Today’s offerings on Inside Higher Ed include the straightforwardly titled “End Large Conferences,” which Rob Weir opens in a similarly unequivocal fashion:
“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.”
Such a blunt assault on a time-honored academic tradition might appear disingenuous – cheap hyperbole to shock us into attention. But in the critique that follows, it quickly becomes clear that Weir is entirely genuine, and while I don’t intend to endorse or condemn his views, I do see a significant connection with the founding principles of Novel Ideas.
Conferences are a staple of academic life because they provide an opportunity to share ongoing research with colleagues who can provide valuable feedback for future directions and applications. Furthermore, we have the opportunity to network with an otherwise diffuse group of specialized academics. But some, like Weir, have begun to question whether conferences, especially large ones, can still facilitate this kind of work.
Without getting too deep into Weir’s points and the valid objections that might be raised against them, it’s fair to say that large flagship conferences, despite their star power, can be expensive, cumbersome, and overpopulated. Proposals must be submitted long in advance, and some presentations are given simply for their professional capital on a CV (the academic equivalent of a resume). I’ve been to a few conferences, and though none could be categorized as the “mega conference” that Weir assails, I’ve observed the problems that he laments – token presentations, stilted delivery, head-down, verbatim reading of obscure, difficult-to-follow arguments, zero use of multimedia formats, little emphasis on the ongoing nature of research, lack of audience engagement and discussion, etc.
Enter Novel Ideas. Believe it or not, while the blogosphere bursts at the seams with sites devoted to contemporary literature, few blogs focus on historical literature and culture (and even fewer are updated on a regular basis). As I see it, a project like Novel Ideas rests somewhere between individual research and conference presentations – it isn’t as formal or official as the latter, but it does provide an important opportunity to share nascent findings and insights which then can receive instant feedback from both credentialed experts and skilled hobbyists. The logistical and chronological restrictions of a conference presentation no longer hinder the conversation. Some scholarly journals have begun to experiment with this format as well.1
I don’t mean to attack conference presentations, which will continue to play an important role in the research process. I do, however, see an unprecedented opportunity to make humanities research more collaborative and accessible. Because we don’t want our ideas to be ineligible for future publication, they’ll have to be framed quite differently than in traditional academic writing, but this will force us to articulate our specialized concerns in ways that are more relevant to larger groups of people. Most importantly, it will make play – the what if. . ., the how about. . . – more prominent in humanities research, which too often seems to take itself way too seriously.
1. For example, see “Taking a Closer Look at Open Peer Review” in The Chronicle of Higher Education.