In the first month of my PhD I read Barbara Tomlinson and George Lipsitz’s daring article on academic conferences in American Quarterly. “American Studies as Accompaniment” criticizes, amongst other things, the institutionalized, egotistical model of scholarship that prioritizes the scholar over the work or discussion:
Because of the publications, presentations, positions, honors, and awards enumerated on it, the CV circulates out in the world as a strange surrogate for the person whose work it describes . . . The CV represents scholarly achievement largely as individual activity capable of being measured in quantitative terms. The work that scholars actually do, however, is innately collective and qualitative . . . scholarly conversations are cooperative creations, the product of collective communications in which all participants play a part.
In writing this post, based on a paper I presented with my colleague Rosemary Pearce (also a postgraduate student at Nottingham) at the annual PG BAAS conference in Glasgow in December 2015, I intend to expand on Tomlinson and Lipsitz’s reflections to make visible the flaws in our field with regards to conferences and, more importantly, offer feedback to postgraduates in the ways they can approach conference organizing.
In this context, the term ‘conference’ refers to events in academia that are marked by a standard format of 20-minute presentations in a 3-person panel with barely 15 minutes of discussion time for each paper. There are multiple panels running at the same time with a keynote lecture or session as part of the programme. Usually, conferences run for a maximum of three days, though big American conferences tend to go for four days. There are, of course, variations on this theme with conferences that may have 15-minute presentations, four panellists, slightly more room for discussion, or less simultaneous panels (sometimes none at all). Overall, I’m confident anyone familiar with the types of conferences that run in any given year would agree that the majority of them tend to hit those markers I mentioned. This format serves to strengthen membership numbers for organizations and strongly prioritizes presentation over discussion. I offer here three key aspects of the mainstream conference model that postgraduate organizers in particular can work on if they would like to create a more suitable platform for discussion: (1) participant size, (2) presentation versus discussion ratio, and (3) the narrative or theme of the conference.
The most apparent flaw of the mainstream model is the equation of impact or importance with the number of presenters/participants of a conference. Academics tend to measure the vitality of a conference or even to justify the conference to funding bodies through the number of attendees. This goes for larger conferences that can serve as fairs for the discipline, but it equally applies to smaller one-day conferences, often organized by postgraduate or early career researchers. However, while larger conferences are designed to bring as many scholars together as possible for the purposes of wider networking opportunities their smaller counterparts cannot make any such claims. Smaller events often operate on a shoestring budget yet are in a unique position to provide the best forum for discussion. This ties into the focus on a strong theme or narrative for the conference, but, staying with the issue of quantity over quality, the best discussions on the work of participants and their contribution to the overall theme take place in intimate, manageable environments. Existing, though rare, exceptions in the larger pool of conferences are the Futures of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth in the U.S., the Spring Academy at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg in Germany, and OASIS at L’Orientale in Italy. All of these are variations on the same theme and are marked by one-week-long seminar-style sessions with both graduate students and established scholars in the field. All attending researchers participate, and there is no big audience that attends to sit and listen. While some may rightfully argue that these are summer schools and not conferences, and have established academics leading the events, I would say that we should nevertheless look to these formats as inspirations to implement certain elements into the standard models. This includes the focus on a more intimate setting as well as the following points on discussion and conference narrative.
Figure 1, cartoon from Economic Sociology and Political Economy.
This brings me to the second point: prioritizing discussion over presentation. When we give presenters 20 minutes for their paper but only 10 to 15 minutes for questions, they do not receive the space needed to fully discuss their work and its relation in advancing, or contributing to, the conference narrative, which is essential to the vitality of the field with regards to publications and collaborations resulting from these events. Presenting one’s work is a vital part of our profession and it is a skill we need to develop, often slowly and over several years, but this should not mean we cut down on the time to provide substantive feedback during the question and answer session. I suggest it is essential to the success of a conference, the research of the individual, and the health of the profession to re-prioritize discussion over presentation. Presentations should jumpstart discussion and offer strong arguments based on original methodologies or sources; they should not be the main attraction. This brings me to a related issue with the Q&A part of a panel: shunning comments and opinions. The cartoon in Figure 1 is meant to make the audience member the butt of the joke but, in fact, should we not encourage a more participatory environment in which it is desirable to let anyone in the room say what they want to say. Experienced panel chairs will identify when someone is truly derailing the discussion or handing out unnecessarily harsh criticism, but beyond this we need to create safer spaces to provide valuable, detailed feedback on individual papers or, otherwise, advance the conference narrative. To encourage discussion, the room itself should be rearranged to foster a more intimate and participatory environment by arranging the tables and chairs in a round table as opposed to a classroom format.
Both previous points lead us now to the overarching reason why we need to focus on discussion and small sizes: the conference theme. Unlike large conferences, which are difficult to organize thematically, small conferences are valuable precisely because they offer a unique opportunity to advance the field in a specific area or direction. As such, these conferences represent the smallest units for scholars to come together and discuss more specialised topics that are otherwise marginalized. Each panel’s discussion can create a larger narrative or network of discussions that follow through the conference and leave participants with answers, but also new questions to tackle research at the frontier of their subject and field. For this reason, all participants should have the opportunity to attend each panel or conference session, rather than choosing amongst various panels running simultaneously. Why fragment your audience and thereby fragment the discussion that all sessions contribute toward? Academic reading groups already provide us with a format where each meeting usually centres on a specific subject while at the same time tying into a semester-long or year-long overarching theme. Implementing this more local format for conferences that bring together a range of scholars from different institutions can be very useful in creating more cohesive conference narratives.
Most conference organizers understand that it is their responsibility to provide the best forum possible for discussion. I myself have been involved in the organization of various conferences such as the aforementioned Spring Academy, the public-oriented October Dialogues, and a more outlandish departmental retreat at the University of Nottingham. Without a doubt, the main problem for embracing these formats is funding. It requires savvy and motivated individuals to chase down any and all funding pots to make these events happen. However, many universities as well as external scholarly organizations have grants available though we should also not be afraid to ask for higher registration fees when relevant.
Many conferences now embrace more interactive or creative session formats but I think we need to go further than this. We need more interactive and creative conference formats. We do need larger conferences for their unrivalled networking potential, and there are institutional and financial reasons to stick to a standard format too, but re-evaluating our approach to conference organizing enables us to do justice to what is at the heart of every conference: discussion. The culture of academia can train us to be cautious and careful in networking settings, but a conference should be the space to encourage conflicting arguments. I have proposed improvements in just one aspect of our profession and I believe we need similar proposals for other areas such as impact, public engagement, teaching, or graduate training. I believe early career students and scholars have a particularly important role in re-visioning and engaging with these issues.
 Barbara Tomlinson and George Lipsitz, “American Studies as Accompaniment,” American Quarterly 65, no. 1 (2013): 1–30.