Survive & Thrive at an Academic Conference #4: Why Go At All?


First, consider the excellent reasons not to go to a conference. As the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, Let me count the ways. 1. It’s too expensive. 2. It takes a sizeable chunk of your time and energy. 3. Most of the papers are not exciting, and some are downright terrible. 4. The buildings are usually ugly. 5. Wandering around for days among a mass of strangers is alienating and lonely. 6. You can have toxic experiences: harassment, bullying, or other aggression.
So why go at all? Let’s come right out and say it: conferences are labour markets. At the first one I visited in the USA, in 1970, I discovered a back room known as the Meat Market. Here, young folk desperate for jobs left their resumés in plastic folders for all to see; and older men (it was almost all men) with safe jobs at the less prestigious colleges read the resumés and held job interviews.
Years later I discovered the market behind the market, the invisible college where the more prestigious universities recruited new academic staff from each others’ graduands. Selectivity and patronage were the essence.
The party frock, and go networking...
What can a conference do for a career? You can give a paper, a small but definite step. A conference is a useful deadline on the way towards journal publication, which is a bigger step. You can join a committee and begin a life of inch-by-inch Service To The Profession. You can meet important people (important in your discipline’s little world, that is). At a big conference you can visit the book and journal display and you might meet a commissioning editor, a step towards a book contract. And you can crank up the smile, put on the party frock, and go networking around the social functions.
I am being sardonic, but this really is serious business for young people starting to work as academics.  Academic labour has got desperately precarious in recent years (while higher education has been expanding worldwide, funny about that!).
Then there are the intellectual reasons for going. Conference are supposed to be about circulating knowledge. Everyone hopes to hear recent developments in the field, interesting theories and important studies. Some of this really does happen.
It’s hard to pick the sessions where it will, even when you know the ropes. I evolved a two-paper theory of conferences: if I heard two really good papers by the time I left, it was a good conference.  A suggestion: look in the programme index for people who have written papers you admire, especially non-famous people. Probably the presentation won’t be as good as the paper you know, yet sometimes it is even better.
The plenary, from the speaker's point of view
The big plenary sessions with famous names strutting their stuff are not intellectual cutting-edge. That is not really a keynoter’s task. Her task is to zoom across the sub-fields with their different cutting edges, stir up everyone, and somehow pull the conference together. (Count the mixed metaphors in the last sentence, and see what the poor keynoter is up against!) Think of a keynote as crazed mountaineering – the Matterhorn, K2, the North Face of the Eiger. Will the heroic effort reach the summit, or plunge into the abyss? You, the democracy of conference-goers, will decide.
Conferences have a lot of organizational business, less visible to newcomers.  Many are, technically, annual meetings of a discipline association. In that case, the sub-sections will have business meetings, ceremonies for the award of gongs, and elections for committees. The editorial boards of journals often meet at conferences, because they can’t pay travel costs any other way.
In the USA particularly, university departments hold receptions for their graduates. Publishers’ receptions and book launches happen. Corporate sponsors hold events proving how honest and generous they are, offering food and drink. The food looks like crashed hummingbirds on flattened bottle-tops, and is not a reliable source of vitamins. The drink is OK.
You don’t have to go to any of this. But if you plan to work long-term in research and teaching, go to some of it, and see the machinery at work.  At your next conference, join in and lend a hand.
Finally, there is the social life, and this is important.  Have breakfast (don’t forget breakfast!) or coffee with other people in your field. These discussions can be better than the papers. Older academics spend a lot of their time at conferences meeting friends and colleagues. Your connections build up from one conference to another.
Social life at conferences: families too
There is a myth that a conference is a modern Sodom & Gomorrah.  A charming myth, but generally speaking, a conference is not a very practical place for an affair. There are other sides of social life. Gaggles of friends come, and families too.  For young parents, decent conferences provide child care. There is serious eating and drinking. Good conference convenors provide lists of restaurants nearby; word-of-mouth will tell which ones are cheap and good.
And then: the parties. There are risks here. I once gave a plenary talk at a conference famous for its last-night dance. That year, the party had a disco format. Among hundreds of younger conference-goers, I happened to dance past the DJ’s stand. He took one look at me, and put a new record on the turntable. It was ‘Love Me Do’. (War Babies and Baby Boomers will understand. At least it wasn’t ‘Hound Dog’.)
The socializing can be a great pleasure, but also a source of stress. Younger people can feel they are constantly in a market. Since the power structures don’t go away, younger women especially are exposed to sexual harassment or exploitation. There’s a need for collective responsibility to make conferences safe spaces.

