by Amy Ferrer
This time of year, after the hubbub of the three divisional meetings has died down, I always take a bit of time to look back on how the meetings went—what was new, what lessons we learned, how we might do things differently next time around.
One of the most important factors in this process is the post-meeting evaluation surveys. The surveys are usually distributed the Monday after each meeting, and we find that about 15 percent of attendees respond. Though this is a small fraction of the total attendees, it’s enough to begin drawing out themes that we can take into account as we consider changes to our meetings going forward.
In this post, I’ll discuss a few of the themes we saw in the meeting evaluations this year and how they may influence future meetings.
Responses to the surveys indicate that the increased emphasis on engaging the public at this year’s meetings—including a plenary address at the Eastern Division meeting by the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, two public events at the Pacific Division meeting, and sessions across all three meetings organized by the Committee on Public Philosophy—were among the highlights of the meetings for many attendees. I was very pleased to see this, as supporting public engagement has been a priority for me and for the board. This tells us that it’s worth continuing to have these kinds of sessions at future meetings and experimenting with new ways to connect our meetings to the community and to issues of public concern.
Eastern Meeting Move to January
The survey responses affirm that the decision to move the Eastern Division meeting from late December to early January was a good one. In the surveys on the 2013 and 2014 Eastern Division meetings, the meeting dates were rated 2.66 and 2.91 on a five-point scale—the lowest rating of all the aspects of the meeting that we asked about. This year, with the move to January, that rating jumped to 4.00. The Eastern Division will continue to meet in early January through at least 2018.
Diversity of Attendees
Like the profession of philosophy, APA meetings are overwhelmingly white and male. However, we are seeing some slow progress toward diversity among our meeting attendees. To be clear, the following numbers are based on demographic information self-reported by the meeting attendees who chose to complete the evaluation survey, so they are not based on a representative sample. However, the change we’ve seen over the last few years is encouraging.
Across the three meetings, the percentage of respondents who identified as non-white rose this year to 16.6 percent; for last year’s meetings the average was just 10.7 percent, and the year before it was 12.1 percent.
The number of respondents identifying as non-male (female or another gender) has risen steadily over the last three years, from 35.7 percent for the 2013-2014 meetings to 40.7 percent for this year’s meetings.
These numbers are particularly encouraging because they indicate that at least our survey respondents, even if not necessarily reflective of all meeting attendees, are more diverse than is the profession at large. Most estimates indicate that women make up just 25 percent of professional philosophers, and according to the Humanities Indicators, just fewer than 12 percent of PhDs in philosophy are awarded to members of minority racial/ethnic groups. This may, of course, be selection bias—members of minority groups may be more likely to respond to our surveys—but even in that case that means we’re getting more feedback from members of underrepresented groups, which will help us make our meetings more welcoming to all.
Common Concerns and Complaints
Of course, the evaluation surveys aren’t all good news. They’re an important way we get feedback from meeting participants about their concerns and complaints.
Many common questions and concerns are addressed in our Meeting FAQ, and a future “Inside the APA” post will take on even more of them, but here I’ll address a few that jumped out in this year’s meeting evaluation surveys.
How come so many of the sessions I wanted to attend were scheduled at the same time?
The meeting organizers make every effort to schedule sessions on similar topics so that they don’t conflict. However, when scheduling sessions, we’re also looking at a variety of other factors, including scheduling requests from the participants in each session, the availability of appropriately sized meeting rooms, the availability of audiovisual equipment, and so on. We do our best to minimize conflicts, but some are unavoidable.
Why do sessions go so late into the evening? Why aren’t there longer breaks between sessions?
The main mission of an APA meeting is to give as many people as possible the opportunity to present their work, so in scheduling sessions, we aim to squeeze as many papers and presentations onto the program as we can. This means few breaks and sessions late into the evening. We could include more or longer breaks, and we could stop sessions earlier in the evening, but that would mean fewer people would be given the opportunity to present their work. We’d rather fit more people on the program and trust attendees to take the breaks they need.
Why isn’t there free coffee available throughout the meeting?
We know, we know—academics need caffeine! However, this boils down to money. We want to make the meetings as affordable as possible, keeping registration rates as low as we reasonably can. And coffee at meeting hotels is shockingly expensive. At a meeting hotel, a single gallon of coffee (or even hot water for tea) can cost in the range of $100—that’s $6.25 per 8-ounce cup. To have coffee available throughout the four days of an APA divisional meeting would cost thousands of dollars and require us to raise meeting registration fees to cover the difference. We figure you’d rather save money on the meeting registration fee and buy your own coffee at the hotel coffee bar (or the nice coffee shop around the corner).
I need more guidance on how to chair a session and how sessions should be structured.
We’ve received this feedback for the last few years, and we’ve taken it to heart. Our past practice has been to send information on how to chair a session, how sessions are normally structured, how to submit requests for audiovisual support, and other key information in a rather long email to each program participant. However, many people (unsurprisingly) skim these emails and miss key information, miss the email entirely, or are confused because the information is slightly different from division to division.
I’m happy to report that I’m currently working with the three divisions to put together a single, straightforward, (relatively) short document containing all the most important information that APA meeting attendees, presenters, and session chairs need. We anticipate this guide will be available by the fall, in time for participants in all three 2017 meetings to make use of it.
There’s plenty more to say about divisional meetings, so I anticipate this meeting-year-in-review post will become an annual tradition, and you should expect more “Inside the APA” posts about divisional meetings in the coming months. In the meantime, if you have more questions or feedback, meet me in the comments section—or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amy Ferrer has been Executive Director of the APA since 2012.