, so Google for Re-Imagining Higher Education and Polaine and you'll find it straight away.
Bo Laurent on December 17, 2007 9:25 PM:
I arrived at this blog post while searching for information on the history of the academic conference. I'm involved in planning a conference in a biomedical research area where we want to create new thinking, new synergy, new collaborations. We're planning to use the "Open Space Technology" conference design. It's task-based, but the task can be big and open-ended. The participants self-organize into discussion groups, and create a bound printed version of all the discussions, delivered within a few weeks. It's based on the idea that what usually happens in the hallway ought to become the main activity of the conference, and those are the discussions that need to be captured in the proceedings.
Here's an online source of resources:
And here's a picture book of how an Open Space conference proceeds: