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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Academic Conferences: Who Can Afford to Attend

For the next week I am on an austerity budget and many pasta meals are will be on the menu. I am good at budgeting my expenses. I rarely splurge on material things and in the estimation of my son am among the cheapest humans on the planet. My budget is stretched to the limit however in large part because I have been to two conferences in little over a month. At the time it did not seem like I was going to spend a lot and in truth I have not spent that much. But the price of gas and food alone put a small dent in my budget. The money I have spent is on my mind since I heard one scholar at the last conference I attended implore people with a disability to attend conferences. Great advice I thought which was quickly followed by a second thought: who can afford to attend these conferences without institutional backing? When I attend a conference all expenses come out of my pocket including registration. All academic conference are expensive and I draw the line at $200. This line eliminates many conferences I would like to attend and I will admit I make exceptions and spend more once in a while. Am I being cheap as my son would suggest? I think not when one adds in the cost to register, hotel or motel accommodations, food and transportation. For instance the conference I attended last weekend at Union College cost me almost $500. To me, that is an expensive weekend--a work weekend no less.

Another conference is coming up--the Society for Disability Studies in Philadelphia. After listening to the speaker last weekend, a scholar I respect, I thought, don't be so cheap, go ahead and splurge. Go to the SDS conference. I have not been in many years and Philadelphia is not too far from New York. So on-line I went and was astonished by the pricing. Yes, the SDS meeting is a yearly event, and yes I knew it would be expensive, and yes, I knew staying in a major city would cost a lot. But nothing prepared me for the below pricing for the SDS conference found on the SDS website:

Registration Category earlybird Cost regular rates
member - full conference registration (income above $45000) $315.00 $350.00
member - full conference registration (income between $20000 & $44999) $290.00 $325.00
member - full conference registration (income below $20000) $135.00 $150.00
member - single-day $180.00 $200.00
nonmember - full conference registration (income above $45000) $450.00 $450.00
nonmember - full conference registration (income between $20000 & $44999) $425.00 $425.00
nonmember - full conference registration (income below $20000) $200.00 $200.00
nonmember - single-day registration $250.00 $250.00
film pass only $20.00 $20.00
adjunct pass $50.00 $50.00

The above cost effectively eliminates any person without an institutional affiliation. The costs also eliminate virtually every person I know with a disability myself included. A quick bit of math reveals it will cost me $350 to get in the door and at least $100 to stay over night, With gas and tolls that is about a $500 day. The conference is four days long. So much for inclusion. Surely the people that run the SDS know that 66% of people with a disability are unemployed and that most live at or below the poverty line. I find this ironic in that the very people the SDS study could not possibly afford to attend their annual conference. No wonder I feel estranged from the SDS. Why for years I could not even afford to read the so called flagship journal of the organization--or have access to an article I wrote! Thankfully this has changed and I hope some semblance of sanity will prevail when it comes to registration costs for the SDS annual meetings. To me, the cost of conferences is a form of exclusion. Ivory Towers do exist and conferences are for those with an institutional backing or significant economic resources. I realize hosting conference is expensive but surely there must be a way of being inclusive. In fact I would speculate conferences would be far more lively and innovative is they were more inclusive.


FridaWrites said...

I was talking about this with another blogger recently. People are often excluded from continuing in academe whatever their academic merits by their inability to get conferences on their CVs. Attending in one's own city doesn't have the cache of traveling far and away. In an era of budget cuts, especially in humanities, elitism prevails and often money is a harsh gatekeeper.

Becs said...

Travel is expensive, period. I haven't been in a hotel since 2005. Even when I look at hotels at not-so-popular destinations, I'm floored that a room can go for $150 - $200. And there's no way I can stand low-rent Super 8s or Motel 6es. (A friend stayed in one once and got bedbugs. Gah.)

Conferences are always expensive. There are some technical conference and industry conferences I would love to go to, but I'm a consultant right now and everything would have to be out of pocket.

In short - I sympathize!

Wheelchair Dancer said...

Yeah. It's expensive. Frightfully so.

