Sunday, December 04, 2005

First Step Toward a Solution

Playing some small role in reforming academe (or failing miserably) is now my pet crusade. I passed the thoughts in yesterday's post along to the AAA program chair, and he had many insightful things to say. Foremost he pointed out that I criticized the situation without offering a solution. True enough! You see, the dilemma is that no one can solve the entire thing at once, and it is difficult to suggest pieces. So at Dr. Richard's suggestion, I plan to propose a special session on this topic for AAA 2007. If you have thoughts, e-mail me or comment here.

In the meantime, I will outline ideas for partial solutions here. Many of these ideas are amalgamations of others' ideas, and in almost no case will the ideas be solely my own. I will give credit generously, and any oversight is due only to my faulty memory.

The first thing we must do is to increase flexibility for conference programmers. Every conference is unique, and the programmer should not be tied to tradition. Size matters, people. My last AAA conference was in 2002 in Jacksonville, Florida. It was a great conference, but turnout was down due to the terrorist attacks in September 2001. So perhaps my paper sucked, but it might have been accepted only because there were slots to fill. This year -- for Reno -- there were a record number of submissions. So there were a record number of rejections.

Referring back to my previous ramblings, these scarce and plentiful rejections have nothing to do with the quality of the paper (and the ideas therein). Instead they are formula driven. The first thing we must do to change this is to remove formulas and give freedom to the program chairs. If too few quality manuscripts are available, then chairs need to be able to schedule sessions with one paper fewer than normal.

A related idea should be imported from the Information Systems division of the International Communication Association. Often championed by my Ph.D. adviser, Annie Lang, program chairs need the flexibility to schedule high-density sessions. As Annie often says, if a paper is worth presenting, it should be presented. High-density sessions would allow the program chair to break up two 5-paper sessions (10 total) into two high-density sessions with 8 or 9 papers each. This allows an additional 6-8 papers to be presented if their quality merits presentation.

Every time I leave a conference, I come away inspired with some new idea. I would hate to think that I would miss out on this key aspect of science due to some arbitrary cut-off. A high-density session allows each author to present the key tenets of their paper in 5 to 6 minutes, followed up by a small version of a poster session where audience members can learn more about relevant papers.

Not only does this allow more papers to be presented, but it also limits the amount of time that an audience member is held hostage during an irrelevant paper waiting for their particular paper of interest.

This falls far short of reforming the entire process. But it would mark a key step in the right direction.


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