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The dilemmas of conferencing

Over the course of several years of graduate school, I've been to enough conferences to realize that it's often hard to tell which are the important ones, and what's important to do at any one of them.

For example, I know the American Historical Association is a Very Major and Important conference, yet I've never been. From all reports I've read, it's a conference large enough to drown in and swarmed by stressed-out interviewees. On the other hand, I'm a Medieval Congress (aka Kalamazoo) regular, enjoy it thoroughly, and run into people I know everywhere I go there. And it's a conference of 4000 people, often enough, which is hardly a small event as juniperus knows entirely too well.

It's difficult to tell in advance what will be good about a conference. That paper with a catchy title you've been eyeing in the program book all week might be extraordinarily dull, cancelled at the last minute, or so abstrusely specific that unless you're an expert on the topic already, it'll go right over your head. Equally, a long and meaningless title might hide behind it a brilliant, witty, and insightful conference paper. The same logic applies to almost any conference-related event: will the plenary, starring many Famous Academics, be monopolized by a Famous Academic whose pet peeve this topic is? Will the dialogue be deep and meaningful? It's a gamble.

Should social factors enter in? After all, if people you know are involved, it's easier to request a copy of the talk directly from the speaker. These days, I try to only consider social factors if there's nothing desperately important to my little subdiscipline which conflicts with it.

I have learned at least two things about conferencing through inconclusive experience:

* Whether or not you attend any good papers in a conference does not necessarily have any correspondance with the number of papers you attend.

* If you're too tired to stay awake for a paper, it's better to go take a nap or go for a walk, than fall asleep in the middle of a session.

When it comes down to it, none of this is particularly useful advice, once you've been to a conference or two yourself. Papers are luck of the draw, unless you've already experienced how good a particular speaker is. But are conferences themselves equally arbitrary?

Conferences go on all the time in any given field. They constantly conflict with each other. Some are free, some are local, some involve transoceanic flights.

Short of previous experience, how do you tell what will be a good conference, one worth attending? What clues do you look for? How do you choose between two conflicting ones? Do you choose on the convenience of geography alone? Price? Do you only attend conference where you will be presenting a paper? Where you know a friend or relative in town you can crash with or at least visit?


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 12th, 2004 11:41 am (UTC)
A nearly-PhD point of view...
Having gone to a number of conferences, and mostly having to fund myself, I've formulated the following rules:
  1. always look through the technical referees list to see how many reputable / known people you recognise, and if none then don't go without a good reason;
  2. a warm and sunny location is good, because even if the conference is a write-off then you can compensate with a holiday;
  3. ask yourself "if I quote this paper in my viva/defence then what will the examiner's reaction be to the conference name?"; and
  4. look through your refs.bib file to see which conference proceedings you keep citing.

I've tended to write up trip reports for each conference I go to, with a summary of each paper presentation / talk I attend. Sometimes it's not possible to get much down, e.g. in really technical (and boring) presentations, but I've found it a real pay-back in later clarifying the intent of the authors when you're citing the work - or even if you don't cite it, you have an idea what's going on in an associated area. Check out my writeups as an example.
And always go out for beers with the grad students / younger profs afterwards. The payback is great, and the hangover is mild (unless you're with UFT engineering students, in which case you're going to have a tough day afterwards).
Feb. 12th, 2004 08:39 pm (UTC)
Re: A nearly-PhD point of view...
You make some very good points I'd never thought of before. It would behoove me to write up the papers I go to. In the long run, they would be more use to me if I could remember that I'd attended them in the first place, after all, which I often can't. I've always been unsure whether or not to take notes during talks. I'll write down references that I absolutely desperately want to follow up on, but not usually take notes, a la classtime. If a conference talk is good, I'll generally enjoy it more by not trying to jot down highlights but by listening to the whole thing, by which point I've often forgotten numerous salient details. If I at least wrote down a few sentences afterwards, I would be able to refer back to the gist of the talk at very least.

Equally, this is a good reminder for me to check out more conference proceedings for possible evidence on some dissertation points I'm stuck on.

Dinners with people I've just met is one of the best things to happen during conferences. I sometimes find myself rating a conference's degree of success for me by how many impromptu and partially-arranged meals I managed to be a part of.
Feb. 12th, 2004 02:52 pm (UTC)
Well, 3000 - but IMO way too many no matter which number. :)

I've given papers at Congress, smaller, regional conferences (Midwest Medieval, Ohio Academy of History) largely to get my feet wet. I'm giving a paper at a small conference this summer held by the American Association for Esotericism which I know nothing about save for the organizer of my session and the other presenter in my session (who are both Congress regulars, Societas Magica folks). I don't know how the name of the conference will be taken, but that isn't a worry for me - I deal with high and later medieval magic, I'll never attend ISAS, you know? The name of the conference may never be as off-putting as the title of my paper - once they read 'Erotic Magic in..' it won't matter *where* I gave it! Hee!

I second the 'who do you know?' advice, and if you want to stick to conferences you know are important in your field (for us Congress and Leeds, for example) then, like my paper this summer, you may be asked to participate in smaller conferences by people you know well at other times and learn about these other opportunities in a...hmm. safer and more professionally comfortable way. Don't discount confernces that are, strictly, not specifically medieval if they're applicable - something on science and tech in history, for example, or for me a religion conference would apply where MLA won't whatsoever.

