Conferences and weblogs

Academic conferences play an important role in the life of the academic, and in the life of the academy. For a graduate student (and in some cases, an undergraduate), it is often the first experience of the wider world of academia beyond their own schools. Despite a general understanding among scholars that there exists this wider community of science or of scholarship, it is not always clear how such a community emerges. One of the connecting points for such meetings is the large academic conference.

It takes a while to understand what role these conferences play in the community of academics, in part because that role is complex. The putative reason for a conference is for scholars and researchers to share their most current research, and, perhaps more importantly, to provide an opportunity for discussion of topics important to the discipline. For graduate students, the first conferences can be nerve-wracking experiences, as they expose their thinking for the first time to a wide audience. It can also be exhilarating to find that while their may be no one at their own institution with interests directly allayed with their own, such people do exist in the wider world.

It is this latter function that, in my opinion, the academic conference serves. Certainly, it is an opportunity to present current findings, but with the pace of research, it is entirely likely that what is presented is already far along by the time conference attendees see it. Journals and informal exchanges serve to keep folks abreast of information. The primary role of the conference is as an opportunity to establish colleagues, partners, acquaintances, and friends. Delivering papers is largely a function of providing public introductions, both to the research and the researchers.

If there is any doubt that this is the case, ask around any academic department, and you will find that the more bacchanalian events tend to be the favorites. Rousseau, in describing the origins of religion, talks about the parties that would be held annually or semi-annually–and that these celebrations brought rise to a feeling of commonality that led to the greatest (and worst) of what human society could do. Many people who attend conferences take stock of what was gained at the conference and whether it was worth the trip. In the past, all of these things have made it on to such a list for me:

1. Exposed to an idea that is exciting, and worth exploring further.
2. Exposed to an author, or a literature, that is worth exploring.
3. Met someone with whom I would like to collaborate in the future.
4. Had a chance to try to recruit someone (faculty or student) to the department
5. Was recruited by someone.
6. Was invited to participate in a research group or contribute to a collection/journal.
7. Had a chance to catch up with friends.
8. Had a chance to talk with and plan with collaborators on projects.
9. Received feedback and recommendations on a presented research project.
10. Received recognition for participation (top paper, etc.)
11. Experienced a city’s culture.
12. Had fun.
13. Got away from local concerns/routine.

These might be gathered into 3 groups:

A. Seeking and experiencing novel ideas
B. Interaction with a geographically-dispersed social network
C. Combining A&B: expanding social network

I think that weblogs can play an important role here as a tool that does not replace physical conferences, but allows for both an alternative route to these ends, and an enhancement to such experiences. I think blogs could be particularly good at providing a way to keep people updated between major conferences, and as a way of making conferences better, by providing some of the preparatory support (introductions) that would make the time together better spent.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted 6/7/2004 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Timely, as I’m currently preparing to attend the Computers and Writing conference for the first time. Perhaps a little ironic that the blog established by the conference organizers has had very little activity?

  2. Posted 6/8/2004 at 2:08 am | Permalink

    Alex, this is a really nice capsule version of the importance of academic conferences for us. And I agree/hope that blogs will eventually start playing a role in our conferences–I’m planning on driving up to Rochester on Friday to see your panel among others, a plan that wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t started blogging last year.

    I’d add three things that I think either mitigate against that role or need to be accounted for by academic bloggers. One is the point that Elle raises above–the occasional assumption by techademics that the latest technology (be it listserv, moo, web, blog, wiki, whatev) will be the answer. As much as I admire Clancy’s enthusiasm for the project, I don’t think a conference weblog is the place “for constructing a narrative history of the Computers and Writing conference,” for example.

    Point 2 is the pace of blogging is really very different from that of research (and presentation or publication), and I say that as someone who’s trying to finish a book manuscript while maintaining a daily site. I often feel like I’ve got two very different writing protocols competing for my attention. Conferences are very much Events, and that’s how we’re encouraged to think of our work, as the invisible grind that leads up to a handful of Events each year.

    Finally, I’ve thought some about how transparent academics want their lives and work to be. Okay, how transparent I want my work to be…ha. Seriously, though, I was excited a few months ago to see the chair of my professional organization start a blog, but in the interim, it’s turned into a “blog” where only official announcements are made, no discussion encouraged, none of the promises about “behind the scenes” being fulfilled. We hear too many urban legends about profs stealing grad student work, and so I think we’re also taught that Events serve as some sort of protection of our intellectual property, even when sharing those ideas might make them stronger. Blogs work against the professional opacity that’s trained into us–I think that’s a good thing, but I don’t think I’m representative in that regard…

    I’ve gone on and on. Sorry about that. But it’s something that I’ve been thinking about lately as well…

    cgb

  3. Posted 6/8/2004 at 2:11 am | Permalink

    Quick add: Didn’t mean to imply by “urban legends” that there weren’t instances of academic plagiarism. Just that I think said instances get extrapolated into widespread paranoia, and that ideas sometimes suffer as a result.
    c

  4. Posted 6/10/2004 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    A brief response here, and Collin, hopefully we can talk a bit more about this at the conference.

    I, too, want to be careful about assuming a tool is a solution or is the moving or motivating factor. At the same time, I think there are some gaines to be had in how scholarship is done, and how academics communicate. If that means hooking into the hype surrounding blogs, I’m willing to do that (assuming it is possible to do so and still evade the backlash when the next next new thing comes along). Also, as you note, I am as much interested in instilling the *culture* of blogging as I am in promoting the use of blogging tools. I have no doubt that *most* blogs will soon look less like what we think of as blogs–earlier net technologies give us a lot to go on here. But I do want to try to preserve some of those things–including transparency–that are now closely linked to blogging.

    [As an aside, the problem with transparency is hinged to the problem of how we account for reputation and success in academia. But as such, I think there really are issues about what and how much you blog.]

    Finally, I am willing to confidently predict that 99% of all attempts to blog at, before, or after conferences will be disappointing failures. That shouldn’t stop us from trying. We need to focus on what works, and when we notice it, try to figure out why it works. We should expect and encourage failed use of the tools because that is the only way we can make it more than just a fad.

  5. Posted 6/20/2004 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Dear Alex,

    I’ve enjoyed your post on connecting Conferences & Weblogs, specially on the parallel of establishing networks.

    Based on my experience here in Portugal (young researchers do not have the means to travel to conferences, so they end up waiting for publications that sometimes can not be afforded) i would like to had my point for having a Weblog. They are a way of compensating for not having access to Conferences, but still being abble to «connect» to others who attend them, and finding the bits that are shared, hoping to at least seing a glimpse of what is happening. One could say that it is a way of overcoming a barrier, financial, in this case.

    Thank you for all the bits and pieces that you have been allowing me to «see».

One Trackback

  1. By Das E-Business Weblog on 6/23/2004 at 8:48 am

    Konferenzen und Weblogs – Parallelen
    Alex Halavais schreibt über die Rolle akademischer Konferenzen. Auf Konferenzen treffen sich Leute werden Ideen getauscht bilden sich Gruppen bekommt man Feedback und Anerkennung entdeckt man andere Städte und Kulturen…

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