The Space of Academic Conferences

I just returned from the International Studies Association annual conference.  It’s a large professional conference–a 250 page book of panels, a plurality of approaches to the study of international relations, and hundreds of academics presenting and discussing their research.  This means it takes a lot of space: two hotels for the conference itself and then 2-3 additional hotels for participants. And this doesn’t include all the people that venture farther out for hotels in non-conference space.

I started going to ISA in 2008 during my third year of graduate school. It was in San Francisco that year and I remember being overwhelmed by the amount of panels and the amount of people.  I am not sure what my insight for this post is, but it seems worthwhile to think through how we organize ourselves in relation to space and place during that once-a-year conference. Most disciplines have them, right?  And it seems that these conferences do discipline us in many ways. This is not a rant about how terrible conferences can be–in fact, far from it. I am intrigued that they seem to work so well for so many things.  Seeing old friends, hashing out the finer points of theory with like-minded geeks, placing your body in various vectors for various reasons: potential employment connections, publication deals, professional contacts, new ideas.

There is also the politics of which city is chosen over another and how this affects the conference.  In New York, fewer panels were accepted due to less room at the conference hotel.  The first year ISA went to NOLA, there was a heated debate about the state’s stance on gay marriage and LGBTQ rights.  Many called for a boycott of the conference and others countered that the economic boon of a big conference would be welcome in a post-Katrina economy. San Diego, in an informal bad social science poll done by yours truly, was a favorite.  Lots of space to stand and talk, a decent and roomy bar in the main hotel, and a Starbuck’s right near the center. All these things are necessary as most people are jet lagged and exhausted from writing their paper on the way to the conference. New York was abysmal–nowhere to stand, the elevators were slow and terrifying, and there was nowhere grab a quick bite in Times Square. I discovered this year in Toronto that the best place to people watch and wait for friends/contacts/people you should meet to advance your career is at the top of an escalator that leads to the meeting rooms. Future ISAs for me will be deemed a success if they have a well placed escalator or two.

Finally, ISA is profoundly un-international in its choice of conference venues. The most international US ISA members have to get is to cross the border to Canada. It might have been in Brazil one year, but that was way before my time and I may be remembering incorrectly. Maybe we just talked about wishing it were somewhere other than US.  This gives the US and Canadian members a distinct advantage. I watch Aussie, European and UK friends stumble around jet lagged for days and feel better just in time to board a plane for home.  This choice of North American space only seems quite strange. Why is the International Studies Association not international?

Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the 4S conference this year, but it was in San Diego, and maybe even in the same hotel as the ISA awarded with the best venue award (at least in my opinion). Anyone want to chime in on what the space of the conference does for their discipline?






3 thoughts on “The Space of Academic Conferences

  1. I wanted to blog more from the conference, but access to WiFi was a problem. Another ongoing issue at ISA….


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