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Academic Conferences Are “Lumbering Dinosaurs.” Can Anything Change Them?

- August 21, 2013

The conventional political science conference is a dinosaur, large, lumbering, and increasingly ill-suited for its environment, although extinction does not appear imminent.

So begins a recent article by Georgetown political scientist Mark Rom.  On the eve of the next American Political Science Association meeting, his take is well worth digesting.

For starters, consider this.  In 2008, Rom hired 8 graduate students and offered each student $10 to fill out a questionnaire for every APSA panel they attended.  There were 14 timeslots for panels during the conferences, giving students the chance to make $140.  But on average, the students attended only 2-3 panels, not the 14 possible.  To be sure, most people who attend political science conferences, or academic conferences, or maybe conferences of any sort, don’t attend all the panels available.  People have other things to do at these meetings.  But it does suggest that panels are hardly a big draw, even when there’s a little money in it for the person attending.

Rom then reviews the problems with organizing conferences according to panels: the quality of the papers on the panels varies dramatically, the quality of the presentations also varies, the panels may not align with what attendees want to see (such as when they’d like to see different papers being presented simultaneously on different panels), and the presenters often get poor feedback.

Rom proposes what he calls the “customized conference.”  He would eliminate panels and create two kinds of presentations: “teaching” and “learning.”  Teaching presentations are for more polished projects — where the presenter can teach the audience something.  They would resemble traditional presentations, with a scholar describing research findings and answering questions. Learning presentations are for works in progress — where the presenter still has much to learn and would benefit from feedback.  These would entail smaller-scale interactions, perhaps even one-on-one, and would more resemble traditional poster sessions at political science meetings.

Rom argues that teaching presentations would be selected via a process of on-line voting.  The ones that scholars indicated they most wanted to hear would be the ones formally incorporated into the conference.  Rom further argues that learning presentations needn’t be limited at all — except by whatever space constraints there are at the conference.

With this arrangement, the argument goes, the quality of presentations would improve, people would be more likely to see what they want to see, and people with research-in-progress would get better feedback.  The article has responses to many potential criticisms of the system, particularly to the notion of allowing people to vote on presentations.

Naturally, I have my own opinions on this, but let me turn it over to any commenters.  There is an APSA Task Force on Public Engagement that is, among other things, going to think about political science conferences and how to redesign them.  I’m part of the task force and I’d welcome any thoughts.

[Photo credit: ferswriteshoe.]