The Proliferation of Graduate Conferences and Journals: A Mix of Good and Less Good

During my stay in the history PhD program at the University of Alabama, I was able to serve on our department’s graduate conference committee and to work as editor of its graduate journal, the Southern Historian. While I won’t claim to have a career in event planning ahead of me, I have continued to do a bit of editing on the side since then, and both roles benefited me by giving me opportunities to train for two kinds of academic work–conference planning and journal editing–that traditional grad student activities like coursework, teaching, and research simply don’t include.

In general, I think the increasing number of grad-focused conferences and journals is a net positive for students, even though those venues are not necessarily full substitutes for the “real” things. For those who present at the conferences or publish in the journals, the opportunities can help them fill out early-career CVs and allow them to present their ideas in comparatively friendly environs. For those who work with the conferences and journals, as I mentioned above, they provide chances to peer behind the curtain and learn more about the various academic apparatuses which keep the whole scholarly enterprise going. (1)

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At the same time, the generally positive reality that grad-focused conferences and journals have become more abundant may also mean that organizers and editors will have a more difficult time filling out programs and issues with the high-quality content that they would want to feature. Let’s take conferences first. Paul Braff, writing for Perspectives magazine in 2019, noted that

There are many such conferences throughout the academic year. I count 33 that I know of, and most of these are in the area where I live; there are many more scattered across the country. But not all are equally helpful, at least not in the same way. Just because a school is “elite” does not mean its conference will be more useful to the beginning graduate student than that of a smaller program. The truth is, some graduate student conferences are more worthwhile to participants than others. And that might not be evident to ambitious students early in their studies. (2)

Braff’s point that the perceived “eliteness” of a host university should not be taken as a guarantee of quality is well-taken (a similar point could be made in hiring), but one factor not considered at length in his article is that graduate history conferences have simply become more common in the last decade or so. Grad students do not have unlimited time or travel funding to attend conferences of any sort, whatever may happen in the coming months because of COVID-19, and assuming that the number of PhDs awarded in history continues to decline (a measure which should roughly correlate to a decline in the number of active grad students), those conferences will be competing for a shrinking pool of quality presentations to fill out their programs in years to come. Undoubtedly, some conferences will survive and even thrive, but it seems reasonably likely that others will either limp along or stop convening altogether. (3)

Or consider the situation of graduate journal editors. Any given issue of a history journal, for instance, will have fewer articles than a corresponding conference would have presentations. (We’re not including book reviews in the mix for the moment.) And journal production, particularly for open-access, online journals, can continue more easily in the era of COVID-19 than in-person conference organizing. But guiding even the most polished of articles through the peer review process takes time, and any decline in the number of PhD students and candidates will reduce editors’ supplies of potentially publishable articles.

The phrase “potentially publishable” is also key. While I was serving as assistant editor/editor of the Southern Historian, we always received enough high-quality article submissions to fill out our journal–I’m very proud of the issues I helped put together–but a substantial portion of works submitted to us were simply not up to minimum disciplinary standards. Our experience was not unique and could be even more drastic at newer journals lacking the SH‘s 40-year history. The following analysis of the Meeting of the Minds graduate journal is illustrative.

In early 2016 concurrent calls were issued for submissions to the journal and volunteers to staff the journal’s editorial board. Perhaps surprisingly, while the Call for Papers attracted only one submission, the call for editorial assistance resulted in a strong response, as sixteen graduate students stepped forward from departments across the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, and professional faculties. The disparity in the volume of responses received from potential authors and editors seemed to indicate a need for additional consideration of the scope and purpose of the journal. A decision was made to suspend publication until the following academic year and use the intervening period to explore what had gone wrong. (4)

To be clear, I am about as big of a booster of grad-run conferences and journals as there is, but I do worry that larger ongoing trends in higher ed enrollment–to say nothing of the impact of COVID-19 and the general disruption of the economy–may lead to a boom and then bust in the number of grad-focused scholarly venues going forward. Whatever the short-term ramifications will be for those wanting to present or publish early in their careers, an equally serious long-term effect will be felt by future major conference organizers and journal editors who will have had less on-the-job training prior to taking over the reins. Though these are hardly the most serious concerns facing us in our new reality, they are concerns that editors and organizers will have to deal with in some form or fashion.

REFERENCES

(1) For more on the benefits of graduate journals specifically, see Julie Hagan, “Graduate journals are more than just a first shot at publishing,” University Affairs, March 19, 2014, https://www.universityaffairs.ca/career-advice/career-advice-article/graduate-journals-are-more-than-just-a-first-shot-at-publishing/. And for conferences, see Andrew L. Johns and Kenneth A. Osgood, “Planning a Graduate Student Conference,” Perspectives, March 1, 1999, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-1999/planning-a-graduate-student-conference.

(2) Paul Braff, “Are All Graduate Student Conferences Created Equal?” Perspectives, May 6, 2019, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2019/are-all-graduate-student-conferences-created-equal-for-attendees-from-other-campuses-not-always.

(3) Dylan Ruediger, “The 2019 AHA Jobs Report: A Closer Look at Faculty Hiring,” Perspectives, January 28, 2019, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/february-2019/the-2019-aha-jobs-report-a-closer-look-at-faculty-hiring.

(4) Paul Esau et al, “‘Let’s start a journal!’: The Multidisciplinary Graduate Student Journal as Educational Opportunity,” Journal of Electronic Publishing 21:1 (2018), http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/3336451.0021.109.

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