I’ll play Marc Antony. I have not come to praise large conferences, but to bury them. It is my opinion that mega humanities conferences are way past their sell-by date. For senior faculty the only reason to go is to schmooze with old friends; for junior faculty they are an onerous duty, and for graduate students they are a rip-off for which professional organizations ought to be collectively ashamed.
First codicil: I speak exclusively of humanities conferences, as they are the only ones I know firsthand. Friends in computing and the sciences tell me that collaborative efforts arise from their conferences. I’m willing to believe them. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Most humanities people find it so hard to collaborate that their wills stipulate that their notes go with them to the grave.
Second codicil: I have only myself to blame for recent travails. I didn't need to go to my unnamed conference, but I got it into my head that it would be fun. I was wrong. It serves me right for violating my principles.
Five years ago I concluded that humanities conferences were out of touch with the times and vowed to attend only smaller regional meetings with less cachet, but more satisfaction. But I didn’t listen to me. Instead I spent four days and a considerable wad of cash jostling among a throng of over three thousand. I returned home more akin to Ponce de Leon, who sought the Fountain of Youth and found mostly dismal swampland. Sound harsh? See if any of these observations resonate with your own.
Problem One: Outmoded Presentations
We live in the communications age, but the memo apparently never circulated among those studying the liberal arts. For reasons arcane and mysterious, humanities scholars still read papers. That’s tedious enough at a small conference where one might attend six three-paper presentations. At my recent conference, sessions commenced at 8 a.m. and ran past 10 p.m. One could have conceivably attended 30 sessions and heard 90 or more papers, though the only ones with the stamina to attend more than six or seven sessions were either posturing or desperate.
I wanted my four-day sojourn to introduce me to new ideas, concepts, and teaching modules, but the reality of such a grueling schedule is that I was running on fumes by the end of day one. It would have helped if presenters took advantage of new technology, but things seldom got more flash than PowerPoint, a program that, alas, seems to encourage more reading. Let me reiterate something I’ve said for years: the death penalty should apply to those who read anything from a PowerPoint slide other than a direct quote. It's an academic conference, for crying out loud; assume your audience is reasonably proficient at reading! Seriously, does anyone need to fly across the country to listen to a paper? Why not do as science conferences have done for years: post papers online and gather to have a serious discussion of those papers?
The mind-numbing tedium of being read to for four days is exacerbated by the fact that many humanities scholars have little idea about the differences between hearing and reading. If you construct a paper that’s so highly nuanced that understanding it rests upon subtle turns of phrase or complicated linguistic shifts, do not look up from your paper with a wan smile indicating you are enamored of your own cleverness; go back to your room and rewrite the damn thing. Audience, clarity, and coherence are pretty much the Big Three for speech and composition, unless one's audience is the International Mindreaders' Society. By the way, is there something wrong with using a map, providing a chart, or summarizing a work that few in the room are likely to have read? And do bother to tell me why your paper matters.
I actually heard several very exciting papers, but most of the offerings were dreadful. Note to young scholars: stop relying on the Internet and check out journals that predate 1995 before you proclaim a “discovery.” And if you really want to stand out, work on your shtick. Guess which papers I remember? Yep -- those in which the presenter did more than read to me.
Critical note to young scholars: Want to turn off everyone in the room? Be the person who doesn’t think that the 20-minute limit applies to you. Nothing says "non-collegial" more clearly.
Problem Two: Expense
Another reason to rethink conferences is that they cost an arm and a leg to attend. I had partial funding from my university because I was presenting -- and no, I bloody well did not read my paper -- but I was still out of pocket for quite a hunk of cash. If you attend a humanities conference and want to stay anywhere near the actual site of the event, plan on $150 per night for lodging in a soulless franchise hotel with windowless conference rooms and quirky technology, $20 per day for Internet access, another $200 for conference fees, roughly $500 for airfare, at least $50 for taxis to and from the airport -- almost no U.S. city has a convenient shuttle service anymore -- and money for whatever you plan on eating.
Budget plenty for the latter if your conference is in what is glibly called a Destination City. That’s shorthand for a theme area marketing itself as unique, though it’s actually a slice of Generica surrounded by shops and restaurants identical to those found in suburban malls in every way except one: captive audiences equal higher prices. (One small example: the Starbucks inside the pedestrian precinct at my hotel charged a buck more per cup than the one on the street 100 yards away.) Do the math and you can see that you can easily drop a few grand on a megaconference. (That’s what some adjuncts are paid per course!)
