The Academic Conference – A Defense

Yesterday a professor at Princeton saw fit to ask in the New York Times “What is the purpose of the conference?” She meant is as a setup for a rant about how boring they are all are, writing:

If everyone is content with the conference as a legitimate custom, why do post-conference sentiments typically range from disappointment to total rage, always expressed in hushed tones?

Yes, sometimes papers are boring and people ask bad questions. I loved Mallory Ortberg’s piece “Every Question in Every Q&A Session Ever,” which makes some of the same points as this NYT piece and is, in my opinion, much funnier (Ortberg is one of my favorite comedy writers online).

I’m going to say more about this NYT piece later, but let me ask you this.

1. Do you leave a conference typically filled with disappointment to total rage? 

I never have. Rage, really? Sometimes the papers are better than other, but I always leave conferences ready to work, to be a scholar.

2. Are most questions, in your experience, self-aggrandizing or distracted mutterings? 

In my experience, I think something like 98% of all questions are good ones. In fact, I am hard pressed right now to remember a bad one (I do remember bad papers, but they are by far the tiny minority).

But that’s just my experience. Maybe I’ve lived a charmed life. What about you? Rage?

3 Replies to “The Academic Conference – A Defense”

  1. Paul Ward says:

    I'd suggest that the good professor picks her conferences more carefully or that she learns how to contribute and communicate.

    Of course there are bad conferences (looking at the organisers and sponsors usually gives a clue) but varying degrees of effort should enable anyone to gain some benefit – and perhaps to be of benefit.

  2. Gilbert Ratchet says:

    "We have sat patiently and politely through talks read line by line in a monotone voice by a speaker who doesn’t look up once, wondering why we couldn’t have read the paper ourselves in advance with a much greater level of absorption."

    You must admit that this really happens. I find it baffling why people do this. Just because you've written something does not mean that you have a presentation!

    This is why we should bring back the academic debate! As in Luther vs. Eck (Leipzig, 1520), or Abelard vs. all challengers. Preferably enlivened with personal gibes – not boring then! Although perhaps just as rage-inducing, if your side loses.

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