Why I Go to Academic Conferences



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by Laura Arnold Leibman

It’s that time of the year when spring break looms like a sunbeam of hope, and calls for conference papers and panels start piling up in my in box.  It is also the time of the year when local and specialty conferences will soon be upon us. As the child of academics, one of my early memories is of “family vacations” spent in conference hotels and of learning not to fidget during presentations. Why do we go to academic conferences? What do we hope to gain? Sometimes colleagues tell me that they have given up on conferences altogether because they “just don’t have the time.” In this post I argue for the benefits of conferences and suggest ways to present and attend conferences to help you work towards your goals not against them. I usually attend around two conferences a year and here is why I go:

  1. I Go to Conferences to Learn. Sometimes I go to conferences when I am not presenting just to learn new methods, to explore a related field, or to keep up with my own field. For example although none of my degrees are in history, for many years I went to the conference of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture so I could keep up with the trends in the field of early American studies. Even when I go to a conference to present, I make sure to leave each conference having learned something new. To accomplish this I usually attend at least 1-2 panels that are clearly out of my area of specialization but interest me somehow. Many times these panels have the largest long-term impact on my thinking and teaching.  

  2. I Go to Conferences to Get my Ideas out There and Get Feedback on Them. One of the glories of being on panels comprised of individual papers or made up through larger calls for papers is that they place your work in dialogue with unexpected scholars and ideas. This dramatically increases the change that more than several people in the audience will be attending the panel who didn’t come to hear you or your paper. That is a good thing and an important opportunity. I spend a lot of time and effort preparing conference papers, and I practice them repeatedly before I present. In part I spend the time on the papers because I believe doing so helps me achieve my long-term goals (see numbers 5 and 6 below). I also spend the time because first impressions matter. I want people who listen to my paper to want to read other things I’ve written, and if I am disorganized or muddled that is less likely to happen. I also value the feedback I get at conferences and incorporate that feedback when I revise. If people didn’t understand my argument, that feedback will be less insightful. Moreover, since Q&A is often at the end of all of the presentations, I am competing for reflection time with everyone else on the panel. I want my work to be memorable and engaging. I know I have truly achieved this end when someone in the audience requests a version of my conference paper for a forthcoming issue of a journal (example: my article on sacred space in early America). If I present poorly, I miss these important opportunities.

  3. I Go to Conferences to Connect with People. When I first started going to conferences, I tried to fill my social schedule before the conference even began. Although today I do want to connect with people I know and I often have committee meetings or meetings with collaborators, I try to leave space to socialize more randomly and to make new contacts with people whose work interests me. Moreover, I try not to take it personally when I put myself out there and someone behaves like a jerk or ignores me. Sure, sometimes someone actually is a jerk, but more often than not they are just having a bad day or are shy or socially awkward. When I was working as the academic director for American Passages at Oregon Public Broadcasting, the research assistants would often come to me licking their wounds after interviewing an abrasive academic, and I would remind them that many of us didn’t become academics because we are social butterflies. We tend to work well on our own for a reason. I try to be forgiving at conferences and to remember one goal of conferences is to connect.

  4. I Go to Conferences as Service to My Field. As an early Americanist, I work in an area of American studies that is proportionally under populated by scholars. Hence, sometimes I organize panels on early America—particularly for smaller or regional conferences—just so I know the era will be covered. My papers for these sorts of panels are often quite different than those at larger conferences or at specialist conferences. Sometimes this means giving papers with more of a pedagogical focus, other times with an eye towards how my work connects to larger trends in American history or culture. These conferences are important because they force me to ask “so what” at a deeper level, since I can’t assume the audience cares about my area of interest or has a solid background in it. By forcing myself to address how my scholarship contributes to the humanities at large, I am better prepared to write grant applications and book proposals down the road.

