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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

How to make a great conference

This past weekend in NYC, Columbia Law School hosted an absolutely first rate conference on Tort Law and the Modern State. Kudos to Prof. Cathy Sharkey of CLS and Thelma Twyman for flawless execution. I've only been in the teaching business a bit more than a year and have attended about a half-dozen conferences but this one stands out. Why?

For one thing, the conference was run as a colloquium, by which the papers were by and large circulated two weeks in advance of the conference and the speakers operated on the assumption that the papers were read. (The truth is that more than two weeks is needed but academics tend to drag their feet.) In addition to the discussants of the presented paper, there were invariably many participants who wanted to weigh in on the various papers. This raises a conundrum: should there be back and forth between the presenter and each question from the audience or should the presenter wait until all the questions are first articulated, and then respond to those points at the end in a more time-compressed period. At the Torts conference, the former strategy was initially chosen but then as time ran out, the second strategy was used. I'm convinced that were I the speaker whose paper was being workshopped, I would want to ensure all the questions were raised before I opened my mouth (and inserted my foot). Where time is limited, the conference discussion is usually better off by having more voices weigh in, especially when virtually all the attendees are a who's who of leading scholars in the area.

A few other points worth noting. Attendance at the conference was capped in advance in part to ensure that the resources available would not be "spread thin." Conferences that go over a certain size (say 75) are harder to manage and make the networking of ideas and persons (surprisingly?) more difficult. Finally, the conference was designed to kick off the launch of the new peer reviewed online-only Journal of Tort Law, which is being edited by Jules Coleman, Ronen Perry, Cathy Sharkey, Mark Geistfield, John Goldberg, and Ben Zipursky. This is a very good development, especially since peer reviewed journals in a particular field will help overcome any disadvantages faced by foreign scholars or scholars at schools that don't enjoy substantial letterhead prestige.

All this is to say that my earlier skepticism about the intellectual value of conferences needs qualification. Many academic conferences are worth going to for "truth-insensitive" reasons, but some conferences, especially those run like this torts conference, are worth going to for truth-chasing ones as well. PrawfsBlawg, I am happy to announce, will be hosting its own much smaller-scale version of a (truth-chasing or truth-insensitive?) public law workshop at the end of this semester in Miami. Details forthcoming.

Posted by Administrators on September 19, 2006 at 11:02 AM in Dan Markel, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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Matt, you're absolutely right. This particular CLS conference had fancy catering from Eli Zabar, and a four course dinner (with wine) with Judge Guido. Pretty hard to beat...the truth is, I didn't mention it initially because I figured if people knew how well-treated we were, there'd be a riot over any future tuition raises at Columbia.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Sep 19, 2006 2:31:59 PM

You forgot (or perhaps it's so obvious it doesn't need saying?) the most important part of a great confernece- free, good, and pleantiful food and drink.

Posted by: Matt | Sep 19, 2006 1:34:16 PM

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