Working at a small liberal arts college, AJS keeps me connected to the broader field of Jewish Studies—its people, its trends, and its politics. The conference comes once a year as that rare opportunity to network, compare notes, and get my scholarly wheels turning. I learn what my colleagues are doing and how they are doing it; and if I’m presenting my own work, I get valuable feedback from knowledgeable peers. And yet, as much as I look forward to the AJS conference, I have noticed that lately, I tend to spend less time in formal conference sessions and more time in the lobby and the hallways. And considering the spotty attendance in the sessions I do attend, it seems I’m not alone.
My ideal AJS conference is a meeting where we eliminate our guilt over the inclination to skip out on formal sessions by making informal, spontaneous conversation a legitimate and driving force of the conference program itself. This vision of the AJS conference conceptually flips the hotel lobby and the meeting room, thus shifting the “buzz” of the hallway—the informal networking that is so important to our professional development—from the margins to the center of the AJS conference experience.
Imagine a block of time in our conference program that is driven by ideas and questions generated spontaneously, without any formal presentation to shape the discussion. A scholar working on a particular project might “host” a session in which she raises some questions she’s thinking about in her work. Those who share her questions might join in and stay for a while before moving over to a nearby discussion about pedagogy, or another about gender. Meeting facilitation styles like Open Source Technology or World Café, popular in the business and nonprofit sector, are useful tools that foster “structured spontaneity”—sessions where the issues that matter to the scholars in the room drive the conversation.
Now, there are lots of reasons to maintain the traditional presentation model. Let’s face it, many of our institutions fund our travel only when we present our research publicly, and many of us need that momentary spotlight. But, if new technologies are forcing higher education to rethink the nature of the academic classroom, maybe it’s time for us to rethink the way we share our work at the AJS conference?