March 13, 2004

Conference Calls

1. Via Electrolite:

Michael Bérubé has an idea for a conference on the conference:

One of these days I want to put together an academic conference that addresses the phenomenon of academic conferences. It will be called 'The Longer Version,' and will be distinguished by three features: one, every paper will have a respondent who, instead of waiting for the paper to end, will simply snort, harrumph, and blurt 'I think not!' at random moments during the paper. Two, questioners will be required to begin all questions by saying, 'this is really more of a comment than a question-- I wonder if you could say more about X,' on the condition that X was either unmentioned in or tangential to the paper itself. (Questions must be at least three minutes long.) And three, every speaker will be required to answer these questions by saying, 'I actually address this question in the longer version of this paper,' regardless of whether there is a longer version or not. (If the conference proceedings are published, they will consist only of sections of papers that were cut for time during the actual conference.)

I'd like to condition for just one more requirement: for every paper delivered, there should be at least one questioner the substance of whose remarks amount to, 'That's all well and good, but why aren't we talking about my work?"

2. Via an anonymous reader:

Dr. Kevin Cramer, a member of the H-German discussion board, calls for "more stringent vetting of conference announcements" after "a rather unsettling episode":

In November of last year I responded to a call for conference papers under the rubric of 'Symposium on the Psychological Interpretation of War,' sponsored by the Library of Social Science in New York (Dr. Richard Koenigsberg, Director). As this invitation appeared on my professional list-serve, I had no reason to question the bona fides of this organization (their website was also innocuous). The other participants (around 20 total, in two sessions), from multiple disciplines and major universities and institutions here and abroad, also learned of this conference through their professional list-serves and other networks. The conference took place last week.

The Library of Social Science, it turned out, was Dr. Koenigsberg's
apartment living room in a run down corner of Elmhurst, Queens. The
'Library', it seems, was not much more than a vanity project and
sometime vendor of academic books at various professional organization
conferences around the country. Incidentally, a $150.00 registration fee
was charged. There were no stipends for travel or accommodations and no
meals were provided (other than candy, fruit, and bottled water.) Dr.
Koenigsberg's doctorate is, I surmised, in psychology or psychoanalysis
but, in his own words, 'he has been studying Hitler for 30 years.'

"Caveat emptor," says Cramer. Indeed. The dead giveaway here was of course the candy. Word to the wise: if you don't see, in the words of Alex Pang, that "peculiar academic reception food group" known as the chunk o' cheddar on a toothpick, you should begin to suspect it's not really an academic conference.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 13, 2004 05:20 PM

One of the great conference moments in economics I have had the privilege to witness was when Stanford Professor Robert Hall strode to the podium, looked down at his audience, and said, "I would like to place the paper you have just heard in the context of my own work."

Bob was, of course, both joking and not joking...

Posted by: Brad DeLong at March 13, 2004 08:47 PM

i think you forgot the discussant who precedes his remarks with, "I had typed up notes on all four papers and somehow managed to leave them on the plane."

Posted by: graduate bum at March 13, 2004 09:36 PM

Also, as an addendum to the person who raises the question about the tangentially related topic of X: it is even better when the speaker specifically says that she will NOT be addressing X, and carefully lays out her reasons for not doing so. I did this in a conference paper this year, and, of course, the first question was, "But what about X?"

Posted by: af at March 13, 2004 10:10 PM

"for every paper delivered, there should be at least one questioner the substance of whose remarks amount to, 'That's all well and good, but why aren't we talking about my work?'"

I still cherish the hope that someday I will be at a conference where someone in the audience asks that question, and the questionee will reply "Because I'm not you. And thank God for that."

I also hope that someday, conference panel moderators will start using the old vaudevillian "yank them off the stage by the neck with the crook of a cane" method to deal with presenters who ignore the time limits. Either that or the Oscar night "it's time to wrap up your acceptance speech" music.

Posted by: Amanda at March 14, 2004 12:31 PM

I like the music idea -- we could begin with low volume, gentle hint, then escalate to loudness as the speaker shouted louder and louder and louder over the.....

Is it clear I've been on a panel with a speaker who didn't take the hint from the presider?

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at March 14, 2004 07:46 PM

I suppose this was quite unsettling for Dr. Cramer, yet I must admit I laughed at the chutzpah of this Dr. K. I wonder what kind of symposium I could host at my home? How much could I charge? And how much cheese would I need?

Posted by: isabel at March 15, 2004 11:21 AM

Cheese on a stick?

I must hang out at the wrong conferences. What I'm used to (this is all very interesting, but why aren't we discussing me?) is really really bad coffee. There's just something.....special....about conference coffee.

Posted by: polychrome at March 15, 2004 11:41 AM

i second isobel. i think this should go on far more often. 150 dollars a head will get you an awful lot of cheddar.

on academic conferences - forget about the old discussant and presider woes. i think they would be much more of a draw with the addition of "hype" women or men. at many rap shows, one or multiple "hype" people will come out before the artists to get the crowd moving through jokes, audience participation moves, and other kinds of things. presiders could

if that isn't palatable, then there's always pyrotechnics. or laser light shows.

