Questioning the Value of Omnibus Academic Conferences
As part of my current job, I try to track and distribute information about conferences and workshops that will interest my colleagues and provide good opportunities for them to obtain critical feedback on their scholarly work, as well as make connections with other scholars in their fields. Perhaps because I pay more attention to all types of conferences now (or perhaps because there truly are more of them), I sense a proliferation of smaller legal scholarship workshops focusing on particular subject matters or disciplines, bringing together scholars from schools in a specific region, or fostering development of junior faculty (of course, there are also combinations of these). Much of the anecdotal feedback I get from my colleagues suggests that these smaller workshops are extraordinarily helpful to participants because of the type and depth of feedback they get on their papers. The size of these gatherings also allows for richer opportunities to engage in informal discussions with colleagues and learn about each other’s work.
All of this brings me to the larger question I want to pose. What is the purpose of the annual January AALS meeting? Don’t get me wrong. I love New Orleans and San Francisco and catching up with friends and colleagues from other schools as much as anyone. But at this point, the conference itself seems like a bit of a dinosaur. If the principal justification for the meeting is intellectual enrichment, it’s pretty inefficient. Hundreds of papers are presented, the vast majority of them beyond any single professor’s areas of interest or expertise. And personally, with some important exceptions, I often have been disappointed with the papers presented at the annual meeting compared to the papers I have heard at specialized conferences (including specialized AALS conferences). One could make the case for the general meeting as an opportunity to hear work in fields beyond our specialty areas, but how many of us actually attend panels in fields completely unrelated to our work? I’m sure some administrative work gets done at AALS, but probably nothing that couldn’t be accomplished by a conference call.
Some academic disciplines combine their annual meetings with their hiring conferences. For example, the Modern Language Association has a long tradition of facilitating faculty job interviews at its annual meeting. That approach makes a little more sense because faculties from most schools are gathered in one place to interview candidates, anyway. But the AALS separated out its Faculty Recruitment Conference from the general meeting many years ago, so that rationale has disappeared.
I approach my thinking about the AALS meeting from a resources standpoint as well. At this time of year (as the early bird registration deadline approaches), I receive lots of faculty requests for funding to attend the meeting. Our school spends a disproportionate percentage of its travel budget sending faculty to AALS. In tight fiscal times, it seems useful to contemplate whether that is a good use of funds, or whether that money would be better spent sending faculty to the smaller specialty or regional conferences discussed above. Or, might we decide after considering the heretical idea of scrapping the annual meeting that the AALS’s winter fest is just too big to fail?