I’ve been surprised by the response my post about conference papers has evoked. There have been many links to it, and the most number of comments I’ve ever had. One commenter wrote that she finds conferences fun and stimulating. Another wrote that conferences are for networking, and that networking trumps the scholarly aspect of conferences. (Another Damned Medievalist also bestowed the title of Lion upon me. Thanks!)
My curmudgeonly comments aside, conferences can be fun. I went to the “Virginia in the Atlantic World 1500-1624” conference at Colonial Williamsburg last March, and I found that conference to be very stimulating. Papers were thirty-forty minutes in length, and panels lasted for about three hours. This meant that three or four people at a time were getting the opportunity to really develop interesting ideas. It also meant that my rear end, legs, and brain were numb by the end of the sessions. A friend mentioned to me this morning that conferences can be a great way of staying current in your field, especially when you are teaching at a small college in a rural area and you have fewer opportunities to dialogue with others in your field. Agreed. Small conferences focused especially on your field can be particularly useful in this regard (I like the annual Institute of Early American History and Culture conferences for just that reason.)
I also agree that networking is an essential conference function. But I also think that part of conference life leaves us with slightly mercenary approaches to initiating conversations. In the frenetic exchange of business cards and promises to contact one another with citations of useful sources, we aren’t doing scholarly work...we’re involved in games of one-upmanship. I think these sorts of exchanges are what give conferences their empty feel. One need only spend a little time at the AHA to get that impression.
I think my overall critique of conferences is that they are supposed to be about scholarly exchange, but the short length of most papers and the emphasis on networking make them feel more like business conventions than conferences.
My paper for the Berks is now done, although I’ll probably tinker with it again before I leave. I’m never quite satisfied with these short little expositions...you can generally make only one point and that point gets made imperfectly, without the wealth of supporting evidence and analysis that shows how much research, thought, and preparation goes into one ten-page essay. But if it gets a conversation started, one that can continue in other venues besides the conference room, it must be worthwhile!
I have heard that there's a "dance" at the Berks. My informants on this matter tell me that the "dance" is attended by the majority of conference attendees and that it is a great place to network. I must confess I am filled with trepidation at the prospect of a "dance." What kind of music? Top 40? Eighteenth-century minuets? Swing? Chances are, if I want to get down with my bad self, I'm going to do it...elsewhere than at a professional gathering.