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June 11, 2011

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Anon

Conferences in your area of research expertise allow you to connect with people who may be potential reviewers of your scholarship for tenure purposes. You certainly don't have to know the people personally from whom you school solicits tenure letters, but it may help you get a sense of who has the appropriate personality to put on your own list for tenure purposes. It also makes it more difficult for those people to decline or to write gratuitously bad letters if they know you personally.

Conferences that are broader than your area of specialization may help you move laterally, but they don't really advance your career much in your own school (as opposed to conferences in related areas of specialization where you may make connections that broaden your own work). There are some exceptions in selective conferences with a methodological focus (e.g., ALEA), but Law & Society is notoriously bad for getting you exposure to anything other than the people on your panel (which may be indeed a very good thing).

Ani

This understates the objection by putting it in terms of individual self-interest. Conferences are very expensive. They take time away from teaching and scholarship that benefits schools and students. They expose us to ideas and people, but at a very inefficient rate; presentations are often very poor, relative to written drafts, and panels stubbornly resist preserving time for meaningful exchange among those physically attending. Conferences are also highly redundant over time. (Can anyone name a single national, large-scale conference that would not be improved by hosting it biennially, at most?)

Some, like the AALS, might not exist but for the fact that they enable schmoozing for social pleasure and personal advancement, and survive because the entry price for most participants is nearly zero (just show up!) and the price for institutions, while quite high, is accepted because no one wants to be the first to defect. If the sum price paid for the AALS annual meeting were redirected toward loan forgiveness, the world would be a better place.

AnonProf

I disagree with Ani. Conferences can be productive for scholarship and teaching.

Over the years, my experience at AALS has been very positive, and I certainly would not want it to become a biennual meeting. Contacts I made at AALS led to conference invitations and publications. I have developed, what I hope are, lifelong professional friendships. Not only have these been beneficial for my scholarship, insofar as they expanded the universe of people to whom I can send drafts, but they also helped me with pedagogy because they provide me with an opportunity to make contacts with educators who I can contact to improve my teaching. Last year's conference was particularly important because it involved labor dispute questions and topics about the ABA's proposed changes to the tenure criteria. I also have often heard the refrain that the AALS has notoriously bad presentations, but that has not been my experience. As for other conferences, I have benefited tremendously from those that required participants to read papers and provide commentary on drafts. And a last point: I don't see what's wrong with seeking fora for getting exposure for our ideas. After all many (and probably most) of us work to gain public exposure for the ideas we developed in the quiet of our studies.

Ani

Fair enough, AnonProf; I am glad you have found it worthwhile. I do not disagree that "[c]onferences can be productive for scholarship and teaching." Mine is rather a comment about relative efficacy of that method for most participants and in light of its costs. I believe your comments go more to the original point that it may be in a young professor's self-interest to attend, rather than my digressive point that it may be not be something students and institutions should subsidize at present levels.

To "interrogate" (in conference-speak) your account, let me separately express skepticism that it was an effective use of scarce tuition-driven resources to journey to SF because it involved labor dispute questions (if relating to the conference itself) and had topics about proposed changes to tenure criteria (as to which there is considerable traffic elsewhere, for all that it is worth). And as to "what's wrong with seeking fora for getting [public] exposure for our ideas," I celebrate the objective and question only the means.

Alan White

Whether conferences (and legal scholarship more generally) are a useful or efficient expenditure of tuition or donor funds is quite a different question from the original topic, whether junior faculty should be encouraged to attend them. It would hardly make sense for a non-tenured junior professor to refrain from attending as a sort of protest of the misallocation of resources.

Based on my experience, I would recommend to junior colleagues that they attend workshops and conferences selectively and purposefully, with an emphasis on finding opportunities to present a paper. There are excellent workshop meetings intended for junior faculty where participants take seriously the obligation to read papers and provide thoughtful comments. These are particularly helpful if senior faculty have also volunteered to read papers and be discussants. Any opportunity to present at one of these workshops is worth taking. Any conference or symposium accompanied by a good publication opportunity should also be a top priority.

AALS is useful primarily to meet and develop personal relationships with scholars in the sections that relate to your research interests. Law and Society's benefits depend on putting a good panel of papers and commentators together. Finally, any commitment to present a paper at a conference can serve as a useful deadline and stimulus to do the writing.

