Making conferences worthwhile

It’s the gap in between the 2014 versions of two academic conferences — the American Studies Association and the National Communication Association — that I attend with some regularity. Not this year, though. Seattical is too precious to leave more often than I absolutely have to. But seeing my Twitter and Facebook feeds fill up with reports from LA (ASA two weekends ago) and preliminary buzz for Chicago (NCA this coming weekend) has me thinking about conferences more generally. Why they rock. And why they suck. Often at the same time.

Let’s start with the bad stuff. A lot of conferences — more than should be the case — suffer from huge structural flaws. They cost a lot of money to put on. To break even, they need to draw a lot of paying registrants. They’re also expensive to attend, so many (most?) of the folks who attend can only do so if they get some sort of financial support from their home institutions. And that support typically only happens for people who are presenting papers. Which means that conference organizers need to find ways to get as many people into the program as they possibly can if they’re going to get the attendance they need to break even.

As a result, conference programs are often bloated beyond belief. NCA, for instance, often takes over two very large hotels so it can handle the crowds. And they fit those crowds into the phone-book-sized program by stuffing short panels (75 minutes) with 4-5 presentations plus a respondent…which means that a typical presentation needs to be 10-12 minutes long. At most.

And 10-12 minutes is barely enough time to pose an interesting question, much less make a persuasive, well-supported argument. (As a point of comparison for folks who don’t already know, 10-12 minutes works out to roughly 5-6 pages, or about 20% of a full-length essay.) If everything goes just right, there might be 10 minutes or so left at the end of the session for the audience (if there is one, which is by no means a certainty). Maybe. A panel that has any timing problems — a delayed start, an audio-visual problem, a presenter who runs a minute or two long — can all too easily wind up without any time for Q&A from the audience as a result.

Sadly, what this setup all too often means is that the events that are ostensibly the main reason for having conferences at all — i.e., getting to share your research, and getting to learn from other people’s research — are often the least enjoyable parts of the weekend.

The best part of many (most?) conferences is typically the stuff that happens outside of those tiny hotel meeting rooms. The conversations that take place while browsing the book exhibit, or in the hotel lobby, or over food and beverages (and so on): these are often the best moments for learning new and wonderful things about other people’s work.

Some of the best advice I received as a graduate student was about how to spend one’s time at conferences. Sadly, I can’t remember who gave me these tips. But they’ve never failed me, and they’re worth passing on:

  • Don’t worry about filling your days by attending as many sessions as possible. Most of the time, you won’t see enough strong papers for that to be a rewarding strategy.
  • Don’t be shy. Introduce yourself. Meet new people. Talk with them. Grab coffee or lunch or drinks or dinner with them.
  • How do you know if you’ve had a good conference? If any one of the following three things happens:
    • You’ve seen one good paper.
    • You’ve made one new contact worth keeping.
    • You’ve gotten one good new idea for some project you’re working on.

Using these guidelines, I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad conference. And some of the most intellectually rewarding conference experiences I’ve had have found me attending less than a panel per day.

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