An immediate cost-saving adjustment would be to confine conferences to airline hub cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston. The moment the conference locates to a (not my term) "second-tier" city, allot another few hundred dollars for "connecting flights," a term used by the airline industry because it sounds nicer than saying you’ll spend six hours waiting in a hub, after you’ve sprinted through the airport like Usain Bolt for your next flight, found the gate closed, and retreated to the rebooking counter.
Problem Three: Victimized Grad Students
I'm a parsimonious Scot who resents spending money on boring hotels and lousy food, but I can afford it when I have to. Grad students can’t. A major way in which megaconferences have changed in the past several decades is that there’s considerably less balance between senior scholars, junior colleagues, and graduate students. (Senior scholars used to accompany the latter two in a mentor capacity.) Now there is just a smattering of senior and junior scholars, and they’re often holed up in hotel suites conducting interviews. Whenever they can, search committee members flee the conference and rendezvous with old friends. They might attend a session or two. Unless they have to be there, there aren’t many junior colleagues in attendance at all because they're busy getting material into publication and they can meet presentation expectations at cheaper regional meetings, or save their dough and go to prestigious (-sounding) international gatherings.
So who’s left? Graduate students. Lots of graduate students. So many that conservationists would recommend culling the herd if they were wild mustangs. Grad students have always gone to conferences in hopes of making their mark, attracting attention, and meeting people who can help them advance. That was the way it was done -- 20 years ago. Now network opportunities are slimmer. Whom do they meet? Mostly other grad students, often those massed outside of interview rooms.
Of all the antiquated things about large conferences, the "cattle call" interview is the most perverse. These were barbaric back in the days in which there were jobs; now they’re simply cruel. At least a third of attendees at my conference were grad students from a single discipline: English. As has been discussed many times on this site, most of them shouldn't be in grad school in the first place. How many of the thousand-plus English grad students can realistically hope to get an academic job of any sort?
The Modern Language Association predicts that only 900 English jobs will come open for all of 2011. That’s 900 in all specialties of English, the bulk of which will be in writing and rhetoric, not Austen and Proust. Will a fifth of those at the conference get a job? The odds are long. It's probably more like half of that, and if we're talking about a good job, slice it in half once more. So why ask strapped grad students to attend expensive conferences for 15-minute preliminary interviews? Do a telephone interview, for heaven’s sake; it’s kinder on both grad students and search committees.
As I did as a grad student, many young hopefuls pooled resources and economized where they could, but the sad truth is that the vast majority of attendees spent a small fortune on a gamble whose odds aren't much greater than buying lottery tickets. Are associations playing the role of enabler to grad student delusions? Yes. Here’s another thought: Instead of holding a big conference, sponsor a teleconference. Charge a fee for uploads, but give speakers one-year access to the URL, which they can make available to potential employers. Use the savings to the association to lobby for more tenure-track faculty.
Problem Four: No-Shows
You spend lots of money, you sit through desultory talks, and head off to the one or two sessions that made you want to attend the conference in the first place. What do you find? It’s been canceled because only one of the presenters showed up, and that paper was combined with several others of sessions that suffered the same fate. Didn’t you see the 3x5 card tacked to the conference bulletin board?
As noted above, I’m in favor of putting large conferences to rest. But If we insist on having them, let’s at least make sure they’re as advertised. O.K., things do happen, but in most cases missing presenters are simply AWOL. I know it smacks of McCarthyism, but I’ve come to support the idea of a data bank of no-shows that employers, conference planners, and deans can check.
Problem Five: Urban Sprawl
What’s the point of a conference that’s so big it’s inaccessible? I walked between two different hotels to attend sessions and pored over a Britannica-sized program to locate them. Conference attendees were housed in four "official" hotels and untold numbers of others. With round-the-clock sessions and decentralization, the few networking opportunities that did exist were logistically difficult. It took me two entire days to find my old friends, let alone new folks I wanted to engage. I met two interesting people at the airport. I never saw them again.
In Praise of Small Conferences
There are other problems I’ll leave for now, including the gnawing suspicion that some big conferences have become sinecures for "insiders" who have become "players" within associations. Let’s just say that there is a serious disconnect between how the big conferences operate and what makes sense in the changing world of academe.
Teleconferences with real-time discussion groups and online forums would be one good starting point for reform; providing more resources for regional and local conferences would be another. Small gatherings have issues of their own -- no-shows, sparsely attended sessions, overreliance on volunteers -- but they compensate by offering intimacy, good value, face-to-face feedback, and easier opportunities to network. It's time to give these the cachet they deserve. The big conference is like a one-size-fits-all t-shirt; it simply doesn’t accessorize most people. I’m done. For real. Unless I get funding for an exotic overseas meeting. (Just kidding!)