Survive & thrive 3: How to give a conference paper


When I went to my first discipline-based conference, as a grad student, it was not to give a paper.  The event consisted of lectures by tenured senior academics.  Most of the crowd had come simply to listen. But that was changing, and the democratic virus has been spreading ever since.
Now it is common for graduate students, and compulsory for junior academics, to offer conference papers. It's the obvious way to learn this genre; and as those ghastly career workshops explain, it is an easy way to build your c.v.  (‘C.v.’ now means a resumé of your career. The Latin phrase curriculum vitae means the course of your life. Let’s hope we can still detect the difference.)
There are traps in this business.  Here are three bad ways to give a paper: 1. Writing a journal article and trying to read it out in a conference. In a 10 or 15 minute slot you cannot read a journal article aloud. 2. Trying to show off. Often signalled by an over-clever title: ‘Queer(y)ing Hamlet: The Anti-Hero in/beyond the Anthropocene’. (I blush to admit that I called one of my early papers ‘Symbolic logic as an axiomatic-analogue model in the analysis of children's thinking about politics and large-scale social organization’. In six words: ‘Formal models for children’s social thought’.). 3. Speaking to a clique. Some papers are little more than academic faction-fighting in camouflage. You can detect them by the in-house jargon, snide put-downs, and good-guys-vs-bad-guys melodrama.
The well prepared speaker arrives at the session
Avoiding these traps, how can we do the job well? Here is my never-fail recipe, distilled from a thousand cups of evil conference coffee with a few toads and bats stirred in:
            1. Be Well Prepared. This is about 80% of the task. It doesn’t mean you have to agonize over every word, or solve the Problem of the Universe. It does mean you should think, not only about the content of your report, but also about the way you will report.
The key issue is to think about your audience. You are trying to get in direct touch with them, and the formality of the conference format creates distance (see picture below). Remember that the session is actually more about the audience than about you. The size of the crowd doesn’t matter. I have given a paper to an audience totalling seven, including the three other presenters and the chairperson, and we had a good discussion. Respect what the audience know already. (In Sociology conferences, please don’t recite that sentence from The 18th Brumaire, everyone has read it long ago!) Consider what will be new and relevant to them, and focus on that.

2. Think about the genre. This is oral communication. When I am giving a conference paper I speak from a maximum of one page of brief bold notes. They are essentially the headlines. By having no more than this, I can talk with the people in the room and not past them.
If you need to write out a full text, that’s OK: but write it as speech. If you don’t know how to do that, look at a play by Bernard Shaw or Bertolt Brecht, who wrote about ideas as drama.
It’s fine to spice your talk with a few images and a bit of text – once I used overhead projector slides, now I use PowerPoint. But do this very simply, very briefly, so the technology doesn’t mask your message. For Heaven’s sake, don’t turn around and read lumps of text off a PowerPoint slide on the big screen. Apart from the alarming crick in your neck, this completely breaks your connection with the people in the room.
The formality of the format creates distance
            3. Plan sequence & time. You are likely to have 10 minutes in an ordinary conference session. Don’t run over the allocated time: that is unfair to other participants, and people will not respect you for it.
So use your golden minutes well! Cast your survey-of-the-literature into the Everlasting Bonfire, there is no time for that. Go straight to the nub of the problem. A good rule is to state your most important idea within the first four minutes. Don’t leave this to the end, because it is easy to mis-judge the time while speaking, and you may not reach it. Which would be a pity, after coming all this way...
The order of material in a conference paper is different from a journal article or a dissertation – it’s a different situation. Here is a template that will often work (you can check the timing by rehearsing with a friend):
(a) Problem, 2 minutes: Explain very crisply the question you are wrestling with.
(b) Main finding, 1 minute 30 seconds. In a conference presentation, this can legitimately come before method and data.
(c) Reasoning, 30 seconds + 4 minutes 30 seconds. Say ‘How did I come to this conclusion?’ By doing such-and-such (Method, very very very short); and here is what I found (Materials, in a bit more detail).  Give a slice of your raw material, which really helps the audience to understand. It will be a thin slice, but that’s OK, in a conference you are really offering a sample of your work.
(d) Relevance, 2 minutes. Tell the significance of what you have done. If it does suggest something about the literature, say so here at the end: ‘Finally, as you will realize, this finding overthrows both Keynes’ model of effective demand and Einstein’s general theory of relativity’. Whoops, we are 30 seconds over the time limit, will have to trim something.

