Reimagining the Professional Meeting

Creating meetings that have less filler and more meaning

July 25, 2019

The headline in The Guardian summed up a popular view of the annual professional meeting: “Expensive academic conferences give us old ideas and no new faces.”

As costs climb, attendance flags, and some of the reasons for attending a professional meeting evaporate, how should the annual convention change?

In the past, the big meetings served a number of irreplaceable functions.  In addition to networking and presenting papers, the meetings served as a "meat market," where job interviews were held.

But with the cost of attending a meeting now typically approaching $1,500, fewer can afford to go, and preliminary job interviews increasingly taking place on Skype, attendance is down, and, as a result, networking opportunities have declined.

It turns out that awards and opportunities to serve on scholarly panels are, by themselves, insufficient to attract the numbers that attended in the past.

Instead, many academics attend smaller, more intimate gatherings, where specialists in a particular area can share ideas and insights.

What, then, should the major professional associations do?

Some answers seem obvious and have already been implemented:

  • Poster sessions allow those whose papers were not accepted to nonetheless showcase their scholarship at the meeting.
  • Rapid fire meetings with editors.
  • Training in media presentations and op-ed writing.
  • Sessions organized around a current event or controversy.
  • Tours of relevant local sites.

I'm convinced that a big part of the future of the annual history meeting lies in professional development.

Academia is one of the only professions not to require continuing education.  Attorneys, physicians, public school teachers, social workers, and many other professions require practitioners to acquire a certain number of CEUs each year. It is simply taken for granted that academics continuously upgrade their skills.

Some voluntary training opportunities have arisen, including summer institutes sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History.  But these reach only a very small number of faculty members.  In the past, the Newberry Library took a leading role in training historians in family history and quantitative methods. The University of Michigan’s Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research has long provided instruction in training in data access, curation, and methods of analysis.

Serious gaps exist in graduate history training, especially involving quantitative methods, digital history, museum studies, and grantsmanship.

Might not the leading professional associations step up to the plate?  These associations might offer certificates and certifications to those who complete their training.  Obvious areas include:

  • Pedagogy and assessment.
  • Course and curriculum redesign
  • Digital history
  • Quantitative methods
  • Grant writing

But what about the annual meeting’s heart and soul, the presentation of scholarly work?

Many alternatives to the too often ponderously and monotonously conference paper have been suggested:

  • Circulating papers prior to the conference and devoting sessions to discussion.
  • Staging debates and roundtables and moderated discussions on an influential book or controversy.
  • Speed presentations, much shorter than the 20-30 minute paper.
  • Interactive workshops, which might involve teaching a new skill or introducing a new resource.

There are other steps that conferences might take:

  • Thesis-driven sessions, where a presenters succinctly offers a hypothesis or a newly developed theory that the attendees respond to.
  • Turning the tables: inviting the audience to question an authority in a particular area.
  • Creating opportunities for cross-institutional collaboration on a multi-institutional project.
  • Live streaming sessions, with the opportunity to submit questions by email or text.
  • Post-conference follow ups, including discussion boards.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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