Rob Weir, who writes the "Instant Mentor" column for Inside Higher Ed's Career Advice section, has published six books and numerous articles on social and cultural history, and has been cited for excellence in teaching on numerous occasions during his 20 years in the college classroom.
In one of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, wrote, "Time is like a river made up of events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too." This sense of being a part of a time of incessant change animates the 2006 report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion. Begun in 2004, it is a rich, important document for anyone who wishes to reflect upon the contemporary rivers and streams of change of the academy.
I come to the report as a dean, specifically a graduate dean of arts and science in a large research university. Unlike Marcus Aurelius, I am no emperor. I find it a privilege to be a dean, even though the job has tempered my habitual optimism with stoicism. To oversimplify, the report treats the theme of change in the profession of modern languages and literature in three ways: the structural changes in United States higher education since World War II and their consequences for the humanities, especially for humanities faculty members; changes in the granting of tenure and promotion that people feared might happen but that seem not to have happened, at least not yet; and changes that ought to happen if the profession is to be wise, academically and socially useful, and robust.
Among the most important changes that the report explores is the well-documented rise of positions, full-time and part-time, that are off the tenure ladder. Tenure is increasingly limited to research universities and more affluent liberal arts colleges. Yet again, the rich are getting richer. As a dean, I miss in the report a passionate yet logical definition and defense of tenure that I might use for several audiences --- the tuition-paying students who quickly turn to instant messaging in a class taught by a member of the Dead Wood Society, the trustees who wonder why academics should have job security when almost no one else does. I can make such a defense, and have, but if tenure matters -- and an implicit conviction of the MLA task force is that it does -- then the defense must emanate from all of us who believe in it.
One pervasive anxiety explored in the report concerns a student’s life after the doctorate. The MLA report estimates that of every 100 English and foreign language doctoral recipients, 60 will be hired to tenure-track positions within 5 years. Of them, 38 will be considered for tenure at the institution where they were hired. Of them, 34 will be awarded tenure. The report, unfortunately, cannot say what happens to the 22 who leave the institution where they were hired before the tenure ordeal. In my experience, some get recruited to another institution. Some drop out because they will believe they will not get tenure. Some take administrative jobs within higher education, and are judged as administrators, but still do vital scholarship and teaching. Some go on to non-academic careers, for which graduate school in the humanities still insufficiently prepares them.
As a graduate dean, even as I wonder about the 22 doctoral recipients who leave the institution that first offered them a tenure-track job and even as I celebrate the 34 Ph.D.s who do get tenure-track jobs, I feel that now well-honed guilt, anger, and concern about the 40 who are not hired to tenure-track positions within 5 years. To be sure, some deliberately and happily choose not to go on in academic life, but others would prefer to become academics. Despite all the national studies, including this report, about the oversupply of doctorates in the humanities, self-interested, faculty-controlled graduate programs are still too reluctant to limit admissions, still suspicious about doing regional coordination of graduate curricula and courses, and still petitioning for more financial aid and more students to teach. It is vulgar to call this a case of “Bring in the clones,” but the phenomenon yet again reveals, I have sadly concluded, how much easier it is to act on behalf of one’s self and one’s family, here the department or program, than on behalf of more abstract and psychologically distant goods, here the well-being of potential graduate students and of the profession as a whole.
The MLA report’s signal contribution is the call, by an impeccable committee of leading humanists, for a serious rethinking of scholarship and scholarly inquiry, which would then have ramifications for the conduct of academic institutions. I can see nothing but good coming out of such a rethinking, to be undertaken both nationally and locally, faculty member by faculty member, department by department, and institution by institution, as each articulates its particular role in the academic and social landscape. These roles will and should differ. Each will be important. The royal road to national prominence can take a number of routes and be paved with a variety of materials --- from yellow bricks to high-tech composites.
More specifically, the MLA report urges us to ask why the monograph has become the pinnacle of scholarly achievement, “the gold standard.” Why not the essay, or a series of linked essays? Why not other forms of scholarly achievement? And why must the dissertation be a “proto-book?” Why indeed? Is there any other form that the dissertation might take? I once had a conversation with a leading Renaissance scholar shortly after I became a graduate dean. “What is the most important reform in graduate education?” I asked. “Change the dissertation,” she said. Surely what matters about the dissertation is less the exact format than a form that displays what this capstone activity must display: respect for past work coupled with originality, independence of thought, and the capacity for sustained inquiry. Rhetorical flair would be nice, too. I have also argued for some years that the humanities graduate curriculum needs a vigorous overhaul, offering more common courses that programs share, including some introductory courses that would comprise a general education for graduate education. Among them could be, at long last, a required course in the ethics and history of scholarship.
