Questioning the Value of Omnibus Academic Conferences

As part of my current job, I try to track and distribute information about conferences and workshops that will interest my colleagues and provide good opportunities for them to obtain critical feedback on their scholarly work, as well as make connections with other scholars in their fields. Perhaps because I pay more attention to all types of conferences now (or perhaps because there truly are more of them), I sense a proliferation of smaller legal scholarship workshops focusing on particular subject matters or disciplines, bringing together scholars from schools in a specific region, or fostering development of junior faculty (of course, there are also combinations of these). Much of the anecdotal feedback I get from my colleagues suggests that these smaller workshops are extraordinarily helpful to participants because of the type and depth of feedback they get on their papers. The size of these gatherings also allows for richer opportunities to engage in informal discussions with colleagues and learn about each other’s work.

All of this brings me to the larger question I want to pose. What is the purpose of the annual January AALS meeting? Don’t get me wrong. I love New Orleans and San Francisco and catching up with friends and colleagues from other schools as much as anyone. But at this point, the conference itself seems like a bit of a dinosaur. If the principal justification for the meeting is intellectual enrichment, it’s pretty inefficient. Hundreds of papers are presented, the vast majority of them beyond any single professor’s areas of interest or expertise. And personally, with some important exceptions, I often have been disappointed with the papers presented at the annual meeting compared to the papers I have heard at specialized conferences (including specialized AALS conferences). One could make the case for the general meeting as an opportunity to hear work in fields beyond our specialty areas, but how many of us actually attend panels in fields completely unrelated to our work? I’m sure some administrative work gets done at AALS, but probably nothing that couldn’t be accomplished by a conference call.

Some academic disciplines combine their annual meetings with their hiring conferences. For example, the Modern Language Association has a long tradition of facilitating faculty job interviews at its annual meeting. That approach makes a little more sense because faculties from most schools are gathered in one place to interview candidates, anyway. But the AALS separated out its Faculty Recruitment Conference from the general meeting many years ago, so that rationale has disappeared.

I approach my thinking about the AALS meeting from a resources standpoint as well. At this time of year (as the early bird registration deadline approaches), I receive lots of faculty requests for funding to attend the meeting. Our school spends a disproportionate percentage of its travel budget sending faculty to AALS. In tight fiscal times, it seems useful to contemplate whether that is a good use of funds, or whether that money would be better spent sending faculty to the smaller specialty or regional conferences discussed above. Or, might we decide after considering the heretical idea of scrapping the annual meeting that the AALS’s winter fest is just too big to fail?

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6 Responses

  1. Ezra Rosser says:

    My experience mirrors what you have stated about smaller conferences — you get better feedback on papers and get to hear more papers in your field. Justifications that I have heard for AALS’ conference is the chance to network, but I find the smaller conferences win in that regard as well. The best explanation I have for the AALS dominance is that it routinely chooses places people want to visit and is seen by some Deans as a way to work on reputation scores for US News rankings.

  2. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Thanks for the very thoughtful and astute post, which warrants serious consideration. I agree with the sentiment, but in fairness note that AALS adds at least four unique things:

    (1) Presidential Programs offer a chance to consider the possibility of themes of genuine general interest to every law professor;

    (2) participation of publishers of legal academic books is a chance to meet authors and editors and discuss topics and trends in pedagogy, publishing and related ideas;

    (3) the AALS House of Representatives meets (a source of routine jokes at faculty meetings appointing reps, but a non-trivial forum all the same); and

    (4) it’s the only chance during an entire year that blogging groups like those of us at Co-Op actually get to meet together in person!

  3. Orin Kerr says:

    The AALS seems to have two major functions. First, it provides an annual boondoggle for every law professor to go to a nice location to spend a few days seeing friends and eating nice meals. Second, it justifies the existence of the AALS, which otherwise would just be about the meat market.

    What I personally find frustrating is that the AALS is quite strict about letting sections organize subject-matter specific conferences. Those are by far the most useful, and widely attended, and yet the AALS limits them to every 5 years or so. It would make more sense to reverse that and have an annual subject matter conference with conferences for all groups every five years.

  4. I no longer go every year, but I try to go every two or three years. I appreciate the opportunity to encounter people and ideas that don’t live in one of the narrow fields in which I teach and write. This is where I feed my interest in Indian law, or legal history, and where I get up to speed on the most recent Queerlaw scholarship. This is also the only time I ever hang out with/catch up with old friends in legal academia who teach in areas far away from mine. In years when I’ve been on my school’s hiring committee, it’s been useful as an inexpensive way to find out about potential lateral candidates. None of these reasons may strike a dean as sufficient to justify an allocation of travel money when travel money is scarce, but I, for one, would miss the annual meeting a lot if the AALS stopped having it.

  5. It’s a paid vacation in a great town where you can catch up with friends. What’s not to like about it?

  6. Miguel Schor says:

    I have serious doubts about the usefulness of the AALS conference as well; the subject matter conferences are a different matter entirely. Some large academic conferences, on the other hand, are very useful such as Law and Society. Perhaps the answer would be to reform the AALS conference to make it an academic conference rather than just merely a paid vacation in a great town. The costs of attending, moreover are exorbitant. I cannot believe how much registration costs and how much the meals are.