            4. When you have the floor, use it with confidence. You are, after all, the person in the room (perhaps in the world!) who knows most about this problem. You have some news worth telling. And you have an intelligent audience, proved by the fact that they have shown up at your session. Invite them into the discussion, and you will have done well.
The story goes that an Anglican bishop was asked by a young minister ‘How should I preach?’, to which the bishop replied: ‘Preach about God and preach about 20 minutes.’ In the conference you have just 10 minutes to preach, so belt it out!
In doing that, be of good heart, and show your feelings. This is a communication between people, not between robots. Tears and laughs are allowed in academic conferences. You may not be Charlie Chaplin, but every human touch will help.

Survive & Thrive at an Academic Conference, Outburst 2: How to Be an Audience


The main thing you will do at a conference is listen to other people talking.  Since this is the main thing everyone attending the conference will do,* it is worth thinking how to do it well.
In the sprawling assemblage of a large conference, there is a huge volume of information, a smaller amount of interesting analysis, and a very small handful of bright new ideas.  Your job as audience is to get a useful sample of the information, analysis and ideas; and to give the presenters some feedback.
How to choose sessions? Large conferences offer ‘streams’. These are like mini-conferences for particular sub-fields, and some people stick with a single stream for several days. This can work: I have known gripping arguments that flowed over several sessions in a stream. But it often doesn’t work. The stream may be little more than an administrative convenience - rooms and time-slots are allocated this way. You can only find out by trying.
A warning: don’t follow fame. A celebrity academic won’t necessarily give a celebrity paper. If you want a selfie with her, him or them, that’s good fun and most will oblige. But in choosing where to spend your valuable time, look for what’s intellectually interesting, above all.
Ideal conference, imagined by Raphael. Socrates upper left centre
That can be difficult, because – it’s the big paradox of these events - the official conference format actually discourages intellectual engagement.  Hundreds of 10-to-15-minute presentations in random order, punctuated by dignified speeches through a microphone on a distant stage: this is a long, long way from Socratic debate!
(Re Socrates: if you haven’t read it, rush to your friendly local library and borrow a translation of Plato’s Symposium. It is funny, a bit weird, and in the middle has a fabulous theory about sex.)
Most of the intellectual work of a conference happens after the formal sessions, or before them, or instead of them. In the coffee shops, in the corridor, in the sitting-and-waiting areas, at lunch, at dinner, over breakfast, in the park outside, very occasionally in a bedroom, more often in a committee room. I once went to a big international conference which had not got the message. There were no informal meeting spaces and there seemed to be just one small café on-site for thousands of delegates. The conference dispersed to get caffeinated.
The formal programme still matters. It provides most of the useful information; and it provides hundreds of launch-points for informal discussions. So choose a bunch of sessions and go to them.
Choose, mostly, sessions on topics related to your own work, your teaching as well as your research. That’s not selfish: you are most likely to give presenters useful feedback in fields you know. But pick at least one intriguing session that is wildly irrelevant (‘Nesting Behaviour of the Lesser Damwort: A Foucauldian-Materialist Analysis’). You might get an intellectual jolt. Or you might have a nice horror story to tell when you get home.
Take a seat. (San Francisco 2009)
OK: you front up to a session and take a seat. However shy, do NOT sit at the back. There is nothing worse for presenters than speaking to seven rows of empty chairs in front of two rows of listeners clustered like frightened sheep near the door. The presenters don’t have the plague! And you are not going to walk out anyway, you are much too polite.  So stroll up to the front, take a seat there and encourage others to join you.
The session begins a mere six minutes late, when the chairperson and the tech helper have got the computer connected and someone else has decoded the light switches.  What do you do now? Sit back and listen quietly, right? Wrong! If you want to relax, go to the bar down the road, order a Sidecar and listen to the neoliberal music, no-one is stopping you. You are at this conference to learn, dammit, and all the educational research says that effective learning is active not passive.
Active listening: pen, computer, mind. (Costa Rica 2011)
So sit forward and listen actively. Take notes with that excellent conference pen on that handy conference notepad, or give your computer a workout. Don’t use a tablet, it’s bad for your back. I generally take short notes, just idea-sketches; but I regularly write down useful names, figures and dates. Engage with your mind: test the ideas and claims as they arrive. This may suggest an immediate question.
At question time, don’t be shy. If there’s vagueness, ask for clarity. If you have reason to think that part of the presentation is wrong, you can say so. In fact you should. Building knowledge is a collective process. If everyone remembers that, there’s no need to be aggressive, or for the presenter to be defensive.  A question or comment will signal that you are interested in the topic and want to talk about it. Many a good discussion has begun, literally, while people are gathering up their conference bags and moving out at the end of a session. Carpe diem: Snatch the day!
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(*Except the poor conference convenors, who are usually so stressed that they don’t get to hear the talks.)
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NEXT EPISODE: How to Give a Paper.  Coming Soon!

