Letting Loose in the Zoo

We’ve all been back from Kalamazoo long enough to have recovered from the mini-safaris required to get between sessions and fear of awkward shared dorm bathroom encounters.

By now we think predominately of the many interesting papers we heard and the camaraderie of being around 3070 other people who share an interest with discovering and arguing about stuff that happened a thousand years ago in a world whose complexity and richness we can scarcely derive from the comparatively meager historical record. Indeed, it’s easy to romanticize the magic of the Zoo. I know I like to.

It is also clear that one fundamental, traditional flaw haunts the Congress as it ages gracefully into the second decade of the 21st century: the ubiquitous habit of simply reading papers to a passive audience. Obviously this not a feature/flaw unique to the Congress, but I want to argue here why it’s especially inappropriate for the hallowed halls of Kalamazoo.

For as engaging as paper presentations may be (and I’ve certainly seen my share of excellent ones), they largely defeat the point of the entire conference, which is arguably the aspect that repeatedly brings people back (other than the personal camaraderie): the conversations we have with each other about the papers and our larger research projects. We could take much better advantage of the variety of perspectives and expertise that we bring all of the several dozen concurrent sessions. But at least 2/3 of each session (at least, often more) is dedicated to NOT TALKING.

The interstitial hallway chats and coffee breaks and happy hours where much the interesting work happens at any conference. But this is especially true at the Zoo where scholars collectively bring innumerable different specialties together—and turns the entire campus into an unusually fertile field for cross-pollination.

I don’t mean to minimize the performative aspect of giving papers to an audience. But I would argue that not many people actually perform a paper rather than simply read it, generally because academics are obsessed with prioritizing content over form. That’s not necessarily bad, but it tends to minimize the utility of reading something that everyone else could more efficiently and effectively read for themselves.

Of course people give papers for many reasons, and important one is the formal participation in a scholarly community—to be seen. But the Zoo is less of a professional development conference in the formal sense; there are often more focused, selective conferences that are more effective CV builders in that regard. The Zoo is about the people and the conversations. And this makes it often a more useful conference than ones that are more geared toward professional advancement with their plethora of awkwardly-fitting dress clothes and jittery early career scholars side-eyeing the competition.

This essay is an open plea for session organizers to insist that papers be made available (not necessarily actively circulated) to interested potential attendees before the session. During the session, the author would give a ~5 minute review of the paper in the session; the rest of the time would be dedicated to discussion about the group of papers. In an experimental form, perhaps the session organizer can insist on a deadline a week or so ahead of the panel date, and then make papers available online with a link that can be visible on the conference program. Anyone looking over the program can visit the link, check out the papers ahead of time, and determine if they want to show up and talk about them. This is obviously a bit of extra work, but it is not a significant technical challenge.

One may object, I suppose, that people would read the papers instead of showing up to the sessions. We all know there is too much stuff happening at one time, and this almost certainly will happen. But since when don’t academics want to talk about something that’s interesting to them? I can imagine that if a paper grabs attention, people will want to talk about it more than simply make a note of it and go listen to someone read awkwardly to them.

One may object to my proposition on the grounds that a work in progress thus becomes prematurely “published.” But have we not learned to differentiate between work we can access and work that is published? In any case, the paper would be available only for a short time, and is unlikely to convey enough research secrets to give anyone a serious advantage. And of course the same thing could happen from simply hearing a conference paper as well.

I suspect that the sessions where people have a chance to think about the issues ahead of time and formulate questions, comments, and criticisms, will prove far more useful to both the session attendees and, more importantly, the paper authors. It might even encourage more collaborative work as well, or perhaps modes of communication that aren’t in written, story form. The Zoo is unlike many conferences for many reasons, so there is no reason to hold to the conventions of those other inferior meetings beholden to professionalization and institutionalization of their field. Let’s make our paper sessions take better advantage of the Zoo’s greatest feature: the way it encourages us to be ourselves among kin.