TtW12 twitter backchannel
The TtW12 Twitter back channel. Photo by Rob Wanenchak

Theorizing the Web 2012 was great. Everyone involved did a bang-up job. I certainly learned more in a single day than I usually do at weekend-long establishment conferences. I have said a lot about conferences (here, here, and here) as have fellow cyborgologists (Sarah, Nathan, and PJ). All of these posts have a common thread: academia is changing, but conferences seem out of date in some way. They are needlessly insular, they rely on hefty attendance fees that are increasingly cost-prohibitive,  and they rarely take advantage of social media in any meaningful way. The relative obduracy of conference styles come into high relief once they are compared to the massive changes to institutional knowledge production. Universities have adopted many of the managerial practices of private companies. They are also acting more like profit-seeking enterprises: putting massive resources into patenting offices and business incubators, hiring less tenure-track teaching staff, and employing armies of professionalized managers that run everything from information technology services to athletic facilities. Conferences, on the other hand, have seen few innovations beyond what I call Tote Bag Praxis. 

Universities are starting to experiment with new educational paradigms (an industry term, not mine), and are taking advantage of information technology to reduce the cost of teaching; make it easier for faculty to keep track of students’ progress, and bring “real world” problems into the classroom. There have never been more ways to get an advanced degree and there are more places (both online and off) than ever to find them. These are just some of the benefits of recent changes to American pedagogy that has largely been driven by market forces. Universities are competing for students who are being awarded unprecedented amounts of student loans at a time when government support for education is at a historic low.

An excellent book on the subject- Slaughter and Rhoades' Academic Capitalism and the New Economy (2009)

I want to be clear- I am not a fan of “academic capitalism.” Education is too precious –too fundamental to society– to be treated as another consumer good. American universities began treating education as a commodity as early as 1972, when Congress shifted a majority of higher education funding from institutions to individuals in the form of loans, stipends, and grants. While direct aid to students played an important role in getting minorities into universities, it also encouraged students to think of their education as a transaction that takes place in the market, rather than a civic choice to gain a certain kind of skill that is useful to society. Undergraduate education is a buyer’s market: a prospective student on a typical campus tour will see the deluxe apartment-style dorms, the mall in the student union, or the state-of-the-art athletic complex along side standard classrooms and other instructional facilities. These extra-curricular amenities are not a problem in and of themselves, but become problematic when schools vie for national rankings in “best food” or “most comfortable dorm” at the (literal) expense of instruction. Students pay for all of this by incurring and unprecedented amount student loan debt.

While undergraduate education has started to look more and more like cruise ships with classes, (oops) graduate and post-doctorate study has taken on the character of private companies. According to Kleinman and Vallas (2001),

…a process of convergence is underway in which the codes and practices of industry are infiltrating the academy, even as academic norms are increasingly governing the work practices of selected knowledge workers in high technology firms and industries.

Even when universities spend more money on instruction, they spend it on non-tenured faculty and lecturers. Labs are run by non-Ph.D business professionals that know more about the economics of business than the properties of compounds. Research labs are constantly searching for patentable discoveries that will earn them prestige in the field and a more secure position in their Universities. While the phrase “publish or perish” has characterized high-stakes academia, that only scratches the surface. Scientists must make departments profitable in order to earn their keep. Humanities and qualitative social science departments have to be a little more creative. Some have begun offering guided tours of historic sites or host for-profit trips to archeological sites.

What does all of this have to do with conferences? First, it provides a useful comparison. Universities are changing dramatically, but conferences seem to be exactly the same. While classics departments are going from rote memorization of The Iliad to offering guided tours of the Parthenon, the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting has changed very little by comparison. Second, it offers a cautionary tale. Efforts to radically transform institutions can have disastrous consequences (skyrocketing student debt) even when actors have the best intentions (increasing the diversity of enrollment). Finally, the process by which universities adopted the paradigm of academic capitalism can give us clues to successfully reinventing the academic conference.

For example, Elizabeth Popp Berman, in her essay “Why Did Universities Start Patenting?” [Paid journal] (2008) shows that increased patenting was not the result of the Bayh-Dole Act (the federal legislation that allowed universities to retain patents on state-funded research) but rather the Bayh-Dole Act was the necessary final step in a long process of creating a constituency that would support the bill. Universities began hiring patent administrators well before the bill was ever introduced. This created a built-in constituency that would support passage of the bill. Later, I will explain how this process of developing proto-institutions helps establishing support for changing institutional practices.

