The joys and sorrows of academic conferences

January 15, 2012

Jeremy Freese (who I met last week during a brief trip to Evanston and who turns out to be as awesome in person as he is online and in print!) and the scatterplotters revealed this week (gasp!) that nobody who’s anybody pays attention to the page limit guidelines for ASA submissions.

Page limit? What page limit? (photo 2009 by Sara Grajeda cc-by-nc-nd)

This page limit absorbed way too much of a close friend’s time this week, but the fact that many ASA submitters do not pay any attention to it is not a shocker.

Indeed, many ASA attendees treat the conference like you might treat an annoying relative: fundamentally flawed in ways that are both too numerous to mention and too deep to try to be repaired, but nonetheless sufficiently unavoidable once a year that you reconcile your differences and do what you need to do in order to visit.

Having also spent a little bit of time at conferences that are not sociology conferences, I can say that ASA is not extraordinarily bad. Aspects of ICA, CHI, and CSCW are equally broken and all the brokenness serves as a vivid reminder that institution-building remains a hard difficult process – even for people who study institutions, collaboration, and human behavior.

That said, there are some pieces of ASA that work quite well and maybe, if as olderwoman and Jeremy note in the comments, we want to inform future policy decisions around these issues, it’s worth distinguishing between what’s broken and what’s not a little more clearly.

So, with that in mind, here are a few things that I like about ASA:

  • Socializing with colleagues and peers (In particular, I recommend the Berkeley Sociology department’s annual party).
  • One-stop-shop access to colleagues and friends who you never see in one place otherwise.
  • Cross-generational dialogues with scholars and students of all ages.
  • The occasional great presentation or conversation about research.

And here are some negatives (beyond the page limit):

  • Socializing with colleagues and peers (has its dark side too).
  • A bizarrely large program that is painful to read and navigate.
  • Soul-crushingly boring & nearly uniform format of panels and presentations.
  • An arbitrary, unblind, single review process for submissions.
  • The horrible tools and information made available to conference attendees for searching presentations and panels.

I’d be curious what pieces of other peoples’ positive and negative ASA experiences I’m missing. Other thoughts? Feedback? See you in the comments…


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