Every conference is an opportunity to make connections with other scholars and talk to an informed audience about your work. Here are some of my top tips for getting the most out of academic conferences.
• First, take time to think through which conferences are worth your time and energy. Most of us don’t have unlimited conference travel funds. When you add in the costs of extra childcare and the time it takes to craft a good conference paper, it only makes sense to carefully choose where to present your work. For me, with the ages of my children and my regional university’s limited professional development funds, I usually only attend two conferences a year. I’ve found attending of a broad international conference related to one of my disciplines, like the National Women’s Studies Association Conference and a smaller specialized conference, like the Caribbean Studies Association Conference useful. A big conference lets you get a sense of trends in your field, and a small one lets you talk to an audience who won’t need a lot of back story or excessive theory about whatever you’re working on. One of the questions I always ask peers at conferences is where else they’ve attended and what they’d recommend. That’s how I found out about the American Comparative Literature Association Conference that I just attended, and which inspired this post.
• Second, I have never really seen this issue talked about before, but going to conferences far away from where you live can be a huge sticking point in your childcare and co-parenting arrangements. You might end up paying 30% more than childfree colleagues because of the extra childcare you might need. If you’re already stretched by having small children, or through difficult negotiations because you’re divorced or separated, explaining why you need your children’s other parent to do 100% of the housework and childcare can be difficult. Since academics choose where and when to go to conferences, this can be another example of how our work can be perceived as leisure by our families. Recognize that you’ll need more help when you’re away and either budget for more childcare or maybe plan ahead of time to do some childcare sharing. For my recent conference, I asked a neighbor to get my youngest off the bus one day and watch him until my partner was done with work. I got her child off the bus and watched him this week.
• Finish your conference paper before you get to the conference. I know, I totally sound like your mom. The reason that finishing your conference paper before you get there is so important for us parents is that we often don’t get enough time to interact with colleagues. Use the conference pre-program to figure out if people you know are at the conference and which panels you’d like to attend. Conferences are all about interpersonal interaction. You can sit at home and read a journal article. Conference time, for me, is different than regular time. Its one of the few times in my adult life where it is ok if a conversation spills over into meal time, or that I can stay up late talking to colleagues and not need to worry about getting up for my kids. Let yourself enjoy the conference and meeting new people.
• Use the time and space of the conference to work on your research. This isn’t the same as frantically working on a conference paper. This needs to be stress free solitude. I do some of my best academic thinking while listening to other people’s research, so I tend to write notes to myself about my own project while at panels. As a mother of a toddler, I actually put together a big chunk of my tenure file at a conference. Carve out time to journal about your research or to actually write a bit. Just don’t spend your entire conference in a coffee shop or your hotel room.
• Fifth, conference like a mom. Employ an ethics of care. Put on your big girl pants and introduce yourself to people. Make sure that the grad student on your panel gets asked a question. Be kind. Talk to the person standing alone a reception. Compared to almost any other gathering, at a conference you already have a lot in common with the attendees. Lots of people use conferences to connect with old friends. I’m guilty of that too. But leave open the possibility of meeting new colleagues at all stages of their careers. Both of the books I’ve edited came about through meeting my co-editors for the first time on a panel.
•Last, don’t be a snob. Given that we’re in an academic job market where fewer and fewer people get tenure track jobs, I no longer think (if this was ever true) that the importance of a person’s work can be evidenced by the name of their institution on their name tag, or by their job title. I’m so grateful to the senior scholars who came to panels I was on early in my career, even if they were mainly populated with other grad students. Unless you are a graduate student at your very first conference, you have experience and knowledge that you can pass on to someone else.