The Conference Handbook II

“If you ever go to the ballroom of a hotel where there’s been an academic conference you see men and women who roll uncontrollably to the music… off the beat…. waiting for the end so they can go home and write a paper about it.”

Sir Ken Robinson

Although I get anxiety about presenting at academic conferences, they are an incredibly important part of academic life. In addition to receiving feedback on works in progress, they permit a survey of the contemporary state of your discipline. The best ones provide a mixture of confidence boosting rubbish and inspirational insights into elite scholar’s work. They also provide an opportunity to visit interesting places and socialise with good people.

The best fictional account of the role of conferences in an academic career is David Lodge’s ‘Small World‘ (see the Guardian book club series, starting here).

The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement… For that’s the attraction of the conference circuit: it’s a way of converting work into play, combining professionalism with tourism, and all at someone else’s expense” (prologue & p.231)

“As long as you have access to a telephone, a Xerox machine, and a conference grant fund, you’re OK, you’re plugged into the only university that really matters – the global campus… The American Express card has replaced the library pass… [and] A young man in a hurry can see the world by conference-hopping.” Morris Zapp (p.44 & p.64)

Even if you don’t receive useful comments from the audience, the act of writing the conference talk and thinking through potential criticisms is valuable. In a strong department this would be better achieved through an informal speaker series. But for those of us without a strong department, the conference does serve as a useful focal point.

Conferences are an expensive way to get offsite and away from distractions, but it is important to market your papers and to network. Sharing stories and experiences in a collegiate, regular manner is an integral part of academic life.

When I’m in the audience I place papers into one (or more) of the following categories:

  1. Find your focus – at least two papers in one, way too ambitious, naivety of youth, yes it’s obviously a fascinating topic, but to become a serious scholar you need to contribute to the literature, not write about what interests you.
  2. Go do it – makes sense, but where are the results??
  3. Robust but trivial – what have I learnt?
  4. Important, but flawed – yes, I’m afraid the obvious comeback does invalidate your findings, regardless of how praiseworthy your efforts might be.
  5. WTF? – Possibly genius, but way over my head…

Increasingly I ask myself “Would the planning committee of the Soviet Union be interested in these findings?” And if so, I stop listening. And every time someone says “right?” I wonder at what point the need for constant reassurance and affirmation replaced a confidence in simply explaining oneself .

Here are my thoughts on various conferences:

EU management

  • The most important is the European Academy of Management. I found the selection process to be competitive (I’ve had a submitted paper rejected) but worth it. The session that I participated in was organised with great attention and there was excellent feedback. It was quite expensive, but is usually in an interesting European city.

EU econ

US management

US econ

  • The most important economics conference is the American Economic Association. I haven’t submitted to attend because it’s in the first week of January, which is a crazy time to have a conference. However, it is a great opportunity to see the most famous economists, and is also a focal point for the US job search.
  • The Southern Economic Association is a wonderful conference because there are many sessions organised by the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics. This offers a great combination of professional prestige and direct relevance (note that there tends to be a trade off). The SDAE is full of friends and I enjoy seeing what they are working on. There are also appointed discussants so you are guaranteed quality feedback.
  • There have been some SDAE panels at the Eastern Economic Association as well. The main advantage this has over the Southern’s is that it’s more likely to be a direct flight from the UK. There’s a heavy presence of assorted heterodox economists, with a fair share of cranks.
  • I regularly attend the Association of Private Enterprise Education. It alternates between Las Vegas and somewhere more exotic and has a youthful energy. The emphasis on pedagogy is excellent because I always feel that my teaching, as well as research is benefitting from attendance.

US political science

“No grand idea was ever born in a conference, but a lot of foolish ideas have died there”

F. Scott Fitzgerald