Why are there so many new student-organized conferences?

I’ve been approached on multiple fronts by new, student-run conferences; I was chatting about this with another established scholar who took a rather dim view: do you really have time to be running about organizing conferences when you are a graduate student? Shouldn’t you be doing something else, like focusing on your own work?

My opinion is somewhat different: I’m not sure it really hurts graduate students to be organizing their own conferences, at all. Granted all the other, largely unedifying scutwork professors make graduate students do, from grading (which only teaches you to despair for future generations) to doing reference lists for the big cheese’s books and such. Virtually nobody laments that sort of time-wasting in the apprenticeship process, and while organizing conferences is a much, much bigger, more time-consuming endeavor, I could it see being something that the students themselves find to be both gratifying and professionally useful. You do network (although, if you are doing this without an advisor looking over your shoulder, you may doing all sorts of things that rub people the wrong way in the academy, as the academy is a strange place where the norms are not evident unless you grew up in a WASPy family of academics somewhere or are simply, naturally gifted at the social life of the academy.)

What actually worries me more than students potentially using their time badly is simply why they feel the need to go outside ACSP. We have, for example, Spaces of Struggle: A Mini-Conference on Radical Planning that links into the big conference, Associated Schools of Collegiate Planning. Now, I do like the idea of more radical faculty setting aside a space for themselves, but I worry a little about the timing. It is an absolute stretch for many people to be able to go to 3 days of conference, granted hotel fees, and for parents virtually any conference travel is out of the question unless we get smarter about adding daycare to conferences (yo, ACSP, remember when FWIG asked you to have the hosting university list local childcare options right along with restaurants?). Perhaps different people will attend Spaces of Struggle and forgo ACSP, but that would make me a little sad, as ACSP needs all the brains and radicals that it can get. I understand wanting to set aside time and space for more radical discussion, but the last thing ACSP needs is for it to become even more dominated by the “huh? Gentrification isn’t a planning problem, it’s just the market” types. I’m old, I can’t deliver every wedgie these people need.

And that does bring to me to one potential answer to why students are organizing their own conferences: they just don’t get what they want from the bigger conference. I have grumped for years that we don’t do a good job with ACSP, and these two things are exceptionally problematic for young scholars. The first is, simply, that we rush through too many presentations. I know: if we didn’t have that many presentations, we would lose attendees and revenue. That is too bad, but I don’t think it’s insurmountable. By rushing through so many presentations, nobody really gets to explore the details of the work, and the details of scholarship are what makes it rigorous or not. That means scholars don’t get the feedback on details that they need until they send the paper for review, which means the paper either goes through round after round after round of reviewing, and if reviewers don’t have your back, then that vetting never gets done. It’s not good for scholarship, and it’s not good for young scholars, specifically.

Now, I have seen people give presentation after presentation on work that isn’t really done, year after year. I think it would be better to limit that somewhat to focus on papers that really have a draft done. If you haven’t turned in your paper, you don’t present, giving everybody else the time to present. I don’t know that we should regulate thism but it should be a point of honor.

At the risk of Monday-morning quarterbacking even more (as I have never had to plan the schedule or the tracks), students wind up being on too many all-student panels offered during garbage time (Sunday mornings). Students should be put on panels with big dogs, and we should expect big dogs to show up during less than desirable times to attract attendees. I myself have refused to come for garbage time presentations, but I was wrong to do that (I was an assistant professor, however, and I had very, very limited travel funding available from Virginia Tech. I had to save my travel money for better opportunities.)

Finally, we don’t use discussants as well or as much as we probably should at ACSP. If you aren’t going to get feedback from the audience because you’ve had to race through your material, then a good, conscientious discussant is the only real chance you have of getting feedback. David Sawicki, Robert Lake, and Brian Taylor have been excellent discussants, although Sawicki scared the daylights out of me as a graduate student, and I think it would get more out of the sessions we presented if that ethic were taken somewhat more seriously.

When I began, there was quite a lot of grumbling about including students in conferences at all; after all, they don’t really know how to do research, and thus they are likely to give a bad presentation, and that could really harm them. That is on the advisor and home program, I think. At USC, you give your presentation to the faculty before you to the conference, so we can help students avoiding having their fannies hang out. I also find money that my students can use to go before they have to present, so they can get a sense of the conference.

Now, btw, I am generally willing to serve as a discussant if your track needs one. I don’t know if I am going anywhere this fall–I am hoping to get a lot of work done on the book, and I would rather stay home–but I always say yes if I am going.