On Declining Conference Participation

This week, I’m attending the 2010 Congress of the Naval Order of the United States, in Sparks, NV. The theme of the meeting this year is “100 Years of Naval Aviation”, marking the beginning of an epochal Naval development.

Naval Order of the United States

The meeting was widely promoted among Naval Order members, a terrific selection of side events (including a visit to the Navy’s “Top Gun” school in nearby Fallon) planned, and an enticing venue selected; yet attendance is down, continuing a many-year trend.

I venture to say that most people accept the notion that conferences offer valuable opportunities for the cross-fertilization of ideas among people of similar or complementary interests and disciplines. Conference attendees also look forward to the social interactions and networking opportunities that meetings offer. Yet many organizations with which I’m familiar are experiencing the same trend–decreasing participation in annual meetings and even local events. Why is this? What to do about it?

Certainly the bad economy, with the attendant decrease in funding by business, academic institutions and government has had an impact over the last couple of years. But I think the trend of decreasing conference attendance began well before the current fiscal difficulties came along. The internet no doubt has played a large role, given the ease of communication, document transfers and collaboration, and even video conferencing it provides. Increasing specialization has sliced many disciplines into ever-smaller communities; the resulting specialty gatherings are smaller and more narrowly focussed, offering proportionally diminished conference rewards.

But there’s more. With cuts in funding have come cuts in staffing. This means that people who still are on the job in business, the academe and government face pressure to do more, work longer hours, and take less time for such “luxuries” as scholarly or business meetings. Of course all this disproportionately impacts younger workers and scholars–just the people who’d most benefit from all that conferences have to offer. One result we should fear most: an increasing isolation and regionalism in thinking, with a resultant slowing of intellectual development and evolution within and across disciplines.

So what to do? Clearly, the internet with its attendant amenities is here to stay. But internet-facilitated collaboration is at best a few-person endeavor. On-line conferencing can put large groups of people into one time-and-intellectual space, but these efforts last at best a few hours and come no way close to the several-day and several-session intellectual salad-bowls that physical conferences offer.

One strategy that smaller organizations can adopt is to mount conjoint meetings with larger, “umbrella” organizations. For example, The Society for the History of Navy Medicine (the sponsor of this blog), which occupies a tiny niche in the historical world, very early sought constituent status with the much larger American Association for the History of Medicine, and held its first three annual meetings as panels with AAHM. A recent Board decision to reach out to the Society’s other “constituencies” has it mounting a panel at this year’s meeting of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States (AMSUS), representing the large community of federal health care workers.

Another consideration has to be the venue. We had hoped to mount a panel at next year’s meeting of the Society for Military History seeking outreach to the community of military historians. However, several potential panelists cited the venue for next year’s SMH meeting, Lisle, Illinois, as a reason why they would not submit a paper proposal, and so we have had to abandon this effort. The prospect of mounting a panel at the Naval Academy in 2011, however, seems to have piqued the interest of several authors.

The message here for smaller organizations is “look to larger organizations to be your meeting sponsors, and reach out to those that serve your various constituencies; work continually to encourage quality work from your authors to make your panels as attractive as possible to your prospective sponsors.”

For larger organizations–also concerned about decreasing attendance–the message is “if you want to attract more attendees, pay attention to smaller societies and encourage their empanelment at your large annual meetings; and, be sure to look for venues that will be attractive to the largest audiences.”

I encourage your comments on this topic of increasing relevance to modern scholarship.

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