Meeting one's peers and colleagues can not only improve one's writing, but also facilitate collaboration and learning about teaching and service opportunities. Exchanging course materials and teaching approaches is one of the incidental benefits of developing personal connections at conferences and workshops. While all these exchanges about writing and teaching can theoretically take place by electronic means, there is no substitute for in-person exchanges in forming a real community of scholars.

Ani

I agree with most or all of what Alan White advises, but for the magnitude of the advantages he cites, and with the technical separability of the questions. So long as we are clear that the behavior is quite plausibly inconsistent with community interests, and prone for reasons of self-interest to have its benefits exaggerated, junior scholars may make an ethically informed decision about their behavior.

I would only add that viewing this as an issue for non-tenured faculty is in practice a red herring. So few confront any issue of job security that the real issue tends to be the same as for other faculty: whether attending conferences helps or hurts your personal and professional satisfaction, including (prominently) your ability to leave the employment of the party picking up the tab.

anon1styearprof

Great comments by all. I've really enjoyed this thread. As a first-year prof who has gone to quite a few conferences this year (and went to quite a few before this year), I'm inclined to share Ani's skepticism. I tend to think that conferences are marginally useful - basically when you happen to meet someone who becomes a friend or academic liaison. But, for the most part, and most of the time, I'm inclined to think I would be better off (re instrumentality of tenure, lateraling, etc.) sitting in my office and churning out high quality law review articles.

Stuart Buck

Why not sit in your office 360 days out of the year churning out high quality law review articles, and spend the other 5 talking about those articles to an audience of your peers? Is the marginal benefit of those 5 days of writing so huge that it outweighs the chance to present your research in public?

Franita Tolson

The question is how should young scholars allocate their time between conferences, writing, teaching, and personal obligations. Saying that one should invest 360 days out of the year to writing doesn't really shed much light on how new law profs should divide their time in order to be best positioned for tenure.

Peter Yu

One thing that has not yet been covered in this thread is that some institutions actually *prefer* faculty members to show up in AALS or L&S. These events could benefit institutions (and indirectly their students and alums--through reputational gains, perhaps), even though the events may not benefit individual faculty members as much.

So, new faculty members just have to distinguish among the different types of conferences and think about the pros and cons of each type (esp. in light of the culture of their own institutions). For example, some events are for face time, some are for scholarly feedback, some are for mentorship, and some are just for idiosyncratic interests (whatever they may be). As one gets more senior and knows more people, some are for catching up as well (socially or regarding collaborative projects).

Virtually all new faculty members will run into resource constraints (whether in terms of time, budget funds, physical capabilities, or political capital vis-a-vis their spouse or family), but they can rarely get everything they want out of a single conference or two. What some scholars find wasteful (e.g., attending an AALS section meeting as an audience member or getting very limited feedback on a paper in one of the many concurring sessions at L&S) could be important to administrators (e.g., AALS for some deans and L&S for those institutions that have been its longtime supporters). Likewise, what senior scholars generally consider important (e.g., presenting a paper in a faculty colloquium at a top school) may not be as useful to some junior faculty members as an event that helps develop lifelong mentorship or addresses specific concerns of minority faculty members.

All politics is local, and many interests are personal. So, the two rules of thumb are: (1) learn more about an event before one participates (i.e., talk to others) and (2) think about one's needs (from both the individual and institutional standpoints). An event that doesn't result in helpful feedback on your scholarship could introduce you to somebody who will be willing to read your drafts in the future. If you go to an event because you want to, as opposed to other people telling you to, you're less likely to be disappointed.

All repeated events exist for a reason. You just have to find out why and what they are for.

bdf

My experience has been that very large conferences are less than ideal uses of time, whereas smaller symposia, colloquia, workshops, and conferences that are focused by topic, area of research, and/or on a forum for workshopping or presenting (with meaningful feedback) a paper are immensely beneficial for scholarship production, developing a reputation, and getting to know people in the field--which will pay dividends when tenure time comes.

I wouldn't say that people should never go to AALS, SEALS, Law & Society, etc., but I see little purpose to going to any of these every single year.

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