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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