Next Friday (February 27th), Phi Alpha Theta, the history honor society here at the University of North Dakota, will host their annual spring conference called the Red River Valley History Conference. I am chairing a panel on "Historical Idealism & Religion" at 9:30 AM in the Memorial Union Room 209. My panel will feature papers from three UND M.A. students Dalton Little, Paul Ferderer, and Kathy Nedegaard. The highlight of the conference this year will be the department's regular Wilkins Lecture offered by Emeritus Prof. James Steward of Macalester College in St. Paul. The conference has largely been organized by our graduate students here and will feature papers from many of the regional universities, including the University of Minnesota, Minot State, and North Dakota State. There is no registration fee, so if you are in the area, stop by and catch a panel. The papers give a great overview of the work being done by M.A. level students at both UND and the other universities in the region.
And, it's a regional conference! Reflecting back on my travel this winter to the Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, I realized that my trip to Philadelphia cost, all told, over $1500. While the meetings, paper, and fellowship were priceless (as they say), it did drive home how expensive conference travel can be -- as if the myriad articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education haven't made this argument abundantly clear. Despite the high cost and world wide budget tightening, national and international conferences seemly continue to proliferate. In fact, this year alone, I avoided attending conferences in Rome, Berlin, and Loutraki, Greece. (Of course, some of these conferences are, in fact, local or regional for their participants!).
In any event, regional conferences have often (but not always!) been regarded as decidedly second tier affairs, suitable for graduate students, regional scholars, and local hobbyists. But what would happen if we began to think of regional conferences as a way of fostering a deeper engagement with the local intellectual community? How would the profession of history (or any field) change if the economy compelled us to rely on local intellectual resources to get our annual conference fix? Assuming that the conference still functions as an important opportunity for genuine academic and intellectual discourse, I suspect that regional conferences would promote a deeper engagement with the local community, closer ties between faculty in different areas of the discipline, and perhaps even promote a more robust local intellectual life.
I typically tell our potential job candidates that my closest colleagues are spread around the US, if not around the world, as a way of assuring them that the relative isolation of our campus has not been a major obstacles to my professional goals. I stay in touch with my various collaborators via phone, email, wikis, and even blogs. But this low level and regular contact is not the same as an academic conference. The technologies and techniques that we use, however, could replicate, if not improve upon, some of the basic goals of a conference. Podcasts linked to threaded discussions, for example, would facilitate question and answer sections removed from the constraints of "real time" (I'm sorry, our time is upon now, but I am sure the participants would be happy to continue to discuss their paper's at this evening's social...). Participants could be encouraged -- or required -- to engage their colleagues' papers and respond to posts from registered users in order to foster the kind of dialogue that makes a conference valuable as an intellectual and academic enterprise (and not just an opportunity for socialization). Of course, such an approach may not reproduce entirely the opportunities for informal conversation and social networking that makes national conferences so valuable, but in some ways, the online social networking tools have already begun to fill even that niche. I know more about many of my distant colleagues now than I did five years ago because they update their facebook status, blog regularly, or maintain twitter feeds. Integrating this kind of social space into an online conference is more a matter of balancing the spontaneous opportunities provided by simultaneity (papers read in real time, for example) against the convenience of non-real time delivery. Such issues though could surely be resolved and would shed interesting (if not valuable) light on the different modes of academic engagement.
Speculation on the future of academic conversation aside, if you have a chance, do stop by the Red River Valley History Conference next Thursday.