March 17, 2018

The Subconference: Passing Fad or Next Big Thing? | From the Bell Tower

steven-bell-newswireThe MLA Conference is a top attention getting event in the higher education media. But the unofficial and unrecognized MLA Subconference generated lots of buzz. What does it say about higher ed, and will it catch on?

While it’s unlikely that I would ever attend the Modern Language Association (MLA) Conference, it’s almost impossible to avoid getting caught up in the hype that precedes the actual conference—along with all the drama and intrigue. When it comes to capturing the attention of the academic press, the MLA conference is in a class by itself. There’s always some sort of buzz, whether it’s the job scene at the conference, the dynamics of who presents there, the political conflicts, or even the profiles of the up-and-comers worth watching  (does this happen for any other conference?). This year, the big pre-conference story was the American Studies Association’s decision to enact an academic boycott of Israel and what impact it would have on the proceedings at MLA. But just a few days before MLA, an equally big story emerged—the MLA subconference.

What’s a Subconference?

Based on the various articles I read about the MLA subconference, I would describe it as a shadow conference that exists alongside the actual conference. It’s not recognized by the association sponsoring the official conference in the way that an unconference within an official conference would be—like the unconferences you sometimes find happening within the larger American Library Association (ALA) or Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) conferences. According to Rebecca Schuman’s essay on the MLA Subconference, there were two forces driving its organizers. First, the cost of the actual MLA conference. Those for whom the official conference is unaffordable decided to offer an alternative in the conference city. The Subconference was free to all. Second, it was a reaction to content. Whereas the bulk of the presentations at MLA are esoteric and geared towards competition among scholars, the Subconference sought to establish itself as the anti-MLA. The presentations focused on promoting change within the profession, and emphasized collective action over individual performance. It was designed to appeal to those on the fringes of the profession, graduate students and adjuncts who may feel out of place at the MLA conference—as well as finding it unaffordable.

Did It Work?

During the two-day Subconference over 100 people attended, mostly graduate students. That hardly makes a dent in the MLA Conference, which attracts thousands, but the organizers believe they successfully met their goals. In addition to offering a welcoming place for those who felt alienated from and rejected by the official conference, it created a platform for the discussion of tuition, the future of higher education, tenure, contingent faculty, and other serious higher education issues. As one attendee said, “At most conferences, it’s just people having the chance to get a line on their CV and doing super-specific research not connected to the real work. This was the opposite of that.” What it actually sounds like is an alternate conference, and that fits in well with a growing “alt” trend in higher education, complimenting movements like alt-academic employment and alt-textbooks. Given the amount of attention the MLA Subconference attracted, no doubt in part due to its novelty, we might expect to see other scholarly societies in higher education generating more subconferences. This year will serve as a litmus test for subconferences, to indicate if this is a new trend or just a passing fad.

What about Library Conferences?

My initial reactions to the MLA Subconference shifted to how this development might affect our big library conferences. If the two driving forces were cost and dissatisfaction with the status quo, that reflects some serious issues with higher education conferences. Our official association gatherings may be in danger of becoming too limiting rather than inclusive if large numbers of our colleagues find it unaffordable or simply self-indulgent and boring. While there’s room for improvement, the annual and midwinter ALA conferences still offer a wide range of programming that appeal to a diverse audience. At the recent midwinter event attendees encountered a mix of committee meetings, discussions, author talks, and many other options—even more than a few unconference-like gatherings. The biennial divisional conferences, like the upcoming ACRL 2015, may be more prone to some form of academic librarian backlash.

A Cautionary Tale

With its focus on peer-review and career enhancement, a conference like ACRL 2015 could be subject to the same internal professional conflict that drove those who saw themselves as MLA outsiders to organize their own shadow conference. One reason that the MLA Subconference had a relatively small number of attendees, beyond being a first-time event, is that its organizers wanted to make a statement by holding it in Chicago, where the MLA conference was taking place. Acknowledging the cost issues, they knew many potential attendees would balk at the travel and lodging costs. As the entry barriers to organizing focused subject conferences that serve a niche interest within our profession decline, and it seems like announcements for them turn up in my inbox with increasing frequency, those who reject the notion of large, association-driven conferences may just shrug their shoulders, join up with colleagues, and then go do their own thing. I believe there is still a place for conferences of all types and sizes, although we are all experiencing greater constraints in how to allocate our diminishing pool of funds for professional development. The emergence of the Subconference, with its disruptive potential, should serve as a cautionary tale to the organizers of traditional conferences. Just as is the case with higher education itself, it appears none of our standard expectations is immune to the “alt” movement that continues to infuse what’s time tested with the spirit of experimentation.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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