Conference Like a Mom: Getting the Most Out of Academic Conferences

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.


It’s the Least You Can Do: Managing Your Career and Family

Since I’ve started this blog, I’ve been reading a lot about leaving the academy, the time crunch we’re all under, and mental health issues. One of the main ways I think that being an academic and being a parent intersect is through the feeling of things never being done, more is always being asked of you, and never feeling that what you’ve done is good enough.

There are institutional reasons for these feelings, on the levels of both the family and the university. At work, we have the restructuring of universities into more businesslike models. Just one example of this is the trend towards jacking up enrollments: we have bigger class sizes with increasingly unprepared students. Many institutions are experiencing mission drift: we’re being asked to publish more, and earlier (hello tenure file!) with fewer resources such as professional development budgets and sabbaticals. On the parenting end, there has been a trend since WWII towards thinking of kids as products that their parents, especially their mothers, produce. There is more and more pressure to get kids tutoring, to shape and “grow” kids with an eye towards their achievements and college acceptance letters, as if they were a start up company and not small humans.

Even with these structural issues, there are aspects of our parenting and work that we can control. Below are my eight suggestions on how to do that.

 1) It’s the least you can do.

You’re probably an overachiever. If you’re reading this you probably have an advanced degree or are working towards one. Can I give you permission to stop? Continue reading

Making Mothering Studies Scholars Visible

Thursday Thought: I once heard someone in another field refer to mothering studies as “Jocelyn’s thing” as if I’d made it up in my basement. Mothering Studies has a several decades long intellectual history, including the work of Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and many, many others.

So a special shoutout to the Museum of Motherhood in NY which is holding its annual conference right now: March 6-8. The theme this year: Making Motherhood Visible. The Museum is inducting three founding Mothering Studies scholars into its Motherhood Hall of Fame: Phyllis Chesler known her her longstanding feminist activism as well as work such as Mothers on Trial (1986), Barbara Katz Rothman whose book about race and adoption, Weaving a Family (2005), I’ve taught many times, and the one and only Andrea O’Reilly, founder of the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement. MIRCI has nurtured so many of us second generation mothering studies scholars, myself included.

Andrea-OReillyO’Reilly’s keynote address will discuss the lack of inclusion of maternal perspectives in women’s studies, during a time period where a variety of identity categories are accepted and seen as legitimate subjects of research.

From her interview with York University: “It also shows that my work as both a scholar of motherhood, and more specifically as founder-director of a research centre (Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement, formerly the Association for Research on Mothering) and press (Demeter Press) on motherhood, being so honourably recognized has proven the naysayers wrong – that motherhood does matter and that motherhood studies has indeed arrived, now with a museum of its own.”