Friday, August 15, 2014

Benefits of Academic Conferences

Over at PrawfsBlawg, on a post comparing the SEALS and AALS conferences, an anonymous commenter questioned the value of academic conferences.

In this economic environment, many schools are tightening their belts.  A number of schools have made cuts to funds for travel and professional development. 

Below, I list some of the areas in which conferences can provide benefits. 

Teaching.  At most conferences I attend, I attend at least one panel on pedagogy.  In addition, many of the panels provide new material for classes.  Also, fellow professors may be more willing to share teaching materials, which can be invaluable, if they have met you in person at a conference.

Service.  Conferences are often the hub for discipline-related service.  Many, if not most, of my external service opportunities have come from other professors I met at conferences.

Research.  You can receive excellent comments on your papers at conferences and are much more likely to get other professors to review your work if you have met them in person.  Also, a number of the people who have cited my work are people I met at conferences.  

Professional Development.  Much of our time as professors is spent with students, who are usually not experts in our subject areas.  Even most of our colleagues are not experts in our specific research areas.  Conferences give professors a chance to test themselves against other experts in their areas, which can lead to significant professional development.

Inspiration.  I tend to return from conferences inspired and refreshed.  Seeing the successes of my colleagues at other schools encourages me to be more efficient and improve in all areas. 

Community.  Academic community often grows from conferences. Blogs, social media, listservs, e-mail, and phone calls can sustain the community, but I think it is relatively difficult to be truly plugged into the broader academic community without at least a few in-person meetings with other professors. 

Compensation.  Frankly, I count funding for conferences as part of my compensation.  A school without funding for conferences would likely have to pay more in salary if it did not provide funding for conferences. Also, payment for conferences usually amounts to a relatively small portion of total faculty compensation.  

Rankings. Many school rankings depend, at least in part, on peer reputation.  In the U.S. News law school rankings, for example, peer reputation is actually the single most heavily weighted factor.  I don’t think schools should chase rankings just for the sake of the rankings, but improving rankings can impact things that matter (recruiting intelligent students, attracting recruiters to campus, and making (generous) alums happy, etc.)  I’m not sure how much schools spend on those glossy brochures they send to other schools, chasing peer reputation, but I am much more likely to think well of another school if I hear a good presentation from one of their faculty members than if I see an impressive looking pamphlet in my mailbox. 

Of course, there are probably ways to cut spending on academic conferences without losing the above benefits and I am open to those ideas.  

Related to this post, I am interested in how other schools divvy up travel funds (and any details about your school's approach to travel funds that you can share).  At Belmont, we apply to our assigned associate dean to get funding for any conference we wish to attend. Except in the most rare circumstances, you will not get funding if you are not presenting a paper.  I am not sure what the limits for travel funding are at Belmont, but they have been generous in granting my requests so far.  I know some schools grant professors a set amount of travel funds each year; this seems like a good way to encourage careful spending and allow better planning by professors, but it does not address the variation in professor productivity (unless the amount granted is pegged to recent publications).

Business School, Conferences, Haskell Murray, Law School | Permalink


Thanks for posting this list and your comments, Haskell. I agree with everything you’ve said here. I also will selfishly note that conferences helped me to feel a bit more secure at tenure time for another reason.

At Tennessee, we can suggest folks to serve as tenure reviewers (but only a minority of our reviewers may come from the candidate-created list). I met people at conferences that I suggested as reviewers, and I met people at conferences who informed me of constructive (and, in a few cases, destructive) reviewers to help inform my judgment. Many of the folks that I met (or who were suggested to me by those I met) did, in fact, serve as tenure or promotion reviewers for me.

To boot, most are scholars with whom I regularly work or to whom I regularly cite. These bonds are professional rich. I do not think I would have these academic relationships had my deans not invested in my professional development by sponsoring my attendance and participation.

The deans that have served at Tennessee since my arrival on the scene have all believed in this investment. The current dean even went out and raised funds from alumni to support faculty development, including conference attendance. I know my teaching and scholarship are the better for it.

We get a fixed faculty development account for the year, but the dean tries to pay separately for conferences at which we present. Our reimbursement for the SEALS conference has been limited to two nights/three days for a number of years now (unless you have a role in the governance or operation of the organization that requires your attendance for longer). In my view, it's worth paying for a few extra days for additional presentations and engagement, however, since SEALS gets an amazingly low hotel rate. (Full disclosure: I am a former board member and President of SEALS.)

How do I pay Tennessee back for this investment? Of course, as you suggest, I work hard to produce teaching, scholarship, and service that is valuable to the students and the institution as a whole. And I participate actively in the community of ideas that is sparked by conference attendance.

But that’s not all. I try to get the most out of a conference while I am there. I go to every session that bears on my work, if I can. I will even wander between conflicting sessions if they both are relevant. I support my colleagues by showing up at their presentations, when they do not conflict with sessions at which I am presenting or sessions that are otherwise important to me. I show up at the social events to get ideas from more colleagues and to talk to deans and faculty at other schools about things they are doing. I sincerely hope that all of that does inure to the benefit of Tennessee, which always has treated me fairly.

Anyway, thanks, again, for the thoughtful observations. Still finishing the syllabi (and cleaning out my office . . .). Got to get back to all that (after some Saturday morning yoga and errands, of course).

Posted by: joanheminway | Aug 16, 2014 6:30:37 AM

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