Killing conferences to salvage intellectual debate

I have never been a fan of conferences. Perhaps it all goes back to my unreasonable high expectations about intellectual debate, which is only marginally related to professional academic advancement. But stubborn that I am, I still can’t quite accept that our meetings are fated to be so stale, so stagnant, and so other adjectives that begin with “st”. Killing conferences as we know them may be the only way to salvage intellectual debate.

For the most part, conferences function as professional games. They earn you victory points in terms of CV padding, in terms of new relationships built with individuals whom you have not met before. That’s the basic game. There is another level at which conferences can plant the seeds for future victory points, such as edited volumes or invitations to perform as a guest speaker. All this is well and good, because it helps your academic or research career, and in that sense conferences indirectly contribute to paying bills. But not to intellectual growth.

1. Conferences discourage critical debate

Attending a conference may lead to learning, no doubt about it. But the real professional incentive is to present at a conference. And presentations are designed to resist learning, not to encourage it.

Consider the fact that most conference presentations are ostensibly finished products, presenting findings or data. In those cases asking a question about an alternative research design, theoretical model or data strategy is pointless, as no-one is ever going back to redesign and rerun a research project; presenters also come prepared to defend their design or findings at all costs, which makes the task of providing useful feedback difficult. Evidently the most productive type of presentation would center on an emerging theoretical agenda or a potential research design, but organizers are highly unlikely to accept a paper that is not finished or does not make a “contribution”. So here’s one fundamental contradiction at the center of academic conferences:

Researchers are encouraged to submit papers that are painstakingly engineered to be impervious to criticism.

2. Conferences encourage antisocial presentations

Your run-of-the-mill conference is likely to be split into 90-minute sessions, usually following the traditional format of 45 minutes for presenters and 45 minutes for Q&A. This divide would make sense as a way to encourage a conversation, with presentations serving as prompts and the audience taking a lead role in debate. Unfortunately, the model is seldom realized.

Conference organizers penalize you for submitting an unfinished project, and may even frown upon you if you decide to not show up at the last minute. But they have absolutely no trouble with presentations going overtime or – to put it politely – not being “audience-friendly”. The same academics who are happy to tear each other’s research findings are simply too shy and/or proper to cut someone when their time is over. Which is a problem, because presenters rarely feel the need to stick to the alloted 10 or 15 minutes – to save time, moreover, many presentations seem to be repurposed 45- or 60-minute lectures. Too many times I have seen a senior academic say “This will only take 5 minutes”, only to go on to speak for a good 20 or 30 minutes, utterly oblivious to the evident social cues in the form of people fidgeting, yawning, or repeatedly looking at their watches. Should an energetic chair dare to intervene, presenters will sometimes resort to the usual cop-out “had I had the time, I would have covered X”. So here’s another fundamental problem with traditional conferences:

Academics are not incentivized to be effective communicators but passive-aggressive ranters.

3. Conferences encourage parallel monologues

Inevitably, when you bring a group of passive-aggressive ranters together in a panel, what you get is not a proper conversation but a parallel set of monologues.

Even when panels are submitted as coherent wholes, individual papers seldom speak to the same question or employ similar methodologies. The academic incentive to pretend that all research is finished inhibits whatever good-natured instincts we may have as humans to find common ground: among competing methodologies or findings, searching for common ground is tantamount to acknowledging defeat. But then there is the fact that presenters are seldom disciplined for going overtime or off the rails, which means that a particularly stubborn presenter can maintain his or her own particular theme throughout the entire 90 minutes of a session. Yet again a fundamental contradiction at the heart of conventional conferences:

Panels are designed to accommodate parallel monologues instead of an actual conversation.

All told, there is little to no accountability for failing to communicate with co-panelists or with the audience. Victory points in conferences are won not by giving an engaging presentation and improving research through debate, but by showing up with an air-tight presentation and a battle plan emphasizing stubborn defense at all costs.

What to do?

So the status quo is disappointing: what can anyone do about it? This is when I address directly those conferences and workshop organizers out there who may want to avoid pathologies 1 through 3 above.

  • Reject finished research: Invite presenters who are still working with flexible agendas, who have the most to gain from feedback. They are most likely to appreciate the opportunity to present, and the audience will feel that they are making a contribution to research simply by listening and asking questions. Unfinished research presentations make us all advisers and editors, and Zeus knows we could all benefit from more editing.
  • Adopt more social presentation formats: First of all, drastically limit the time that any one presenter is allowed to speak uninterrupted; five minutes would be my ideal maximum. Second, commend and reward presenters who use particularly persuasive styles of presentation, whether they use evocative oratory or stimulating slides. This can push recalcitrant academics to adapt if they want to be heard.
  • Design panels around questions, not themes: Instead of scrambling for thematic commonalities between wildly disparate presentations, force presenters to take a stance in favor or against an argument, and enable them to muster whatever theory or data they can in support of that stance. This will also allow the audience to engage with each of the presenters as proponents of each side of a question.
  • Strengthen moderators: Lastly, all of this is more likely to succeed with a good chair, moderator or MC who can salvage a panel from death by soul-crushing boredom. Either recruit people who are already good moderators (perhaps even remunerating them for their skills), or provide clear guidelines to all participants about the central authority of the moderator and audience expectations.

At the end of the day, the only way that conferences will really contribute to intellectual debate is if we stop rewarding resume-padding monologues and incentivize instead engaging intellectual performances. Not only will this benefit participants in the audience: it also has the potential to improve research by – surprise, surprise –  subjecting it to open criticism.