Why Academic Conferences are Important: Observations from ETS 2015

For the introvert, conferences of any sort tend to be an exhausting affair. The attendees are never alone. There are a million hands to shake, people to talk to, questions to answer. The germophobe, too, will find himself in a veritable purgatory of horrors.

Image from Ben Rogers, used by Creative Commons License. http://ow.ly/UOFOS 

Image from Ben Rogers, used by Creative Commons License. http://ow.ly/UOFOS 

Despite my own preference for small groups or solitary scholarship, I find this sort of theological nerd-fest to be important. This importance is often despite our best efforts to make it intolerably unimportant.

Many of the papers are, indeed, boring. Sometimes it seems that scholars are attempting to demonstrate a sure-fire cure for insomnia, or run a clinic trial on such a cure through their papers. Often this is a result of the desire to appear sufficiently scholarly, as if only in bland statements with a torrent of references can one demonstrate their expertise.

Other papers are, to be honest, quite bad. They were proposed at a point in life when the months until presentation seemed inexhaustible. The summer break from classes offered seemingly infinite hours to mull deep academic thoughts and write a paper reflective of sheer genius. In reality, those hours were consumed with other, often more important activities. Stellar scholarship is thus lost in a melee of mediocrity slapped together in the waning weeks before the conference event.

Still, these events are important.

Reasons for Importance

Academic conferences are important because for every mediocre paper, there is usually another—often from a surprising source—that is quite good. Often, despite self-doubt over the potential failures by student presenters, the fledgling scholars produce the most provocative and most helpful papers.

In some of these papers, there are a wealth of new ideas, freshly mined sources, and voices brought into harmonious conversation in a way only possible when students are trying to make sense of the readings of diverse PhD seminars and finding history, philosophy, and hermeneutics at the same time.

In other papers, there are nuggets of information at the very edge of the argument that stir the coals of the imagination and inspire the hearer (or reader) to further investigation on a topic only tangentially related to the paper itself. These are the gems that can be mined from the academic conference—not necessarily new information, but new ideas and new promises of horizons yet to be explored.

Another reason that academic conferences are absolutely essential is that in those hundreds of handshakes—each of which costs the introvert so very much—there are new opportunities for alliances, research partnerships, and synergistic relationships.

Scholarship is best done in community. In our age, that community often occurs over the internet via e-mail, blogs, and Skype. However, the personal contact at these melting pots of weird people are often the necessary foundation for later community.

These events are also, in one sense, like a meeting of a support group, but without the anonymity. Academics tend to be well off the center of the bell curve socially. We are, often, what most people consider weird. In fact, the cast of characters at a Comic Con and an academic conference are not that much different—except the academics tend to dress up in costumes that are more uncomfortable.

Academic conferences are important times for those of us who feel more comfortable with footnotes and formatting than new people. They provide both an opportunity to get the weirdness out and to experience true sympathy for our shared malady. The gathering allows us to feel a little more normal, if only because it concentrates the slightly abnormal segment of society in one place. This can strengthen the scholar’s heart for solitary legs of the journey to come.

Another significant benefit of academic conferences are the opportunities to walk through the hall of books. Of course, for some academics this results in marital stress. However, even without making forbidden purchases from publishers, there is value in seeing the scope of fresh publication from a variety of publishing houses and getting the opportunity to peruse volumes recently released.

Thankfully, these conferences typically require travel, so the purchasing opportunities are naturally limited. Still, the temptation is fierce and sometimes volumes just follow the lonely scholar home—or so the story goes.

Finally, in addition to meeting fresh faces and new acquaintances, there is great community built over years of bumping into the same people. A casual conversation in an elevator, over a period of years, can develop into a friendship with correspondence and real bonds of mutual interest. This is a fascinating experiment in human psychology that bears more study, but it is a real phenomenon.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that conferences are worth going to for a number of reasons. They are also, for those spouses left at home with young children, worth sending your spouse to because they fuel the fire in so many ways and are more important than our esoteric paper topics might make it seem.