Moreover, because of those new communications technologies, much scholarly inquiry is now being done digitally. Some of the most important work about and in digitalized scholarship is appearing from university presses, an invaluable resource that the task force correctly praises and for which it seeks more institutional resources. Yet many departments are clueless, all thumbs in the old-fashioned sense of the phrase, in doing evaluations of digital scholarship that respect peer review. Of the departments in doctorate-granting institutions that responded to the MLA’s survey, 40.8 percent report no experience evaluating refereed articles in electronic format, and 65.7 percent have no experience evaluating monographs in electronic format. This finding is similar to that of another useful study, here of five departments, including English-language literature, at the University of California at Berkeley. It concludes that what matters most in judging scholarship is peer review, but e-publishing is still tainted because peer review does not seem to have touched it sufficiently. Scholars are willing to experiment with digital communications. However, for nearly all, the “final, archival publication” must still appear in a traditional format. Only if faculty values change, the Berkeley report correctly suggests, will scholarly communications change. Deans may propose, but faculty actually dispose in questions of academic and curricular values.
The MLA report rightly argues that the academy tightly couples the canons of scholarly accomplishments with the awarding of tenure and promotion. In brief, a faculty member gets the latter if s/he respects the former. Even as the report asks for a re-evaluation of these canons, it offers a series of recommendations for the administering of a transparent, fair tenure and promotion process. For the most part, these are sensible, and indeed, I was surprised that they are not already installed as best practices at most institutions. Of course, if possible, institutions should give junior faculty start-up packages if the institution is to require research and publication. Of course, “collegiality” should not be an explicit criterion for tenure, because it might reward the good child and punish the up-start. However, a dean cautions, because tenure is forever, at least on the part of the institution, it is legitimate to ask how a candidate will contribute to the institution’s long-term well-being.
From this admonitory dean’s perspective, the report strays into boggy ground in its brief analysis of appropriate relations between someone up for tenure and the external letters that a tenure dossier now requires. “Candidates,” it states, “should have the privilege and the responsibility of naming some of their potential reviewers (we recommend half)." Candidates, the report further argues, should be able to exclude one or two figures whom they believe might be prejudicial. This is a really bad idea. If tenure candidates were to have this power, the dispassionate and collective objectivity that is the putative value of peer review would be lost, and self-interest would fill the vacuum. Moreover, the temptations of cronyism, which external letters were meant to squash but which still flourishes among tenured faculty, might appear in a junior guise, accompanied by various modes of ingratiation with the powerful in a field who might then write a sweetly affirming letter.
Strangely, sensitive though the MLA report is to the growth in the number of non-tenure track jobs, and to the meaning of this growth, it is less radical than it might be in imagining the role of full-time, non-tenured scholars within an institution. The report argues, “The dramatic increase in the number of part-time non-tenure-track faculty members puts increased demands and pressure on all full-time tenure-track and tenured faculty members in many areas for which the casualized work force is not -- and should not be -- responsible: service on department committees and in departmental governance; student advising; teaching upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses; directing dissertations; and, less concretely but no less importantly, contributing to intellectual community building in the department and outside it, in the college and university….” But surely a qualified non-tenured faculty member should be able to be a significant academic citizen. Surely the report does not mean to construct such a hierarchy of faculty members with the tenure-track faculty as the philosopher kings and queens and the non-tenure-track professors as credentialed drones. If the report had more fully defined and defended tenure, it might have explored more adequately the distinctions and the overlap between not having and having tenure.
Let me not end with caviling and quibbling, but instead reiterate my respect for the conviction expressed by the task force about the profession’s relation to change. It concludes, “It is up to us, then, the teacher-scholars of the MLA, to become agents in our academic systems and effect changes that reflect and instantiate appropriate standards of scholarly production and equity and transparency for our colleagues, our institutions, and our society.” Or, if a mere dean might revise the language of both a strong committee and an emperor, we neither helplessly observe nor flaccidly drift in the rivers of time. We shape their banks. We dam them or divert them or find new springs with which to refresh them. We build our rafts of thought and boats of words and navigate them. Bon voyage to us all.
Catharine R. Stimpson
Catharine R. Stimpson is dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University and a past president of the Modern Language Association.