Academic Conferences Are “Lumbering Dinosaurs.” Can Anything Change Them?

by John Sides on August 21, 2013 · 29 comments

in Academia

The conventional political science conference is a dinosaur, large, lumbering, and increasingly ill-suited for its environment, although extinction does not appear imminent.

So begins a recent article by Georgetown political scientist Mark Rom.  On the eve of the next American Political Science Association meeting, his take is well worth digesting.

For starters, consider this.  In 2008, Rom hired 8 graduate students and offered each student $10 to fill out a questionnaire for every APSA panel they attended.  There were 14 timeslots for panels during the conferences, giving students the chance to make $140.  But on average, the students attended only 2-3 panels, not the 14 possible.  To be sure, most people who attend political science conferences, or academic conferences, or maybe conferences of any sort, don’t attend all the panels available.  People have other things to do at these meetings.  But it does suggest that panels are hardly a big draw, even when there’s a little money in it for the person attending.

Rom then reviews the problems with organizing conferences according to panels: the quality of the papers on the panels varies dramatically, the quality of the presentations also varies, the panels may not align with what attendees want to see (such as when they’d like to see different papers being presented simultaneously on different panels), and the presenters often get poor feedback.

Rom proposes what he calls the “customized conference.”  He would eliminate panels and create two kinds of presentations: “teaching” and “learning.”  Teaching presentations are for more polished projects—where the presenter can teach the audience something.  They would resemble traditional presentations, with a scholar describing research findings and answering questions. Learning presentations are for works in progress—where the presenter still has much to learn and would benefit from feedback.  These would entail smaller-scale interactions, perhaps even one-on-one, and would more resemble traditional poster sessions at political science meetings.

Rom argues that teaching presentations would be selected via a process of on-line voting.  The ones that scholars indicated they most wanted to hear would be the ones formally incorporated into the conference.  Rom further argues that learning presentations needn’t be limited at all—except by whatever space constraints there are at the conference.

With this arrangement, the argument goes, the quality of presentations would improve, people would be more likely to see what they want to see, and people with research-in-progress would get better feedback.  The article has responses to many potential criticisms of the system, particularly to the notion of allowing people to vote on presentations.

Naturally, I have my own opinions on this, but let me turn it over to any commenters.  There is an APSA Task Force on Public Engagement that is, among other things, going to think about political science conferences and how to redesign them.  I’m part of the task force and I’d welcome any thoughts.

[Photo credit: ferswriteshoe.]


Monica August 21, 2013 at 4:11 pm

I think the APSA T&L conference has a much more productive model.

Mark Carl Rom August 23, 2013 at 10:46 am

Yes, Monica….the APSA TLC is great. A model for APSA? Perhaps…like ‘schools within schools’ perhaps we could have ‘conferences within conferences’.

Paul Babbitt August 21, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Some unrelated points:

1. There is something (I don’t know what exactly) worthwhile about APSA. I’m looking forward to it.
2. At the very least, pre-circulation of papers (whether polished “teaching” papers or drafty “learning” papers) should be encouraged.
3. The reason many people present papers is so they can be reimbursed for their travel.

Mark Carl Rom August 23, 2013 at 10:48 am

Hello, Paul…

1. Well, I still usually go to APSA, so I’m finding something worthwhile. Still: worthwhile is not great.
2. Agreed.
3. I handle the reimbursement issue: ‘learning’ (aka ‘poster’) sessions are called presentations: hence, reimbursable.

MiLO August 21, 2013 at 7:31 pm

For a different way to think of APSA’s meetings, see Christian Davenport’s recent blog post — While it’s more about networking at APSA, it speaks to how we could begin to think of APSA have different types of “presentations.”

I’ve not read the Rom piece yet. I’ll check it out. But the voting for presentations idea sounds like a “So You Think You Can Teach Me (Or Learn Me)?” competition, one I suspect would be influenced by the pedigree politics and dominated by the celebrity professors and “elite” schools. Again, I’ve not read the piece.

For me, I find the working group approach, where scholars (profs and students) agree to attend a set of panels and then discuss them, to be useful for APSA. I participated in one a couple of years ago on Politics & Punishment and it was really good.

Mark Carl Rom August 23, 2013 at 10:51 am

Hello, Milo,

Well of course I encourage you to read the paper! I do address the ‘voting for the professors’ issue: reprinted below.

Popularity, Not Merit

The proposal to select Teaching presentations through democratic processes, rather than by authoritarian ones, can be criticized as turning conferences into popularity contests. This critique merits a couple responses.

