Boutique Conferences

Earlier this week, Nels wrote about the pros and cons of local, regional, and national ones.  In what follows, I want to propose yet another option, what you might think of as the “Boutique Conference.”  If the national conference is the retail equivalent of a superstore which sells everything from gardening tools to electronics to toiletries under the same roof (think Target, Walmart, etc), and the local or regional conference is its smaller, more-specialized counterpart which offers a few different options but nowhere near the selection or variety of the Superstore (I’m thinking of a grocery store like BiLo or Ralph’s or my hometown favorite, Giant Eagle), the boutique conference is the much smaller and more specialized complement.  In literary studies, you might think of MLA as the the Superstore, the regional MLAs and the field-specific conferences (ASECS, MSA) as the grocery store.  A literary version of the boutique conference might be a conference dedicated to the study of one author, or in some cases, even one text.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend a few of these boutique conferences thus far in my career.  The first couple were grad conferences, and the more recent experiences were conferences organized by different author societies: the William Carlos Williams Society (in the interest of disclosure, I currently serve as the vice-president of the Williams Society), the International James Joyce Foundation, and the T. S. Eliot Society.  These latter conferences have been extremely beneficial to me.  I attended the first in 2005 as I was working on my dissertation, the second after my first year on the tenure-track, and the third was just this past fall.

In both cases, the conferences were attended by a much smaller number of people than either the national or regional conferences in my field.  One was only 15 people while the other two were larger gatherings.  But all three of these conferences featured a wide range of scholars from graduate students to well-known and widely-published scholars.  They are also sometimes attended by “civilians”: non-academics who simply love Joyce (or whomever).   This variety, I think, is one of the true hallmarks of the boutique conference.  Everyone is there because they are interested in the same writer, and in every case, it has been gratifying to see luminaries in these fields share their insights and feedback with those of us who were just getting started in the profession.  Not only did I get to know other graduate students and junior faculty members–people who were at the same stage of their careers as me–but I also got the opportunity to talk to some really important people in my field, in many cases, scholars whose work I had read and admired for years.

But like boutique shopping, boutique conferencing isn’t necessarily cheap.  These conferences are generally held once a year or every other year, and they are often in exotic or international destinations.  That means that for those of us with limited travel resources, we need to budget wisely and choose carefully.  While I would love to attend each of these conferences every time they come around, the reality is that I simply can’t afford it.

But it is worth, at least to me, it to try and attend occasionally, especially if you are working on the author in question.  There are few better places to get feedback on you chapter on Joyce or Eliot or Williams (or Shakespeare or Faulkner or Chaucer or Woolf or . . .).  These conferences can be quite an effective motivational carrot.  Not only will I get to reward myself for finishing the chapter with a trip to wherever (hopefully “wherever” is somewhere wonderful, but even if it isn’t, it’s still travel, which I enjoy), but I also know that my audience will be familiar with the poem or book I’ve been thinking about and that there may well be an expert or two or twenty in the room, so hopefully, I’ll get some useful feedback.  Certainly, I do not mean to imply that one cannot receive helpful feedback from national conferences, but often at larger conferences, it can be hard to talk to people after the panels, either because someone else needs the room, or there’s another panel to go to across the street in the other hotel, or because folks have to get to job interviews or are otherwise too busy to stick around and chat.

Ultimately, as Nels pointed out, it is a good idea to attend different kinds of conferences, and each type has definite advantages.   All of them are ways to demonstrate that you are engaged in your field.  And each presents you with the opportunity to get your ideas out to a new audience and to get feedback on those ideas.  Ideally, they would also help you to not only promote your work but also to advance your research agenda, whether by leading directly to a publication or simply in providing you with external deadlines and structure to help you make deadlines.

Have you experienced the boutique conference?  What was your experience like?  Which kind of conference do you prefer (if you have a preference)?

[Photo by Flickr user  zoonabar and licensed through Creative Commons]

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