Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Conference season

I'm deliberately echoing--stealing?--Lesboprof's title for her excellent post on conferences and what they can and cannot do for you. Here are just a few additional points.

  • Sessions. Every big conference (ASA, MLA, etc.) has a thick program book full of sessions you'll want to see. Every big conference also has a huge list of cultural things you'll kick yourself for not seeing, as long as you're in the area. What will happen is this: you'll plan to go to 19 out of 20 sessions, say. The session you miss--the session when you went to the art museum instead--will be the one that you'll hear about later. "Did you go to hear X?" people will say. "That session was fantastic; it totally transformed the way everyone will talk about the field." If you know in advance that whatever session you don't attend is the one that will be the best, and resign yourself to that, you'll feel better about the ones you do attend.
  • Learning things you can't learn in another way. When you go to a conference, you hear things that you ordinarily wouldn't hear. So and so is doing a big book on Y, and everybody seems to know this but you. How do they know this? They go to conferences. Now you know it, too.
  • Life doesn't stop because you're away at a conference. Students and your colleagues will still want answers from you, if they know you can check email. Actually, they'll want answers anyway, but you'll be too busy to write long answers/look up administrative minutiae/care. The place won't blow up if you ignore them for a couple of days. If you have to check email, and you don't want to use autoreply, do some triage and don't write long responses to anything.
  • You'll be tired.You'll be energized by the conference, but you'll also be tired afterward. When you get back, no one will care if you're tired--not your cats, not your colleagues, not your students. No one. If you can share the excitement but not the fatigue, so much the better; if not, it's sufficient to keep yourself from hitting people on the head with a dictionary.
  • It's expensive to go to a conference, so plan carefully. Lesboprof calculates that it costs about $1500 to go to a conference and that you might get $500 in travel money. You'll get even less than that if you have a fixed amount of travel funding per year and you're going to a lot of conferences. Is the conference you want to attend worth it?
  • Conference papers are like ball dresses. In other words, conference papers age, like ball dresses in a trunk, if you put them in a file folder and don't get back to them. It's easy to see how that happens. You'll get back from the conference. You'll be fired up about working more with your paper and turning it into an article to send out. But there are those 50 papers to grade, those recommendation letters to write, those committee meetings--and all of a sudden it's six months or a year later, and you need to do a lot more work using materials that you now don't remember as well to get the thing into publishable shape. Unless you have little birds to sew up your ball dress/paper, like the ones in Disney's Cinderella, you may end up with a trunk full of conference papers and a lot of good intentions. Make sure that your research agenda is driving your conference-going and not the other way around.
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