The first response is the classic liberal one: on what grounds are the authorities more competent to decide what should be heard than the people themselves? Do the SH have special skills that distinguish them from other political scientists, placing them in a better position than you or I to decide what presentations we should hear? Unless compelling theoretical and practical cases are offered as to why authorities are superior to individuals in determining what is on the program – and, frankly, I cannot think of any – then it seems odd, to say the least, that political scientists would abdicate this opportunity for expanded democracy.

A second response is this: in practice, the panels are already popularity contests. Some panels have large audiences; others, none at all. Participants attend the panels that serve their interests, and avoid those that do not. This proposal simply recognizes this fact, and indeed gives individuals greater capacity to pursue their own interests.

Prison Rodeo August 21, 2013 at 7:46 pm

MiLo makes a great point about the likely influence of pedigree and privilege under such a system; I’d also be concerned about the potential gender/subfield/etc. effects. I also have not yet read Mark’s paper closely, but I have to say that — on this theme — it’s not entirely clear to me that “democracy and markets” are necessarily the way to go. That sounds vaguely Coburnian to me; markets and democracies are often simultaneously status-observing and small-c conservative when it comes to ideas.

Mark Carl Rom August 23, 2013 at 10:54 am

Hello, PR,

I appreciate your concern. I’m not claiming nirvana; I’m arguing for improvement.

My response to your concern, from the paper:

The Rich Get Richer

Selecting Teaching presentations through voting will have predictable distributional consequences. In short: prestigious scholars, or popular topics will be more likely to be selected to give Teaching presentations than less prominent scholars or those working on less popular topics.

Two rejoinders might be offered. One is: so what? In market economies it is assumed that voluntary transactions will lead to unequal, though not necessarily inequitable, outcomes. In democracies, it is a given that those with more votes win elections, and those with fewer lose them; if the rules are clear and fair, these unequal outcomes are perfectly acceptable. That the process produces unequal allocations is not itself damning – especially when the alternative (the conventional conference, based on authority and tradition) has its own inequitable features which already may favor prestigious institutions and individuals.

An alternative view recognizes concern about distributional consequences, but considers how institutional rules (rather than arbitrary authority) can be established to mitigate the allocational problems of markets and democracies. This can be done here as well. It is not essential here to delineate precisely the allocational rules to reduce inequalities, but a few possibilities can be illustrated. One is that voting rules could provide an extra boost to graduate students, participants from universities that are not highly ranked, and so forth. Alternately, voting could be done in “tiers”, with proposals separated into different categories for tenured professors (or professors at major research universities), graduate students, etc. The trick is not to subvert democracy, but to improve it.

Democratic and market systems are also superior to traditional and authoritarian ones because they enhance the prospects of the poor becoming rich. One key reason for this is that individuals (entrepreneurs, politicians, and others) have incentives to improve their performance. Remember that, in the conventional conference, there are no rewards for effective presentations or penalties for substandard ones. A strong (or weak) presentation at one conventional conference has zero impact on the prospect of having the next proposal accepted by the conference planners. But under the Customized Conference format, the presentation quality can make a difference. If a presenter gives a dynamic talk, then that person’s proposal is more likely to receive votes sufficient to appear on the program at the next conference. Mobility works both ways, however: if a talk is dispiriting, the presenter’s prospects for appearing in subsequent conferences diminish.

At any rate, the Customized Conference has yet another advantage over the conventional conference. If the rules for presentation selection and scheduling are posted in advance, as they must be for the conference to work, the processes by which the rich get richer will be highly transparent: all scholars will be able to see who, how, and why benefits from the market and democratic processes.

Jim Garand August 21, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Mark’s ideas are interesting and certainly worth considering. In one sense, I wonder if we already have something like the “teaching” and “learning” distinction in effect. Many of the conferences that I attend have plenary sessions in which a single scholar–usually a noted scholar whose work is shaping the research agenda in a given field–makes a presentation that many, many people want to attend. I am thinking about the kind of presentations that I have seen Bob Putnam make when Bowling Alone had just been published. What Mark seems to be suggesting is an expansion of the number of “teaching” presentations beyond the number of plenary sessions held at most conferences. Perhaps one or two “featured” sessions for each time slot would be appropriate, with the remaining paper presentations placed in “learning” panels.

I must also admit that some of the best conferences that I have attended are specialized conferences with perhaps 25-50 participants. Everyone attends all of the sessions, and more time is set aside for commentary and discussion on each of the papers presented. It is not particularly efficient for political science to hold specialized conferences that are attended by only a small group of scholars, but I find that these are the conferences where some of the best scholarly exchanges occur. I know that some conferences are trying to implement this idea through a “conference within a conference” format.

Mark Carl Rom August 23, 2013 at 10:55 am

Hello, Jim,

I vote ‘aye’.

