My first conference was SEASECS (South Eastern Association for the Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies) in 2008. It was in Auburn, Alabama, and I was on a panel with my then advisor and two other prominent-in-the-field scholars. I had no idea that the other two presenters (my advisor was chair) were Big Deals. I was nervous about giving a paper, sure, but I didn’t know how nervous I should have been. In hindsight, this was probably a good thing. I’m sure I delivered a rather mediocre paper, got thrown some softball questions, and then just smiled like it was all a super fun time. And it was! I had a good experience; my advisor seemed pleased with me; and I met several people with whom I now have good working relationships.
I think what I liked most about my first conference was the sense of community conferences give you. When you’re working on texts hardly anyone ever reads, and when your friends and family can barely explain what you do (let alone listen to you when you talk about it), it feels particularly nice to go to a place for a few days and have everyone speak your language. Yeah, there are some super awkward moments that usually go down at these events (you can’t really put a whole bunch of awkward people together and not expect that to happen), but for the most part, I’ve found that people my age are generally willing to talk about the hell of grad school, their own projects, and yours. There are also lots of junior and senior scholars who are genuinely helpful and kind. Of course, there are also snotty grad students, junior scholars who would rather die than seen socializing with grad students, and senior scholars who make fun of student papers (yes, I’ve seen this happen). But for the most part, conferences have always seemed like a safe haven of ideas and conversation for me, and I genuinely like going to them.
Which leads me to the point of this post: how much conference-going is too much conference-going? As someone who is dissertating from afar, I find that the conference setting helps relieve my feelings of isolation and provides me (usually) with good feedback for whatever I’ve been working on. And so I tend to go to conferences perhaps more than the usual grad student. Since the start of this year alone, I’ve been to three. This has been a bit of a strain financially, but it’s also been worth it in many ways. I got back two days ago from my most recent conference (which was exceptionally collegial and awesome) and began to wonder if I’d over-extended myself. I’ve been to two conferences this month alone (oops), and my actual DISSERTATION CHAPTER has been given very little, if any, attention (whomp whomp). So here are some things I want to remind myself of (and maybe you, you young jedi) as I start thinking about the next year and the next CFPs start parading themselves into my inbox:
1) This is just a draft, right? Wrong: My current advisor told me a while back that I should only go to conferences when I had something solid to present (read: not a draft) and that people would begin to recognize me at these events and string together my paper-giving performances (as well as gauge my level of scholarship). While I think this is sound advice, I also think it can be really helpful to read drafts and get feedback from a larger collective group of knowledge. Which is basically what I’ve been doing lately (and hoping for the best in the Q&A). So how do I reconcile my advisor’s advice with my own penchant for procrastination and thinking that a draft will suffice? Well, I think that maybe I need to STEP UP the level of paper I give at conferences, but I still don’t think it has to be an airtight argument. At the conference I went to in March, I gave a fairly clean, mostly completed version of the first chapter of my dissertation. It was received well. The last two conferences I have been to, I have presented and co-presented on two difference aspects of my current chapter. The co-presented paper was argumentatively sound and the writing was clean, but we didn’t get much feedback due to there only being a whopping 3 people in the audience (sigh). At this most recent conference, I gave yet another version of this chapter, and again–almost entirely radio silence. And I’m genuinely not sure if it was because what I was presenting (which has an art history bent) is so far out there from the usual, or if it was because my paper was not strong. Which leads me back to the point of this paragraph: I think it’s important to find a good combination of thoroughly thought-out and draft-like. I want to be better prepared and remind myself that conferences aren’t all about the socialization. They are also about giving a thorough synopsis of your work, one that you can be proud of.
2) Professionalization: As I mentioned earlier, I think socialization is really important for me at conferences. I’m sure other people feel this way, too (there wouldn’t be so many lunch plans hurriedly made in hallways between sessions, or dinners out with long-standing friends if that wasn’t the case). But at my stage in the game (starting year five of the ol’ PhD), I think professionalization might be even more important than socialization (I can hear all you grad students gasping already. Close your mouths). I’m not saying that it’s a bad idea to go out and have a drink (or four if you’ve presented that day) at night with your friends, but I’m also reminding myself (and you) that it’s important to make contacts that you can call on later, too. I carried my cards with me this time and handed them out to anyone who looked like they might want one. I gave them to people my own age and even a couple to senior scholars who might be able to help me with my work on down the road. But I wish I’d done more of this kind of thing. I was feeling so self-conscious about my lack-of-paper-response that I think I failed to be approachable and interested when I could have made even more contacts and connections.
So for next year, I think I’ll choose my conferences more wisely. I won’t apply to more than three, and those three must be fairly spread out (no more doing 2 in one month again…ever). I’ll also make sure that the proposals I turn in have something to do with the research work I’ll be doing around the time of the conference. I’ll prepare in advance and have a good hybrid between a draft and a well-curated paper. I’ll make sure the paper is written before the conference so I don’t miss panels holed up in my hotel room writing (or rocking back and forth while weeping silently). I’ll also make sure I’m confident enough in my own work that people not being able to respond to it doesn’t make me want to crawl up in the fetal position. These are all strong exhortations for a girl who usually “does her best work under pressure,” but I think they merit a blog post here to remind me of exactly what I’m feeling now–and how to curb that the next time around.
I saw this in the back of the American Airlines magazine, which I was reading on the flight to the conference instead of writing my paper. It’s pretty magical, though, right?