Survive & Thrive at an Academic Conference, 5: Democratising Conferences

Academic conferences do some important jobs. They allow intellectual workers from different regions to meet and talk. They provide life-support for disciplinary Associations, if we think they are still needed (as I do). They introduce young players to the world beyond their own departments. In principle they embody the public interest in freely-circulating knowledge.
In practice, it’s not so good. They are enclosed: a bunch of intellectual workers huddle inside a building, shut the world out, and talk to each other for days. I was once at an international conference – a good meeting, about an important social issue - that was held in a beautiful, empty seaside hotel with handsome grounds entirely surrounded by high mesh fences. It was like living in a billionaire’s chicken-run.
Within the huddle, toxic things can and do happen. Sexual harassment is now more recognized for what it is. It is made more likely by the inequalities of power, the out-of-town venue that becomes a state of exception, the obligatory socializing and the alcohol. I don’t have any statistics but I’ve seen it happen, and it adds to the anxiety and oppressiveness for younger women especially.
There are other problems. Cliques form, and ignore or exclude outsiders. I have mentioned alienation in earlier posts: for young people, big conferences may mean corridors without a known face and lunches eaten with the seagulls. Inside, Big Men engage in status competitions and faction fights. Even worse, Big Men fight each other by bullying each others’ students.
... there is an A-list ...
Most conference-goers suspect there is an A-list of insiders, the people in the know, whom you glimpse hurrying away to Important Meetings. The suspicion is correct. I’ve been on the A-list sometimes. Part consists of the people doing the organizing shit-work, part consists of the people with prestige. Sometimes these parts overlap.
The cost of a mainstream conference is a huge issue, especially for scholars from the global South. The air fare for an intercontinental flight, the registration fee (minimum 440 US dollars for the one I’ve been to most recently), the visas and medical insurance, not to mention the cost of accommodation and food, put it out of reach for most young academics and graduate students. If their university has any travel money, it’s likely to go to senior people, and still be too small. In a relatively well-off African university that I know, the conference grant does not even cover an economy air ticket to the global North.
‘Border protection’ by governments often excludes leftists, Muslims, and intellectuals from societies in conflict. I was at one conference in a rich white-majority country where a keynote speaker arrived, was seized by immigration police at the airport, and immediately deported - strange to tell, a woman of colour. Heroically she managed to give the keynote address by Skype.
Sadly, there is a lot of wasted effort. Most of the plenary sessions are ritual, and boring ritual at that. (We should borrow an archbishop and learn do it in style!) Many papers are given by people who don’t have much to say, but are obliged to appear on the programme for career purposes. Even with good papers, the usual format chops up time into tiny cubes, interrupts promising conversations, and keeps discussion on the surface.
So: abolish conferences? It’s worth considering. We would save time and money. The carbon costs of international air travel are troubling. It would be good to live without these human costs of stress, anxiety and exploitation. But other things in the world will have to change before the economy of knowledge can do without conferences. So: what can we do to democratise them?
With big ones, there are some obvious moves. Cut the cost; make them shorter; open them to the public; have many fewer papers; have more sustained discussions. Conferences should never be in a three-hundred-dollar-a-night hotel. Modest demeanour should be our watchword.
But bold ambition! We should replace the glum introspection of plenaries (The Crisis in Nanophysics. Herpetology at the Crossroads. Whither Sociology Today?) with events designed for a much wider public. There’s a real need to involve schools as well as colleges in these gatherings of professional researchers.
Not much will change until we disconnect the fact of participating in a conference from the obligation to give a paper. This is the link that produces crazy, crowded agendas, and chopped-up time. We need other models of active participation, and other ways to document for funding. At conferences in Latin America it is common to give everyone present a certificate of attendance to take home, and that is a start.
Let’s reconsider the need to gather thousands together in the one place, every year or every two. Could we have a World Congress of X that happens simultaneously in 20 or 40 different centres, linked electronically?  Current video-conferencing technology is not very successful, so this will not be equivalent to face-to-face discussion. But with some imagination and hard work, we could surely arrive at a format that combined some video-linking with a lot of electronic exchange of texts, and text-based discussion. That might achieve some purposes of big conferences at a fraction of the money and carbon cost, and allow wider participation. There may be other ways of unpacking the big-conference format, too.
In earlier posts I have highlighted the informal discussions that happen in conferences. Perhaps we should put much more energy into small regional events. These may have a specific intellectual or practical focus and not try to cover the waterfront. Even with a plenaries-and-papers format, they would have lower travel costs, a better chance for sustained discussions, and a scale that doesn’t require an events-management corporation to organize.
The downside: the risk of marginalization, reinforcing global hierarchy. A regional conference held in Massachusetts will currently have more cachet, and a heap more resources, than one held in Malawi. I don’t know a way around this until states and academic organizations are serious about redistributing resources globally. But I doubt the inequality would be more severe than what we experience now.
Technology of the future?
Large or small, we need practices that replace the paper-presentation format with collective discussions. This is not a new idea. I remember a sociology conference in the early 1970s where the organizers, mainly young sociologists from the University of New South Wales, tried to change the culture of conferencing.  Instead of a list of formal papers, they set up thematic workshops.  They took away the rows of chairs and brought out cushions and beanbags.  Instead of lecturers there were convenors of discussions.  The event was meant to be participatory, fluid, equal – abolishing distinctions between speaker and audience, opening the ground for more people to engage.
I have been to several like this since; I have even organized one or two. Similar formats are used by summer schools, doctoral schools, and some highly specialized research networks. The format is exhilarating, risky and demanding. To work well these events need preparation by all the participants, and effective facilitators – something academics are not always good at. I’m not sure that my back today would manage an hour sitting on a bean-bag, but perhaps I can learn.
Enough! I’m sure there are other models floating around, and I’d love to hear of people’s experiences with them. Meeting-and-talking matters for intellectual life, for all the reasons I gave at the start of this post. We do need more imaginative, inclusive and democratic ways of doing it.

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