What’s your ideal AJS conference?

Rona Sheramy


My ideal conference is one in which people leave with connections, insights, information, and possibilities that they didn’t have when they arrived. I am acutely aware of the cost—in time, family arrangements, and money—that members pay in order to come to the conference. AJS has to earn people’s participation each year, and make it worth their while. The availability of video conferencing and online forums for sharing research means making the case for in-person conferences is even more urgent. So the question is, why not just move the AJS conference online? Why not arrange for a massive exchange of papers over the internet? It would certainly save everyone (including AJS) a lot of money and travel time. But scholarly communication happens differently in person than online or over the phone or by reading a journal article. The conference is a unique form of scholarly communication because of its very social and spontaneous nature. You can’t replace the opportunity presented by putting five scholars on a podium for an unscripted roundtable discussion, or of presenting a new theory to an audience of experts, and having them bounce ideas and responses off each other. Nor can you replace the opportunity created by bumping into someone in line for coffee. Corporate leaders like Google are structuring their cafeterias to create the same chances for informal interactions (a lunch line that lingers a bit) that happen naturally at the AJS conference, whether in the lobby or book exhibit or hotel cafe. Yahoo’s recent decision to bring telecommuters back to the office highlighted a slew of research about how innovation happens when people interact face to face. Scholarship is often, by necessity, a solitary endeavor, but the conference offers a respite from that, and an opportunity to put ideas to the test, get feedback, speak informally, and connect with someone who you have been meaning to connect with, but couldn’t find the time or right approach. So, an ideal conference to me is one in which people leave thinking “I could never have done that by email.”