Saturday, October 25, 2008

What I am about to write is based purely on my own opinion. Take it as such as it may or may not be based on actual reality. If you do not agree with me, good for you.

I have had a long running argument concerning the effectiveness of academic conferences with two friends of mine. Since my master's degree year, avoided academic conferences and I have, in the end, eschewed almost all academic gatherings of any sort. I have a variety of motives for this (I cannot call them reasons because there is no rationality behind them). In my discussions with my friends, I have almost always stuck to the line that because you cannot cite a conversation at a conference in a printed paper (strictly, you can but you should not be allowed to do so as there is now way to validate the statement) and as printed papers are the gold standard of academic employment, conferences do nothing for you in any sense. Another motive is the fact that they are "networking events" where you attempt to interact with potential employers so you can tilt any potential interview with them in your favor. Well, I have a very bad habit of saying the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time. Thus, it would not be in my best interest to destroy my chances at employment by opening my mouth before I have had a long time to think about how I will approach the person. Last, but not least, is the fact that they are often used as excuses to run up expense accounts at universities and get a free vacation in some exotic location where you never actually attend the conference anyway because you are on the beach or doing tourist stuff.

While those three explanations have served me fairly well in the past. I have deeply thought about why it is that I avoid academic conferences and why I have dedicated such effort to avoiding them. I think I have finally understood it. To wit, I have absolutely no confidence in any thing that I might have to say in regards to my field of study. You would think that after finishing or even starting an advanced degree that I would feel that I have something to contribute to my chosen field. However, in my case, the exact opposite is true. For every year that I have spent in my field, I feel decreasing confidence in my abilities in it. In addition, I have the distinct sense that this decreasing confidence is what impaired my PhD in its written form (a topic to which I will return in a later post).

The next logical question ask is why have I lost confidence in my field of study? The answer to this lies in my confidence in my profession, computer programming. The fundamental difference is the absolute fact that if you do something in computer programming, you can prove the fact by showing the code. If I say: "I wrote a program that does something", I can prove the fact by running the program and showing the code. The exact opposite is true in my field. In my field, if I say: "I have proved something", someone will read my paper and then argue with me over it. There is no standard of proof. In the end, you cannot prove anything at all because someone will always have a different opinion.

There are a few subsidiary points that reinforce my view. First, I have had a number of poor experiences at academic conferences. This tilts my view. I do not want to go where I am unwelcome and unwanted. On the other hand, my points of contact with the academic side of computer programming at my university have been universally positive and instructive. Second, the first time I attempted to present something about my field at my university, I was attacked straight away. Talking to the person after the fact, they said that it was "what will happen at conferences" and, in fact, a short time later, I saw that in person. You cannot force yourself to do something in which you have had multiple poor experiences. Also, I cannot tolerate some of the thuggish behavior that I have witnessed at academic conferences.

To conclude, I have no confidence in my knowledge of my subject which leads me to feel that I have nothing of value to contribute to it. This lack of confidence causes me to avoid interaction with others in my field and thus I do not go to academic conferences and gatherings. Thuggish behavior, unwelcoming people, and my more positive interactions in other fields of endeavor cause me to wonder if I went into the wrong discipline and also avoid interaction with others in my own field.

posted by Chris  #11:42 AM | 3 comments |