Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Postacademic Rant 5 - Academic Conferences and Privilege

Because I'm bored at work today, I thought I'd post another postacademic rant. Following up on the recent post about academic conferences at 100 Reasons and some comments about conferences I got on one of my posts a few days ago, I thought I'd put this one up ... about the main reason why I hated academic conferences. (Hint: it has to do with money).

Again, these rants were written months ago, and shouldn't be taken as an exact indicator of how I'm feeling now. (Although I freely admit that I still think academic conferences are stupidly overrated and overpriced and virtually worthless).

But I also thought that this might be a nice introductory post to the discussion about privilege in academia that I'd really like to start having here. I've alluded to it multiple times in the past, and I'm hoping to get some concrete thoughts out in the next couple of weeks. Let's just start by saying that I find something deeply disturbing about an academic system that pays graduate students and adjuncts poverty wages to do something as apparently important as teach college students ... and then also expects them to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars traveling to conferences while not having any outside employment to help them cover their expenses.

The system is basically forcing people who don't come from privileged backgrounds to go into massive debt in order to just go about the expected business of their job. And in the end, what that does is privilege students from wealthy families over others. Wealthy students can go to conferences without incurring additional debt, don't have to worry about outside employment to help foot the bills, and can graduate debt-free. Less privileged students face a completely different situation.So not only do conferences likely not do much to actually further anyone's career, but in my opinion? They do further the obvious (but unremarked upon) class divide in graduate school and academia more generally.

Anyway, I'll write more on this soon, probably in a multi-part post. In the meantime, here is another postacademic rant about conferences (again: language NSFW).

Fuck the idea that we have to go to conferences, and we’re losers if we can’t afford it

So let me get this straight – in order to be an impressive academic, I have to be constantly writing new papers and taking them to conferences to present? And specifically, to national conferences? Conferences that are always held in insanely expensive cities that require air travel? Conferences where everything from the entry fees to hotel reservations to the “sectional dinners” we’re supposed to go to are super expensive? Oh, and where we’re all supposed to look our best, “be seen,” and network left and right … thus necessitating new clothes and haircuts and possibly dinners and drinks while we’re out?

Okay, fine. Well, surely, since Grad U is training me for the academic life that conferences (are supposed to) get me used to, AND since I’m also getting the name of Grad U out there via the impressive research I'm presenting … Grad U will pay for my trip, right? Since I do so much valuable work for the department and I'm out there representing them at these conferences ... and since it's considered part of my graduate training to go to these conferences. Right? Right????

Hahahahahahaha……..yeah right.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes, the department has come through a month or two after the conference is over to offer everyone money to offset the costs of traveling to and presenting at the conference. However, there are years in which this hasn’t happened, as well as years where the department arbitrarily puts conditions on the money (one year we had to be presenting a solo-authored paper or we didn't qualify for the measly $250 reimbursement). So there's no guarantee. And in the meantime, we have to front the entire cost of the conference travel while keeping your fingers crossed that the department will find some money to reimburse you with.

For someone like me, who already has a lot of debt and parents who can't help me out? This is crap. It’s not like traveling to these conferences is a matter of just paying a hundred bucks or so to go. We’re talking a plane ticket, and then probably $200 more in hotel fees (if you share a room with 3 other people like I always did), plus dinners and lunches and coffees and everything else. Plus gas to the airport. Plus baggage fees. Plus the haircut I need to get ahead of time. Oh, and the $100 conference registration fee. It could easily - easily eat up half of my monthly graduate stipend to just pay the expenses for such a trip.

If I had Mommy and Daddy paying all of my bills, no problem. Unfortunately, as I am an independent adult whose parents are not rich, that is not the case. So I go into more debt for something that will likely have only a marginal effect on my future career, if that.

Oh, but maybe in the end I’ll get a check from my department for $250. Well, that makes it better. That'll cover, oh, part of my plane ticket. Whoop-de-do.

Screw the whole thing. It's not fair, and it's not reasonable.

Now, I’m not saying that a department needs to completely pay for these trips - food and drink expenses and for your choice of hotel and whatnot. Not at all. But when you admit a bunch of students, pay them absolutely crap wages, and then make it clear to them that if they don’t go to these conferences, they will be considered failures? You’re putting people who don’t have a wealthy partner or parents into a serious hole of debt ... and setting them behind (yet again) from the students whose parents (or wealthy partners) foot the bills for everything.

And there is no - absolutely no - acknowledgement that every grad student isn't from an upper-class background and might have trouble paying for the conference. All you hear is that you're an undedicated loser if you don't go - regardless of the reasons. 

