Why I Love Academic Conferences
As I write, I’ve just returned from the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, a vibrant interdisciplinary conference of 900. I’ve attended that meeting for nearly 25 years — from graduate school through the tenure track, and while pregnant, nursing, and corralling toddlers. In part, that’s because 20 years ago at this same conference, I met the man I married. It’s provided us with a terrific courtship story that many have tired of hearing.
To say that conferences have shaped every part of my life is no exaggeration. Of course, I’ve gone to meetings that have had less of an impact — you can’t fall in love every time. But conferences can be some of the most socially sustaining, intellectually stimulating, and career-enriching experiences in academe. So how do you make the most of them, beyond truisms like “Work hard and play hard”?
Many new scholars make the mistake of thinking that presenting their own work is the most important part of the experience. That’s important, but it’s only one part of what makes going to conferences valuable. You want to be known as someone who presents terrific work-in-progress — work that is original, clearly argued, and succinct. But if you swoop into a conference, present your work, and leave, you’re missing the whole point.
Conferences shouldn’t be a one-way street, in which you talk and others listen. At their best, they are about hearing great ideas, responding to them, meeting people whose work stimulates your own, and building a network of colleagues you’ll rely on in years to come.
Here’s my advice, as a seasoned conferencegoer, about how to have a successful experience at a scholarly meeting, particularly early on in your career.
Go to the plenary lecture. Maybe it’s not even on a topic you care about. Why should you go? It’s your chance to see the work of someone at the top of his or her game. The talk may be the most fascinating one at the conference or the most sleepy. Either way, it’s a moment you can learn from. Listen not only for what is said but how. What can you glean about crafting a talk, speaking to a large group, and asking or answering questions?
After the talk, look for an opportunity during the conference to introduce yourself to the speaker. Offer a brief thanks followed by specific praise or a friendly question. Voilà! You have made a connection. Beyond that networking moment, attending the plenary gives you something to discuss with everyone else who attended it. It’s fertile common conversational ground. If you don’t go, you can’t have those conversations. That’s your loss.
Go to coffee breaks, receptions, and group meals. Wear your name tag. Stick your hand out. Meet people in these informal “off” moments. If that is a challenge for you, set a goal to introduce yourself to a given number of people at all levels of the academic food chain.
The point is not just to meet the “stars.” Meet your peers. You will always find someone else who is alone, or friendly and approachable. A tried-and-true conversation starter is to ask a fellow attendee if he or she is presenting at the conference. That offers both of you an opportunity to talk about your work in progress.
We academics like to talk about ourselves, and we’re usually grateful to people willing to listen. Sometimes there is even an actual exchange of ideas. This is also a great opportunity to learn about other people’s jobs — what parts of the job they like best and how they got the position. Listen. And when it comes to sharing your own situation, if asked, keep it largely positive.
Have ready a brief, accessible self-description. Be prepared to share the professional stage that you’re at and what are you working on, doing so without hesitation, apologies, or self-deprecation. Your description needs to be declarative, enthusiastic, and to the point. “I’m (first and last name). I’m A.B.D. in (discipline) at (institution). I work on X area, specifically on Y, looking at Z, which matters because (argument).”
Then wait for a follow-up question or ask a question of your listener. If this is especially hard for you, then practice it in front of a mirror or with a friend, but please don’t deliver it like a robot.
Do not write or revise your paper or poster at the conference. I’ve seen junior and senior colleagues make this tactical error all the time. You must have your paper finished before you come to the conference, so that you have time to do all of the above things. You do not earn any points with anyone by saying, “I can’t go because I have to go to my room and finish my paper.” It communicates that you are busy and serious, sure, but it also says you can’t manage your time and don’t have the right priorities.
It may be controversial to put it this way, but it’s better for you to present a less-than-perfect paper, if that means giving yourself time to listen to the ideas of others and to network at the meeting. The listening and networking are more important than any last-minute paper polishing.
I would go so far as to venture that no one in the history of academe has ever transformed a mediocre paper into a great one by spending a few hours holed up in a far-flung hotel room. Save yourself the trouble of trying, and come to the conference with a great presentation in hand.
Be professional as a presenter. Show up early to your own session, don’t take more time than you’ve been given, listen carefully to other presenters, and stay to say thank you. Deliver your paper or poster in an engaging manner. Look people in the eye. Be an active listener during others’ presentations, even if you have to fake being interested.
In answering questions, be direct and positive. Don’t be defensive. If someone goes on the offensive with you, it’s usually best to take the high road (“That’s interesting. You’ve given me something to think about. Thank you,” and then any specific reply). Always take time to thank the panel chair, organizers, and fellow presenters.
New to the organization? Negativity is risky. This is not the time to rant about your unpleasant department, about inequities in the profession, or about someone else’s crappy paper — even if the person you’re talking to has invited you to say such things or treated you to an account of his or her own academic woes.
Save that kind of sharing for the people you know very well, not for people you’re just meeting, even if they are your peers. You are making a first impression. Don’t let it be as a sob story, as a whiner, or as the person who goes to every session in order to ask a devastating question.
Dress aspirationally. There will be a range of attire at any academic conference, although there will also probably be a de facto uniform. Want to know how to dress? Look at photos from past conferences, or ask a trusted mentor for advice. Some people make a name for themselves by dressing ultra smartly or ultra casually. Maybe that’s you, and you’re most comfortable that way. Fine.
But if it’s not, and you are struggling with how to present yourself, then dress aspirationally. Are you a graduate student? Dress like a new assistant professor. Are you a new assistant professor? Dress like the person going up for tenure. It can’t hurt to have others envision you as already in the next professional stage or rank that you’d like to achieve.
Don’t know what those unspoken sartorial rules are in your discipline? Ask someone who does.
Thank the organizers. Organizing a conference is a tremendous amount of work, most of it invisible and thankless. To add insult to injury, there are always direct complaints from conferencegoers, even about things over which organizers have no control, such as the weather or the speed of the elevators.
Don’t go there. Be the rare attendee who thanks the people working the registration table. Find them at a down moment (not a busy time), introduce yourself, and share something you see going well at the meeting. Tweet a compliment about the organization or the organizers, using the conference hashtag. Email the organizers afterward and tell them how much you enjoyed the meeting and what you found most valuable. This is just basic politeness, but it’s also making connections and building professional good will. Nothing wrong with that.
Do as I say. … I’ll admit I’ve done things at conferences that don’t follow the above rules. I haven’t always been on my best behavior or been my best self. I’ve noticeably rolled my eyes at someone’s lousy paper. I’ve skipped official events and been caught out doing so in embarrassing ways. That night I met my husband, I’m afraid we were a bit of a public spectacle.
Still, I’ve never fallen so far as to register a formal complaint about the free hors d’oeuvres or the durability of the name-tag holder. (Yes, I’ve seen both happen.)
Academic conferences should be about having fun with old and new friends, letting loose outside of your normal routine, and seeing sights in out-of-the-way places. But if conferences aren’t also about some of the above kinds of professional interactions — especially early on in your career — you’re not approaching them in the most rewarding and opportune way. If you continue to come back to an annual meeting for 25 years running, it will be because you’ve successfully combined the professional fun with the frolic.
Devoney Looser is a professor of English at Arizona State University.