This being my first year as a full-time professor of economics at Berklee, one thing on the to-do list was to attend an economics conference. I’d attended conferences on other topics, such as a green campus conference this past summer, but this was my first “mainstream” economics conference ever! So with that in mind, here are this young chick’s thoughts:
Overall, my impression of this conference wasn’t very good. I was struck by two things. One was that “economics” is an extremely broad topic, with enormous diversity on as many dimensions as you care to go. What happened, then, was that even within the breakout sessions the presenters talks were at most extremely tangentially related to each others, and certainly nobody really had the ability to critique each other’s work. Particularly when a presenter says essentially “I did years of work on this and here’ what I found.” This perhaps is the direct cause of my next observation.
There was practically nobody there!
The break-out sessions were in rooms that could hold up to about 25. Every session I went to there would be four people presenting, a fifth person there as “moderator” and then between two and six people (usually 2 or 3), myself included, who were just there to listen. 0
Even the much advertised keynote and plenary sessions, where we all came together, featured a large room with people in under 10% of the seats. My best estimate was 35-40 people in the audience in a room meant for 500.
- Was there some “real” conference which I was oblivious to? I wasn’t there the first day, and I’ll admit that I didn’t do lunch in the hotel’s restaurant with most folks (Being vegan I brought my own food and holed up in an empty room.) Was amazing stuff happening and I was simply oblivous to it all as I wasn’t on the program?
- Was the IAES, an organization which started in the early 1970s, a relic of the Cold War or some other times which is fading into history? Did I show up just as the party is ending?
- Was this conference all some sort of trick (One that cost me $300 to attend, I may add) which professors play on the Powers That Be at their respective universities? It’s safe to assume that professors don’t present at more than two sesssions, and usually that number will be one. When you look at how many breakout sessions there were (6), that suggests–assuming everyone there (other than me) was presenting–that you should have had 5 audience for every presenter. Or, to put it another way, there should have been 20 people in the audience, rather than the typical 3 or 4. Put it another way, the math strongly suggested that people who presented attended, on average, slightly less than one session! Moreover, I witnessed extremely little (read; virtually zero) in the way of probing questions, back-and-forth discussion, or other signs that people were actively engaged.
A bit more on the third point:
In economics, we talk the influence of incentives–whether well thought out or not. For example, at the end of the 17th century England instituted a primitive version of the modern property tax, using the number of windows as a crude proxy for how much a home was worth. This resulted in large numbers of middle class people ripping the windows out of their houses and boarding them over.
Speaking not about Berklee specifically, but about academic in general, professors build up their credentials by “presenting at conferences,” as well as publishing papers. Could it be, then, that the raison d’etre of conferences such as this is for professors to put one more bullet point on their Curriculum Vitae, knowing that their institutions use the extremely-crude metric of “number of papers presented at conferences,’ to gauge the quality and influence of their ideas?
This may feel like wild speculation, though the fact that you had to pay extra to attend the conference if you were presenting a paper than if you were not raised an eyebrow. (I spoke with my friend who teaches science at Berklee and she informed me that that’s standard practice at academic conferences she attends.) In what other field, besides people who are obviously students does the performer pay more than the audience who ostensibly is there to benefit from their hard work and expertise?
And thus conferences such as this become the modern analog of boarded up windows, with the attending academics like the English from centuries past, sitting in the dark behind boarded up windows, most figuring that this was the way things were, some astute ones feeling perverse pride in gaming the system. Perhaps a few, glancing at little wisps of light seeping through the cracks, wondered if there might be a better way.
In conclusion, I’m glad to have gone there, as it was an eye opener. Some of the topics were interesting and it was good to see what the field of economics is up to these days–I definitely was impressed by all diversity of topies! It definitely gave me an insight into the life of an academic. I probably shouldn’t generalize too much based on a single conference. That said, it’s just as well that the IAEA moves around, as I don’t really see the point in going back, particularly in the context of presenting something (unless the Powers That Be at Berklee suggest I do so, of course). At Berkee last month, as part of a Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day event put on by the department together, I gave a talk of comparable length to an audience at least five times as large as what most of these people had. Moreover, my audience was more engaged, and it didn’t cost me a dime.