Paul Babbitt August 21, 2013 at 10:03 pm

One potential advantage of the a conference like APSA over smaller, more specialized conference is the opportunity to learn about research outside of your subfield. I don’t know how many attendees take advantage of that opportunity though. How awful would it be if you just wandered into a panel at random?

Mark Carl Rom August 23, 2013 at 11:23 am

Hello, Paul,

An intriguing idea, but given how few panels APSA participants attend — 2.7, by my calculations — it does not seem that there is even much that much ‘non-random’ panel visits….

Patrick August 21, 2013 at 10:51 pm

So basically the “teaching” conference is what POLMETH is, with 45 minutes for the presenter and 45 minutes for the discussant. That is why POLMETH has always been a superior conference. At APSA, nobody ever learns anything from those 10 minute presentations and it’s a complete waste of time for everybody involved.

Mark Carl Rom August 23, 2013 at 3:30 pm

Hello, Patrick,

In the spirit of temperance, I’d write “almost nobody” and “almost complete”.

Scott McClurg August 22, 2013 at 7:38 am

Perhaps the question should not be what is wrong with APSA, but with the overall distribution of offerings. I’m sympathetic to both Patrick’s point (“what can be learned in 10 min?”) and Paul’s point (“what about breadth?”). Right now, there are far more opportunities the former than the latter. We have the four “major” American associations and at least another large one in Europe; for IR folks, ISA probably is in that category. The opportunities for more focused meetings like Polmeth (and PolNet!) don’t seem as plentiful and as accessible. The issue of practically aside, how great would be if the APSA sections could host — and get support from the national organization for — biannual section meetings, or something along those lines?

That all said, I’d like to point out that I find value in the 10 minute presentations. They are the appetizers of academics — we get a good sense of what’s potentially out there and what we should explore more. And, I often to go the conferences to meet face-to-face with people to get more in-depth information about their interests, approaches, etc.

Mark Carl Rom August 23, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Hello, Scott,

Yes, the face-to-face meetings at conferences are invaluable…hence my argument that “The Customized Conference actively seeks to build scholarly communities by bringing together individuals with common interests.”

Savage Henry August 22, 2013 at 8:34 am

The problem isn’t the format. The problem is the papers. There are far too many, and most of them aren’t very good. They might be good once they’ve been worked on, but because they get into the conference based on a loose paragraph there is no guarantee that the end product is of any real interest. What percentage are truly written mere days before the deadline to send them to discussants? How can a conference be good when we’re all writing like undergrads trying to meet a page limit the night before it’s due?

Make entry truly competitive. Possibly require a paper draft upon application to present. Maybe have a set of reviewers look at papers before letting them in to get a serious look at whether the paper will be of value by conference time. Keep the breadth, kill the “depth”: fewer papers on lots of topics.

Charli Carpenter August 22, 2013 at 11:14 am

Three-minutes tops for presentations. And they should all be in the form of YouTube videos. Then presenters would actually listen to each other instead of thinking about how to do their presentation well, and there would be lots more room for discussion.

Mark Carl Rom August 23, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Hello, Charli….Very interesting idea. In a couple of my classes, I now require video presentations rather than live ones….and the quality has improved dramatically.

Sara Benesh August 22, 2013 at 11:20 am

I have been thinking about this a lot recently, in putting together the Law & Courts panels for APSA. I agree that the short presentations are often worthless, especially when they’re not as short as they should be, and that discussants (often) care more about making themselves look good than giving actual, useful feedback. But I also think the job of discussant ought NOT to be to focus on the specifics of the papers, but instead find a way to engage those who came to listen to the panel. I’d love it if discussants would provide a written paper review to the authors but then focus their oral comments on themes, questions, controversies, etc that will get all present involved. I was going to send around an email to this effect to my discussants, but thought it might be seen as presumptuous/condescending.

The other issue raised here are the posters, and I think that’s a real opportunity to fix some of what ails these conferences. I tried to put together some themed poster panels and assigned very senior, visible scholars as discussants…and half of my offers to present a poster were declined. I focused my offers on promising-sounding papers by advanced graduate students (though not exclusively), and was very frustrated that so many declined to participate. I’m sure there are funding reasons (perhaps departments won’t fund a “mere” poster), but it’s clear the posters need more cache. It would help if more people attended them, and I think the format has real promise to be more useful than the panels. Of course, when I checked the schedule, I found that not only do our posters conflict with two strong law & courts panels, but they are in the Chicago Hilton and the panels are at the Palmer House, so there isn’t even a possibility of dropping by the posters if one wants to do so and also attend the panels. Heavy sigh.

