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The Great Conference Con?

Article sparks new round of criticism of the costs associated with academic conferences.

July 25, 2017
 
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Scholars -- particularly those working off the tenure track, with little to no access to institutional professional development or travel funds -- have long criticized the costs associated with attending academic conferences. But a recent round of criticism comes from tenure-track and tenured professors, as well, with some proposing alternative means of meeting in response to logistical, political and, of course, financial concerns.

“Yes, being an academic is a privilege. Yes, we are lucky to get to see the insides of conference centers the world over. And yes, we need to have a discussion about the cost we’re required to pay to keep this privilege,” Pamela L. Gay, a past assistant research professor of astronomy at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, wrote in a Medium blog post called “The Unacknowledged Costs of Academic Travel.”

Conference costs -- from major purchases, such as airfare, to smaller ones, such as in-transit Wi-Fi -- can quickly eat up significant shares of academics’ budgets, Gay says. While that may be feasible for more senior faculty members or deans who can afford to personally cover what they are not reimbursed for or be without funds while awaiting reimbursement, she adds, it’s not for newer, lower-paid professors and adjuncts.

Gay goes on to call conference costs, even those reimbursed by institutions, interest-free loans or savings given to a college or university from a faculty member, given the lag time on reimbursements. Moreover, she says, these institutions benefit from their faculty members attending conferences, and the conferences aren’t optional: professors must attend them to be promoted.

Despite the cultural and professional taboos surrounding talk of money, Gay says, “We need to stop being silent, and start recognizing that academia taxes people for the right to keep and advance their careers.” If institutions aren’t going to pay people more but still ask them to travel, she wrote, “changes need to be made.”

First, she wrote, “Anyone who has to travel for work needs work to pay for travel, and to pay what it can up front with timely reimbursement on the back end.” Second, “We need to reconsider per diem rates in the context [of] connectivity costs; incidentals needs to be sufficient to include Wi-Fi.” And next, “We need to consider [the] creation of travel kits that can be checked out and that contain cables and batteries and all the other random stuff that is needed.”

Gay’s piece resonated with Karen Kelsky, a tenured professor-turned-academic career coach who moderates the blog The Professor Is In. Kelsky said she appreciated, in particular, Gay’s observation that “even those with conference travel budgets are actually providing uncompensated loans to their institutions in the many weeks of waiting for reimbursement.” And that “doesn't begin to address the inequities confronting all those without conference travel budgets,” Kelsky added.

Matt Reed, vice president for learning at Brookdale Community College, responded to Gay’s piece on his regular Inside Higher Ed blog, saying he echoed her “sense that we need to update some of the processes by which we allocate travel funding, such as thinking to include Wi-Fi as an expense.” Reed also said he was a fan of a “per diem” system, as opposed to itemized meals, as it “covers tips, and it lets people allocate meals as they see fit.”

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said conference trends will vary by discipline. In most, he said, "in-person and virtual conferences will each have their place, serving different functions. Digital networking has not replaced in person interaction." Instead, he said, "these forms of community building enhance one another, as people who know one another online meet in person, and then extend interaction between the conference." One of AHA's most popular receptions in recent years has been "Twitterstorians and Bloggers," for example, Grossman added.

As for costs, Grossman said that many scholarly societies are "quite conscious" of them. Some organizations subsidize travel for graduate students and or underemployed faculty members, he said, while some subsidize child care. Many, he said, look carefully at hotel costs and airline routes. 

Nevertheless, Matthew McKay, director of student life and diversity at the State University of New York at Adirondack, said that the “very nature of a national conference exudes economic privilege.” Registration, travel, lodging, food and “even education (looking at you pre-conference workshops) all cost a premium for organizations who value ‘social justice and diversity,’” McKay wrote via email to Inside Higher Ed. “If we really valued equity, wouldn’t we have a sliding scale for conference registration based on your gross salary? Would we offer all-inclusive sponsored rates for those who cannot or do not have the institutional/personal means to attend a conference? Wouldn’t educational sessions all be free to members?” 

Saying that outcry over California adding Texas to its list of places to which state-funded travel is prohibited “exudes” privilege, McKay asked, “If you continue to do something over and over but expect a different result, what does that mean for us? …When do we take the actions necessary to cultivate systemic change?”

Predictions for the Future

It may be hard to generalize about academic conferences. They include intimate gatherings of scholars who share highly specialized interests and gathering of large disciplines that attract thousands. The latter category includes many search committee members, typically subsidized in some form by their departments, but also many graduate students seeking jobs. Those students are often there on their own dime, having just spent their savings on interview attire.

