Sunday, October 16, 2011

Notes Towards a Guidebook for Attending Scholarly Conferences

What are your rules of thumb when you go to a scholarly conference? In recent years I have done a fair bit of conference-going and I think I have it partially figured out. Some of my rules are:
Do not approach
  • Leverage the technology to improve your conference experience. Twitter is a powerful (and for history conferences, under-utilized) tool to extend scholarly discussions and also to meet people.
  • Bring a graduate student or two to the conference if you can. Encourage your institution to fund graduate student travel, even if they are not presenting. "As long as grad students keep showing up this organization has a future,” a friend told me.
  • Avoid round tables, plenaries, “wither our field” sessions, and other sessions where the presenters are allowed to talk about themselves, because they will talk about nothing else. Some academics see the world as a movie in which they are both the star and narrator. Ugh. 
  • On a related note, don't try to approach or make eye contact with the senior scholars in your discipline--the silver backs. Though they might be nice enough if you met them anywhere else, at the disciplinary conference they must stay focused on their elaborate rituals--chest-thumping, mating displays, and grooming one another's luxurious academic coats.
  • Also to be avoided are panels where all of the presenters are linked by a single institution or all of the presenters are graduate students.
  • When in doubt, sit in back near the door so you can skip out to a different session.
  • If you don’t know many people at the conference, the breakfasts, luncheons, and banquets are a good if expensive way to meet some. But once you have attended a few years, it is more productive and fun to go out to dinner with your conference friends. 
  • Dine arounds are good. A dine around is where a set of lists are created according to sub-disciplinary interest--women's history, mining history, advanced footnoting--and folks sign up to go to dinner with the group. If the conference organizers do not set this up you can do it yourself and put the word out through your disciplinary mailing list.
  • Stay in the conference hotel if you possibly can. A lot of the best networking happens in the elevator, the book displays, and the conference bar. And by networking I mean drinking.
  • Some presses sell their display copies of books at a steep discount on the last day of the conference--thought I don't see this as often as I used to.
  • Explore the city! Don't hesitate to blow off the afternoon sessions and rent a bicycle or something. When you are on your deathbed you will not say "If only I had listened to more historians read their papers out loud!"
What about you guys--what are your conference rules of the road?


Cliotropic said...

I've found Tenured Radical's advice on conferences to be very useful-- here's her 2011 pre-AHA advice post, for example. Her conferences tag contains many posts which include some degree of guidance, often alongside reports about a particular conference.

Michael Carpenter said...

I will do my best to follow this list when I get there.

Larry Cebula said...

Thanks, Cliotropic, I had not seen the post and it really is terrific. I would not agree that it is ever safe to go to the AHA, however.

Dave said...

Larry, if one has to attend scholarly conferences, this is excellent advice. I just don't attend them anymore, primarily because--outside of the drinking and eating--nothing important or useful ever happens. I would be hard pressed to name something useful (about history) that I've actually learned at a scholarly conference. But hey, if your school is paying, enjoy the happy hour! Cheers.

Dave said...

PS--I would be happy to contribute my jaundiced point of view in your "Guidebook" if it begins to take shape. :)

Larry Cebula said...

Dave: This is the place to leave those ideas!

Katrina said...

Plan ahead to meet people for coffee/lunch etc. During the conference (if it's a big one) it can be a scramble to find one another and get things organised. It's also a great chance to meet people you've only dealt with through email.

If going to a big conference like the AHA, if you have a book to pitch, make use of the opportunity to meet editors at the publisher's stalls. Again, this is something you can plan in advance (editors from popular presses are sometimes booked solid during the conference with just this type of meeting!).
It helped me get a contract for one of my books.

If you're going to a small conference in the middle of nowhere, take a car. Learned that one the hard way. Organisers often seem to expect everyone to drive (their directions to "nearby restaurants" or places of interest given in driving time is a red flag); in little towns taxis are not that readily available, and having to beg colleagues for a ride gets old fast.

Larry Cebula said...

Thanks, Katrina, all good advice.

kim said...

Larry, I saw nothing about drinks, buying your favorite scholar a drink or having a drink with your friends...what's up ;-)) Also I have to say that two grad students came up to me at the end of my presentation last week and they made my day with their "that was the best thing we saw all day" remark...sucking up makes us all feel better!

Kendra Leonard said...

So very true! Now, if we could get more people to read this and the other good conference advice out there....

jacobite said...

Have a short summary of "what do you do?" that is preferably memorable and funny and allows the other person to tag onto it. Practice this in advance.

If you are marginally extroverted, make a swing through the corners of rooms and talk to the people stuck there looking at their shoes. They're usually pretty interesting, and can be moved to go to lunch with a minimal push.

After the first conference, keep in touch with people--email and ask for copies of the paper, or if they want to be on a panel for another conference. Take business cards and write a note on the back about what you could do in the future. Look for opportunities like people who are or have grad students at an institution with resources you might want to use (I have paid beer money to have grad students go copy microfilm for me in lieu of a trip there myself).

Don't nametag sniff--we all end up places we never expected, and the people who refuse to talk outside their current league miss out on a lot.