Well, fuck that noise. For all of academia's blathering about wanting to reduce inequality, they sure do perpetuate the class divide among their grad students. And for all of their nonsense about how important conferences are for the future careers of their students? I've yet to see even one person land a useful contact or a job from an academic conference. And you know why? Because the faculty are too busy hobnobbing with each other and getting drunk at the hotel bar to give a flying fuck about what brownnosing grad students are lurking around, hoping to talk to them.

It's an expensive charade that perpetuates the elitism and class divide in academia. Screw academic conferences.

(It's worth noting that in the comments at 100 Reasons, someone pointed out that "business meetings" are a negative part of any job. This is true ... I'm not denying that. However, I can't think of any other industry where boring business meetings are held at expensive and exotic locations, with employees expected to foot the entire bill of attending ... or be labeled as unserious and undedicated. Correct me if I'm wrong.) 


  1. A faculty member sent an e-mail to my research group to remind us about a far-away conference and urge us to submit proposals. Of course, no funding mentioned.

    This blog just cheered me up with a reminder that I am not alone. Yes, the semester has come to an end and yes, I did Google, "I'm not happy in my PhD program" or some such this afternoon. I won't write a lengthy list of everything in the archive that made me smile and tell the dog, "See!? That's exactly how it is!" Instead, I will simply commend you for altering your trajectory toward improved life satisfaction. Live well and keep blogging!

  2. @5:56: Your dog probably has more common sense than most of the faculty members in my department.

    "I've yet to see even one person land a useful contact or a job from an academic conference. And you know why? Because the faculty are too busy hobnobbing with each other and getting drunk at the hotel bar to give a flying fuck about what brownnosing grad students are lurking around, hoping to talk to them."

    This made me howl with laughter. Exactly!

    I went to conferences my first few years, but then I wised up. I started to really resent that I was shelling out for these stupid exercises in self-hatred when I hadn't had a vacation in years. Won't go now--don't care. My program's mediocre pedigree and lackluster mentoring isn't exactly a recipe for success, so more conference presentations ain't gonna save me. Fuck it. Better to focus on publishing,* at least until I stop caring about that too.

    *I'm not under the impression that academic publishing is some great accomplishment, or that it will get me some terrific job. I know better. The few things I've gotten out there are little vanity projects...something that will stick around, at least for a little while. Oh, also, in my top 25ish sociology program, the impression I get about my peers is that they present at conferences not just to please their advisors or get drunk, but also in lieu of publishing. They can throw some horseshit together the night before the conference, present it, and feel less freaked out about the fact they they still have no pubs. "Look at my CV--all these presentations!" Yawn.

  3. Thanks for reading and for leaving a comment! I'm glad that the blog cheered you up. I know that when I was first deciding to leave, the postacademic blogosphere was like a breath of fresh air. "You mean I'm not the only one who feels this way??? Thank god!!"

    Keep reading and commenting when it strikes you. Others reading here can certainly benefit from seeing that other readers are feeling the same way.

    And good luck to you! Don't be afraid to leave if you need to. Life is too short and the world is too big to stay stuck on a path that makes you miserable.

  4. @11:50 ... oh, and I should add that for the last couple years, I would go to conferences AS vacations. My partner would come along and I'd do the bare minimum of work ... and we'd sightsee the rest of the time. We'd at least make the best of it, and I guess we have seen a few cities we wouldn't have otherwise visited. So that's good. However, I'd sort of like a refund on all of the pointless registration fees and the overpriced conference hotel rates. Sigh...

    Yeah, I really should have seen the warning signs sooner. Oh well...

  5. "@11:50 ... oh, and I should add that for the last couple years, I would go to conferences AS vacations."

    Yes, this was how I initially framed it, and why I stopped going. It turns out that I really don't want to go on vacation to St. Charles Illinois. And my real vacations don't involve kowtowing to a bunch of jerks. It's when I stopped kidding myself about this ("Well, we did go on a trip this year...") that I stopped going to conferences. That, and my beloved pet almost died while I was stuck at the last one. Luckily my partner was home and could nurse her through it, but it was terrifying, and I wouldn't have forgiven myself if I'd missed her final moments dealing with a bunch of jerks.

  6. Oh wow ... no, our conference "vacations" were not to St. Charles, IL. They were always better cities than that ... once even allowing us to take the 3 week cross-country roadtrip we'd always wanted to take. That's the one conference I'll never regret going to.

    That being said ... we recently took a weekend trip to a nearby city that is in NO WAY a big tourist trap or anything (we won a couple of free nights in a local hotel). I must admit, it was far more enjoyable to be in Boring City for a relaxing weekend than it ever was to be in NYC/Boston/whatever for a conference weekend ... that's for sure.

  7. JC-I've been reading around your blog for a little while now and I just wanted to thank you for your really helpful posts about the transition to life outside of the academy. I have a feeling I'm about to navigate similar waters myself!

