Monday, March 5, 2007

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Reflections on the International Studies Association

Another conference in the books. Some thoughts:

1) No, I do not miss Chicago weather from late February or early March.

2) My most surreal moment had to be when a non-conference person, upon finding out what I did for a living, went on to say, "Now let me ask you something -- I've read this somewhere.... do you think it's true that some Jews in government have had divided loyalties? Is that why we invaded Iraq?" What made this moment extra-surreal -- it happened in the hotel jacuzzi.

3) Bob Wright will be very happy to learn that book publishers do, in fact, watch

4) A warning shot across ISA's bow: the number of panels at your conference is well beyond the point of diminishing returns. I know that most panels are accepted because that allows people to receive travel funds to attend the conference in the first place. At this point, however, there are simply too many panels per session -- and too many paper presented per panel. The wheat-to-chaff ratio has gone way down, and there are too many panels where the presenters outnumber the audience. If this trend continues, it will not surprise me if senior people abandon the conference all together (unless it's back in Honolulu) in favor of smaller, more narrowly focused conferences.

posted by Dan on 03.05.07 at 01:16 PM


I could not agree more with your fourth point. Way too many panels with way too many presenters with way too many panelists who don't bother to send a paper beforehand (yet use their appearance in the program to get their department's to pay for travel expenses). This ISA was a complete mess of a conference. I can only hypothesize that that may be precisely what all the European critical theorists who frequent ISA actually desire.

I'm not senior, but I'm inclined not to return to ISA next year.

posted by: irscholar on 03.05.07 at 01:16 PM [permalink]

I completely agree about the number of panels and presentations, but I think that swipe at European "critical theorists" is really unfair. ISA is getting big because demand is going up; the cost is that ISA is starting to look at APSA but without the natural divisions of involving multiple disciplines. To ISA's credit, my understanding is that they're now looking at re-emphasizing regional conferences--which had been languishing for the last few years without adequate support.

posted by: Daniel Nexon on 03.05.07 at 01:16 PM [permalink]

"like" not "at" APSA....

posted by: Daniel Nexon on 03.05.07 at 01:16 PM [permalink]

ISA is getting big because, best I can tell, they don't say no to anybody. Propose a paper on the pressing subject of relations between penguins and Martians, and ISA will find a panel for it. Or better yet, they'll create an entire panel on the subject.

And perhaps they don't say no to anybody because that would be artificially imposing "disciplinarity" on the field (or some such nonsense). Hence, the "really unfair" swipe at "critical theorists."

posted by: irscholar on 03.05.07 at 01:16 PM [permalink]

Since when did anybody go to panels?

The primary purpose of panels is to get your dept/university to give you travel funds to network with your friends.

Secondarily, panels provide needed cv items for grad students and for departments whose publication expectations are low.

The structure is broke, and the whole chair/discussant structure is silly.

For an incremental change, have presenter D critique paper C, C critique B, B critique A, and A critique D. It won't help attendance, but at least people would talk to one another's work a little.

posted by: arthur on 03.05.07 at 01:16 PM [permalink]

Well, I suppose, arthur, that's precisely the point: nobody goes to the myriad panels that ISA schedules. I agree that the entire value of the conference for me at this point is seeing old friends and making new contacts, but it sure would be nice if the conference program offered even a modicum of intellectual value.

posted by: irscholar on 03.05.07 at 01:16 PM [permalink]

irscholar: the decision about the *size* of the conference is largely independent from the year-to-year decision-making about what *panels* will be held at the conference. I am not at all clear that many of the panels you consider unmeritorious would be *gone* from the program if the conference were smaller, as some of them may have been ranked quite high by specific *sections*.

So if your complaint is the existence of critical-theoretic panels, epistemology panels, popular-culture panels, or whatever, take it up with their sponsors, not with the size of the conference

posted by: Daniel Nexon on 03.05.07 at 01:16 PM [permalink]

I agree that the size is not the issue. What seems to be a more acute problem is the lack of cross-fertilization both within and among the subgroupings. Call me naive, but I don't think the field can remain healthy and fertile if subgroups are discussing (mostly consensus building with mild slight divergences) topics amongst themselves. The call for papers for San Francisco is focused on just that problem, let's hope it's not just lip-service, like many of the themes seem to be. (At least the weather will be better, regardless.)

posted by: Bill Brenner on 03.05.07 at 01:16 PM [permalink]

Dan Nexon is correct in that my beef with ISA is with both the size and the content of the conference program. Not only is the program too large, but too many panels perpetuate the image of the academic cult of irrelevance. It's a free country (and a free academy), so people are free to work on whatever they like. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Why can't ISA be more like conferences in other fields where getting a paper accepted for a conference is actually meaningful? Somebody above mentioned that presenting at these conferences is good for the cv of younger scholars, especially grad students. It may be good experience for grad students to present, but I'd argue it's essentially meaningless on their cv's. I've been on numerous search committees, and I've never once given a candidate bonus points for having presented at ISA or APSA.

posted by: irscholar on 03.05.07 at 01:16 PM [permalink]

Your number 4 reminded me why I am no longer focusing in IR as my main research area. After attending a couple of ISA conferences where the quality of panels and presentations was less that mediocre (and that includes senior scholars as well), I have decided as a grad student that I do no longer want to be part of this intellectual group. I think very highly of the field and many of its scholars, but unfortunately too much passes the threshold of conference-worthy scholarship at ISA.

posted by: saint-exupery on 03.05.07 at 01:16 PM [permalink]

Some disciplines ask you to submit the whole paper before making final decisions about the conference program. That should help a bit...

posted by: theorist on 03.05.07 at 01:16 PM [permalink]

So let me get this straight, S-E, you left the field of IR because you were disappointed with the panels you attended a few ISA conferences? Not much of a decision rule for what you study, I must say.

Anyway, theorist's comment is right on about a major difference between big conferences in Political Science and in a lot of other disciplines. I imagine there are costs to the other model as well.

posted by: Daniel Nexon on 03.05.07 at 01:16 PM [permalink]

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