I just read Why I don’t like hackathons and had to disagree. Not because the ideas are necessarily wrong, only that they apply generically to any focused effort in a short time frame. The same critique could be made of academic conferences. As an exercise, I replaced ‘hackathons’ with ‘conferences’ and made some slight tweaks to change the hackathon specific language. It holds up surprisingly well in this new context, especially the “time commitment” argument .
Why I don’t like conferences, by Matthew Butler
I seem to have had this discussion a few times lately, so I’m going to save myself the trouble of repeating it and just write down all the problems I have with conferences. (Yes, I know lots of people have previously posted about what they don’t like about conferences; I’ve linked some of them at the bottom of this post, if you want some other opinions too.)
They’re too much commitment
Me: I’m kind of interested in your thing. How can I get involved?
Them: We have a conference coming up. You should come!
Here’s how that sounds to me:
Me: I’d like to get a little more physically active.
Them: You should come run a marathon on the weekend!
Conferences are intense and exhausting, and they’re meant to be. They’re usually a whole weekend of focused work, often with insufficient sleep, and too much encouragement to use masses of caffeine to stay awake for 48 hours.
Sorry, but I’m not going to do that for my projects, let alone yours.
They exclude people with lives and responsibilities
This follows naturally from the marathon nature. A conference usually takes up a whole weekend, often starting Friday night and going through until Sunday evening. Sometimes you’re expected or encouraged to stay on-site overnight, or sometimes the norm is to go home to sleep, but either way it chews up multiple consecutive days.
I have other things going on in my life: errands to run, friends to see, a veggie garden to keep watered, and other community events and commitments to schedule around. Attending a weekend-long event means massively rearranging my life. And I don’t have kids or other people to care for; if I did, it would be pretty much impossible.
That exclusion is not evenly distributed
I see fathers of kids at conferences pretty often, perhaps because their wives are looking after the kids. I see mothers far less often. Domestic and career responsibilities are unevenly distributed, which means women are more likely to be too busy to attend conferences than men are.
Until I did some research for this post, I’d never yet seen a conference with childcare or which provides information or assistance for parents; not even the women-only conference held recently in a city near me. (After some research, I now have heard of one)
Sure, most younger women don’t yet have childcare responsibilities, but that just points out another unequal exclusion: the older you are, the more responsibilities you are likely to have, and the less energy you have for all-night Red Bull fuelled writing sessions. Unsurprisingly, conference participants are generally on the young side.
It’s well documented that diverse teams have more creative ideas. So why exclude entire categories of people by holding an event that is hard for them to participate in?
I’ve been to a few of these events, and I’ve never yet felt like I didn’t come out of it less healthy than I went in. Speaking for myself, I like daylight, moving around, eating lots of veggies, and drinking lots of water. I work at a standing desk part of the day (looking out the window at trees and birds), take lots of breaks to clear my mind and move my body, and usually make lunch with homebaked bread and something from my garden. I also like getting a good night’s sleep.
I’m not saying that everyone can or should do what I do. It’s entirely up to you to do what makes your body feel good, or to balance feeling good with other priorities. But I know that for me, when I attend a conference, if I spend two long days in poor lighting and poor ventilation, sitting hunched over my laptop at a meeting table in an uncomfortable chair, eating pretty average catering food or pizza (almost always especially mediocre because I go for the vegetarian option), I feel like crap.
Now, sometimes I’m prepared to feel like crap for a weekend for a good cause. But it has to be a pretty convincing cause.
One thing that doesn’t convince me: competition. For so many conferences, the end-game is to have a paper accepted to put on a CV. I really, really don’t care. In fact it puts me off, and makes me less likely to attend.
To start with, I know how to do a cost-benefit analysis. The last conference in my area, I think there were very few papers accepted for the number of attendees. Most attendees actually got zero papers accepted. I might be up for tenure, but not desperate enough to consider that a good use of two whole days of my time.
Surprise: extrinsic motivation isn’t all that motivating!
Quite apart from that, though, I’m not motivated by competition. Tell me you’re going to judge whose paper is the “best” and I get crippled by stereotype threat, instantly flashing back to being the last picked for the team in gym class. And I’m a scholar with 20 years’ experience under my belt, who’s worked with dozens of theories, and is comfortable with everything from Microsoft Word to Endnote. Imagine if I was new and less sure of my abilities?
You can tell me all you like about how collaborative the atmosphere of your event is, but if you are only accepting select papers you just sound hypocritical. If you want me to believe the event is collaborative, don’t make it a competition.
Why can’t I work on an existing paper?
Every conference I’ve been to has required that you come up with a new paper to present. At some conferences, I’ve seen people complain that people are cheating if they come with anything written by other people.
I spend most of my time working on projects that I think are important and worthwhile. My head is full of them, I know my way around my ideas and scholarship, and I have endless ideas for improvements and new chapters I want to work on.
Now you want me to show up at your event, put aside all the investment and focus I’ve built up for my project, and work on some new ideas for the weekend.
They’re just ideas
The result is that people have quick papers that are cute and flashy, but have little depth like a book. Meh.
And then they’re gone.
People say that conference pr are just for presenting papers, and that great things can later emerge from them. However, conference papers seldom survive beyond the weekend. Sure, I see conference organisers trying to take steps to ensure that projects have longevity but does this actually work?
I reviewed a handful of papers, including many accepted into conferences, from the last conference I was at and found not a single one with a edit since the conference five months ago.
Here’s why: conferences intentionally select for people who work intensely for that conference, then award them with presentations. Therefore, none of those things happen.
So what are conferences good for?
They can be a pretty good PR exercise.
They can raise awareness of new theory or among scholars and give them a space to experiment with them.
They can be stimulate your creativity, if your creativity happens to be stimulated by short deadlines and so on.
They can be a feel-good networking experience for the (overwhelmingly academic, young, female) participants.
Here’s what I want instead
Ongoing projects that are maintained and used over several years.
A welcoming environment for people of all skill and confidence levels, with opportunity for mentorship, learning, and working at your own pace.
A schedule that makes it possible to participate without having to make heroic efforts to juggle your other responsibilities.
I’d love to hear whether anyone else has experience running recurring, collaborative, low-commitment academic writing events. If you’re doing something like that, please get in touch and tell me about it!