  5. I Go to Conferences when the Place is Useful (or at least not Counterproductive). Although I have the privilege of working at a school that will cover a relatively large amount of conference or research expenses, I have two small children. Thus, every trip without them has to count. I am more likely to go to a conference “out of the way” if I need to go to that place anyway to do research. A reasonable amount of “out of way travel” for my most recent book was done before or after conferences. When I was on a more limited budget, I tried to think about which conferences were near by or offered travel support.

  6. I Apply to Conferences to Keep on Track. Conferences can either serve as “bright shiny objects” that distract us from our long-term goals or they can help us meet those goals. Why not aim for the latter? When I first started going to conferences, I often looked through the very long list of calls for individual sessions and used them to start me thinking about areas in which I had general interests. The abstract I submitted was often the result of whatever bright shiny topic caught my fancy that week. Today, I am more likely to think strategically about what the next step is in my larger book project and how I could extract a small portion of that next step in ways that would engage my listeners. Once I have settled on what to present, I look for relevant pre-fab panels or think about people in the field with whom I could build a panel. As a result, my conference papers often serve as the building block for chapters or articles. Moreover, the conference gives me a clear deadline for developing the first nugget of the article or chapter: that is, it helps me keep on track for my larger projects.  Likewise when I am finishing a book, sometimes I will forgo conferences for a year to focus on revisions.

  7. I Apply to Conferences to Help Develop My Ideas. Sadly not every abstract I submit gets accepted. That’s ok, because the very process of writing an abstract forces me to refine what is at the core of my argument. Moreover, these abstracts often become the building block of that article or chapter regardless of whether I attend the conference. In her fabulous book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, Wendy Belcher talks about the importance of abstracts as a tool for success. She notes that a good abstract not only allows you to connect with editors, get found, and be read, but also it is “a real aid in drafting and revising” (54). She provides useful advice and examples on how to write a good abstract as well.

  8. I Go to Conference to Have Fun and get Rejuvenated. Ideally conferences allow me to feel better about my field and myself. I work hard throughout the year doing both exciting and mind-numbing tasks. A conference should remind me why I love what I am doing. Hence the ethos of a conference matters to me. If I find that a conference is filled with anxiety or haters, I may attend a second time to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, but if that is my dominant experience of that organization, I choose another organization that will nurture me better as a scholar and thinker. To be clear, I don’t mean I try to decide if people in the organization are "nice," but rather are people asking real questions at panels or just attacking panelists based on their own anxieties about their own work? Do leading scholars in the field attend and provide supportive feedback to people junior to themselves, or do use the conference as a place to attack the methods of others and guard the borders of the discipline? Do people make an effort to go to panels or do they use the conference as an excuse for something else? Getting rejuvenated means that I need to follow these guidelines myself and be a good participant even when I am “just” an audience member.  Conferences that I am attending this year (2013-14) that have a great ethos and consistently help me rejuvenate include AJS (Association of Jewish Studies), SEA (Society of Early Americanists), the AJHS (American Jewish Historical Society) biennial scholar's conference.  I am grateful to the people who worked hard (and are working hard!) to make these conferences happen.  What conferences help you the most and why?

Resources for Writing and Giving Great Conference Papers: 
  • Wendy Belcher, Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. Most of what she suggests about successful articles applies for conference papers as well, the format is just shorter. 
  • Timothy Koegel, The Exceptional Presenter Great tips on writing and giving better presentations.  Not all are relevant for academic conferences, but many would help.
  • Toastmasters. If you don't know how to make your paper better or you don’t practice because you dread giving presentations, go to Toastmasters and learn how to present like a champ.  Someday this sort of training will be part of every graduate program, but until then there's Toastmasters.

Some Calls for Papers for Upcoming Conferences:
  1. AJS (proposal site opens March 26th; deadline May 7th)
  2. MLA (deadlines vary)
  3. AAR (closed)
  4. ASA (closed)
Looking for people for a panel?  Please fell free to list the information or a link below in comments.

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