Conference Advice

by Kieran Healy on August 27, 2003

Dan Drezner blogs some advice for attendees of academic conferences. His suggestions are fine, but I have some of my own.

First, some general perspective for those of you who are lucky enough not to have to go to these things. Attending an academic conference is like being a teenager again. This is why they can be so awful. You hang around trying to attach yourself to a group—preferably the cool kids, but in the end any group will do—and then these groups hang around waiting for something to happen. Groups exist in a permanent state of failing to decide what to do. Where should we go to dinner? Are we still waiting for someone? I heard there was a good party in the Berkeley suite. Where’s Ann, wasn’t she here a minute ago? As with teenagers, attendees secretly (and falsely) believe that other groups are having a much better time. Thus, they scan the area (e.g., the hotel lobby) in case the present group needs to be ditched for an apparently more interesting one. Your conference strategies should therefore be geared towards counteracting the tendency to re-live your teenage years. (I think some of the following suggestions come from a forwarded email I read years ago. They’ve stood up to empirical testing.)

  1. Arrange to meet people in advance. Don’t rely entirely on bumping into people by accident.
  2. If you have the option of going to dinner with some people now or hanging around a bit longer in the vague hope of eating with some more famous people later, go to dinner now.
  3. When you have the opportunity to introduce Bigwig A to Nobody B, do it in that order. Say “Bigwig, do you know Nobody?” rather than the other way around, because otherwise Nobody is forced to stammer “Well, uh, yes of course … um…”
  4. When talking to someone you do not know, always assume they are a faculty member, even if they do not look old enough to drive. Grad students will be flattered. Prickly professors will not get in a huff and use you in an anecdote later that evening.
  5. Be careful what you say in elevators. (I find this rule applies in life generally.)

{ 11 comments }

1

rea 08.27.03 at 12:41 pm

Like reliving your teen years? Are there really that much drugs, alcohol, and (thinking about) sex at academic conferences?

2

jam 08.27.03 at 1:40 pm

A few more:

1. Go with a friend. It keeps the pressure down. If possible, a friend you sleep with. This is one of the few advantages an academic couple has.

2. Present. By definition, then, the conference will be a success if your session goes well. You really won’t care about the quality of the other papers.

3. Avoid meat market conferences. Even if you aren’t one of the slabs on a hook, they’re depressing: it’s difficult to get the interview tables in the basement out of your head. And any particular group is likely to contain an interviewer and an interviewee (not necessarily for the same job) which reduces conviviality.

3

Brian Weatherson 08.27.03 at 3:29 pm

Maybe philosophy is just weird (or more likely I’m just weird) but I thought some of the advice here wasn’t optimal. In particular

When talking to someone you do not know, always assume they are a faculty member

I think this depends a lot on what stage the conversation is at. Before any words have been exchanged, some of us would like to think we don’t look old enough to drive, and would quite appreciate being confused for a student, or better yet a precocious high schooler. On the other hand, if this confusion is made after 10 minutes of discussing theory, we mays be prickly.

Present. By definition, then, the conference will be a success if your session goes well. You really won’t care about the quality of the other papers.

But on the other hand if your presentation goes poorly the conference will definitely be a downer. If you don’t present you can always unfavourably compare everyone else’s performance to how well yours would have gone. (Note that this is less effective if you send a paper to the conference and it doesn’t get accepted.)

In general though the comments that Kieran and Daniel have made seem right for large-scale philosophy conferences in America, especially the meat market conferences. Those really can be depressing if things start to go badly.

And as Kieran suggested, it’s really a bad idea to try organising conference activities (esp. dinner) on the fly. Trying to get philosophers to do anything in a coordinated fashion is a nightmare. Best to either plan things in advance or just bounce around without thinking too hard about whether it is an optimal use of conference time. (Rule of thumb: thinking about whether you could be elsewhere/in a cooler group/at a nicer bar is generally _not_ a optimal use of conference time.)

4

Sheri 08.27.03 at 4:22 pm

Attend your advisor’s panel, if you’re a grad student; sit sufficiently close to be noticed. Cite one of your advisor’s works on a future paper.

Follow the general life advice of monitoring your comments in all elevators; listen to the comments of others and you’ll comprehend the reason.

5

Bill Humphries 08.27.03 at 5:55 pm

All of the above, esp. the comment about dinner, goes double for science fiction conventions.

Just s/faculty member/editor or writer/ in the recommendations above.

6

Maynard Handley 08.27.03 at 7:57 pm

I especially like this sentence by Kieran.

