‘Confer-ence’

One of the interesting people I follow on Twitter is Laurence Raw, a member of the English Faculty at Baskent University in Turkey. He has written extensively on adaptation and the discipline of adaptation studies in a variety of texts including Adapting Henry James to the Screen: Gender, Fiction, and Film, and Adapting Nathaniel Hawthorne to the Screen: Forging New Worlds, as well as contributing much other work on cultural studies. He maintains a website, Radio Drama Reviews and has an active presence on Academia.Edu and Twitter. I was interested particularly in a recent short post of his about academic conferences called, appropriately, ‘Why We Go to Conferences‘. Some of the trends in conference-going that Raw cites are not new, as anybody who has read David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy will recognise certain forms of behaviour typical of the scholarly eminences  or the aspiring eminences. Raw mentions two phenomena: firstly, the person who has their abstract/proposal accepted by the conference but then withdraws a few days before the conference occurs. They can still use their acceptance for their CV, and in some cases ask for a certificate of participation. Secondly, the person who has their proposal accepted, parachutes into the conference in time to give their paper, and then is immediately air-lifted out again, as they have a lot of busy and important things to do.  Despite not being an eminence of any variety, I am guilty (as a PhD student) of both these practices, although there were extenuating circumstances, in both instances inflicted upon me by employers, so I had to change many plans, or race off to earn money to pay my rent. In neither situation, however, did I ask for a letter confirming my participation. Indeed, I had never thought this was possible, naively believing that ‘participation’ means participating, and that the most important part of the conference was preparing and delivering the paper and fielding the questions. Of course, there’s also networking, that word that makes me feel a bit ill, and I like Raw’s use of ‘confer-ence’, looking at the event as a time to confer with people. The idea of the ‘confer-ence’ seems far more organic and socially/professionally pleasant than networking, which has connotations of shameless self-promotion, and (some terrible mixed metaphors here), ‘getting into the big cheeses’ faces.’  In 2013 I was at a conference where somebody approached me, ostensibly to network after I’d given my paper … but after some brief preliminaries all this person really wanted was for me to send them my literature review and bibliography.  Other people, at this event and similar ones, networked by telling one all about themselves, and when that topic was exhausted, walking off to start again with somebody else.  So, Raw’s ‘confer-ence’, in contrast, is friendly and productive-sounding. Conferring with people is – in the main – a pleasant pastime.
Raw has some interesting things to say about why graduate students might find conferences daunting, and why they might want to adopt the parachute-in/present/flee mode of ‘attendance’:

I realise that the experience of attending a conference can often prove daunting, especially for research students and early career academics, but for the most part the experience is often offset by the benefits involved. It’s just a matter of swallowing one’s inhibitions and listening to others, as well as simply delivering one’s paper. Through such strategies individuals can learn how to deliver papers better, or acquire presentational abilities that might prove exceptionally useful in their future careers.’

This is sound sense. Learning how to deliver one’s paper, and deliver it well, is a process of trial and error, particularly as there are now so many different ways in which people go about their delivery: there’s the stand-up-and-read method, or the talk-through-a-dizzying-series-of-slides method (an otherwise very kind friend of mine called this ‘gobbet-mongering’), or using one of those really exciting Prezi things. As well as a Prezi looking pretty, its visual wizardry means that half the audience will be so astounded by its marvels that they won’t really be listening. They’ll be wondering ‘how can I make one of those?’ Hurrah! Or there are some very brave souls who simply talk for 20 minutes, with a few cues and a few pictures, and are just amazing. Working out which method works best for one’s own purpose is a matter of trial and error, and really one only finds out what works with practise, and many trials. At my university, the Careers and Graduate College people run some really good workshops on presentation skills, and these have been very helpful to me. A workshop on how to present your research to/in the media was also excellent, as the tips given by the two experienced journalists who ran the workshop are suitable (with some adaptation) for use in the academic sphere of endeavour. As I am a professional musician, standing up and talking in front of a crowd does not fill me with terror. I do not mean to imply that my abilities as a presenter are impeccable – nothing could be further from the truth – but I do not experience ‘stage fright’ in this setting, although I am naturally apprehensive about the questions. However, attending the media workshop also provided me with strategies for dealing with questions, and avoiding the situation of saying ‘I don’t know’, which – if the questioner is even moderately aggressive – is not a good thing.
Still, I digress.
In order to combat the circumstances in which graduate students might feel uncomfortable or apprehensive about the ‘conferring’ part of the ‘confer-ence’, Laurence Raw suggests:

Maybe we ought to be cultivating more collaborative initiatives; advisors need to take more care of their students, not only encouraging them to attend conferences but also going with them if possible. Maybe other participants in the conference need to be less insular and attempt instead to make research students and/or early career academics feel more welcome, that their work matters. Maybe research students need to understand that they should not think of their work in a Casaubonesque manner, as they shut themselves away in the study or the library or online, but approach it as an opportunity to share ideas and inspire their peers.’

