Academic Conventions: Where Minds (and Politics) Meet

Article excerpt

Academic Conventions: Where Minds (and Politics) Meet.

by Mary-Christine Phillip

It's where old acquaintances meet and new ideas are born and discussed.

Graduate students and others sometimes find jobs there, and it is where publishers go to stage more than book fairs.

It's called an academic convention, a public display of scholars, scholarship and stalls that has come to represent a respite of sorts for those who labor in the "lonely vineyards" of academia from year to year.

"It's at conventions that you get to meet some of the best minds in America and in the world," says Dr. Thelma Thompson, dean of the School of Arts and Letters at Norfolk State University.

"I walk away rejuvenated, with a sense of affirmation. The academic community is a very competitive place, and for two or three days you can let your guard down, relax and discuss esoteric ideas," continues Thompson. "There is always a mountain to climb in academia, always something to learn, and the thoughts and ideas we get from these conventions help sustain and keep us alive in the lonely vineyards of the academic world."

Each year, thousands of scholars invest time, money and planning to attend academic conferences -- as a way of keeping up with the latest work in their disciplines -- while working toward tenure or promotion into academic administration. But there is a hierarchical structure when it comes to who gets carte blanche to attend, and who gets to present papers, join panels discussing their research, or give speeches at these gatherings, scholars say.

According to the Higher Education Directory, there are more than 300 education associations in the United States. Many of these associations usually have subsidiaries known as regional chapters. In addition, there are scores of higher education institutes and foundations that hold similar conventions. Couple those with the series of seminars and conferences hosted by most departments annually, and academia is aswirl with activities.

To academics, the three main criteria for a smooth ride on the tenure track are service, teaching and publishing. And while participating in an academic convention is considered service, often -- especially for younger scholars still trying to make a name for themselves -- getting an institution to pay travel costs for a convention can present major barriers.

"It all depends on the dean of the school and the department," says Dr. Anthony Ihunnah, an assistant professor of special education at Rowan College of New Jersey in Glassboro. "Each university and department has different guidelines, but in these times of tight budgets, many people have to spend their own money to attend. Many places cannot afford to spend extra money on travel."

Going It Alone

Since academic conferences give scholars an opportunity to make connections that affect book contracts, invitations to speaking engagements, and even future job offers -- complaints about favoritism on conference travel and lodging are commonplace. One common grievance goes like this: The "superstars" are taken care of, while the fledgling scholars must fend for themselves.

By all accounts, it costs a pretty penny to attend a convention. Costs vary widely, since the venue changes annually. But when costs for air fare, registration, membership, ground transportation and hotel accommodations for up to four days are tabulated, the bill could hover around $1,000, convention-goers say. Some organizations are mindful of cost, and often try to suggest cut-rate accommodations. Yet, even with discounts, a scholar could easily be expected to shell out several hundred dollars.

Some scholars who head departments at their institutions say, while this situation may exist at some of the larger research institutions, it is not that often the case. They say that if a scholar is asked to present a paper, chances are that the person's department will pay for part of the expenses, with the presenter paying the other part. …