If you have the option of going to dinner with some people now or hanging around a bit longer in the vague hope of eating with some more famous people later, go to dinner now.

One of my guilty pleasures is watching TV reality shows, (and then drawing drastic conclusions about the nature of humanity from the result). On such shows we can see happening before our eyes, and recorded on tape, what we always thought we were seeing in real life. In particular one thing I find fascinating about these shows is how quickly people are willing to ditch their entire knowledge base of previous human interactions. In particular you will see that guy A, an OK but not stunning looking fellow, has managed through dumb luck on the show to hook up with gorgeous girl B. At this point, instead of thanking his lucky stars and remembering that this is the high point of his history of interacting with women, he looks around, sees that supergorgeous girl C is still in play, and gives up on his sure thing for a pretty damn unlikely chance at a very slightly better thing.

It may seem that I’m being flip above, but this strikes me as an interesting human (perhaps male?) phenomenon that has been insufficiently explored. It’s certainly there—god knows I recognize the tendency from my younger years in both myself (though I like to think I’m now self-aware enough to fight it) and my friends. I also wonder if it is perhaps a driver in apparently unrelated issues like stock-market bubbles. One again I’m a wimp who is happy to cash out gratefully if I’m lucky enough to make 30% in a month, but the standard tendency in these situations apparently, to judge from conversations, what I read in the paper, and of course recent history, is to say “well, heck, let’s wait to see if it reaches a 50% gain, or why not a 100% gain?” And of course (once again being flip) we need someone to tell us how this behavior made sense in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation.

7

Matt Weiner 08.27.03 at 9:08 pm

If you don’t present you can always unfavourably compare everyone else’s performance to how well yours would have gone. (Note that this is less effective if you send a paper to the conference and it doesn’t get accepted.)

I dissent from the parenthesis. You can observe how poorly the papers went, and what fools the organizers are for not picking yours. Works like a charm!

8

Jacob T. Levy 08.27.03 at 9:18 pm

Related to “go to your advisor’s panel”: Go to your grad students’ panels, when possible. One of my grad school advisors made it a frequent point to attend and give moral support when his students were presenting, and it was much appreciated. Even counting only current grad students there may be too many to go to everyone’s, and of course there are other obligations as well, but do this at least sometimes.

I enjoy these things tremendously, in a way that I certainly didn’t enjoy being a teenager. They’re one of the best parts of the business…

9

nick sweeney 08.28.03 at 12:07 am

Are there really that much drugs, alcohol, and (thinking about) sex at academic conferences?

At EngLit conferences, yes. There’s the anecdote following the 1997 MLA conference in Toronto, when the leader of the prostitutes’ union complained that attendees had excessively outré demands, probably plucked out of de Sade, and then haggled over the price. ‘Kinky but cheap’ is the kind of stereotype that can be very easily applied to English departments.

It’s something that never ceases to horrify my wife, who’s a psychologist, and is used to the APA mentality: basically serious, but avoid the lecherous old men.

One bit of advice for conferences, though: be foreign. I managed to get a deductible junket to a NYU conference, in part because I wanted to fly on to Athens, GA and see Herself; the novelty value, though, of being one of just a couple of British attendees meant that people actually wanted to talk to me.

A final thought: if your paper is scheduled for a Saturday morning, ten people will be in attendence, and no-one will ask questions, because neither you nor they will be fully awake, and neither you nor they will want to drag things on. Just play it for laughs: read it out in a Donald Duck voice if you like.

10

Chris Williams 08.28.03 at 12:50 pm

Another thing: if you are part of an academic couple, and you can possibly arrange this, bring along a cute little baby. This will be the ultimate icebreaker in almost any socail/intellectual situation.

And one more: avoid commenting on the evils of unjustified poststructuralist discourse (or any other hot-button issue) when you’ve got a ‘fighting hangover’.

11

Nabakov 08.29.03 at 10:53 am

“avoid commenting on the evils of unjustified poststructuralist discourse (or any other hot-button issue) when you’ve got a ‘fighting hangover”.

Very sound advice, as I know.

Another tip is to arrive early for presentations/lectures/seminars, stake out a good seat (five or so rows back, near the aisle) with yer bag, files or coat but then stay on yer feet (make a phone call, peruse the handouts or displays) while checking out everyone else as they turn up.

This gives you maximum flexability to relocate yourself next to someone who looks interesting or chatup-able and to avoid boring workmates also on the junket.

I seem to remember a good scene about this in an Andrew Davies teleplay before he got into undressing Jane Austen.

Comments on this entry are closed.