ADVICE: The Case for Early Career Conferences (Sam Cowling, Denison)

Sam Cowling, Assistant Professor, Psychology, Denison University.
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There is no shortage of conferences. These range from sprawling national congresses and large regional association meetings to boutique research seminars. Over the course of a career, most of us will likely experience the full variety, but, for faculty at small liberal arts colleges, odds are good that boutique research conferences will be an occasional bonus rather than a semesterly norm. Although matters vary widely across disciplines, there’s a noteworthy peculiarity in the distribution of conference possibilities across the academy.

Despite the rapidly growing number of graduate student conferences, there are remarkably few conferences aimed at supporting the research and networking of junior faculty. So, while graduate conferences are a tremendous help to graduate students (and graduate students alone), it’s a striking feature of the profession that, upon receiving one’s PhD, the number of conference possibilities often plummets considerably. The consequences of this demographic oddity can be tough for early career researchers. After all, junior faculty have typically left their familiar geographical and intellectual communities for new positions and are working to carve out new projects and networks. The resulting lack of conference opportunities for early career researchers therefore marks yet another difficulty to surmount on the arc toward tenure.

What to do? A natural solution is to actively support and promote conferences for early career faculty. I can speak from some experience about the benefits of both research-focused conferences for junior faculty and, more recently, to the benefits of pedagogy-oriented early career conferences. Over the past five years, I’ve organized and participated in an on-going conference series—the Junior Metaphysics Workshop—for early career faculty in philosophy and, this past year, I organized a conference for junior faculty centered around logic and pedagogy. The benefits of each kind of early career conference, which I’ll discuss below, have been significant and their success points towards a general moral: a modest expansion in conferences aimed at facilitating the research and pedagogy of early career faculty is overdue.

Some of the benefits of organizing conferences for early career faculty are fairly straightforward. Early career researchers are in particular need of opportunities to develop research networks in supportive venues that foster scholarly community. Conferences that bring together clusters of early career faculty are natural places to develop these networks. Additionally, early career researchers are likely to benefit from the kind of peer mentoring these conferences promote. It’s also worth pointing out that, when these conferences are organized by early career faculty, the practical experience of undertaking such events is quite useful. It allows early career faculty to better familiarize themselves with their home institution as well as its funding and administrative structure. And, if there’s a focus on bringing together nearby early career faculty, these conferences are a chance to get acquainted with neighboring institutions and build relationships across colleges. Forging these connections is critical for participants, but such conferences are also of benefit to the profession more generally. It is, for example, on the basis of these experiences that we broaden the scope of potential referees, reviewers, commentators, and correspondents in a way that extends laterally across fields rather than merely upwards with an eye towards senior faculty at elite research institutions.

There’s a second and arguably more important reason to carve out space for these conferences: the academy has a surfeit of early career researchers in non-tenure track positions. The demands and pressures on these faculty are familiar and worrying. Doing our best to open possibilities for them to present, connect, and increase their professional visibility is not merely a good thing, but plausibly required of faculty when organizing just about any conference. Early career faculty workshops are therefore a tremendous chance for visiting faculty to exchange information about the market, connect with their cohort, and get a sense of practices and possibilities at other schools.

To the extent one might harbor concerns about conferences for early career faculty, I suspect these reservations will revolve around the claim that, in at least some fields, early career faculty are adequately represented (or perhaps over-represented) at national or regional conferences. True or not, it’s plainly the case that early career faculty are under heavier and heavier pressure to produce more and more research at earlier and earlier stages of their careers. With this in mind, it is unreasonable to withhold potential benefits from early career faculty in an effort to remedy a separate challenge about providing resources and opportunities for mid and late-career faculty researchers. Additionally, there’s no reason to think that support for early career conferences need be limited to research-based conferences. After all, issues about representation of early career faculty at research-based conferences leave the case for teaching-focused early career conferences perfectly intact.

If there’s good reason to promote conferences aimed at supporting early career faculty, what should these conferences look like? Two familiar points of focus seem natural enough: research and teaching. And, at small liberal arts colleges, these concerns are so closely intertwined, it’s likely that almost any conference will ultimately inform and benefit each concern.

For obvious reasons, the specific norms of various disciplines make it difficult to say much about how to structure an early career research conference across all fields, but my experience organizing and attending the Junior Metaphysics Workshop over the past five years—an early career conference for philosophers working in metaphysics—has shown two features to be particularly beneficial. First, it’s a great help to avoid the allure of inviting a leading, senior figure to serve as a keynote speaker. Rather, the conference should aim at ensuring that early career participants constitute a community of scholarly peers with no sense that they are eating at the “kid’s table.” Second, make a habit of inviting back those who presented in previous years to serve as commentators on the papers of other participants. This practice can do a lot to sustain networks and relationships across meetings. Most notably, it allows those who have been successful on the job market to relay guidance and foster discussion of recent and developing research. It also instills a much-needed sense of optimism when folks who have been recently hired from visiting positions into tenure track jobs return to share what they’ve learned.

More general prescriptions about conference structure are possible in the case of pedagogy-based conferences. Last year, I organized a conference on Teaching Thinking at Denison University, which brought together early career philosophy faculty from DePauw, Wabash, Kenyon, and elsewhere with the aim of discussing curricular and pedagogical challenges surrounding logic and logic courses. The three-day conference consisted primarily of talks and roundtable discussions, but three features of the event were especially crucial for its success.

The first feature was the inclusion of a campus-wide panel discussion about logic and teaching critical thinking, which featured Denison faculty from across all disciplines including mathematics, theater, and psychology. This discussion usefully placed the subsequent discussions about logic and critical thinking in the broader intellectual context of the college and the liberal arts.

The second feature was the inclusion of ample time for sustained group discussion with an opportunity to reflect on curricular, departmental, and content-specific issues regarding teaching logic. The chance to spitball big ideas and share miscellaneous insights was a productive and lively way to get all parties on the same page. There’s also a distinctive value in having a group of early career folks from small liberal arts colleges talk through their shared challenges. Too often, discussions of this sort at larger conferences can get bogged down explaining the liberal arts model to folks at research universities. By narrowing the pool of participants to junior faculty at peer institutions, we were able to pursue some familiar challenges in an especially direct and useful way.

The third feature was the presentation of brief pedagogy-focused talks. Often, carving out time or finding financial support to attend a conference is difficult in the absence of quantifiable outcomes. By structuring the conference around a presentation-driven format with ample discussion, early career faculty avoided a potential barrier to attending. Ultimately, the conference was a success and delivered the sorts of benefits one would hope from a teaching-focused meeting for early career faculty.

The case for early career conferences is compelling and, understandably enough, some national associations have picked up on the need for these sorts of conferences. (The Mathematical Association of America’s Project NExT is just one example.) What, then, should GLCA and its member institutions do to support them?

Here’s one idea. Colleges might allot a chunk of financial support specifically for one or two early career conferences per year. Junior faculty would then be encouraged to submit a proposal for this support and, if their proposal is selected, they would organize the event with whatever assistance they see fit to request. Whether teaching or research-based, the resulting conference would be an opportunity for precisely the peer mentoring and career development that small liberal arts colleges depend upon. Within the context of the GLCA, fostering these sorts of connections across our respective institutions—especially at early career stages—is clearly an aim worth pursuing.

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