Director’s Statement: Why Conferences Still Matter
Conferences are expensive and time-consuming for both the organizers and the attendees. Conferences are hard on the environment (all that travel). And conferences are so traditional. Despite decades of attempts to change up or jazz things up with poster sessions, pre-circulated papers, and powerpoint or Prezis, the much-maligned standard format of 20 minute papers read from a podium is pervasive.
So why do we continue to organize and populate conferences? Is this impulse akin to Winston Churchill’s remark about democracy—the worst form except all the others that have been tried? I don’t think so.
I think we continue to produce and attend conferences because they remain a vital and distinctive forum for scholarly exchange. Over the last year the Omohundro Institute has hosted several conferences and workshops and sponsored several more. Our annual conference in June 2015 was held jointly with the Society of Early Americanists and brought more than 425 scholars together in Chicago for three days of multi-disciplinary conversation and consideration. In September we helped support the British Group of Early Americanists annual meeting, always an exciting convening of junior and senior scholars, this year at the University of Sheffield. And earlier this month “Emerging Histories of the Early Modern French Atlantic” brought almost 100 folks here to Williamsburg from around the globe for an intensive exploration of an exciting transatlantic field. Each of those events impressed me for the depth and breadth of the scholarship that was presented and discussed, but also for the importance of the conversations that were taking place in, around and beyond the formal sessions. Talking makes for good professional practice, and it advances our work differently, but as usefully as does the kind of formal reactions we offer in peer review, for example.
Sherry Turkle’s work is only the latest social science exploration of online versus in person interaction. (For other interesting examples I think of Naomi Baron on screen reading, and Cathy Davidson on the brain science of digital attention.) Turkle has argued recently, in her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age and in various media forums, that the prevalence of devices in all social situations, from playgrounds to professional meetings, is not only encouraging us to divide, even fracture, our attention but is disrupting our ability to converse meaningfully.
The work of Turkle and others might incline us to conferences as opposed to technology, but in the realm of conferences we know how important social media in particular has become. I have followed conferences through Twitter, for example, and the “Emerging Histories” hashtag #OIFrenchAtl was well trafficked both during and after the conference. Twitter in important for expanding the reach of conferences, but it also can intensify the experience of conference going for tweeters. While those who are unfamiliar with its use might find it disconcerting to see people on their phones or laptops, those who use Twitter during conference sessions can attest that the attention it requires to summarize and tweet effectively is quite intense!
The OI’s Twittiquette guide caused some controversy this summer; in particular, some in our community thought our policy of allowing presenters to request “no Tweeting” meant we were discouraging tweeting. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have encouraged live tweeting, but at the same time we want to encourage both understanding and space for those who aren’t comfortable with their words and their work appearing on the very public stage that is social media. A colleague reminded me recently that similar efforts in the biological sciences had largely failed because participants were mocked or worse for being Twitter averse. In our field, anyway, I hope we can allow room for many perspectives and preferences.
What we could surely do better is to bring the in person audience and the virtual conference experience together. For example, at more than one conference recently (not the OI’s!) I have heard remarks that Twitter discussions among the (mostly) younger scholars in the room were taking place in parallel with the live discussions of (mostly) senior scholars. Because the comments, questions and summaries of papers that people make through Twitter, including from those who are not on site, can enliven the room considerably, at the OI we’re going to encourage more integration of these threads. That may mean simply posing more questions from the floor that originate on Twitter (or elsewhere).
We will also keep bringing people together. We will keep encouraging social media to expand conferences beyond the meeting room. And we will likely have more meetings that use distance technology to bridge geographies whenever we can. But we still think that the investment of time and money—even the environmental costs, though that’s harder to calculate—is worth the incalculable benefit of having people talk and think —connect—in person.