When it comes to challenge Tote Bag Praxis, I think we can learn a lot from academic capitalism. A complete application of academic capitalism to the conference model would give us something resembling TED Talks. This is (largely) undesirable for all the reasons Nathan Jurgenson describes in his essay Against TED. We get good stuff- big ideas are presented in an entertaining fashion and are distributed widely across multiple platforms. But every academic conference should not (could not) be like TED. Actually attending a TED conference is extremely expensive, and the TEDx franchises can be equally cost-prohibitive. There are ways of making it cheaper, but the default is expensive. I think #TtW12 does a better job of creating a more accessible conference on multiple levels. Its cheaper (by far), you have to be accepted but not invited, and everyone is allowed their own presentation style. No one is expected to unveil the iPad of social theory, nor are they expected to erupt in jubilant applause once a presentation is over. (Although both of these things have happened  at TtW11 and 12 on multiple occasions.)

Where then, is the middle ground between TED capitalism and tote bag praxis? Let’s look at the latter a little bit deeper before answering that question.  I define Tote Bag Praxis as an acquiescence on the part of organizers to the institutional norms that reproduce expensive conferences that all look the same, act the same, and (and this is the important part) produce the same kind of knowledge.  If you present your work in the same kinds of venue every time, you’re bound to start thinking about and structuring your work to fit that venue. The institutions that shape conferences –university accounting schemes, the organizational structure of professional societies, the publishing apparati that produce the same kinds of proceedings every year– have more of an affect on knowledge production than we think.

several conference-goers live tweet the panel
Conference goers were active on twitter and other social media. It not only helped conference-goers talk to each other but it also allowed people from home to ask informed questions of the panelists.

Theorizing the Web is different- conference fees are optional (although most pay) but the suggested amount is small. If you cannot attend at all, you can still enjoy a rich experience through livestreams and twitter backchannels. Many people might see this as somewhat superficial or totally unrelated to the content of the conference, but I disagree. Departments budgets are getting smaller and anything that makes them cheaper to attend, means they are more accessible to more people. But just like the Bayh-Dole Act needed to change universities before institutionalizing (and thus solidifying) that change, we need to change the way departments do their accounting and even create new offices that promote or encourage low-cost conferences. Right now, conferences seem to be expensive by design. I am running into this problem with my own conference. Bookkeepers cannot deal with sliding scale payment systems, or donation models. Even the most sympathetic business manager’s hands are tied by the institutional mechanisms that demand a particular (expensive) type of conference organizational scheme.

A/V equipment is held hostage by steep fees: universities and conference centers alike charge hundreds if not thousands of dollars to turn on a projector or rent a camera. These amenities are considered luxuries for attendees, instead of necessary tools for sharing information beyond the physical and social walls of the conference. Tote bag praxis demands bodily co-presence for all participants, and offer few tools for digitally augmenting the conference-goers experience.

Tote bag praxis also forces us to think primarily (but not totally) in disciplinary terms. Conferences are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, but funding and organizing mechanisms push us toward disciplinary boundaries. Funds are kept in silos for particular groups of people (“No, that money can only be spent on grant-supported personell that receive fifty percent or more of their funding lines from the Sociology Department.”) and physical spaces are part of the fiefdoms erected by departments that are terrified of losing what little resources they still control after the managerial hordes of academic capitalism have stripped them bare. I really appreciated the close working relationship the arts and sociology departments at University of Maryland seemed to share. It probably helped that they were housed in the same building, but the fact that an entire gallery was open to (and enjoyed by) conference-goers was  no small achievement.

Finally, to answer the question of how universities changed so much, but conferences changed so little, I think the answer is very similar to what PJ Rey has said about academic journals. There are entrenched interests that benefit from expensive conferences. It means higher society enrollment (society members usually pay smaller conference registration fees), and more money spent on facilities and private hotel franchises that make deals with universities for special rates and guaranteed business.

It is important that young academics chart a course somewhere between the stagnant water of  tote bag praxis and the destructive rapids of academic capitalism. Its uncharted territory, but the rewards are very promising. Changing conferences also means changing how we think about our work and how we structure the organizations that tie us together into academic communities. We have to think critically and reflexively about institutionalized conferences. What is worth saving? What needs to be totally rethought? Who do these conference models empower and who do they shut out? What kind of academic does the tote bag praxis produce? How can we change academia so that there are constituencies that will demand, fight for, and produce new conference models? The silver lining in all of this, is that academic capitalism might do this for us. As department budgets get tighter, fewer and fewer young academics will be able to afford expensive conferences. New conferences, probably smaller and focused around subjects instead of disciplines, will slowly bleed large conferences dry. Let’s try to make this transition thoughtfully and deliberately so that we make a new academy that rewards good scholarship and does away with economic stratification.

David A. Banks is on twitter. Follow him, won’t you?  @da_banks.


For further reading on academic capitalism see Slaughter, Sheila, and Gary Rhoades. “Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State, and Higher Education”. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

David Graeber makes a compelling case against the “consumption” metaphor in Graeber, David. “Consumption.” Current Anthropology 52, no. 4 (2011): 489-511.