Survive and Thrive at an Academic Conference: A Guide for Beginners, in Five Outbursts and a Cough


I have been to a couple of hundred academic conferences. They are an important form of work and connection. They are sometimes brilliant, often boring, often alienating; they are especially tough for new players. This is a reflection on my experience, with some advice for beginners and suggestions on how we might do conferences better.

Outburst 1: Arriving at the conference

Once upon a time, academic conferences were held in academic institutions, i.e. universities and colleges. Registration was cheap, and anyone could walk in. Visitors got basic housing in student dormitories, empty for the vacation. You might see last term’s lecture timetable pinned on the wall, sometimes a poster, a ghostly reminder of student culture. The beds were hard, the food was ordinary, the showers trickled down, but the feeling of solidarity among the conference-goers was high.

Academics used to organize the events themselves, and the results could be memorable. I went to one conference that held a dance in an ancient shearing-shed, its floor polished by a hundred years of sheep fleeces. Being among several busloads of sociologists attempting to square-dance on uneven timber surfaced with wool grease was an experience hard to forget.

In the hotel: a conference plenary, without dancing
Nowadays an academic conference of any size is likely to be held in a downtown hotel, with room charges to match, or a convention centre with hotels attached. Some are still held in universities I’m glad to say. But in either case, the price of admission is much higher than it used to be (even with student discount), because conferences now are typically administered by events-management corporations, which need to make a profit, and corporate-style university managers now charge conferences rent.

The events-management corporation has a computer template for conferences, the same for every discipline, so things are (a) more predictable (b) more boring (c) both. There will be an online form for registration, an online portal for submissions, an online schedule of sessions, and so forth. You will know about this long before you rock up to the front door.  If you are like me, you will have been unable to enter the portal, and then unable to find your session in the schedule, so you will have annoyed the help-staff several times already. They are usually patient.

If the conference is in a city of any size, there is often cheaper accommodation within walking distance or a short trip on public transport. The conference website won’t normally show this. At one of my first-ever conferences, in Los Angeles, I arrived by Greyhound bus from Chicago, asked folk in the bus station, and took a cheap room in the street they mentioned. The hotel happened to be favoured by the local sex workers and their clients, and the activity around and about provided me with a valuable introduction to the American gender order.  Nevertheless I recommend, if you have time, asking advice from local people before you arrive at the bus station. Going in a group and sharing an apartment is a very good solution, provided the others in your group don’t want to party after 3 a.m. Some conference sessions begin about 8.

When you get in the front door, look for the conference registration area. This isn’t in the lobby, but up an unexpected escalator and round a few corners; just keep asking, the hotel or convention centre staff will know where it is. When you find it, you will be given a bag with some advertising, a note-pad, a retractable ballpoint pen printed with the name of the conference, a conference brochure (these vary from minimal to magnificent), and an ID object.

The ID object used to be a pin-on name badge, designed for the lapels of men’s suits.  Since women have become more common at academic conferences and suits less common, you now get a unisex tape to put around your neck with a plastic card-holder dangling from it. This makes you look like a CIA agent entitled to ACCESS ALL AREAS, but hey, this is the new academic world, and you now have proof that you belong. Cherish the card, and pass it on to your grand-children.

The best way to arrive at a conference is in a group.  Big conferences can be very alienating, and having people to share meals and conversation is good for your mental health.  You can separate for parallel sessions, talk afterwards, and thus get a better idea of what’s going on in the whole event. If you can’t arrive with a group, look for kindred spirits in early sessions. You might be surprised!

Next outburst: How To Be An Audience. Coming soon!
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