I want to reflect on Theorizing the Web 2011 by asking for a discussion about what academic conferences should look like. In fact, let’s forget the term “conference” for a moment and ask how thinkers should best organize to discuss intellectual work in public?
Theorizing the Web 2011 was PJ Rey and I’s first attempt at tackling this question [read PJ’s review of the event here]. We started this blog to provide a public forum for ideas and the conference was intended to do the same. Many reviews of the event have emerged (some posted on this blog over the past ten days). What has surprised me most is the degree to which the conference itself has been a main topic of discussion. And while we are very proud that the reviews have been so overwhelmingly positive about our view of an academic event, we understand that this is also a result of the failing of traditional venues for the intellectual exchange of ideas. Academic conferences are too often suffered through and individual sessions often poorly attended. Media outlets tend to ignore anything that smells too much like intellectualism, a term itself that has come to be viewed pejoratively because, at least in part, intellectuals have so poorly communicated ideas to the public. As graduate students, we know we needed to create a world that is better prepared to communicate the critical theories so important to understand our changing realities.
And the result on April 9th went well above our expectations.
We attempted to bring in art, multi-media, interdisciplinarity, and even non-disciplinarity to this event. Registration was pay-what-you-want. The event began with beers in an alley and finished with a loud band. We tried lots of things and will try much more if we do this again next year [we want to].The art was fun, and us organizers can take credit for that.
However, my lasting impression of that day is that there was a vibe, an emergent zeitgeist, of people having fun exchanging smart and important ideas on under-theorized topics. Presentations were intellectual and entertaining. They appealed to people in many disciplines and even to those in attendance who are not academics. This was exactly what we wanted idea-exchange-in-public to look like, and the credit for this goes entirely to all those in attendance [thank you, everybody!].
So I want to continue this conversation about what conferences should look like. What different sorts of public intellectual projects can be done to give thinkers room to speak publically about their ideas?