Rethinking the Academic Conference – Notes from ASECS 2016

Rethinking the Conference reconfigures the room as a circle so we can all interact. Photo courtesy of Mattie Burkert.

“Rethinking the Conference” reconfigures the room as a circle so we can all interact. Photo courtesy of Mattie Burkert.

Prefatory Note: What follows is a working outline of suggestions generated at the “Rethinking the Academic Conference” workshop held at the 2016 ASECS meeting in Pittsburgh. In addition to the notes taken during that workshop, I asked that remote members use the #myasecs hashtag to provide further suggestions and comment. I am grateful to David Mazella for reminding me of the Long 18th blog post about ASECS 2012 which also included a discussion about “innovative” formats, and anticipated some of the comments seen below. The comment thread there is also a useful referent for those who might want to trace the intellectual history of the explosion of roundtables.

This is a qualitative synopsis rather than quantitative survey at present, though I would encourage the ASECS Executive Board to consider pursuing a more systematic way of assessing the needs of the membership.

It’s important to emphasize that most respondents (physically present and virtual) were deeply invested in ASECS. Many had attended for over a decade and even more identified it as an intellectual home. The comments and suggestions below come from a place of wanting to make an excellent conference and scholarly community still better, as well as more accessible in every sense of the word.

This is the start of a conversation, not the end, and as I write this note I am keenly aware of what is not yet fully included in what follows. The workshop was overwhelmingly female, majority white, and significantly junior.

The hope of posting this on ABOPublic is to provide a space for public comment.

Important general notes:

  • For many, travel funding (where available) is available only for participants named in program.
  • Graduate students, independent scholars, Alt-Ac, and contingent faculty will only increase as a percentage of ASECS’s population in future. Keeping them in mind and holding space for our colleagues is encouraged. This may include ways of making the activity of ASECS more available for those offsite.
  • A desire to meet across “generational” lines was expressed by many participants. Ways to bring more senior and junior scholars together.
  • ASECS as it currently exists places artificial boundaries on “formal” and “informal” we would do well to interrogate. There is a desire to find ways for the “speed dating” feel of ASECS to slow down and deepen (where possible).
  • “more discussion of ideas, less listening”

Weakness of Recent ASECS Meetings

  • Price of hotels (which then sends many offsite, thus costing ASECS more in room fees)
  • Geographic accessibility (see Appendix A for list of direct flights from UK)
  • Accessibility broadly speaking (for parents, for those with mobility or sensory impairments, etc.)

Concrete Recommendations (Institutional Level)

  • Reduce the number of concurrent sessions. If everyone on the 2016 program presented once, it would only require 10 concurrent sessions (instead of 17).
  • For “non-traditional” formats, allow for organizers to request differently-configured rooms.
  • Identification of key “affinity groups” present at recent meetings, and “tagging” panels accordingly (to avoid overlap)
  • Consensus on appropriate time limits (for papers, presentations, AND comments)
    • Perhaps the proliferation of Roundtables (60 at ASECS 2016) suggests that 10 minute papers should be norm?
    • Enforcing ONE “place on program” policy
    • Examples for enforcement:
      • Some conferences (British Women Writers, etc.) use signs (5/2/1 minute/STOP) used by chair (who sits in audience)
      • One conference has audiences start applauding at end of a paper’s designated time
      • One memorable Early Modern conference (Blackfriars) has bears (grads in bear costumes) come on stage and escort off folks going over time
    • Transition time between panels extended, both for accessibility and to facilitate the discussion and engagement that already occurs
    • Recording/Livestreaming/Archiving Presidential Address, Clifford Lecture, and Select Panels
    • Recommendation for open submission process
    • “Doctor is In” reformatted to create place for meeting to learn skills, meeting (as opposed to “problem”-based)

Useful Additions to Website

  • A list of definitions and general expectations (what IS a roundtable? How long is a paper? What is a caucus? The Grad Caucus has done some of this work already)
  • Message boards (for rideshare, roomshare, childcare) – NEMLA/CAITY as model
  • Archiving papers and/or abstracts
  • Engaging New Attendees
    • Examples from other conferences:
      • Identifying first-time attendees on name tags (JASNA)
      • Reception for New Members
      • Restaurant Nights (One conference makes reservations for 8-10 people at affordable nearby restaurants that newbies can sign up for)
      • Newcomers Dinner (Narrative)
  • Accessibility Recommendations
    • Spaces for preferred pronouns on badges
    • Requiring all presenters have at least two large-print hard copies of their papers.
  • Recommendations for new formats
    • Works-In-Progress Sessions
    • Interactive Workshops (skills-building, etc.)
    • Seminars (Shakespeare Association as model)
    • Linked sessions (or tagging panels)
    • Staged Readings (as done at East Central and Southeastern ASECS)
    • Point/Counterpoint sessions (2-4 presenters on a current debate in the field, 10 minutes each, followed by discussion)
  • Recommendations (for members and panel organizers)
    • Consider pre-circulation of work, either publicly or among participants (especially with roundtables, so that participants do indeed “speak” to one another)
    • Many panel organizers host lunch for their participants (and some audience members) – this is a practice worth extending.


Appendix A: United States Cities with direct flights to/from the UK:

East Coast:

Atlanta, GA (ATL)
Baltimore, MD (BWI)
Boston, MA (BOS)
Miami, FL (MIA)
New York, NY (JFK)
Newark, NJ (EWR)
Orlando, FL (MCO)
Philadelphia, PA (PHL)
Raleigh, NC (RDU)
Tampa, FL (TPA)
Washington, D.C. (IAD)


Chicago, IL (ORD)
Dallas/Fort Worth, TX (DFW)
Detroit, MI (DTW)
Houston, TX (IAH)
Minneapolis, MN (MSP)


Denver, CO (DEN)
Las Vegas, NV(LAS)
Los Angeles, CA (LAX)
Phoenix, AZ (PHX)
San Diego, CA (SAN)
San Francisco, CA (SFO)
Seattle, WA (SEA)

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