What are conferences for?

For many years my most common nightmare scene has been an academic conference. In those dreams I am alone in a conference hotel that is new and strange to me, and I am either lost or far from where I need to be. I know nobody there and nobody knows me or pays attention to me. But the place is always visually complicated and interesting, with hidden doors and elevators that don’t go where one thinks they will and corridors that twist and turn in surprising ways, my room moving to someplace different from where I thought it was, fascinating architectural details, my luggage disappearing, and people moving purposely toward places I don’t know about. Perhaps these dreams disqualify me from writing anything about conferences, because they seem to mean I am lost at conferences and an outsider. But then the dreams also suggest that I have worked hard over the years to find my way in the world of conferences, and maybe that means I have learned something.

Developmental Perspective

I think there is a developmental course for all of as conference attenders. I am sure that the developmental course varies a lot among us, but I think often there is a developmental evolution in what conferences one attends, what one goes to conferences for, what one gets from conferences, and the mistakes one makes concerning conferences. As a beginner I went to conferences to learn what the leaders had to say, to try to understand my fields better, to figure out what went on at conferences, and, most of all, to learn content. After a few years of conference experience I was going to conferences to hunt for jobs, to get conference presentations on my resume, to try to fit in to this or that ingroup that from the outside seemed appropriate for me, and to see what books people in my fields were publishing. Conferences helped to drive me away from some ingroups and subdisciplines. For example, I left one subdiscipline when I found that talking to the research assistants of prominent scholars I could surprisingly often elicit stories of what I considered violations of basic methodological honesty—for example, discarding outlier data only because it was implausible in terms of the researcher’s theory. I left two other subdisciplines that I aspired to because it became clear to me that I lacked the educational credentials and to some extent the legitimacy of having published on certain topics or used certain methods to ever be counted as an ingroup member. I could say that conferences have been very important to me in reality checks—ascertaining whether I fit well enough with what the people who seem to be central to the conference and the discipline or subdiscipline to which it is linked.

As I became more savvy about conferences, I became more purposeful in the sense of going to conferences only that offered a good chance to nurture my intellectual growth in areas in which I was teaching and writing, conferences where I had sufficient professional legitimacy to participate, that offered me peer group memberships that I could feel comfortable with, and that might give me some chance to publish in my areas of expertise.

Politics and Money

University life is a life in politics in the sense of jockeying, negotiating, manipulation and the like concerning resources, rewards, reputation, and influence. Publishing is political. What gets counted as knowledge is political. There is a politics to what is taught and not taught. So why would academic conferences not be political? My reaction to the politics of academic conferences has always been a mixture of fascination, disappointment, interest, realism, self-protection, playful involvement, anger, and indignation. It has been easy enough to see that in the politics of conferences there are ingroups that control things and that people who are ambitious and effectively manipulative get more of the goodies. Very good and able people may be on the outside—perhaps because they are relatively shy, perhaps because they are unwilling or unable to play the games that it takes to do well, perhaps because the topics that interest them and the approaches they use in their scholarly work are not those that powerful ingroups care for, and perhaps because of the accidents of birth and where they attended school they lack the ingroup allies that others have. I have not always been aloof from the political games. For example, I have at times been cynically planful about allying myself with some ingroup, trying to establish a new ingroup, or taking sides in political battles in ways that probably benefitted me. But then at other times I have been alienated from politics and have instead sought out my friends and acquaintances and made new friends and acquaintances and had interesting and pleasant visits but stayed away from sessions, parties, meetings, etc. in which the major political players were operating. However, the friendships I have made at conferences sometimes give me ingroup success benefits—for example, invitations to publish in edited volumes or special issues of journals, editorial board memberships, and invitations to speak. So at conferences even friendships can be political. But mostly I like the friendships I have made because I like who I like…often people who are as disaffected as I am.

Some people gain economically from the politics of conferences. There are, of course, the job seekers, and also people who will get themselves nice raises by getting job offers or even job feelers from other places. There are people who may increase their chances of receiving grants as a result of connections they make at conferences, and these pay off economically in terms of summer salaries, annual salary raises, and perhaps opportunities for better paying jobs. Some people may earn considerable money from publishing if they connect with the proper publisher representatives at conferences or the proper textbook promoters. There are people who may earn considerable money from invitations to give lectures, to do visiting faculty work, to do webinars, and the like, and they promote themselves at conferences. And in some fields I am associated with, there are people who make impressive amounts of money offering workshops, consulting, in-service training, short courses and the like (and the money will even be greater if these activities include sales of their publications, DVDs, CDs, etc.) And they promote themselves at conferences. And the gains are not only to individuals but also to cliques and ingroups, in which people can promote one another by trading invitations to speak, writing letters of recommendation for one another, and much else.

I sometimes wish conferences were free of politics and were places where people could meet, ideas could be exchanged, various areas of scholarship could be enhanced, and merit was rewarded. And there is always some of that at conferences, but I don’t think academic conferences are different from the rest of society. Politics is everywhere in society. So is manipulation for personal gain. And I suppose one could make the case that for those of us in the social sciences, academic conferences are teaching situations, offering us wonderful learning experiences on how things work in all sorts of places in society.

More on My Nightmares

My nightmares about conferences in some ways misrepresent my experience at conferences. At this point in my conference attending life, I can always count on spending conference time with friends or interesting strangers. And I know better than I did as a beginner how to find sessions that I value and how to escape those that I experience as dreary. But my nightmares also tell what I consider to be the truth in that conferences, while rich and fascinating for me, are also places of anxiety, places where I can be lost and where lots goes on that I don’t understand. I often feel that others do conferences better than I and know better what they are doing. And maybe because I am not as ambitious as some or as extroverted or needy, I try to stay on the outside while still paying attention to what goes on. And yet I have also understood things well enough to at times help students, mentees, and myself to get ahead in the sense of being offered assorted leadership roles and opportunities to publish or speak.

Paul C. Rosenblatt is Professor Emeritus of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota.  He claims to be engaged in a fake retirement such that he writes, advises, teaches, and does research, but he no longer attends faculty meetings.  As a multidisciplinary academic, he has often attended conferences in sociology, psychology, anthropology, the family field, the bereavement field, social psychology, cross-cultural studies, and qualitative research.

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