The Art of Good Conferencing

February 04, 2008

The academic conference is stereotyped in popular culture -- not without cause -- as a confluence of the bizarre and the boring. But for faculty members, especially those on the tenure-and-promotion track, learning how to get the most out of those meetings has become an essential skill.

Even for doctoral students who, once upon a time, did not need to be conference-goers and paper presenters, learning the art of conferencing is a vital part of applying for your first teaching job.

Like all promotion-and-tenure matters, this one should not be approached blindly and without planning.

The first issue to consider is which conferences to attend, and how many. Your selection will be guided by many factors, not all of them scholarly -- for example, your department may pay for you to attend just one predetermined conference a year. Conversely, I know one language professor who goes only to meetings held at scenic vacation spots. Ethical considerations aside, it doesn't seem like a good idea for faculty members who want to stay involved in their research to be ruled by the pleasure principle.

In some disciplines, the question of which conference to attend is easily answered. Certain annual meetings are practically required for everyone in that discipline, junior or senior. In all fields, however, there are also additional conferences to consider, built around subspecialties or multidisciplinary groupings.

For maximum benefit toward your career and intellectual growth, always attend the major conference in your field and, if your institution picks up all or part of the tab, go to the "major minors" -- i.e., meetings of groups in your specialty area.

The key consideration in deciding where to go is this: Are the people you most respect in your area going to attend? After all, meeting the big names in your specialty is one reason for conferencing in the first place.

Make sure your conference choices show some overall focus. An important issue for promotion-and-tenure committees is, "Does the candidate show a consistent track record of research?" Seemingly random and scattershot conference-going is no more helpful than haphazard publishing.

You will never have to justify presenting a paper at a major conference or winning a "best paper" award. But quantity is not more important that quality -- whether in the number of conferences you attend, papers you present, or panels on which you participate. Unless your association publishes prestigious "official proceedings," a conference paper is merely a way station toward the eventual goal of peer-reviewed publication in a research journal.

Consult your department's guidelines, but a ratio of more than three-to-one conference papers to publications would be a source of concern to many promotion committees. I've met assistant professors at conferences who boast of having delivered 13 to 14 papers, as if that, in itself, were an achievement separate from publication.

Ideally, every paper you present should one day see print. Otherwise you will appear to lack a quality that is crucial to promotion and tenure: the ability to follow through on what you have started.

So how do you get your paper accepted for a conference? The strategies are similar to those you will use to get the paper published.

First -- and it's amazing how often this needs repeating -- follow instructions. I know it can get quite confusing in this world of electronic submissions and PDF attachments, but I'm still shocked to see how many papers that I review for conferences break basic rules. They contain identifying information on the front page, they are missing sections, or they're saved in some sort of quirky format that does not allow easy reading. Likewise, the hastily written, patched-up paper, full of typos, is only slightly more welcome for a conference competition than for journal publication.

Paying attention to details also means trying to fit your paper into the major theme of the conference. If you're submitting a paper proposal to a particular division of the association sponsoring the meeting, work with people in that division to seek out its interests. Being division-savvy is crucial. I know many colleagues whose papers, turned down by one division, would have had a better shot if submitted to another.

Finally, most divisions consistently feature a recurring cast of characters who judge papers. You don't have to ritually cite all of them, but it may be intellectually justifiable to at least refer to their work.

On a higher plane, keep in mind that the goal of conferencing is not simply to add a line to your CV. You hope to enrich your understanding of your field and to make important contacts with people who are knowledgeable and who may one day sit in judgment of your work. There is no need to put a famous scholar on the spot and ask to meet for lunch or dinner, but only the most churlish senior professor will turn down a 10-minute talk with an eager young scholar. You may learn something and the professor may remember your name.

After the conference, write a thank-you note to those who helped you out -- and mail it the old-fashioned way. Sure, there is a fine line here between collegiality and insincerity, intellectual curiosity and intrusiveness. But conferences are good places to learn the difference.

Volunteering at a conference can also enrich the experience. Associations usually appreciate help with organizing academic meetings, judging papers, sending out mailings, and updating the group's Web site, especially at the divisional level.

Besides doing good for your profession and your particular subfield, the rationale for your participation can be partly careerist. You will get to know the movers and shakers in your division and even in your larger field. Your name will become familiar to people throughout the division. You will learn the protocols and procedures of conferencing.

As is true of any activity that is part of your tenure file, you have to balance the amount of time spent on conference participation versus the gain. Many junior faculty members complain that promotion-and-tenure standards don't sufficiently reward "service to the field." It's best to adopt the stock market's "stop-loss order" approach: Reach an agreement with the conference organizers about the extent of your responsibilities. Be candid about how much time you can give. They will be likely to understand your tenure-track-imposed limitations. Better to impress them with the quality of a lesser amount of work than to disappoint them with a great deal of slipshod labor.

Your actual presentation at the conference is, of course, the most important moment for you. It is an exercise not only in offering information but also in what sociologist Erving Goffman called the "presentation of self."

As copious research has uncovered over the years, people judge speeches and presentations not only by the content but also by the delivery and the look, tone, and style of the presenter. You can learn about good presenting from many sources, ancient and modern, from the writings of Cicero to recent articles such as "The Truth Is, You Gave a Lousy Talk" and "Read It and Weep."

Obviously you must prepare, rehearse, time yourself, and choose points of maximum interest to your audience. Avoid the obvious graduate-student gaffes of filling up your presentation with a literature review and leaving only seconds for the actual study. Speak clearly and confidently but not stridently or arrogantly. In short, exude professionalism.

Which brings me to the philosophy of feedback. Intellectual growth is impossible if people are unwilling to listen to criticism, or if they assume "paper presentation" means "stone-tableted declamation." Having an intellectual chip on your shoulder makes it very difficult to hear critiques that might be useful in your march toward eventual publication.

At one conference where I moderated a panel, a graduate student presented his research and I asked a few innocuous questions about his choice of a survey sampling strategy. He became defensive and so flustered that he looked to be on the verge of tears. I moved the discussion on to another topic, but afterward I bought him a beer and offered the following advice (in paraphrase here): "You might be wrong about your research; I might be wrong; but we are both here to trade ideas. People will think more of you if they see you growing and learning than if they assume you consider your work indisputable. And maybe you will pick up tips that will help get this paper published. What do you have to lose by listening?"

I'm not sure that advice had any effect, but the next year I sat in on a panel in which the young man presented, and he was much calmer. He also seemed to take his role seriously: He had obviously read the reviews of his work, and he listened to the moderator and the respondent and wrote down the comments from the audience.

My final piece of advice on conferencing: Enjoy yourself. Sign up for the group sightseeing tours, stay late at the parties, explore local cultural and culinary attractions with pals. I know I have made the academic conference sound like a load of work. But you have two reasons to have a good time as well.

The first is self-conditioning: The more you associate going to conferences with pleasure, the less trepidation you will have about them.

Second is external conditioning. You will make friends, not just work partners, who will sustain you throughout your career. You want them to look forward to talking with you about topics of mutual intellectual interest and enrichment as well as about children and sports.

Academic conferences have aspects of tedium and confusion, but for all of us, from doctoral students just beginning the long tenure trek to the emerita professor refining her legacy, the experience can be rewarding. The key is to classify scholarly meetings as opportunities not just for camaraderie but also for constructive advancement of your research agenda.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.