As its title suggests, a new book, Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities (Palgrave Macmillan), is also critical of the contemporary conference scene. Author Donald J. Nicolson, a former academic researcher and journalist, describes social sciences gatherings in particular as moving away from an authentic “intellectual communication” tradition to a kind of see-and-be-seen one. The book also notes the costs -- financial, time and environmental -- associated with conference travel and discusses the lack of research on what impact conferences ultimately have.

Beyond fixing the funding and reimbursement problem, are academic conferences even worth it, to academics, disciplines or institutions? There are signs they’re already waning, or changing form. Just this spring, for example, the American Society of Microbiology announced plans to slash small-conference organizing, citing decreased attendance and resultant financial woes for the organization.

Increased travel restrictions to the U.S. imposed by the Trump administration have led some to brainstorm about online meetings. The Feminist and Women’s Studies Association of the United Kingdom and Ireland, for example, is holding an upcoming virtual conference, in solidarity with those affected by travel mobility issues. In addition to an in-person conference in September, the association will host a two-week meeting on its website. Presenters may submit blog posts, videos, slide shows or short film presentations, based on preference. Viewers can comment, and dialogue will be encouraged through social media.

“We feel that this enables feminist academic dialogue in a way that is as inclusive as possible, and that overcomes some of the barriers that traditional conferences present,” Charlotte Mathieson, a lecturer in English at the University of Surrey and association chair, told the blog Not So Popular. “While physical conferences are an invaluable way to share research, many academics find conference travel prohibitively difficult: the practicalities of attending imposes demands on individuals’ time, finances and mobility, as well as requiring time away from family and caring responsibilities.”

Responding in part to Gay’s post, Matthew Cheney, a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of New Hampshire, wrote on his own blog that in his experience, “conferences are mostly a waste of time and money.” He, too, calls conferences a symptom of the “neoliberalization” of the academy, as well as a parade of “winners” with tenure-track jobs that cover their travel expenses and then some.

“I'm sure there are winners who don't like academic conferences, but lots of them do, or else conferences wouldn't be such a central part of academic life,” Cheney wrote. “In an age when we can instantly share our work with each other, when we can zap our video image across the world, when anybody with an internet connection can set up a website and publish just about anything, there's no great need for academics to get together and read papers at each other, as they do in my discipline. The scholarship can be shared and discussed otherwise.”

Cheney doesn’t suggest doing away with the conference. “But don’t make it mandatory,” he says. “Don’t judge people's CVs by how many conference papers they've presented. Don't create an expectation that to be a good academic we must all join the jet set.”

Kelsky said that if she had to predict the future of academic conferences, she’d anticipate a further shift toward virtual conferences, with more interviews via Skype, in recognition of the financial constraints facing many participants. At the same time, she guessed there would be a continued reliance on in-person conferences for those who can afford them.

In other words, she said, it’s “the continued feudalization of academia, where those at the top occupy a more and more isolated enclave of privilege and opportunity hoarding, at the expense of everyone else. Virtual options will mitigate this to some extent, but as you know, some of the deepest human engagement remains face-to-face, so that option will exist for, and benefit, those with funds.”

Financial concerns notwithstanding, Reed, writing for Inside Higher Ed, said he wished academic conferences were a bigger part of community college life and cautioned against writing them off too quickly.

Having seen the “effects of a long-term underfunding of travel, I can attest that the cost of information missed and connections not made is cumulative. After a while, people don’t know what they don’t know,” he wrote. “Too much time in a local bubble leads to a lack of a comparative perspective, and a tendency to conflate the way things have been with the way they must be.”

Reed said teleconferences work “great,” but best as a follow-up. “There will be times when individual people can’t travel much; when the kids were in preschool, I kept travel to a minimum,” he added. “But when entire colleges keep it to a minimum, they cut down the future to the size of the present. That should be the last thing academics should do.”

Worth noting, too, is that many academics bemoaned the loss of networking opportunities when the microbiology society announced their plan to cut local conferences.

The Modern Language Association has long been a target of conference cost backlash, since a large share of its members teach off the tenure track. Rosemary Feal, the association’s longtime executive director, said, “It's logical to wonder how relevant” conferences are today. At MLA, she said, members cite exchanging scholarly ideas face-to-face and networking with colleagues as top reasons for attending. Additional benefits include professional development experiences, talks by scholars, job fairs and book exhibits, she added.

Over all, Feal said, “there will always be a place for in-person scholarly meetings” -- and plenty of opportunities for scholarly exchange using technology. MLA's open-access repository, CORE, for example, lets humanities scholars share their work pre- and post-publication, Feal said. “While this kind of scholarly enterprise is not the equivalent of an academic conference, it is a conferring of minds, and that is the heart of our intellectual endeavor.”

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