Conferences and Cost for the Precariat

Yesterday at the Chronicle of Higher Education, I had a new piece defending academic conferences. I talk about the kinds of benefits I’ve seen from conferences. I critique a recent New York Times piece that argues the conference is a boondoggle that nevertheless fills the author with ennui. First, let me share Carrie Schroeder’s tweet (by permission), then explore the an aspect I left out of my CHE piece (I only had 1000 words) – cost – and talk about it a little more.

Conferences are expensive. If, indeed, they are necessary and important as I argue in my CHE piece, then we have to be concerned about the way those expenses fall most heavily on adjuncts, graduate students, and people at low-paying jobs without adequate conference funding. I have a low-paying job in comparison to other tenure-stream faculty, but we happen to have excellent conference funding, and it’s made all the different in my career. I know most people aren’t so lucky.

I have written repeatedly about the need to strip the hiring fair components out of academic conferences, and that at least would help remove some mandatory costs from the process of seeking academic work. But if conferences matter for scholarship and growth, as I argue, then that’s not enough. We also have to work as hard as possible to keep costs low or even zero for people who have the least money.

Here are three steps:
First – lower fees for adjuncts, independent scholars, and graduate students (EDIT – And low-compensated NTT folks like many post-docs). Many conferences do that already. Here’s a petition asking conferences to do lower fees. Consult your particular scholarly organizations and make sure that they have an appropriate fee range, zeroing out costs as much as possible for those who can least afford it.

At Midwest Medieval History Conference, which I ran last fall and of which am now president, we lowered costs for adjuncts, grad students, and independent scholars, and gave a $150 stipend to our graduate student presenters. That, of course, has financial implications for the group and probably bumped everyone else’s fees up about 5$. I’m comfortable paying that extra 5$.

Second – Valorize things that replicate the function of conferences (sharing work, getting feedback, networking) but that don’t require physical travel. Organizing and hosting a serious ongoing online discussion on Twitter (or wherever) about academic issues is certainly as important a work as organizing a panel in meatspace. Moreover, sharing works in progress and receiving feedback can be done virtually. I am, obviously, a defender of the conference, but let’s make sure that if people find other, more affordable, ways to replicate their function, we treat them as “real.”

Third – I think it’s vital that when people do go to conferences, their experiences are meaningful. The vast majority of responses to my questions spoke positively of conferences, talking about how important it was – whatever stage or status my interlocutors had – to engage with scholarly community. The few dissenting voices, though, spoke of hierarchy. They felt ignored and alienated, isolated from the conversational and scholarly centers in the cliques, and not provided with the kind of connections that I talk about as so important in my Chronicle piece.

That’s a real problem, especially if one is spending out of pocket to attend the conference, hoping to gain feedback and network. I think it’s vital for conference organizers to be intentional about this sort of thing and for people at the top of the hierarchy to go out of their way to talk to grad students, adjuncts, and the broader precariat.

This is also why small conferences matter to me much more than big ones. An all-plenary conference of 50 people provides me with vastly more new connections and exposures to new ideas than a conference with 5000 people and 20 competing concurrent tracks of sessions. When we’re all spending a few days working together, sharing coffee breaks, with a finite group of people, it tends to erode social hierarchy. Or at least it can. We can all be more intentional about making sure that conference experiences are meaningful for everyone who attends.

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