if:book blog on the academic conference:
the traditional conference which is structured around the presentation of papers might be putting the emphasis on the wrong aspect; focusing on the presentation of the author/speaker while leaving the discussion for the hallways, dinner tables and cocktail lounges. conferences officially capture the one thing which you don't need a conference to capture - the written record of the formal paper. we can do better than this.

Like academic publishing, academic conferencing is stuck in an old mode and needs to get with the information age. The twenty-minute paper, read word for word off the page, is the standard format for conferences in film and media studies and many other fields in the humanities. Courtesy aside, listening to these papers is often boring. It’s hard to deliver a paper well when reading off the page. (It’s probably even harder to present a paper well when not reading off the page, so I’m not advocating that everyone start speaking extemporaneously.) Worse yet, presenting papers in this fashion uses our time and resources inefficiently. As the if:blog suggests, perhaps circulating papers electronically is preferable to having them read aloud.

And even if people are still going to read their papers, why not also circulate them on the internet? They all exist in electronic form, so let’s get them into each other’s hands--let’s make them avaialble not only to people who happen to show up at the conference panel, but to anyone out there at any time who might have an interest in the work. Scholarship belongs online. What is avaialble online will increasingly be the scholarship of first resort for anyone doing research. This might be regrettable in some ways, but it is the new reality. I am more likely to read things if they are online. I am more likely to assign them for my classes if they are online. And since putting things online is so easy, so fast, and so inexpensive--practically free--I can’t think of a good argument against it. And yet I'm willing to bet that almost none of the conference papers I have heard in the past few years exists in an easily accessible online form.

There is another way of applying digital technology to updating the academic conference. I haven’t participated in one (yet), but there are online conferences like this one on the convergence of web culture and video sponsored by the New Media Consortium to be held March 21-22, 2007. They're taking applications until February 23. The conference will convene entirely in what used to be called cyberspace. Here is part of the call for papers:
Video as we know it, produced by experts and consumed by viewers, is metamorphosing into a different genre altogether, blurring the lines between producers and audiences. New video-based forms of self-expression are emerging, with notable examples like video mashups, jumpcuts, and video blogging. Nonlinear narratives abound in this format, in which stories unfold across a series of 1 to 3-minute clips and web viewers are drawn into mysteries such as the story of Lonelygirl15. Brand-new forms like machinima are emerging that bridge virtual worlds, gaming, and storytelling, all through the medium of the small video.

The singular focus of the Online Conference on the Convergence of Web Culture and Video, part of the NMC's Series of Online Conferences, is to consider how these developments are impacting our lives, and how they are affecting the ways we work, learn, collaborate, and even socialize.

The conference is designed to spark an examination of this phenomenon that explores both the positive and negative aspects of it on learning, social interaction, self-expression, and more.

Conference Format

The conference will be conducted entirely online. Sessions, which will be conducted live, can incorporate a variety of visuals and rich media, and are generally about 45 minutes in length, with about half that time devoted to dialog with participants using voice over IP.

Designed for both synchronous and asynchronous participants, the event was conducted entirely online using an innovative conferencing environment provided by NMC Distinguished Partner LearningTimes. Attendees of NMC's online meetings enjoyed a wide range of features commonly associated with their traditional face-to-face conferences, including interactive sessions from engaging presenters, "hallway" conversations, chances to ask presenters questions, and more.
I imagine that the problem with an online conference is that the hallway is a "hallway," but having never stood in a conference "hallway" I will hold off on judging the idea. And if I participate, I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.


Derek said...

Great post, Mike. One of the nice things about the MIT conference you and I are attending is that they've always at least required papers to be posted online prior to the conference. Indeed, once up, the papers remain up on archived conference sites. You still go to Cambridge and deliver your paper, and hustle off to panels, and talk (and get lost) in actual hallways, but there's a greater long-term resonance to the experience because it's available online.

The recent Flow conference in Austin was another attempt to do something like this, with all sorts of prodding for people to blog about the experience afterwards. Although not a whole lot of people have done that, this is a trend that should be embraced and developed. It'll still take a while for the entire academic apparatus to come out of the decades-old comfort zone of the conference paper as solely an in-person performance, but that time will come.

I know there's some rumblings of this going on within SCMS (there was a provocative workshop on new media and academia last year); hopefully even there we'll "evolve" and really do active, participatory 21st century scholarship.

zp said...

Exactly. People say ASA variations on the conference paper are crazy. In a good way.