Anatomy of an Academic Conference

I recently attended a conference interstate and gave a paper.  This was a novel experience as I am one of those academics that don’t do research anymore and don’t (or can’t) write.   So what sort of an academic doesn’t do research and doesn’t write? That’s for another post.  I got involved in the tail end of a project at work which was right up my alley and in the end I wrote and delivered a paper about it.  Now I have to magically turn this well-received if critical presentation into a proper paper for publication because that is the cost of delivering your ideas: make it concrete (even if it’s a virtual edition)  and your words will live forever!  And I find this daunting to say the least.

Conferences have their own structures, their own rituals and their own magic.  Aside from the organisation “I’m sure I put myself down for the conference dinner”, the venue “If I stay at the conference venue I won’t get out of the hotel for four days…” the unspoken protocols around food “Didn’t she see that there was a queue?” you still have to deal with all the behaviour of your academic and professional peers.  You need a rule book here.

I love a plenary as much as the next conference attendee and the more plenary sessions the merrier as everyone’s in the same room at the same time.  None of that parallel conferencing just yet.  I just love a big audience and the plenary is the academic stadium of conferences. The plenary speakers are the thinking person’s gladiators offering up fighting words (if you’re lucky).  Everyone sits and listens and it feels big and important, like a real event, especially if you’re following the whole thing both live and on Twitter.

Following the plenaries you have to wait patiently in a small throng of people to pay homage to the famous person who occupies the limelight on the international circuit in their field.  When you get to eventually speak to them your well practiced phrase that was respectful, relevant and interesting while you were mentally rehearsing it flies out of your mind as you embarrassingly say something like, “Um thank you for your talk.  I really like your work…”  as they stare off into space before making eye contact with the next person waiting to speak to them.  You pray that they won’t come to hear your own paper and are then bitterly disappointed when they don’t.

And I am one of the first to put my hand up for the microphone when asked if there are any questions.  I try to do this early to avoid the prolonged effects of adrenalin on all my organ systems as my heart pounds in my chest.  This is a good tactic, that is to say, it’s a good SURVIVAL tactic.  After all I don’t want to have a heart attack in the front row. That would really be far too dramatic for a simple question or comment.  And there’s nothing worse than the regret of thinking, “I was going to say that” as someone steals your thunder with the roving mike.

I used to write furiously at conferences, often never to look at my scrawls again.  But this has been superseded by electronics (yay) so if you can’t quite capture what’s been said as you try to type on your iPad without a proper keyboard you can always use the camera to take a picture of the presentation.  The audience pays homage in new and novel ways as like one they hold up IPads with covers swinging below as they try to capture the complexity of the PowerPoint  presentation in just one snap.  This is the Mexican Wave of academic conferences.

The parallel sessions are a bit of minefield.  You can get blown up (academically speaking) as you try to time your entry for the 12:15 paper in Breakout Room Two only to suffer the withering glances of your peers as you’ve come in at the tail end of the previous paper (makes you look late).  And you can feel like a bit of a Jack-in-the-box as you keep popping up in different spaces.  Others wonder whether you’re thematically consistent and why can’t you just sit down and hear all the speakers in this session?  And after all, how will you build your network if you haven’t had the shared experience of participating in the ground breaking revelations afforded by highly specific parallel panel presentations?

When presenters run late and the time keeping is poor everything turns bad.  There’s no room for questions, and one thing that you desperately need at a conference – especially if you have to turn it into an academic paper –  is feedback.  Feedback comes in the form of comments and questions, like ”Have you considered so-and-so’s work that challenges your ideas?” Or, “That’s really important and I’m glad you raised it in this context because no one has done that before (never)”. Or, “How would that work in this context?” Or more typically, “How does your work bounce off my work?  Oh, you don’t know about my work?  Let me give you a summary…”.

It goes without saying that conferences have become multimedia events.  But more than that, they have become tactile in ways that create new bonds between people who work in vaguely similar fields as they are brought together to consider their work in a new light, that of the conference theme.  And I’m not even talking about the excitement of new flesh bonding in lavish hotel rooms as minds ignite with passion drawing bodies along with them.  Conferences make you think, sure, but if they’ve been put together really well then the presentations can really make you feel, they can move you in new ways as you put two and two together and come up with five as new and creative ways to think about and engage with your work and your peers emerges in the innovative nooks of your mind.  You leave the conference feeling really excited at the possibilities, the potentialities that emerge.  This is academic hot sex.

