Sunday, May 18, 2014

Department of Bad Ideas: Academic conferences should be held at all-inclusive tropical resorts

I had composed half a post about the Pressing Issues of Our Day, but failed to finish it because an emergency vacation to Cabo came up. The nature of the emergency was that my sister-in-law's airline tickets would go to waste if unused by someone this weekend, and the only people flexible enough to act on these emergencies are, of course, graduate students (note to real world scorners of academia: see how we are a public good; we stand ready to take your vacations for you), so my friend and I booked a last minute all-inclusive resort deal and here we are, writing our dissertations (and this blog post) while drinking pina coladas poolside.

You can't really tell from the photo, but there is an artificial waterfall between me and the view.

Cabo's beaches are mostly not swimmable, which makes me wonder how it became such a destination for tourists. I (once again) wish I knew how to fish so I could catch marlins though. Marlins! Like the Old Man and the Sea! (That is the only context in which I've come across marlins. But now I have also tasted them, and they are delicious.) It's the beginning of the off-season here, so it's fairly empty and also 100 degrees every day, so there isn't much to do off the resort either other than walk through the estuary in the early evenings and look at pretty birds. Clearly, this place is vastly underused and its luxury wasted for months on end. Think of all the uneaten octopus, conch meat, and lobsters! Only about 10 lbs of it a day can fit into our stomachs, and getting it there is our main on-resort activity. Whither the rest? Isn't there some remedy for this inefficiency?

I have concluded that there is, and that remedy is academic conferences. I know that all-inclusive resorts are for low-brow, middle-American squares, with whom academics would be offended to be identified, but just consider how dull the current conference regime is. Conferences are already expensive to get to, they already take place at overpriced hotels, and they are already square, so moving them to all-inclusive tropical resorts would not be a radical change, but only a minor procedural reform.

Imagine this: all the conference attendees are corralled into one hotel, so they get a big group discount and benefit from more extensive "networking opportunities." The APT conference seems to work around this principle of forced or at least highly encouraged togetherness, and, lame as that might sound in principle, it's the only pleasant conference I've so far attended. The resort will have unlimited free food and drinks, facilitating what appears to be the primary current activity of conference attendees: meeting people for meals and getting sloshed. It's also a radically egalitarian approach to this activity, so no one will be too poor to partake due to income or university reimbursement constraints. Lunch runs from 11 am - 4 pm: just think of how many lunch meetings you could squeeze into that time-frame. There are also awkward-fun activities like pool volleyball (amenable to the hashing out of inter-subfield rivalries) and sunburning on the beach, which would facilitate political scientist bonding in casual settings by encouraging them to commiserate over the structural problems of the discipline, like how they are all so pale and burn so easily whenever they try to tan.

Such resorts are also child-friendly, so you can fold a vacation into the conference, bring your kids and let them loose at the kiddie pools, where they will inadvertently network with other political scientists' kids on your behalf, with probably better results than you yourself will manage. The whole family can look forward to MPSA when it's in Jamaica. And, on the other end, Jamaicans can look forward to MPSA when it brings them tourism in May or June.

The main potential difficulty my friend points out with this plan is that there may be some visa issues involved for foreign political scientists traveling to these resorts. To minimize these difficulties, we could begin this shift to the all-inclusive resort conference with beta-testing in places like Puerto Rico, where visa issues may be less salient. Beyond that, I see no problems, or at least none that are likely to make conferences worse than they currently are. Who's with me?


Flavia said...

They happen very occasionally--in the past decade both the Society for Early Americanists and the Shakespeare Association of America held conferences at resorts in Bermuda--and this past fall the Sixteenth-Century Society had its conference in Puerto Rico. Many of my Facebook friends posted pictures of themselves at the hotel's "swim-up bar."

Which. . . might be enough to kill the appeal right there. Do you actually want to see your fellow conference-goers in their bathing suits?

Emily Hale said...

I think that there are occasionally specialized conferences in Hawaii, but I always assume that that is the equivalent of paying to have your work published.

I've never been to an all-inclusive resort, but it sounds sort of great for conferencing. Not sure I would go to any panels.

Jacob T. Levy said...

There's one circuit of sheer-junket conferences-- a number of them seem to be held on Greek islands. They're characterized by super-broad CFPs ("we invite papers from all disciplines concerned with history or with the present day or with animals or with plants or with things that belong to the emperor"). I've never known anyone who's gone to one, but I get e-mailed the CFPs and conference numbers pretty regularly.

At the other extreme, lots of very small, invitation-only, thematically focused conferences go the nice-location, everyone-together-the-whole-time route. These end up being intellectually productive and also very good for relationship-building. Liberty Fund seminars often do this too (but not always; some of their sessions are held at HQ in Indianapolis).

One can apply to organize/ hold a conference at Bellagio:

Miss Self-Important said...

Flavia: No less than I want to see any random selection of non-beach bodied people in bathing suits. But I wouldn't be unduly horrified. Maybe this would encourage creativity in swimsuiting and a turn to vintage swimsuits, which are more flattering and cooler.

