Are Academic Conferences Valuable?

Last week, I attended the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.  Some of you may immediately think of guys wearing wool jackets with leather patches on the elbows, horn-rimmed glasses, uncombed hair, pocket protectors, and really long gray beards with stuff from last night’s meal stuck in them.  (OK, maybe there were a few guys there like that.)

You may also think of stuffy rooms filled with men droning on and on about some seemingly un-important, nuanced observation that only they can understand.  And then you wonder, “Why would anyone want to attend?”

Good question.

While such things occur at times in academic conferences, there are also far more instances of men and women pouring their hearts, souls, and minds into rigorous study of God’s Word and history and culture in order to increase our understanding and worship of the Almighty.  They are eagerly pursuing new discoveries, and doing their best to articulate them in winsome, attractive, and challenging ways.  Attending those sessions is a joy and a treat.  They stretch me intellectually, and help me grow.

But even more important than all of that are the interactions with old friends, and a few new ones, over coffee, or a lunch, or a dinner.  It is meeting face-to-face with the ones writing the papers, and in the trenches of academia and ministry, working these things out in greater detail for ourselves, the good and joy of the people we serve, and the glory and exaltation of God, his Son, and the Gospel by the power of the Spirit.

A friend of mine recently quoted Fred Sanders’ observations this way, said (of course) a bit better than I:

The real showpiece of professorial old media, however, has to be the academic conference. They are almost too easy to mock. Once a year most academics travel to a major city for a multi-day extravaganza of meeting others who work in their field. Armies of tweed-clad experts converge and confer with each other. The heart of these conferences is “giving a paper,” an event in which one professor stands in front of a roomful of other professors reading aloud a drastically shortened version of a scholarly article. Meanwhile, dozens of other professors are doing the same in dozens of other rooms to thousands of other listeners who had to decide which paper to hear and which ones to skip.

Considered simply as information exchange, it would be hard to invent a less efficient system. If ever a system needed to be re-imagined in light of new technology, it is the academic conference. Sitting in a conference room listening to somebody read a paper, all scholars must have had the question occur to them, Why wasn’t this paper just e-mailed to me? Why did I have to fly to this city and stay in a hotel for three days to hear this research presented orally? . . .

But then Sanders turns a bit more serious, noting a paradox at play:

Here at academic old media’s weakest point, the bloated academic conference, we can see the thing that can never be replaced by new media: the human contact of scholars meeting each other. You can look around you in a paper presentation and see who else made the same decision you did, to attend this particular paper out of all the options being offered in this exact time slot. The third time you see the same person shuffling into a room you are shuffling into, it begins to dawn on you that here is a person who is interested in what you are interested in, and a scholarly friendship forms. The academic conference is a dreadfully inefficient way of exchanging information, but it is a place where you can take the name you’ve been reading books by for years and attach things to it like a face, a voice, and mannerisms. It is remarkable how much more intelligently you can read a dry scholarly book after hearing the author present some of the ideas in person.

On this day of thanksgiving, I am thankful for the opportunity from God to attend such a conference last week, filled with a plethora of helpful interactions that I am still processing.

Further, I am thankful to the people in my life who made it possible.

Thank you – Susan, Colton, Isabella, Ezra, and Nehemiah – for doing without a husband and daddy for a week, with no complaining.

And thank you – leaders and people of Calvary Community Church – for sending me, and learning to appreciate that it is good for your pastor to get away and be sharpened, for his own soul, and for the continuing care of your souls as well.

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