Not sure if I stated that clearly - I haven't finished my first cuppa. :)
Feb. 12th, 2004 08:34 pm (UTC)
I've been throwing the 4000 number around for years. It's the right order of magnitude at least, if wrong.

I really enjoyed the one time I attended the Midwest Medieval conference, in Bloomington. I applied in part because I had two friends there I hadn't seen in ages. It was good both socially, and as a pleasant, small conference. And they somehow didn't notice I was a graduate student and intimidatingly put me in with all the professors.

You make a good point about attending all the most relevant conferences. The Society for the History of Technology's conference is also one I've attended fairly regularly, part of the nominal medieval and early modern contingent. I went to Leeds once, but it was unders slightly hasty and awkward circumstances, so I won't hold the vaguely lousy experience I had against it. I really need to go to more European conferences. I've applied to the British History of Science Society to give a paper this August - in the strange way in which conferences sometimes work, they're holding this year's meeting in conjunction with the History of Science Society in Canada, on the east coast. It'll be a good opportunity to check out the Maritimes.

One of the best conference experiences I ever had was my first year in Toronto. I volunteered to help out with the 18th century studies conference. For my services, I had full conference attendance rights, free banquet tickets, a free book from the display table, great networking experience with other graduate students on campus especially, and, since at the last minute they received extra funding, I was paid for my "volunteer" work.

I think your comment was about as coherent as my original post, which I wrote late at night and certainly has little thematic unity, thanks to my digression mid-stream.
Feb. 12th, 2004 03:45 pm (UTC)
one last suggestion re: conferences
* Don't eat the chicken. Ever.
Feb. 12th, 2004 05:53 pm (UTC)
Re: one last suggestion re: conferences

[an aside: tried to reply to something in your LJ but it claims I'm not your friend. my user info thinks I am your friend. I'm perplexed.] [you can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your friend's nose!]
Feb. 12th, 2004 06:16 pm (UTC)
Re: one last suggestion re: conferences
oh lame, let me fix that. For some reason, my friends' list seems to have evacuated without my permission.

Yeah, I had terrible food poisoning at Zoo last year. And it wasn't even because of the cafe food- it was from a restaurant in town.

This year, I bring my OWN CHICKEN!
Feb. 12th, 2004 07:11 pm (UTC)
Re: one last suggestion re: conferences
EW. let me know where - I don't want to run ito that myself, whether it's during the Congress or any other time (and certainly not with my kids!)

I eat in the caf pretty much every meal - since it's even a treat to be able to attend a session or meeting and get away from the registration area - and while it isn't grand fare, it is reasonably priced, all-you-can-eat, and conveniently located. (not to mention a good thing for grad students - you might meet up with people at lunch, since you are basically forced to co-mingle at the long tables, that results in dinner plans and networking!)
Feb. 12th, 2004 08:18 pm (UTC)
Re: one last suggestion re: conferences
it was at a place called Cosmos. owlfish had the pasta sans chicken. She was smart.
The cafeteria is cool, but for some reason, all my professors/faculty/friends go out to eat. I don't know why.

I should network more. This will be my third year at Zoo and a number of the people that I usually "hang with" won't be there. I guess it's time for this medievalist to grow up and get out there on her own!!

Feb. 12th, 2004 08:28 pm (UTC)
Re: one last suggestion re: conferences
I'm always happy to loiter with with you. By the way, I like the idea of 5 minute recaps: we can skip the content and share all the moments in our respective papers which were intended to be vaguely humorous, but which no one got because it was hidden behind a veil of academic intrigue. Or something like that.

I'm happy to hang out with you whenever, but I don't count as extending your existing networks.
Feb. 12th, 2004 08:31 pm (UTC)
Re: one last suggestion re: conferences
we could always have a competition to see who could recap their paper in the shortest fashion:

"There are a lot of old english glosses in the twelfth century... i find it cool. the end."

There you have it then.

I would love to loiter with you again this year. Hopefully I will be better behaved and won't get in trouble for moaning in my journal!

Drout won't be at the conference this year though. He is expecting a Droutling (a boy). I figure that was an acceptable reason to miss my first paper.
Feb. 12th, 2004 08:55 pm (UTC)
Re: one last suggestion re: conferences
"Craftsmen wore eyeglasses while doing detail work, but only after they were invented." I wonder why more conferences don't request abstracts which are that short?

You're too good at locking most of your journal entries these days to get in trouble!

Hmm. I don't know. Expecting a child seems like a poor excuse when he could be watching the brilliance that will be your paper presentation. I guess it'll have to do.
Feb. 12th, 2004 09:03 pm (UTC)
Re: one last suggestion re: conferences
I was pregnant at the Congress two years ago - never an excuse! ;)
Feb. 13th, 2004 03:35 am (UTC)
Re: one last suggestion re: conferences
a side note: your icon is the funniest thing I have seen all week.
Feb. 24th, 2004 05:36 pm (UTC)
as long as it's in dc
The absolute main criteria you should follow for going to conferences is that they should be in Washington DC, or at least withing 1 hour's driving distance!!!
Feb. 24th, 2004 05:36 pm (UTC)
as long as it's in dc
The absolute main criteria you should follow for going to conferences is that they should be in Washington DC, or at least withing 1 hour's driving distance!!!

Feb. 24th, 2004 05:49 pm (UTC)
Re: as long as it's in dc
I should have gone to the American Historical Association's January meeting! I'd seen you only a week earlier, but still. I would have been able to see still more of you that way! I'll keep my eye out for options.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )