To Conference or Not to Conference: That is the Question

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.Image

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?

The State of the Union: A Lesson in Self-Assessment

This past weekend I had the awesome opportunity to attend the SEASECS (The Southeastern American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies) conference in Charleston, South Carolina.  SEASECS was my first conference in the field as a Master’s student (the conference was in Auburn maybe 5 or 6 years ago…I can’t remember! Time flies when you’re, er, having fun!), and it was a warm and congenial place for a first time presenter.  I found it to be much the same this go ’round, with lots of friendly advice given and contacts made and/or renewed.  I think the Southeastern aspect of the conference lends a particular, Southern air of hospitality and liveliness, and conference goers at all levels of the academic food chain are genuinely interested in, and supportive of, each others’ work.  That’s been my experience with the conference, anyway.

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(Battery Park, Charleston)

So after the fun-loving atmosphere of Charleston (we heard someone say that it was a classier New Orleans) and the collegial atmosphere of the conference, I find myself sitting in my office, answering the eleventy billion e-mails that have piled up while I was busy basking in the glow of SEASECS.  Basically, it’s like the morning after a big event when you wake up to see the remains of the party and think to yourself, “awww man,  I have to clean this up.” But the conference-induced enthusiasm that I find myself endowed with remains, even upon seeing the e-mail avalanche and realizing that I am, still, alone in Atlanta with little-to-no academic community.  This lead me to ask myself what I should do with this conference enthusiasm.  I usually shake off post-event excitement in a few days, so part of me thinks that I’ll just carry on with my normal routine and let the excitement infuse itself where it may.  But I think I’d like to be a little more proactive than that, and fueled by a conversation I had with my mentor, I want to actually take stock of where I am with my research/life/PhD.  What follows is a sort of State of the Union speech about just that, hopefully interspersed with some useful tips about how to gauge the state of your union.

I. WHERE ARE YOU ACADEMICALLY?

The first conference I went to after taking my primary qualifying exam on 18th century literature was CSECS (Canadian Society for Eighteenth Century Studies) in Hamilton, Ontario in the Fall of 2011.  I had literally just finished my exam, got on a plane and flew into Hamilton, then wrote/lifted the majority of my conference paper from my exam.  I had a raging, stress induced migraine, and I really hadn’t seen the light of day in about a week (we have one week to write a 50 page exam).  I looked like an academic feral child, but I managed to make it through my presentation and the rest of the conference (in retrospect, I will never sign up for a conference after a major deadline!), and over the course of it I realized something that I’d never experienced before: I knew enough about the scope of my field to know the context and basic conversation in every panel I sat in. What a lark! What a plunge! Suddenly, gaps were filled in that I didn’t even know existed.  I realized the point of the exam, and suddenly the effort I had exerted felt worth it.  That was the State of Sarah Creel’s Academic Union in Fall of 2011.

As I’ve mentioned before, particularly in that blog post about writing from afar, this past year hasn’t been a lot of fun for me.  I’m done whining about it and have tried to be more positive and upfront about the challenges I face writing from Atlanta (when my program is in Vancouver, BC).  What I noticed about SEASECS this year was that I have, however tentatively, turned a new leaf in terms of willingness to work toward change.  I saw so many positive things come from the conference that are the fruit of putting myself out there on twitter and this blog…and from just trying to be more approachable in general. People I met on twitter unfolded from twitter handles into actual people (postmodern craziness!), and it turns out that people are willing (and wanting!) to collaborate.  It’s funny how the moment I opened myself up to change, change happened.  And while I am still not feeling 100% positive about my actual work, I am feeling better about the working part of it.  I knew these things were falling into place, but seeing them actually manifest at the conference was definitely happy making.

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(At a delightful Charleston bookstore, Blue Bicycle Books, with my mentor)

I think this concept of figuring out where you are academically (addressing your own Union’s health, if you will) can be done without a conference.  Perhaps some serious mind mapping could do the same thing.  Or a long, honest chat with your dissertation partner or advisor, or just a friend or mentor.  Spending some time journaling or meditating also could work if you’re into that.  Whatever it is, just spend some time making a progress report of your studies.  Even if it isn’t pretty, you want to know where you’re at…so you know where to go.

II. WHAT ARE YOU WILLING TO DO?

One part of State of the Union Addresses always focuses on where the country can go.  Yes, problems are addressed, but the President usually focuses on what he (or she…someday!) can do to provide a solution to said problems.  My State of the Union this year acknowledges that there were some definite hitches in my giddyup (yes, I live far away from my program, now what?), but is now focused on being past that.  I think where I can go involves more community building on my part, even if that community is virtual.  More tweeting, blogging, being an active part of our crew’s academic writing group on facebook (we check-in throughout the day to see what everyone is accomplishing).  And, I’ve started taking my own advice (see writing from afar post again) about communicating. I emailed my advisor this morning to set up a chapter deadline (March 15th) and a Skype meeting (March 18th). Now that I’ve established where I am, it seems important that I know where I’m going.  Setting reasonable, attainable goals seems like the first step to accomplishing things. Right? Right.

And, while we’re talking about what you (and I) are willing to do, can we talk about getting out of our comfort zones a bit here? It’s par for the course to be asked to get out of your comfort zone when you move to a new place.  Adjusting takes time, but it also takes a certain extroverted effort to be able to make a new community for yourself.  That can be intimidating/exhausting, but it’s also really worth it.  A friend outside the academy (who owns a life coaching business) recently told me that she thought academics were the new, unsung entrepreneurs: blogging, tweeting, collaborating, writing and publishing wherever we can, we are putting our names out there (essentially) in order to better our chances of finding the golden chalice someday–the tenure track job.  While I’m doing these things mostly for community, I also think she’s right.  Putting yourself (your name, your project) out there into the internetosphere can’t be a bad thing (unless you’re, you know, not being professional about the whole thing).  That’s my assessment of what I can do to keep this post-conference enthusiasm up.  Strategies for accomplishing the things that come up in your State of the Union will probably vary (for instance, you might need to hole up and introvert and just get stuff done), and that’s okay.  I just think it’s a good thing to have a plan.  And, as type-A academics, who doesn’t love a plan?!

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(hey, because you’ve almost gotten through to the end of this blog post, here’s a cat picture! House kitty in Blue Bicycle Books)

Now that you’ve heard (in a relatively roundabout way) my State of the Union address; my goals for managing the problems dredged up in my address; and seen an adorable picture of a cat in a bookstore in the historic district of Charleston, tell me about the state of your Union. Do you assess your progress in your program/job in this way? What goals do you set for yourself and how do you accomplish them? Let’s do this, kids!

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(A celebratory, post-paper cocktail at Squeeze bar in Charleston)