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Against conferences


At The Stone—the New York Times’ philosophy blog—Princeton professor Christy Wampole has published “The Conference Manifesto,” a sardonic and hilarious call to reform the drab academic conference. Many of Wampole’s critiques and recommendations could equally apply to art conferences, which are no less prone to overlong presentations and painful Q&A sessions. Here’s an excerpt from the manifesto:

We believe it is time to ask ourselves: What is the purpose of the conference? What has caused us to organize these things year after year without questioning their basis? Is there another way to reformat the conference or do away with it altogether, replacing it with something more intellectually, professionally and socially satisfying for everyone? What are our real motivations for organizing a conference? For attending one? To burnish our résumés? To network? To get a sense of the current work being done in our fields?..

We humbly submit the following contract, which you may distribute in advance to speakers at your next conference. Acceptance to the conference could be contingent upon the speaker reading and signing an agreement to meet the following criteria in their talks:

  1. I understand that the conference paper should do something that an article cannot. Since it involves direct, real-time contact with other humans, the speaker should make use of this relatively rare and thus precious opportunity to interact meaningfully with other scholars.
  1. I will not read my paper line by line in a monotone without looking at the audience. I needn’t necessarily abide by some entertainment imperative, with jokes, anecdotes or flashy slides, but I will strive to maintain a certain compassion toward my captive audience.
  1. I understand that a list is not a talk. I will not simply list appearances of a theme in a given corpus.
  1. I will have a thesis, and if I don’t, I will at least have a reason that my talk should exist.
  1. I will keep direct citations to a minimum, not relying on them to fill up time. I understand that audience members shudder at lengthy blocks of text in the PowerPoint or on the handout.
  1. In the Q. and A., I will not ask an irrelevant question for the sake of being seen asking a question. If my question is hyperspecific and meaningless to anyone but myself, I will approach the speaker after the talk with my query.
  1. I will not make a statement and then put a question mark at the end to make it sound like a question.
  1. If I ask an actual question, I will a) not take more than a minute or so to ask it, and b) ask it politely even if I disagree with the speaker.
  1. I respect the time of my colleagues who’ve come to hear me speak. I will do my best to be as clear and succinct as possible, and make their attendance worthwhile.
  1. I understand that if I disregard these recommendations, I might be complicit in the death of the humanities.

Above image via The New Yorker