What follows is a guest post by Nick Wiltsher (Uppsala University).
I enjoyed the recent American Society for Aesthetics (ASA) National Meeting in Phoenix. I saw and learned from several good talks, my own talk went decently, I caught up with friends and met new people. Natalie Diaz’s Danto Lecture was outstanding. It takes a heck of a lot of work to organize a conference like that, and I’m very appreciative of the efforts of all those who did that work.
But whether or not I enjoy a conference is not the measure of whether or not it is good. A conference is good if it reaches the aims appropriate to a conference. I think the ASA falls short. From conversations during the last few days, I gather that I am not alone in thinking so. I intend here to articulate my main reasons for thinking so, and some potential solutions. There are probably other reasons, and probably other solutions. I hope colleagues are motivated to suggest them, too, in the spirit of mutual improvement—thinking how we can do better what we do well already.
The principal aim of the ASA—the main thing that can’t be done without getting all those people together in one place—is networking (no, I don’t like the word either, but it’ll do). More specifically, given the marginal status of aesthetics and the parlous state of the employment market, the conference should be welcoming and open to tenuously employed people, graduate students, those curious about aesthetics, those who arrive not knowing anyone and not knowing too much about the field. It is primarily to such people that the opportunities to meet others, to talk aesthetics, and to build collaborations should be afforded.
The ASA is not a welcoming, open conference for such people. There are, I think, three main reasons for this.
The first is that the ASA is cliquey. Very cliquey. This is apparent in many aspects of the conference, but it is especially manifest in the complicated social dancing around dinner arrangements. I still find this excruciating, and I’m on the inside these days. When I first came to the ASA as a grad student, I found myself with the choice of sucking up to groups of seniors or hiding in my room eating granola bars. I tried both; both were horrible. I am far from convinced that grad students arriving at the conference these days have better options. Cliques do not conduce towards collaboration.
The second is that the ASA is expensive. Very expensive. All those meals add up, and they are added to the cost of staying in a pricey hotel. This is fine if you have a cushy research budget, but prohibitive if you don’t. And many tenuously employed folk and graduate students don’t. The only ASA I went to as a graduate student was held in the same state I was studying in; I simply couldn’t afford to go further. Expense does not conduce towards attendance.
Third, the structures and workings of the conference can be obscure. This was embarrassingly manifest at this year’s business lunch, which was not attended by several graduate students to whom awards were made—anecdotally, because they were unaware that the “business lunch” is a free, unregistered event to which all are welcome. And, again, how is a newcomer to know that they will be mostly fending for themselves when it comes to feeding?
So attending the ASA represents a large personal expense for many people, and when they get there, they find that the advertised benefits of attendance are not afforded to them, and that the way in which the event works is far from obvious. These problems are particularly acute for junior scholars who are members of under-represented groups, who tend already to be left out of cliques, to be denied easy money, and to lack implicit knowledge of how things work on the inside. They are also acute for people coming from universities and countries outside the Anglo-American sphere, perhaps for the first time.
The ASA as an organisation recognizes its responsibilities to junior scholars, to members of under-represented groups, and to newcomers from other countries. Welcome, concrete measures have been taken to meet those responsibilities, the mentorship program being a salutary example. Nonetheless, we can and should do more to address the evident problems with our largest annual event.
It could be that these problems, especially the first, are irresolvable difficulties with large conferences. If that’s so, we should ask seriously whether it’s worth having them. The costs to our institutions, and the environmental cost of hundreds of academics flying across the globe to get there, are prima facie reasons not to hold large conferences. If the ASA annual meeting, owing to its size, simply cannot meet its main aim, what’s the point of having it?
I suppose other benefits might be adduced: the chance to present one’s work, the chance to get a sense of what is going on generally in the field, the chance to conduct the various business meetings of the ASA. I am not wholly convinced that we need a large annual meeting to do any of those things; all are, or could be, done in the various divisional meetings. Those meetings, being smaller, are also less liable to be cliquey. So I think it is an open question whether the annual meeting needs to happen.
Nonetheless, I think, mostly, that the annual meeting should continue, and we should try our best to make it better. Here are some ideas for doing so. They’re not all mine, but I won’t name names.
First: ensure that the first event in the schedule, or at least an early one, is well-designed for welcoming people and introducing them to the conference. The current opening reception does not do this well. To my mind, this means an organized, catered meal for all attendees, with a strong sense that all should attend, and a clear invitation to graduate students and those new to the ASA. This meal could be a dinner on the first evening (when the current opening reception takes place), or a lunch on the first day. This meal could profitably be socially engineered: place cards ensuring that each table has an equal mix of graduate students or other newcomers and senior, established people.
(This suggestion will remind many of the British Society of Aesthetics’ (BSA) annual conference. To be clear, I do not think that the conferences should be identically structured and organized, and I can see why one might not want all meals to be communal. But a mixture of communal and private dining might serve the ASA well.)
Second: explore options for reducing the cost of attendance—for all, not only for those who win awards. A recurrent suggestion in conversation is to hold the meeting at a university conference center rather than a fancy downtown hotel, the assumption being that this would greatly reduce the costs of accommodation and catering. I understand that this assumption has been found in the past to be less secure than one might think. But there must be good ways of making attendance cheaper, and thinking about those should start from thinking about venues and accommodation.
(This suggestion is sometimes countered by the claim that many members would not attend the conference if it were not held in a nice hotel. If this is a concern about the suitability of university accommodation for older and less mobile attendees, it is a serious concern, but surely a compromise can be found between luxury and asceticism. If, on the other hand, the worry is that Professor Posh simply cannot abide fewer than four stars, I don’t see that the conference would suffer much from his absence—and anyway, he could always stay in a different hotel.)
Third: in among the information sent out before the conference, provide a guide to how things work. It’s not good enough that people who have not been to conferences like this before can turn up unaware that they’ll need to sort out dinner and lunch themselves most days, or that lunch on the final day really is for everyone, or any of the other pieces of conference navigation knowledge that are needed to make the most of the event.
Other suggestions might be proposed—restructuring the conference, more communal dining, moving the dates, and so forth—but I hope these ideas provide a starting point for discussion of how we might do better. I will end with a note of optimism. Early in my graduate studies, I said to a senior faculty member that the traditional dates for the Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association—between Christmas and New Year—were ridiculous, and its role as an employment cattle market was repellent. Neither thing, I was told, would change in his lifetime. He’s still going strong. Both things have changed. Collectively, we in the ASA can do better. Let’s talk about how.
I spoke to a lot of people in shaping these thoughts. I won’t name most of the names, but I do want to thank Paloma Atencia-Linares, Adriana Clavel-Vázquez, John Dyck, Panos Paris, and Nils-Hennes Stear for their input. Their full endorsement of all I’ve said should not be assumed.