There are several good points here, and in the main I agree. In the last year I have attended two big conferences at which huge efforts have been made to encourage and integrate the research of students at master’s or PhD level into the conference. The students become part of the conference and can make valuable contacts without being reliant upon networking. Integration was achieved through special sessions or platforms which were just for student papers, but were attended by a ‘panel’ of established academics. These sessions were full of interesting research, and the atmosphere was supportive but not cloying. And, having made contact with some ‘big cheeses’ by dint of one’s work, they tended to introduce the students to other eminences, etc, etc. There was also a lot of really good discussion, and in the sessions I attended, little or no point-scoring situations. Of course, some people did bring a claque, which was very nice for them, I suppose. However, I believe that it’s necessary to cultivate independence – there will come a time when one has to present work somewhere where one’s advisor cannot be present.  As a musician I know that one has to learn to take the rough with the smooth: if people don’t clap, or ask questions, or if some irritating specimen of an academic then comes and lambastes you over the tea table about your faulty examples, methodology, or the pointlessness of your existence on this earth, you must take it on the chin and move on. This is when it can be tempting to air-lift oneself out of the conference altogether.
My final point is another one about integration. Very often, it is hard to break the ice with one’s peers – or even find out who they are – until you’ve seen them present a paper, or they’ve seen you. Before then, it can be hard to find common ground, and this is when feelings of isolation, petulance and despair set in.  If it’s a four-day conference, and your presentation isn’t until the late afternoon session of day three, that means you have more than two days of feeling a bit out of things (unless you have friends or colleagues or friends-of-colleagues around) before suddenly (hopefully) becoming the toast of the town at 4.22pm of the penultimate day of the event. This means that on Day 4, one wants to make up for lost time by skipping panels in favour of lengthy conferring in stairwells or near some hitherto concealed supply of small cakes and a tea urn. Frivolity is fun, after all.
So, after all this airy persiflage, what are my recommendation, for what they’re worth?
1. Go to lots of conferences, even if you’re not presenting. Listening, as Laurence Raw points out, is very important. Seek out departmental conferences of other departments in one’s own university, for example, as they’re often free.
2. If it’s a larger conference with ‘working groups’ that meet daily, getting into one of these groups is good, because you see the same people every day and can build rapport without foully overt networking.
3. Look outside your discipline. Lots of good ideas lurk in the mysterious waters of other disciplines. Furthermore, the competitive vibe that can affect groups of people all working on the area (whether it’s Shakespeare, the music criticism of Mr Chorley, or the significance of the occasional table in the stories of Christopher Isherwood) is obviously diluted in a larger disciplinary puddle.
4. At a long event, stay the course, and take a good (and preferably very learned-looking) book for tea breaks if you don’t know people. That way you won’t feel like a wallflower, and possibly the learned-looking tome will become a conversation piece.  Then, hey presto, social contact will ensue, but hopefully not with some dirge-like character who will cling to you like a limpet. As Zadie Smith so wisely puts it in NW, the last thing a drowning person wants is another drowning person clinging to them. Cruel, but true.
5. Take notes during papers, and also at other times. Some of them may prove useful. You could revolutionise the campus novel using the garnered material, and out-Lodge Lodge.
6. At some point, a person who becomes your bosom friend during lunch will then blank you at morning tea on the following day. Extract all the amusement you can from this scenario, and put the ingrate in your novel.

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2 thoughts on “‘Confer-ence’

  1. There are some sound remarks here. I think any conference attendee has to have a support network behind them as well as gaining the confidence themselves to present papers. This places a considerable responsibility on academics, not just to attend the papers of their learners, but to help them acquire the presentational and/or networking abilities necessary to get the most out of conferences. Some institutions actively promote these abilities through training courses; but still the level of support for most early career academics remains depressingly low.

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