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.

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