Then there is all the unacknowledged stuff that happens: The small talk where your version of talking about the weather is replaced by talking about anything that you might have in common related to work with the stranger you’ve engaged in conversation…  The everyday niceties and protocols for starting and ending interactions … The unspoken but blisteringly important contract that you have with your work peeps who are also here,, “What’s said at the conference stays at the conference” … the making and breaking of eye contact … Wondering which one of the guys with the ponytail gave the talk about postmodernism and X …  Embarrassingly walking around trying to locate someone you vaguely know by reading everyone’s name tags …  Feeling very silly and labelled as you wear your lanyard, name and conference status around your neck, even though this totally goes against everything you believe in about how to organise people…. Wondering if you should participate in the decadence of room service and worrying about how to tip the guy…

And oh the people you meet at conferences!  New people with fascinating job titles, programs that you’ve never head of run by people with qualifications you’ve never head of…  Stalwarts, leaders, great thinkers, people that are new and emerging talents as well as those at the top of their fields.  And then there’s everyone else.

It’s hard to attend a conference and not have a presentation that you’re giving.  After all, conferences are all about the dynamic of presenting new knowledge and bouncing it off all the right people.  Your presentation is your unofficial currency, your unofficial entry ticket, and it provides your academic gravitas.  The acceptance of your abstract means that you have something to contribute to the ongoing conversations of which the conference is but one performance in the ongoing production.  Don’t kid yourself that it’s not a show.  As an academic you’re always performing.  At the conference you face your supporters and your critics, but it all contributes to a better production of your final product, the academic paper.

I love mornings and beginnings and the start of a thing is so much better than the end. The first days of conferencing are new, fresh, bursting with program potentials and the promise of events to come.  The second and third days involve the magic of the maturing group coming to fruition as the expectations of new information, ideas and experiences come to realisation.  You’re cementing new acquaintanceships and have a regular person to have breakfast with by now and a collection of business cards with hand scrawled notes on the back.

The fourth day is pushing it a bit as you come to an awareness  that you’re still there but that a lot of people have gone, to be replaced by more people who are less committed to the whole event than you are.  They deliver their talks, some even at plenaries but  have to leave on the next flight and can’t even stay for questions.  This is disappointing, but part of the reality of the talk circus (I meant to type circuit, but I’m leaving circus there…)

I count myself as lucky to be able to go.  My workplace partly funded me and this is significant for someone who has worked on the fringes of academia in insecure work for many years.  Other people pay their own way and yet others don’t go at all.  A few years ago I had an abstract accepted at a European conference but had few means to get there and little support because of my casual status.  I could have scraped the money together perhaps  but it felt like stealing from my family and I couldn’t do it.  No sharing of ideas, no mixing with likeminded people, no bursts of creativity to foster new work or research based on novel insights.  I’ve left that work go as there isn’t an appropriate field to present it  in a meaningful way locally…

As I wing my way home writing this and trying to  put the whole experience into some sort of perspective in my mind  I’m guilt stricken as I should have been working on that paper…

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4 thoughts on “Anatomy of an Academic Conference

  1. wanderwolf says:

    I wonder if the experience is easier as a grad student, because the stakes are lower. When announced that someone is still working on their MA, the people in the room tend to think in two ways: well, this could be interesting, but I may find more to critique than to learn; or, wow, not even on her PhD yet, and she’s presenting. Let me go look at her abstract again in the conference booklet.
    Also, as a grad student, one automatically gravitates to other grad students. It helps that these students all face limited budgets, tend to stay in the same youth hostel at least 20 minutes away from the conference site and skip out on the same conference meals, opting instead for an inexpensive supper (they filled up on the snacks at the coffee breaks throughout the day) in a local restaurant with subsequent tour of the night life.
    ^ these may or may not be all the things I’ve done, but at the same time I’ve gained valuable motivation to pursue a particular suggestion or new direction for my research projects during the Q&A afterwards. As a young “academic,” I want to encourage anyone reading and attending conferences to make a point of asking the “newbies” questions, since nothing is worse than feeling like an empty chair and time-filler on a panel, and nothing better than having one’s work acknowledged.
    Thanks for this post! You’ve given me a chance to think about my own recent experiences a bit more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Anxious Anthropologist says:

      Hi WW, yes you’re right and I agree. Although in my experience it’s usually that people presenting have been completing PhDs rather than Masters. Often you’re in a better position undertaking either because you’re still in the process of becoming. And the experience is definitely different for grad students compared to tenured academics. Often young academics end up working at conferences too. Thanks for your comments, AA

      Liked by 1 person

  2. D.I. Ozier says:

    Very accurate. I’m a terrible academic and have only been to a couple of conferences during my time in grad school, since I find conferences to be such chaotic and frustrating experiences (especially big ones, like the AAAs.) I’m spearheading the planning of an academic conference for next spring, and I’m already both dreading and eagerly anticipating the experience.

    Liked by 2 people

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