Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Academic Conferences

I attended and presented at my first purely academic conference since 2003. I popped my head into the MLA in 2006, but I'm not really counting that. Having attended technology conferences and workshops for the past 5 years, going to this conference was a bit of a shock. First, there was the fact that I didn't know many people. I'm sure I wasn't the only one, but there were certainly groups of people who run into each other regularly. I'm sure this would change if I kept attending these kinds of conferences, so no big deal.

I'm used to going to conferences and being pretty wowed by the presentations, especially the keynotes. There have been exceptions (ELI 2008, cough, cough), but for the most part, presentations tend to be interesting and inspiring. I wasn't all that thrilled with the keynotes at this confernece. Given the names of the presenters, I should have been, but alas, I just wasn't. This may partly be due to my not being embedded in this discipline the way I am in the technology field, but I'm of the mind that a presentation should appeal broadly not narrowly. Even within a discipline, not everyone knows the ins and outs of every subfield or topic. The talk I liked the most was one that my disciplinary colleagues liked the least, in part because the speaker didn't seem to understand the discipline/audience. I liked the broadness of the talk, the fact that it wasn't entirely situated within the field. The panel presentations, given by mostly younger people in the field, were much better. More on this later.

Another thing that I'd forgotten about academic conferences was the ever-present name-tag glance. This happens at tech conferences, too, but my feeling has been that this is in the honest attempt to acquire a name, not to see if you're at the "right" kind of institution. The name-tag glance was part of a generally feeling of competition I felt at the conference. There were lots of conversations about job openings and about people being "on the market" (a phrase that conjures prostitution for me for some reason). And there always seemed to be a kind of grandstanding going on at all times. People were constantly trying to give their "elevator speech" about their latest research. The grandstanding was especially apparent during Q & A at many sessions. The questions weren't about the presentation per se, but were an attempt to showcase the questioners knowledge of the topic. I would contrast this to the tech conferences I attend where people are often on the lookout for collaborators and conversations center around mutual interests. Questions asked during presentations seek clarity so that the questioner can put the information presented into practice.

Another observation I made had to do with who was giving the keynotes. These tended to be the "older" people in the field, those who've been around for quite a while and who have made significant contributions. Of course, it is usual for these people to be the keynoters, but it would have been nice to see some of the "newer" folks doing the big talks rather than being relegated to the smaller panel presentations. There seemed to be a generational divide. It seems a shame to have to wait a generation to hear from some of the new contributors to the field.

Despite these criticisms, I still got something out of the conference. I saw some good talks and I had some very good conversations. I suspect that part of my criticism stems from my being out of the loop for a while. I've attained a comfort level with tech conferences that I just haven't gotten to yet with academic ones.