As I am faced with writing my papers for this year's SBL meeting in Boston, I wonder to myself: "Is the academic conference a completely outdated institution?" Indeed, what are its benefits in this day and age and its pitfalls?
Academic conferences, at least the sessions, have to be one of the most boring things I sit through in the year. The parties in the evenings, however, seem to me to be where the true action is. That is where, one on one, you can meet people in your field, both senior and new scholars, explain your research to someone, get some immediate thoughts, and then grab a bite or a drink.
But, here are a series of issues:
1. Learning: Is the academic conference really a place where we learn new things? How many new things do you really learn (and remember!) from listening to talk after talk after talk? Not much, I would guess. How much feedback to the presenter really receive? In a panel of three or four speakers, perhaps you will receive one or two good questions from the audience. But there is the issue of scheduling. People interested in your talk (either because of you as a person or your title) might have to choose between you and another session. So, people are split, and the best feedback may be from the person who went to the other session for whatever reason.
On the other hand, in this wired internet age. Someone can present their ongoing, albeit somewhat rough, findings on a blog or on their website, receive immediate feedback from a community of online scholars in the comments, and can develop ideas in concerted network with others. This, in fact, is almost like an online seminar! In fact, that is really the only experience at a conference where I feel like something like this happens: in the seminars that meet on the Friday before the official start. In that setting a group of scholars focused on a specific topic present their ongoing, albeit rough, research and receive immediate feedback from everyone else in the seminar. The subsequent sessions do not seem to me to be very effective places of learning and exchange of ideas. So, perhaps the future of these conferences would be to expand these seminars with several more focused ongoing discussions and decrease the dull sessions in which learning is fragmented and partial at best.
The problem, of course, with the internet model is quality control. Papers presented at conferences usually go through a process of review (the abstracts at least). On the other hand, if a handful of scholars set up a discussion board online, then invited people to submit their ideas, and then have the internet community respond, we might have something interesting in which people do not have to worry about time conflicts (since it is on the web) and one can receive immediate and ongoing feedback. Having a discussion board for each focused topic, perhaps through the SBL site, may be a place to start.
2. Networking: Conferences are definitely most important f0r this. In fact, I doubt most people really think they are going to conferences to hear new ideas. Instead, they go to meet scholars in their field with similar interests OR to get jobs or fill an open position in their department. For this, I think conferences are irreplaceable. One can, indeed, network online through the blogosphere or whatever, but, as of yet, it does not seem quite as effective. Although I have met several scholars since I began this blog on the internet, whom I do not know in person.
3. Interface: What is the future of the conference? Why not have a conference be an interface between in-person and online activity? In person, one can network and attend/participate in a series of a few round-table seminars focused on particular themes instead of these rooms of speakers and listeners/questioners (and thus not get overwhelmed by paper after paper after paper after paper, each 20-25 min long, on various subjects). At the same time, one can anticipate this seminar forum and respond to it on the internet, creating ongoing discussions of the work being carried out by our colleagues. The invitation to participate in the seminar can serve as quality control, but then opening it up for general discussion on the internet could be helpful for the dissemination of ideas to a much broader crowd than those who can attend a session in Boston.
That's my two cents.