    ~Currer Bell,

  8. I wish I had more time to respond to this great post and maybe I will later. But I'm the poster who encouraged you to tackle the privilege issue in another one of your posts, and I'm so glad you are doing so! This is important stuff that needs to be said -- for new grad students who have no idea how things work, and for others who need to wake up and realize that this system is INSANE. Keep it coming, sister.

  9. "Keep it coming, sister."

    Oh. Are you a woman, JC? I always pictured you as a wonderfully compassionate guy. Not sure why.

  10. Ha ... I have enjoyed the fact that I've been referred to by both pronouns by commenters and other bloggers.

    But yes, I am a woman. :)

  11. Thanks for sayin.' Nuts. I hate it when I make that mistake--always makes me feel like a sexist pig. I was convinced that you were a gay man--not sure why. Somebody kept calling me "dude" on another site I post on, so I changed my avatar to one of Georgia O' Keefe's vagina flowers. He still didn't get the hint until I s-p-e-l-l-e-d-i-t-o-u-t f-o-r-h-i-m.

    On another note, met up with a terrific gal who dropped out of her program (history) two years ago. Happy as a clam. Gave me lots of hope, just like your fine blog.

  12. No worries. I kept it deliberately vague at first - I didn't want to risk outing myself by giving too many details or attracting sexist trolls by making it obvious I'm a woman.

    So if I never explicitly said so, there's no reason to feel bad. I'm not offended in the slightest.

    And yes ... I will say that every person I run into who dropped out of our grad program seems to be far, far happier than those who stayed in. That's stuck with me through these months, for sure...

  13. Oh man...thanks for posting this. I hate conferences with a burning passion, and not just because of the money issue. My grandfather always said that the mind can only absorb what the seat can endure. It turns out my seat can only endure so much, especially when my mind is being bombarded with long ass papers about prefixes in Socrates' oeuvre.

    This class issue can be pretty glaring in reading groups too. The professors usually go for dinner and drinks after the reading groups, and naturally the grad students want to go along to chat or make a good impression (or whatever). Most of the time the grad students refrain from eating since the profs usually go to expensive restaurants and order expensive wine--and then split the bill more or less evenly. Plenty of friends have gotten stuck paying $20-30 bucks for a glass or wine or two with their hallowed mentors, and none of them could afford it. I guess I can understand that people with real paychecks like to go to real restaurants, but they know exactly what we get paid and it would be nice if they would moderate their choices accordingly. If only.

  14. I feel really sorry for everyone posting on this site. I'm a prof and, first of all, I think that everyone goes to way too many conferences. One a year is enough, and if you have to skip a year -- it's not a big deal. In fact, time spent traveling definitely takes days away from writing. Second, I feel really sorry for the fact that you have had insensitive supervisors. The profs I know get grants and pay their students' way to conferences, as much as they can. And they pay for their students' dinners and drinks also. Third, good point about better spending your time publishing. That's what will really count when it goes to looking for a job. You could go to no conferences ever and as long as you have published your work in reputable journals, you will be of interest. On the other hand, I've seen a lot of CVs with nothing but conferences on them -- and those people get dumped from consideration right away.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Perhaps if I'd had an adviser like you, I would still be in academia!

      It's nice to see a prof take a more healthy view of conference attendance and to actually help their students with both publishing and professional socializing. Your attitude is definitely not the norm (at least in my department). Your students are lucky to have you!

  15. Currently, we are at war with some new graduate faculty that want to include attending academic conferences as part of the scoring rubric for the hiring process. I argued a similar case for economic discrimination via conference fetishes, which not only affects "poor" graduate students, but also disproportionately affects minorities and women in academia. I wasn't surprised that these graduates (I mean "doctors" as one refers to herself) with an over-inflated sense of self-worth were completely insensitive to the issue. Ironically, they are women that complain that they are not compensated fairly. I also argued that believing in the idea of conferences as a necessary requirement for "professional development" is an unexamined assumption, which makes it more of an ideology that perpetuates academic myths. While "sufficient" in building the image of an academic, conferences are not "necessary." There are numerous ways that an individual can develop professionally besides attending conferences where graduate students present papers on obscure and boring topics and over-paid guest speakers rant off the whim and/or tweak speeches made at other conferences. I wasn't surprised that these maniacal fools actually distorted what I had said about the negative consequences of conference fetishes and tried to use that against me in a complaint about my so-called "academic accountability." If these are the "new" graduates that are coming out of institutions, I fear for society in general....

  16. "And there is no - absolutely no - acknowledgement that every grad student isn't from an upper-class background and might have trouble paying for the conference."

    ^ This, 1000x over. Having crap wages and being broke are entirely different things. Every grad student works for crap wages and most like to brag about how "broke" they are but that's soooooo disingenuous if you always have that parental safety net.