on conferencing

This past semester, I presented at my three very first academic conferences EVER: a graduate student history conference in Michigan, a social theory conference in Boston, and a food studies conference here at UT-Austin.  Since I’m still pretty new to this business, these were also the first three academic conferences I’ve attended, which means that I spent at least as much time soaking up what academic conferences are like as I did presenting and learning about what other scholars are up to.  (And don’t even talk to me about logistics!  I spent so much of April navigating transportation systems in different parts of the country that I could write a whole article on bus culture alone.  Just going from Detroit to Boston was seriously like travelling between different planets – technologically, culturally, spatially, awesomely…!)
Anyhow.  Transportation issues aside, going to three radically different conferences in three different parts of the country was even more instructive than I’d hoped.  Here are a few things I’ve learned in the past few months:
1.      Different kinds of conferences have different purposes, so choose accordingly.
The first conference I went to was a food studies conference aimed at both academics and foodies; the purpose here was mostly to promote our oral history project and get people interested in it, so we set up our presentation so that the oral history subjects, via video and audio recordings, did most of the talking.  The history conference, by contrast, was a graduate student conference aimed at providing inexperienced grad students with a supportive environment and a great deal of feedback.  And the social theory conference was designed to help professionals in a specialized field get together and network.  Because my goal in going to conferences this spring was to learn how conferences work and how to present at them, the grad student conference was by far the most useful for me at this stage in my career (and coincidentally, it was also incredibly well-organized and well-run!), and bigger, discipline- or field-specific conferences will be more useful later, when I’ve got the conferencing thing down and am looking to network with folks in my field.
2.      Presentations are performances.
It’s one thing to present your final paper to ten fellow grad students at the end of a seminar or to lecture 15 undergrads for a few minutes; it’s entirely another to get up in front of a hundred and fifty foodies and talk about your oral history project or to try and interest a group of tenured professors in your dissertation research.  These are performances more than they are presentations, and – if you’re anything like me – they therefore require a good bit of prep to calm the nerves and keep the stage fright at bay.  And yes, this includes planning well in advance, rehearsing multiple times, knowing where the holes in your research lie, and thinking about how you’ll answer the inevitable well-meaning – or not so well-meaning – questions from the audience about them.
3.      The humanities and the social sciences have different presentation conventions.
As I was preparing for the history conference, I thought to myself: ‘I know the idea here is to present a paper, but people can’t possibly just get up there and read papers.  That would be horribly boring.  I bet they make presentations and just hit the high points of the paper.’  So I made a simple Prezi outlining my argument, picked out a few key scenes to talk about, and went to the conference.  Where everyone read papers.  Often without visuals.  And sometimes it was boring, but mostly it was interesting, and the best speakers were able to combine ample detail with good storytelling techniques.  By comparison, my presentation, which I had constructed to be direct and to the point, seemed a bit empty and unromantic.
So, a week later, while I was preparing for the social theory conference, I thought to myself: ‘The papers I really liked at the history conference had a fair amount of detail and a good story to them, and no one really bothered with visuals.  I’ll just trim my paper down a bit and read it.’  So I cut my paper down a bit and went to the conference.  Where everyone had very structured, scientific presentations. And professional-looking visuals.  With lots of diagrams.  And again, sometimes it was boring, but mostly it was interesting, but this time the best speakers had clean, easily intelligible graphics diagramming their arguments.  And they had very little interest in having stories read to them.
Now you know: the humanities and the social sciences have different presentation conventions.  Prepare accordingly.
4.      Talk to people!  It’s fun – and important.
You know what’s awesome about conferences?  Meeting new people and learning new things.  In Michigan, I had the good fortune to be on a panel with a gentleman who was working on a similar project, but focusing on a different city, and to have lunch with a soon-to-be-graduate who was using similar methods to mine.  In Boston, I stayed with a well-travelled artist and bookseller who turned out to be incredible resources on the city’s public transportation, and I learned more about social movements in a single day of conference sessions than I could have in a year’s worth of reading.  And in Austin, our presentation sparked a flurry of questions about tourism, growth, and networks among restaurateurs, all of which provided ample food for thought.  In other words, the presentations are important for sure, but getting to know people informally is what these things are all about!
5.      Travelling is expensive, yo.
I do like travelling, I’m psyched that I got to go to so many different places, and truthfully I needed to get a few lines on the old CV, but jetting all over the country is not exactly the most efficient or the cheapest way to get conference experience.  All told, I spent about a thousand bucks to go to two conferences, which isn’t exactly cheap when you’re on a TA salary.  And frankly, grad student conferences and small regional conferences happen all over the country, so why not go to the ones close to home and save your money for big national conferences (you know, the ones that look good on your CV) instead?  Unless you’re just looking for an excuse to visit friends or you’ve got an expansive travel budget, that is.
In sum: Know your discipline, prepare well, and try as best you can to match up what you want to get out of a conference with the kind (and location) of conference you apply to.  That, and take the time to talk to people.  Business school long ago cured me of ever wanting to use the word ‘networking’ again, but that’s what it is – and it’s important.  And at the grad student conference I went to, it’s also surprisingly fun.
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