How to Hack A Conference (AKA Attend One Productively)

It’s that time of year again! No, not just a time for grading, wrapping up your semester, or even thinking about what you might get your family/friends/pets/self for the holiday of your choice. No, I’m talking about national academic conferences like the upcoming meetings of the MLA, AHA, or APA. These conferences represent the opportunity for thousands of scholars to come together, hear what’s newest in their fields, and to stand in line for coffee. Oh, and I’ve been told that people occasionally interview for jobs at these things. (Look for my post on hacking your interview tomorrow). I’m sure that you’ve been keeping track of your own conference(s) and its calls for papers, but I’m also sure that with these conferences coming right in the middle–or on the heels of–some major holidays, that we could all use a refresher on making the most of what can be a completely stressfull invigorating experience.

Attend panels at the conference. This might seem obvious, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that conferences place us at the epicenter of scholarly exchange. Given that the number of panels at something like MLA (which covers my own fields) exceeds 1000, it can be daunting to figure out where you’re going to go every hour. (This is what the plane ride if for, in my experience.) But it also means that there is almost certainly something relevant to your work happening right this very minute.

Practice your talk. We’ve all heard a talk that seems to be in the process of being written while delivered. We’ve perhaps all been that person faking it before for very good reasons. But if you have the opportunity, please practice what you’ll say aloud. It will increase your confidence and your ability to rely less on your written talk/notes. And perhaps most important of all, it will give you a sense of how long your talk will be. You don’t want to be the person that goes over his or her time limit by 15 minutes. There’s a reason that the MLA has digital timers in every room now. (Although no one ever uses them.)

Practice responsible co-speaking. If you’ve already practiced your talk, then your stress level will tend to be lower as you’re waiting for your turn to speak. Now you’ll be able to pay attention to your fellow panelists. Take notes on what they are saying. Think about how their paper relates to your own. This will allow you to make connections on the fly in your paper (since you’ve practiced it enough to be able to go off text). Or perhaps you’ll be able to bring in another panelist when you’ve been asked a question. Finally, you can start thinking about questions you could ask another panelist. There’s nothing more uncomfortable than being the only panelist whose project doesn’t elicit questions or comments. Helping colleagues not only save face but get some feedback in their research (that’s what conferences are about, after all) will make you a sought after person in future speaking engagements.

Participate in panels if you’re not speaking. As long as you’re attending the panels, take advantage of the scholarly exchange and become a participant. While the intricate maneuvers of the Q&A of the panels (if there is even time for it) could easily be the fodder for a Kafka novel or two, you should also consider speaking to the panelists following the session. Not only does this give you a chance to continue the conversation, but it’s led to some real opportunities for me, including an invitation to write a review essay, to participate in a large project archiving and cataloging electronic literature, and hanging out with senior scholars in my field.

Use Twitter. If you’re going to participate after the speakers have finished you should also think about participating while they are speaking. Over the last year and a half, Twitter has become an increasingly important method for making the backchannel that has always existed in conference settings more public. Responding to speakers in real-time takes some practice, but it creates a participatory, learning environment where you can share your thoughts with more than the person next to you. Even people not at your conference can become involved when you use your conference’s hashtag within your tweets. If you’re not using Twitter, you might be missing half of the conference. (It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway that professional standards of courtesy need to be maintained even when using Twitter. No one wants to be “Tweckled.”)

Don’t just attend panels at the conference. When I attended my first conference as a graduate student, I didn’t feel too comfortable mingling. I dutifully attended a panel almost every hour and then dashed back to the safety of my hotel room as soon as the day was done. After all, everyone knows that academics are loners. Besides, I hadn’t wanted to go to business school so I shouldn’t have to mingle or network. What I’ve since decided is that mingling is part of my job. So while it’s not my favorite thing to do, I force myself to get out and talk to people. And somewhere in there, I inevitably end up enjoying myself. Feel free to use the line for the coffee (or bar) in the hotel lobby as a great place to strike up conversations.

Introduce yourself. To make an impression when talking to panelists–and anyone at the conference–be sure to introduce yourself by name and school. You want people to know who you are. Which also means that you should wear your conference badge. Feel free to take it off once you leave the conference’s main drag, however. For bonus points, consider adding your online avatar to your name tag, if you have a consistent one. Help people recognize the face that they interact with most frequently.

Stay in a conference hotel. It’s much easier for you to be a part of the whole conference scene if you actually stay in one of the conference hotels. You’re right in the middle of everything, and it makes it much easier to dash upstairs for a quick nap or snack (more on that in a moment). If you’re in a hotel away from the center of activities, you will tend to either stay in your room (see previous point) or you will be stuck at the events for the entire day which can become very tiring. (Some of my very closest friends/colleagues disagree wholeheartedly on the idea of being in the epicenter. What do you think?)

Plan your networking. While staying in the conference hotel can be a good way to put yourself in the heart of the action, it’s also worth noting that serendipity is vastly overrated. Plan meals or coffee breaks with the interesting people that you know you want to catch up with so you make sure that it will happen. Don’t overschedule yourself since some space for serendipity is one of the pleasures of the conference experience. But as Derek Bruff recently put it on Twitter, “having breakfast by yourself b/c you didn’t find someone to eat with is a lost opportunity.”

Hit the book display. One could argue that the heart of conventions is not the panels but rather the book display. I’ve been told that at the AHA, at least, it’s where most of the big-name historians are. Moreover, it’s incredibly useful to scan the booths to get a sense of the projects and fields that publishers are currently interested in. And don’t forget that the people manning the booths are also frequently acquisition editors. If you can summon the moxie to chat with them, you could begin establishing a relationship that could continue with your sending a manuscript along. Finally, I’ve been told that in the final hours of the conference that the book displays have some incredible discounts. If you don’t have enough to read yet–and really, what academic does?–then stock up on the newest titles in your field.

Plan your finances. As long as I’m recommending you bring home a new library, it’s worth noting that productivity can also be increased by decreasing the financial outlay of the conference. Pack yourself some snacks; I can guarantee that the granola bars you can buy at home will be cheaper than those you’ll find in downtown Philadelphia, San Diego, or Manhattan. If you’re not going to take Derek’s advice and use your breakfast time to connect with people, I’m here to tell you that instant oatmeal travels very well and can be made without much ingenuity in the comfort of your own hotel room. For more money-saving tips, look at last week’s article at the Chronicle by Professor Pennywise.  Of these tips, I’d especially recommend finding an ATM card that reimburses you for any and all fees. I left MLA 2006 with that as my New Year’s resolution, and all my academic travel has been vastly improved by avoiding $2.00 surcharges.

How do you make the most out of a conference experience? What hard-won wisdom from the conference circuit can you share with the rest of us?

cc licensed flickr photo by sashafatcat


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