The Academic Conference Genre Revisited

“Doing conferences differently” by Ilya Afanasyev, Nicholas Evans, and Nicholas Matheou is an interesting blog entry outlining an alternative approach to organizing and participating in academic conferences. By now, I have myself been to a good number of conferences to agree that the academic conference genre can be at times exhilarating and productive, but more often dissatisfying and alienating. The authors of this Verso blog’s entry narrate their efforts to organize an intellectual gathering that effectively challenged the often competitive, hierarchical, boring, and useless tone of academic conferences. The result: “Debt: 5000 Years and Counting,” a conference hosted in June of this year by the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

In essence, Afanasyev, Evans, and Matheou took insights from “the Falmer Method” (put forth in 2014 by Andrea Cornwall, Frank Karioris, and Nancy Lindisfarne at the University of Sussex) to propose a different kind of conference. Three characteristics stood out to me from this alternative form of conferencing. First, the authors circulate their papers beforehand rather than presenting them at the meeting. This meant that attendees and panellists read other presenters’ papers ahead of time and, at the conference itself, attendees focused on discussing the ideas rather than hearing them for the first time. Second, panel moderators were tasked to facilitate discussions in strict speaking order. This meant that everyone got a chance to speak when it was their turn to do so. The intention was to equalize power differentials between those who often talk more and are heard and those who often do not get to talk much and when they do are not necessarily heard. In my view, this also meant that those who needed more time to articulate ideas had the chance to do so rather than being immediately outshined by those who are quicker in translating their thoughts into words. (I would have liked that for sure.) Lastly, the conference format had long breaks and communal food opportunities. It is true that many of the most enriching conversations take place when people feel warm in their stomachs, hearts, and minds.

The conference organizers are quick to point out that their conference had some limitations. For one, they chose the book of an already prominent author as an entry point into discussions of capitalism, finance, and debt. Yet I could not help but feel inspired by the prospect of undoing some of the most insidious aspects of the mainstream academic conference genre: the predominant presence of impenetrable cliques; the anticipation of meeting our intellectual heroes only to witness the gap between the impressive ideas outlined in their books and their less than remarkable ways of interacting with those who have not published books yet; the overwhelming number of simultaneous panels to which sometimes only the (not yet famous) panellists attend. Conferencing is still part of my future; I hope one day—not so distant in the future—I get to attend one of these Falmer-method-inspired conferences in which thoughtful and creative organizers and attendees find novel ways to engage, reflect, imagine, create, and dialogue in today’s complex world.

About O.

sociocultural anthropologist | health researcher | program evaluator
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