What are conferences for?

Heidegger thought that scholars should simply trade questions, but that would include the speaker first and foremost.

I have watched conference presentations for more than three decades and never has a speaker offered a “new approach” that was in fact new (except in their own minds). Some approaches became, as you rightly identify, the latest thing because, as you also rightly identify, they were already part of a larger, already extant movement/meme (lots of heads nodding in agreement there). But I have also never heard a young person speak who was not persuaded that his or her ideas were utterly unprecedented…

What strikes me most (apart from the evident desire for non-reciprocity here — it seems that the desire is that discussants not discuss but ask what some youthful presenters imagine to be ‘real’ questions), is the conviction that simply because a conference resembles a classroom situation that the listeners are there to take instruction rather than to participate. Even those respondents who are genuinely confused and want clarification (does one really want a conference room full of such gratefully attentive respondents? would that not be a classroom? is the epitome of the conference encounter an ex cathedra address?) want that clarification only for their own agendas: they too are just planning to talk later or elsewhere or at their own conference…

The idea should be to exchange ideas and if speakers seem to comment on their own ideas in response to your ideas, is that not a good thing? Not only might the speaker learn something but it is also the case that there is usually no difference in competencies between the person at the podium (the selection committee arranging the talk is a committee of one’s peers not arbiters of the truth) and, at an academic conference, it is usually the case that the persons in the audience who strike you as waiting to say what they seem hellbent on saying, do indeed have something to say and might have been speaking themselves.

Babette Babich is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University, for sending this on. You can find Babette’s website here

Categories: Higher Education, Sociological Craft

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  1. Conferences are mainly tourism and resume fattening. No one listens to anyone but themselves.

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