David Galbreath August 22, 2013 at 2:27 pm

For a UK based academic, giant conferences in the US like APSA and ISA are vital for getting a broad brush scan of the wider field. I have experienced far better comments in small non-well attended Panels. The key thing for me is to get a greater sense of who is working on similar issues across the pond and elsewhere. I would even like to see a greater focus on something like academic speed dating whereby you are introduced to people that who are tangentially or similarly related to your research.

Monica August 22, 2013 at 3:37 pm

I think we need some drastic changes, not just changes around the margins. We are reading this book for our summer reading program and it really makes me think that a well-designed game could make the conference experience better.

Jeremy Pressman August 22, 2013 at 4:01 pm

I once saw a panel where the discussants went first – I think it involved Alison Stanger and David Waldner. It made for a great panel. Two discussants, each of whom discussed one of the papers. Then the authors responded. Of course that is two papers, not 4-5 that is the norm.

It is always nice when discussants find bigger themes and larger questions. Sometimes that is possible, sometimes the papers are all over the place.

David Galbreath August 22, 2013 at 4:27 pm

At the ECPR joint session workshops, they often use the ‘ECPR method’ which is that another person presents and the author retorts. It makes for interesting and thought provoking discussion (has for me four times anyway).

Brent Sasley August 22, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Avoid having panels on the same topic (e.g., Israel/Palestine, emotions in politics) at the same time. Make papers available online for a week or even more before the conference. Don’t have a popular vote on whether a paper is accepted, but make acceptance process more rigorous. Be sure discussants have a time limit as well.

Emily Thorson August 22, 2013 at 5:21 pm

The big change I’d make at APSA is accountability. Presentations and papers should each be anonymously evaluated on a 1-5 scale by the chair, discussant, and co-presenters. Attendees would be able to see how their evaluations compare to the average across the conference and within their division. Those evaluations should then be taken into consideration (along, of course, with the quality of the abstract) when abstracts are accepted or rejected the next year. This would incentivize higher quality presentations and papers.

Paul G. August 22, 2013 at 6:08 pm

John, I read your posting and the comments, as well as the kerfuffle over the posting at Duck of Minerva. And of course I’ve been on the Council for the past two years.

Here’s my quick takes.

1) You write “academic conferences are lumbering dinosaurs” but what you really write about is the national and regional political science conferences. Let’s be a bit empirical, shall we? I don’t have much experience with ASA, MLA, AEA. I know that science conferences are overwhelmingly poster sessions with some keynotes.

2) Which leads me to number 2, I worry that political science is a lumbering dinosaur, and not just because of our conference. I am the co-editor of a interdisciplinary journal, and in a recent meeting with my publisher, I learned that individual subscriptions, at least for them, are basically over. All their sales come from (a) libraries and (b) individual downloads/purchases, either through indices, bundles, or just single copy purchases. Contrast this with our discipline, where we seem are multiplying the number of print journals as they affiliate with organized sections, we make content difficult to see (Cambridge the shining example), and have an archaic writing model (with the notable and welcome example of the new Journal of Experimental Political Science). Print seems to be dying everywhere–except in political science!

3) We are in the process of reviewing the APSA webpage, but let’s be honest. Our national and regional association pages are all lousy in comparison to our sister associations, who do a much better job of identifying interesting material, promoting their work, and presenting a public face to the world.

4) Our NSF funding is in serious peril or over. Political leaders and policy makers pay very little attention to us.

I’m not just a 50 year old bemoaning his chosen profession. I don’t think I am being Chicken Little. But we are facing some serious, serious challenges, and just continuing to do things the way we always have is not going cut it, for the conference, and for a lot of the rest of our work.

Paul G. August 22, 2013 at 6:31 pm

I just finished reading Rom’s paper (typical academic, I commented on Sides’s interpretation before reading the source document).

Rom misses one real virtue of his proposal. He suggests that the voting period might be the current time between proposal submission and paper acceptance.

Why? If we are going to let individual conference attendees choose by a voting scheme the papers they’d most like to hear in the “teaching” format, then all the Association would need to do is make sure the appropriate number of “teaching” rooms are reserved ahead of time.

The voting could continue up until the deadline by which the Association needs to actually create a final conference schedule–and since we are well along the way of having an electronic and not print conference schedule–there is no reason that the deadline need be much before May.

This has a real virtue–the teaching papers could potentially be already finished products not proposals for research that has not yet been conducted.

Rich Flanagan August 25, 2013 at 1:26 pm

I like the track idea like the APSA Teaching conference — although that was a bit too much — maybe 1.5 days of track, and free-style anything else you’d like to see. But the Rom idea is good — sometimes I’d like to go and kick back and get up to speed about something I’m interested in. I really dislike poster sessions, I’m a terrible designer.

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