SDS *does* have scholarship money available, but it is very very limited.
Sorry. I'm useless at maths. How do you get 500 per day? The registration cost is for the full 4 day conference. Plus gas, tolls, parking. Plus housing.

The Board and membership in general are aware of this, and there is discussion every year at every meeting about who is absent from the discussion. And why. And how to possibly reach them.

But the Board has a commitment to access. CART, ASL interpretation, the odd caregiver, .... and many things I don't know about. Access on so many levels costs a significant amount. And so the conference costs.

I've seen people triple up in rooms, stay on floors, stay further away, pack their own food, ..... There's almost no way around it. It hits grad students, activists, and regular disabled folk hard.

BUT it is the only conference I know where you can go and be around 300 people, almost all of whom are disabled.

I am able to go this year; I hope some other version of the maths means you will be able to as well.



william Peace said...

Frida, Academic love to talk about inclusion of others but rarely follow through or consider the obstacles involved for outsiders. Budget cuts, often severe, surely do not help matters.
Becs, Yes, travel is shockingly expensive. I also agree hosting a conference is not only costly and complex logistically but difficult to organize as well. I understand why they cost a lot to attend but I hold the SDS to a different standard. People with a disability are routinely excluded and disenfranchised hence a greater effort must me made to be inclusive.
WD, My mistake r.e. finances of $500 a day. Registration is for all four days. Still if I stayed four days the cost is close to $1,000.
Yes, the SDS talks about the financial exclusion that takes place. Yes, they have scholarships. Yet in my estimation talk is cheap and dramatic change is needed. The SDS could be a dynamic force academically and politically and to date it is neither of these things. I hold the leadership of the SDS responsible for this as many poor choices have been made in the past--making DSQ impossible to read without an expensive subscription was one such error.
Even as critical as I am the scholarship and fellowship at the meetings is truly special. I am sad that so few get to see this and experience it. Enjoy yourself.
One last point, the Canadian SDS is meeting at the exact same time in Montreal. The cost to attend is half the price.

Unknown said...

I have attended 4 academic conferences this spring in preparation for the academic job market. 2 were within driving distance, 2 required air travel (which was thankfully reimbursed by my department.) By my estimation, I've spent about $1000 altogether on these, which is a lot for a graduate student instructor making less than $20k per year.

The audience at these panel discussions was, on average, about 3 people. At a conference in Dallas, myself and the other panelist read for each other. Even the moderator didn't show up. That's discouraging and makes me question the value of engaging in this particular type of academic activity. The point is to get your work out there and get feedback on it, but right now, it essentially feels like I'm paying for c.v. lines and nothing more.

Penny L. Richards said...

Not only is it expensive, it's wasteful of resources many of us would rather conserve. In an age of social media, why do we have to fly hundreds of people to the same location just to share ideas and news? Most conference presentations aren't anything you couldn't put online--they're reading text aloud, or they're showing slides. Yes, the SDS dance is fun, it's nice to see each other in person, but at what cost to ourselves and the environment? Conferences are hardly ever $1000+ worth of nice for me, especially to pay out of pocket.

william Peace said...

Ashley, Given you the fact you are going to enter the academic job market you have no choice to attend conferences. I did this as do many others finishing graduate school. The vast majority don't get jobs but this is the only avenue you have. And you are correct you are paying for lines in your c.v. A more generous interpretation is that you are also learning how to interact with other scholars and become an academic. This is a costly endeavor. I wish you well on the job hunt. In my field, anthropology, there are no jobs.

william Peace said...

Penny, Wow, what a great point about a waste of resources. And I agree presentations are largely read and could easily be made available on line. If we have classes on line now why not conferences?
The SDS makes me crazy. How is it the Canadian SDS is holding their meetings at half the cost?

codeman38 said...

It's only worse if you're living in a town without a major airport, the conference is in another town without a major airport, and you're unable to drive and can't find a carpool, so you have to depend on private shuttles to get to and from the airports (because of course, nobody will ever have a public transit line running between the airport and the small college town). At that point, the cost of travel actually starts to get more expensive than the cost of attendance!