Sixteenth century, you say? Early America? Hmm, maybe it's time to reach both back and forward a century for greater...opportunities.

EH: Well, it does get a little stir-crazy at these resorts unless you are a seven year-old with infinite desire to jump into four-ft pools, so the incentives for panel attendance are actually not as low as you'd think. You have to be somewhere air-conditioned during the day anyway, or you will melt.

JTL: What's a sheer-junket conference? The equivalent of Emily Hale's pay-for-publication journals?

I've done Liberty Fund type things, but that's so different from regional poli sci conferences (mostly b/c there was no paper-panel situation) that it seems an entirely different category of event. The benefits of an all-inclusive resort for those events seem marginal; they're already basically small-group retreats. I'm thinking the all-inclusive option is ideal for a conference with 100+ people. Those seem impossible to make worse, so they can only be made better.

Jacob T. Levy said...

As I understand them, the sheer-junket conferences are even more fraudulent than vanity presses. (Note: paying to publish =/= vanity presses. In grant-driven fields it's common for journals to insist on submission fees and/or per-page publication charges that the authors then charge to their grants.) Vanity presses still require that one actually write something. These conferences reportedly have a habit of the authors showing up to the panel empty-handed, looking at the empty room, and saying "right! off to the beach." No actual work product seems to be required at any point.

Yes, Liberty Funds are different from the intensive thematic conferences for which people write papers (that's why I listed the two categories separately!) but the way they can combine resort-like venues with a very high level of academic/ intellectual seriousness is similar.

Miss Self-Important said...

So why do the conferences exist? Are they just free vacations for faculty charging the expenses to their research accounts?

Well, given the success and usefulness of the small conferences, what are your thoughts about expanding the resort model to regional disciplinary conferences? MPSA in Jamaica?

J. Otto Pohl said...

Actually the last three conferences I have been have all been at tropical resorts and this is because it is a lot cheaper to have them there. Paying my bus fare to go to Winneba or Ho is a lot cheaper than sending me to Obrunistan. So the sponsors, usually some German university, will usually pay all the expenses for anybody from the U. of Ghana history dept. that wants to go to the conference.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think your situation is unique, like being at the University of Puerto Rico and then attending my Puerto Rico all-inclusive resort conference. It would not be cheaper to fly to Ghana if you were at the German university paying your bus ticket.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"So why do the conferences exist? Are they just free vacations for faculty charging the expenses to their research accounts?"

The sheer-junket conferences? Yes, that's exactly what they are.

My preferred solution for MPSA is "burn it to the ground and salt the earth so that it can never grow again." But moving, say, WPSA or New England seems to me like a solution in search of a problem. One virtue of the regionals is that in principle (WPSA is a partial exception) they're cheap and fast for a lot of their members to attend; people can go for a day, or drive rather than fly. Another is that (at the better regionals, in terms of subfield fit-- so, methods at MPSA, theory at New England or W) panel attendance can be reasonably high.

Going to Jamaica seems to me to defeat both of those purposes.

I like lots of people in the profession-- I enjoy APSA more than most people do for the chance to talk with them-- but that doesn't mean I want to vacation with them. If I fly to Jamaica for a panels-and-papers conference, I'm not going to hang around the hotel bar or play volleyball and get sand all over my tie. I'm going to do the rational thing and get the hell out of Dodge for actual recreation. The thematic conferences are different; the sustained interaction with a small group of people is precisely what you're there for. (In my experience they're actually less boozy than the annual meetings, despite the nicer locales.)

If you don't like MPSA, don't go to MPSA! After APSA and APT the professional returns on annual meeting attendance diminish very, very rapidly.

Miss Self-Important said...

Burning it to the ground would not be totally disproportionate to its wretchedness, but as a matter of policy, I always prefer peaceful reform to violent revolution. Moving it to Jamaica would meet the requirements of the former, giving a purpose (recreation) to an otherwise futile event while simultaneously giving all-inclusive resorts a function in the off-season.

APT was good, though I'm not sure if it had professional returns since I don't exactly know what such returns consist in, but so far none of the others I've attended have been even marginally functional as conferences. Ironically, the only regional conferences I haven't attended have been New England and WPSA (they're particularly good for theory?). These events seem like a lot of wasted money and effort which could be put to better use. Like family vacationing. Besides, in Jamaica, there's nowhere to escape to. I had considered that there might be a contingent of people who only own ties and no other garments and would be out of place in such environs, and while I usually sympathize with efforts to uphold formality over casualness and the pretense of egalitarianism, in this case, I had to sacrifice these types to the board-shorted flip-floppers.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"a contingent of people who only own ties and no other garments"

That would be awkward.

" the only regional conferences I haven't attended have been New England and WPSA (they're particularly good for theory?)"

Yes-- New England more on the Straussian/ liberal arts college/ APT/ liberal normative/ public law sides, WPSA more on the critical/ environmental/ feminist sides, though those are just tendencies. (NB: New England not the similarly-acronymed Northeast.)