Building Professional Bridges: ASEEES Regional Conferences and International Cooperation
By David Borgmeyer, Assistant Professor and Director, Center for International Studies, Saint Louis University
In decades of wavering or declining enrollments and program and funding cuts, the regional Slavic conferences affiliated with ASEEES are not nearly as stable as they might once have been. At the same time, regional conferences play an important role in the “pipeline” of students and younger scholars into the profession. The availability of student paper prizes and travel funding, closer geographical proximity, and often the friendlier – or at least less intimidating – atmosphere of a smaller conference makes them good professional venues for these and other reasons. This article offers a strategy for developing a new dimension to regional conferences.
The Central Slavic Conference was founded in 1962 and is the oldest of the ASEEES regional affiliates. It originally included the states of Missouri and Kansas, but has grown to also encompass Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Arkansas and has long attracted regional scholars from other nearby states as well.
Following the establishment of the CSC, several other regional conferences were also established, following the general pattern of meeting at rotating locations within their regions, and periodically hosting the ASEEES (then AAASS) national meeting. This model has become increasingly difficult to sustain, and with the exception of the Southern Conference on Slavic Studies, has fallen out of use among the ASEEES regional affiliates that remain active. There are two other models for the ASEEES regional groups that have proven viable: the first is a stable location through being attached and supported by a larger research university with a large Slavic department and other resources, such as the Midwest Slavic Conference at the Ohio State University. The second is linking the conference with a regional, multidisciplinary conference that is not specific to scholarship on the ASEEES area. This has been the path pursued by the Western Slavic Conference and the Central Slavic Conference. None of these models are perfect: while being attached to a research university may bring the support of a local population of scholars and students to a stable location, there is the risk of declining institutional diversity. Regionals that rely on sharing with larger conferences may achieve some cross-disciplinary interaction and stability, but also risk degradation of identity and loss of independence. Annually rotating the location and sponsoring university may attract more scholars through diversity and variety, but it also is contingent on finding willing hosts.
Nonetheless, the regional conferences offer a number of advantages for participants, and play a vital role in the life of the Slavic, East European, and Eurasian academic professions in the U.S.
The regional conferences offer possibilities for professional development and interaction outside the typical locations of large research universities and national conferences. While it is quite impossible to offer the breadth and depth of these larger fora, for the generalist, the scholar without the travel budget to attend national conferences regularly, for the graduate student who isn’t yet ready to present at the national level, for established programs seeking graduate students to recruit to their doctoral programs, and for scholars who may be one of a scant handful of slavists - or even the only slavist - on their home campuses, regional conferences can be exceptionally useful and productive places. ASEEES has recognized the importance of regional conferences and has begun offering additional support in the form of subsidized memberships as prizes for graduate students, additional assistance in finding ASEEES members within each regional affiliate’s geographic area, and better support for regional meetings, as well as other support.
Still, the health and strength of the regional conferences is a matter that should be of concern to slavists across the profession. In this context, there is a new strategy that can increase the value and appeal of regional conferences: the international regional or “interregional” conference.
The “Interregional” Conference
The Central Slavic Conference began pursuing this idea several years ago. In November of 2011, a delegation of Polish scholars was invited to the joint meeting of the International Studies Association, Midwest and the Central Slavic Conference. The Polish visitors were impressed with the organization, atmosphere, and scholarly collaboration of the regional conference, and before they left St. Louis, where the CSC was meeting, discussions began about forming an organization in Poland modeled on the group and establishing scholarly collaboration between them. The regions in this “interregional” conference model are not two US regions, but rather a U.S. region and a region in Eastern Europe, Russia, or Eurasia.
The following summer, a group of officers from the CSC and other interested scholars were invited to travel to Przemysl, Poland to participate in the first meeting of a new group, called the European Central Slavic Conference, or ECSC. Over 100 scholars from Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Czech Republic were there, in addition to the US representatives. The broad themes of the conference and the efforts of the Polish organizers made the meeting a success, and another conference is planned for the summer of 2014, with limited funding available for U.S. participants. The call for papers is available on the CSC website (http://www.slu.edu/x18828.xml) and is also in this edition of NewsNet.
The following year, building on the connections created the previous year in St. Louis and Przemysl, a number of regional scholars from Ukraine and Poland came to St. Louis for the next annual meeting of the Central Slavic Conference. The relationship between these two conferences has continued to grow. Not every scholar in either region is able to travel to the other for the reciprocal conferences, of course, but even relatively small numbers can have a multiplying effect.
The result is an “interregional” regional conference that has not been completely transformed, but it has made CSC annual meetings feel more like a small international conference. The scholarly and personal connections that enhance scholarship and teaching and make for productive experiences for graduate students and increased professional development are all better because of the partnership. There is no legal, financial, or other formal agreement between the two regional groups. One of the officers of each group has been independently elected to be an officer of the other, and this facilitates communication and coordination between the two groups. Each offers support as best it can to international visitors from the other conference who attend.
The connections created at the conferences has also produced several inter-institutional agreements between Polish institutions and U.S. institutions of CSC members, and new research collaborations, improved grantsmanship and development opportunities, curriculum improvements, and faculty and student mobility have all been positively affected. These measurable and quantifiable outcomes are also potentially useful as well when U.S. institutions conduct reviews of programs. This model provides a means for outreach to international partner regions to build communities of scholarship and collaboration that were unimaginable a generation ago. They reflect, in important ways, the shifts in the globalizing world, as well as our profession’s and higher education’s role more generally within it. It is clear that the interregional connection is no panacea for the many and varied pressures on regional conferences and Slavic and related area studies in general. However, it may provide one additional element, among others, that can strengthen the viability of regional ASEEES affiliate conferences, and be beneficial to the fields we study, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Photo caption: Dr. Jan Draus, Rector of Państwowa Wyższa Szkola Wschodnioeuropejska (Eastern European State College), addresses scholars at the opening and keynote address of the first European Central Slavic Conference at PWSW in Przemysl, Poland on July 9, 2012. credit: PWSW/Tomasz Bielański For more photos from the conference see HERE.