Posted by: better left nameless at March 15, 2004 12:02 PM

A properly organized "anti-conference" will also, of course, feature painstakingly crafted paper titles which bear no resemblance to the delivered (or long version) papers. Papers with jargon-theory in the title will be entirely about a specific episode in the history of lunch; papers with specific time/place topics will be entirely theoretical. And the discussant will prepare remarks based on the abstracts (since the papers aren't finished until the plane ride) and will deliver them in spite of their disconnect to the papers because it lets them talk about their work.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at March 15, 2004 03:50 PM

Patrick at Electrolite quotes Bérubé in the context of noting that he recognizes this sort of thing from the science fiction community, right? I have an uneasy feeling he'd also recognize Koenigsberg's conference from that milieu, although it would have been billed as a "convention" and had more than one organizer.

Posted by: Mr Ripley at March 16, 2004 02:44 PM

Another addition (picking up on #9's remark on papers not finished until the plan ride): "I'm really not an expert in this. It's a project I just started working on (option: I just finished writing this last night), and I'm hoping that you guys can give me some feedback and suggestions."

Posted by: Katja at March 16, 2004 07:59 PM

Maybe the anti-conference should transgress (I believe that's a word) disciplinary lines so: nobody would be permitted to give a paper to an audience in his or her field.

With that rule, historians would be shouted down by their audience because of the positivist fallacy of relying on so-called "evidence," literary scholars would be forced at point-blank to deal with factual errors in their cultural background studies (= cherry-picking history to get their credentials and then leaving stuff out that doesn't fit), and scientists would be confronted with an incessant background murmur consisting of resentful mumblings about grants, research hierarchies, and the smug assumption that "scientists" do useful stuff that impresses state legislators, while humanities people and social scientists are just troublemakers with their nose in the public trough.


Posted by: flu in san diego at March 17, 2004 05:02 AM

The name badges for the anti-conference should have really small print, which would force people to be really obvious and get really close when they try to figure out if you're important enought to be worth talking to.

Posted by: Michael at March 17, 2004 09:22 AM

The name badges for the anti-conference should have really small print, which would force people to be really obvious and get really close when they try to figure out if you're important enough to be worth talking to.

Posted by: Michael at March 17, 2004 09:22 AM

The Anti-conference should be held at either

A) a small, inaccessable seaside resort in the off-season, ensuring that everyone has to spend 700.00 on airfare only to be rained on or

B) a Holiday Inn on the seedier side of a decaying rust-belt city, in November.

If neither is possible, then it should be held in a very upmarket venue in a overpriced tourist town, ensuring that no meal will cost less than 100.00 and forcing all the grad students to eat out of wastebaskets.

No matter where the hotel is located, the conference rate must be 150.00 per night (or up). The decor should be peach and teal, with floral bedspreads.

And, a word on scheduling:

All related panels should be scheduled for the same time slot, forcing all those who work on Early Modern German History to miss one another's papers, and spend the rest of the weekend falling asleep in sessions on Medieval Japan.

Posted by: jo. at March 17, 2004 09:50 PM

there should also be totebags emblazoned with the anti-conference logo that are so cheap they break apart at the seams if a paper longer than 15 pages is placed inside.

Posted by: graduate bum at March 17, 2004 10:42 PM

Comments above sound too much like real conferences I've been to.


Just got back from the Association of American Geographers meeting in Philadelphia. It was the centenary conference. They are now up to 58 parallel sessions. When I first went in 1992 there were 28 parallel sessions... My presentation was at 8am on the last day and so the audience was about equal or less in number than the number of presenters. Still for a change my paper was actually placed together with other related papers in a coherent theme. Last time in Los Angeles in 2002 I was placed with a pseudo-science nut and the rest of the session left unfilled. It didn't impress the Dean of the School I was applying to for a job....

Posted by: moom at March 20, 2004 11:10 PM

I hate to agree, moom, but these remarks do seem more about an "ultra conference" than an "anti conference."

At the u-conference, everyone would have to wear black and shoes that were uncomfortable or profoundly ugly or both. Interviews would be held in rooms that had nothing but beds and paper-thin walls. The book fair would feature nothing but tiny unknown presses offering multi-volume course packets divided at awkward points and micro studies of topics so obscure that no one works on them but the author. The u-conference would be multi-discipinary, but all of the disciplines would be completely isolated from each other -- even at get-togethers -- through clever scheduling and panel selections designed to prevent even the tiniest whiff of interdisciplinary synthesis.

Posted by: Rana at March 21, 2004 04:37 PM

All papers must have at least two separate colons linking consecutive dependent clauses in their titles. One colon titles are for amateurs.

Posted by: Ray Radlein at March 24, 2004 06:23 PM