Conferences and how to survive them

Conference! The very word is like a bell...   I have been to about 150, large and small, in about twenty different countries.  They haven’t run out of interest yet.
Academic conferences have certainly changed.  Many are more professionally organized and therefore more expensive.  They have heavier crops of papers, as university managers have demanded more publications.  But that means attendance is spread more thinly; young presenters can get very thin audiences.  Perhaps I’m suffering from nostalgia, but I think most conferences have less debate than they used to, and fewer surprises.  I’ve developed a two-paper standard: if I hear two papers that impress me, it’s a good conference.
Gender & Health Conference, Montréal 2012

Some things don’t change.  Conferences are an institution, a basic part of the collective life of academic workers.  They are a display of recently-born knowledge and a site for exchange of ideas.  At the simplest level they provide an important meeting place (essential in a country like Australia; and essential internationally).  They generate solidarity for a workforce that is often isolated, and under neoliberal pressure is becoming more individualized.
There is a sadder side too.  A conference is also a register of prestige, in which famous Names attract more than their share of attention.  I once heard a story about Seymour Lipset, a US political sociologist who was a celebrity when I was a student, unclipping his name-badge at the end of the day and throwing it towards the graduate students, for them to scramble after.  I can’t say if this is true; the only time I tried to hear him, I couldn’t get in the door because of the crowd.

Meanwhile people with good ideas but without celebrity can pass unnoticed.  Organizers trade on celebrity, of course, in selecting keynote speakers, and probably that helps bring in the numbers.  But we need more mechanisms for recognizing the less recognized; that will keep the numbers.

Hombres y Políticas de Violencia,
VI Congreso de la AMEGH, Ciudad Juárez 2012
At their best, conferences can crystallize an intellectual movement.  This doesn’t happen often, but is exhilarating when it does.  I have been to some like that: the conferences in the early 1970s that marked a generational change in Australian sociology; the conference that pioneered African research on masculinities in the 1990s.
Conferences can also grapple with major social issues - gender-based violence, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, educational inequality - and these allow researchers to meet practitioners and social movement activists.

Most conferences, inevitably, are like most other conferences.  There will be speeches by well-known visitors, inspiring or entertaining if they know their business; there will be some good papers with new ideas or notable data, a lot of OK papers with familiar ideas or limited data, and a few papers that really shouldn’t have been listed.  There will be frustrating time-table clashes, and afterwards you will hear of the really good papers that you didn’t notice on the programme.  The coffee will be mediocre and the snacks fattening.

Academic conferences can be hard to decode, even alienating.  Everyone seems to know everyone else, except you.  The timetable will be hard to understand and the rooms hard to find.  (I was once at a conference where the best sessions were, literally, a tram-ride away; at another where there was an intoxicating blend of post-structuralism and builder’s rubble, as the venue was being renovated at the time.)  

So here is my advice to newcomers:

First, go!  Go to the conference, you will usually hear at least two good papers.  Be energetic, go persistently to the sessions, and a fair variety of them, to get a broad sense of what is happening in the field.  Go with a friend, preferably two or three.  Then you can cover clashing sessions, and more important, share your dismay and your discoveries.

Second, offer a paper if you have something substantial to report.  Don’t offer an insubstantial paper ‘just to get the experience’, it doesn’t work.  When you do offer a paper, you will have about 10 minutes to speak.  This is very short.  Therefore don’t spend any time on Introductions, Literature Reviews, Theoretical Frameworks, or Methodological Considerations.  I have sat in sessions where the poor young presenters spent so long on their Introduction they never got to their first substantive point.  CUT TO THE CHASE!!  The paper presentation should be: I did this (2 minutes), I found this (4 minutes), its significance is this (4 minutes), and your time is up!  Rehearse beforehand, speaking slowly not quickly.  You will get the hang of it.

Junior & senior, Asia Pacific Sociological Association,
 Manila 2012
Third, be bold.  A conference is for conferring, so confer.  Don’t be shy, go up to senior people and introduce yourself, even the celebrities.  Take them off for coffee, if you know a decent espresso bar, otherwise for a cup of tea.  If someone has given an interesting paper, shake their hand and tell them so, get their email address, and give them yours.  (Experienced academics take cards so they don’t get writer’s cramp.)  Go to the conference reception and do the same there.  Breakfast meetings are often the best of all, and definitely the healthiest.

I also have some thoughts on how to democratise conferences, but they will have to wait for another post.
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