I am spending this week at the annual meetings of the American Political Science Association, the 6000-person gathering of political scientists that is the biggest academic conference in my one-time field. I taught a short course yesterday on “Social Media for Political Scientists” (more on that soon), but otherwise am here to soak up the intellectual fruits of other, harder-working academics’ labor, especially those in the IT and Politics track.

It is my first APSA meeting since 2004, when I attended primarily so that I could defend my dissertation (it was a convenient opportunity to find all the members of my far-flung committee in one place). In other words, it is my first APSA since grad school, social media, Social Signal, unconferences, nonprofit technology, Emily Carr, Twitter and about eighteen other experiences and technologies and social phenomena that have radically changed my worldview.

How radically, I am just now realizing. After 8 years in social media/startup/NGO/art school culture, a hardcore academic conference seems….weird. Mainly because it is pretty much exactly the same kind of conference it was 8 years ago. Compared to the contantly self-reinventing culture of tech conferences, that consistency is surprising. Thinking simply about the various ways in which APSA differs from SXSWi (hardly the most radical conference itself), I am struck that at APSA:

  1. Each presentation reflects somewhere between six months and two years of work. So a typical 4-paper panel represents something on the order of 5 years’ worth of labor.
  2. There is no wifi. OK, technically there is wifi, but it costs $99.
  3. Most conference attendees are wearing business clothes. Remember those? You know: suits, ties, skirts, pumps. Uh huh.
  4. If someone gives you a business card, it is a rectangular, non-die cut, non-laminated piece of cardstock.
  5. The word “Habermasian” is used as an adjective, and everyone knows what it means.
  6. People take notes on actual dead trees, or even just listen. Really.
  7. You can walk down the hall of the conference center without having a single person bump into you because they are looking at their iphone while walking.
  8. There are no line-ups to get into receptions.
  9. Presentation style: 95% content, 5% showmanship. And that is an average.
  10. The backchannel, #APSA2011, is flowing at a rate of about 25 tweets per hour. No, I did not leave out a zero.

When I attended my first SXSWi, in 2006, it was so overwhelmingly male that I fantasized about pairing it with a female-dominated professional conference (HR? IABC?) just to ensure the participants might each get a chance to talk to a woman. These days, SXSWi (like APSA) is
pretty gender balanced…but I would love to see what would happen if these two worlds had an up-close encounter with one another.

From academia, I would take the expectation of actually delivering carefully thought-out content, asking challenging and intellectually provocative questions, listening with focus, and giving airtime to up-and-comers who can learn from the opportunity (i.e. grad students).

But there is just as much the academic world can take from the vitality of a tech conference like SXSWi…and even more from unconferences like Barcamp. The sheer continuity of APSA, the way in which it feels untouched by the technical and organizational revolutions that have unfolded in the larger world, give me cause for concern.

What is the momentum for inventive pedagogy, I wonder, in a field that takes such a static approach to professional development? How much opportunity is there for engaging and integrating new ideas when the literal absence of connectivity renders the conference opaque (or invisible) to non-participants? What kinds of breakthrough thinking about policy, politics and research — all vitally needed from this incredible community of deep thinkers — might be catalyzed by setting up rooms and events so they talk with rather than at one another?

There are good reasons for academic conferences to revere and continue the tradition of sharing serious, well-thought-out work in a focused and rigorous way. There are even better reasons for also integrating new ways of conversing, thinking and communicating — even they are challenging to the innately conservative culture of the academy.