The Chronicle of Higher Education: September 3, 2013 A Political Scientist Seeks to Reinvent the Scholarly Conference By Dan Berrett

Mark Carl Rom often felt terrible when he attended big academic conferences.

When he was a graduate student, he chalked it up to nerves. As his career progressed, he confided to colleagues that he was bored by underdeveloped papers, poorly presented, and that he felt uneasy amid the social and professional anxiety that permeated the halls.

“I thought I was one of the lonely, alienated voices,” says Mr. Rom, who is now an associate professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University. “I found out it wasn’t just me.”

Mr. Rom has put his personal dissatisfaction in service of a larger purpose:His paper “The Scholarly Conference: Do We Want Democracy and Markets or Authority and Tradition?” was published last year by the Journal of Political Science Education. It attracted attention among scholars as the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association took place in Chicago late last month.

The size of most academic meetings is the underlying problem, says Mr. Rom, who enjoys attending small, disciplinary meetings, where participants can share ideas and develop a sense of community.

Most people choose large conferences, he says, because they tend to take place in attractive cities and offer the opportunity to catch up with friends from graduate school. Networking with peers can be another benefit, but it tends to happen informally, and not because of how the conference is organized.

The result, Mr. Rom says, is that attendees see many presentations as irrelevant. “The conference is just a way to get reimbursed,” he says.

Mr. Rom set out to bolster what he observed anecdotally at the approximately 50 conferences he has attended since the 1980s. He hired eight doctoral students to attend sessions of their choosing at the 2008 meeting of the political-science association, which produced a nonrandom sample of 127 papers presented during 33 panels.

Attendees and speakers rarely interacted, the results showed. Almost 40 percent of the presenters received no questions, and 30 percent were asked just one.

“People walk in, they listen, and then they leave,” Mr. Rom says.

Participants also spent little time going to presentations, according to the association’s count of attendees at each session. Mr. Rom calculates that the average attendee went to 2.7 panels per conference.

If the experience of attending a large scholarly conference is going to improve, Mr. Rom argues, its structure and incentives must change. In his paper, he proposes the “customized conference.” It would be better, he believes, at satisfying individual attendees and building networks of scholars.

Presentations would fall into one of two categories, “teaching” or “learning.” A teaching presentation would be a formal talk on a project that is at or near completion. A learning presentation would give scholars an opportunity to discuss their works in progress. The distinction would make the sessions more fruitful for everyone, he says.

Most of the papers at the conference he studied fell into one of those two categories, although the differences were seldom acknowledged. Just over half of the papers that Mr. Rom’s researchers reviewed at the 2008 conference were essentially finished, while 35 percent were works in progress. The rest were in very preliminary stages or unclear in their questions or methods.

Teaching sessions would be selected on the basis of votes by likely attendees. Rather than cede authority to a small group of conference organizers, as is typical, such an approach would place control over the conference program in the hands of the larger community of scholars, allowing papers that generate substantial interest to be scheduled at peak times, he says.

Votes would be conducted electronically, which would allow the contact information of people who are interested in particular topics to be shared with the speaker and with fellow attendees.

Leaders of the political-science association are generally supportive of Mr. Rom’s ideas.

“I liked best the way the voting empowered attendees,” Jane ­Mansbridge, president of the board of the association, says via e-mail. She wonders if participant voting could be tested on an experimental basis for a day at a future meeting.

But Ms. Mansbridge, who is a professor at Harvard University, worries that Mr. Rom’s suggestions would confer more privilege on well-known scholars.

Steven Rathgeb Smith, executive director of the association, says the paper identifies important themes. But he stopped short of endorsing Mr. Rom’s prescriptions.

Advances in technology, the growth of associations representing scholarly subfields, and the effects of social media should prod societies to think innovatively, Mr. Smith says.

Conferences, he adds, “should be seen as a way to create learning communities with people who share interests.”

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