Penny L. Richards said...

There are some online conferences and symposia --more and more every year, thank goodness-- but it's still hard to get buy-in from folks who are used to doing it the old way. I guess even the most interesting work doesn't belong on your CV unless you've paid a fortune, burned a lot of petroleum, and worn your best shoes to present it to an empty room. ;)

An intermediate step that might be easier to persuade more folks into is regional conferences. Fewer plane tickets, more carpools, would help a lot, and still provide the old-style conference experience (and might even be more useful, if you're meeting closer colleagues that know the local resources, are near enough to collaborate, etc.).

FridaWrites said...

Definitely, Penny. The conferences I have been too have been very worthwhile for the networking and ideas exchanged--I miss going to one in particular very much. Tripling up on rooms helps but the airfare can be so costly. Like you, I also worry about the environmental cost.

Maybe we need regional offshoots of SDS as some of the women's studies groups and MLA have done?

Wheelchair Dancer said...

Agreed on almost all of it. Particularly since organizations like GIMPgirl meet regularly and effectively online.

Two things, though. (It's weird to be writing this: I hate to be an SDS defender, since I have ranted so much and so often about the organization and its poor politics. And in fact left the Board on a point of principle).

Attendance costs for conferences can be lowered by subsidy and co-sponsorship, but SDS hasn't been able to get much external funding or do much fundraising. It relies on membership and registration fees and whatever subsidies it can get from host institutions. Universities just don't have the money.

Your point about CDSA is interesting. It looks like they (CDSA) offer an interesting model -- it is *sharing* space and time with another conference and presumably sharing costs. (A much better use of resources).

I believe SDS is trying to change. The journal is now free, for example -- no password -- going back to 2000. And accessibility is greatly facilitated by the folk at OSU.

They try to move the conference around the country, switching from dorm based university locations to resort locations. The debate around last year's conference site was justly, justly furious and has shaped the way this year's conference looks -- hotel room costs are down, but not down enough.

I don't know what can be done, but I for one welcome change. And hope the leadership will continue to pay attention as people speak up and out.

Sorry that we won't be having that beer.


william Peace said...

Codeman38, Your points are well taken on the expense of travel especially accessing mass transit. Outside major cities wheelchair access in the transit system is iffy at best.
Penny, I did not know online conferences were held. I am sure it is hard to get "old fashioned" scholars to buy into this--much the same way some opposed online classes. To me, this sounds like the future. I also love your idea of regional conferences. Anything to get the cost down and ease participation sounds good to me.
Frida, Conferences are as much about networking and job hunts than anything else.
WD, I do not consider you a defender of the SDS. Rather you are explaining a thought process. I have no doubt getting support for the SDS is a losing proposition. Sharing space and time with other organizations is effective in lowering costs.
Sorry but I see no change in the SDS. Yes the journal is now "free" but carries the stain of exclusivity. At a fundamental level the SDS is an exclusive intellectual organization divorced from the disability rights movement from which it emerged. The SDS needs radical change, embrace disability rights organizations and welcome ADAPT and Not Dead Yet with open arms. Any member of wither group should be admitted for free. The SDS needs a vibrant online presence, advocate, welcome the disenfranchised etc.
I too wish we could share a beer. Who knows maybe I will try and crash the meetings! Better yet organize a protest outside!

Unknown said...

@william peace

You are absolutely right. I recognize that this is an essential part of preparing for the job market, though it gives me pause to consider that I am actually a relatively economically advantaged graduate student (I have partner support and no debt), and conference travel feels prohibitive for me. I can only imagine what it's like for people in less privileged circumstances.

And FWIW, the conference I am currently attending has been fabulous.

william Peace said...

Ashley, Young scholars have no choice but to attend if they want to have any chance of academic employment.
I just read the executive offices of the SDS will be transferred to AHEAD--Association of Higher Education and Disability in North Carolina. I have no idea what this means in terms of the future. However, I did take a look at the AHEAD website and took a look at the cost of their annual conference. It was far more expensive than what the SDS is charging!