Conferences are great: they give you motivation for your research (i.e. making you forget you chose an under-paid, over-working precarious job), offer you the latest scholarly activity on a plate, help you build a network of friends and cooperators, and give you a chance to show what you have, get insight early on, get grilled and improve.
I used to go to way too many conferences, often preparing extra research for each, and then – forgetting all about it. What a huge waste of time and effort! Then, a friendly senior suggested the obvious: use your paper as the core for an article that you commit yourself to submitting within 6 months of the conference. This most obvious approach was a total game-changer for me. That’s exactly what I now do, and it’s such a relief to keep the ball rolling, submit, and – wait. And hopefully have your thing accepted.
Just emerging from the German Shakespeare Conference, and submitting three (yessss! Imagine, three!) pieces building on that presentation, I thought I might jot down some thoughts on how to use conferences most sensibly and effectively from my point of view.
Before, During, and After
There’s things one can do before, during, and after a conference to maximize use. I hate making it sound so economical and things, but these expressions are just in the spirit of metaphors…
Check out who’s coming, read up on their research, most of all find a photo of them! I once went to a Spenser conference in Dublin and sat next to this old guy who nudged me with his ellbow when a certain slide came up, mentioning James Nohrnberg, one of *the* most famous Spenser scholars. He chuckled and asked whether I knew this name, and I was all like ‘yeah, duh! James Norhnberg is totes amazing!’ He chuckled some more, and said: ‘Yes. That’s me.’ So much for doing your homework. Then again, academia is not about the red carpet, but about finding your name on shelves, so it’s not all that bad to be unable to put a face to a name. But it’s nice and polite to do so.
Connect on twitter with people! Write a nice tweet, saying you are looking forward to their paper or something, so that they are happy to connect with you.
Write a tweet/blog entry about your preparations, and excitement to attend the conference.
Make sure you check the programme, and know where you want to go, particularly if it is a big conference with several simultaneous panels. But also leave room for being surprised.
Familiarize yourself with the venue! If possible, arrive the day before, and check out where to go by actually going there. Bring plenty of time on the day to lose your way…
Don’t be shy to leave the room between papers if it’s not relevant to you. Actual papers often don’t entirely match with the synopses, or the synopses are not clear quite what the presentation is going to be about.
Make notes on paper! I have a special conference notebook, and make mind maps pre-organizing the information. I keep a page at the back for general questions I take from the paper, and one for bibliographical suggestions. At the end of the paper, make three key statements, and some research questions as spring board, when you want to come back to the material.
Tweet about papers. Live tweeting is (or used to be a short while ago?) all the rage.
Type up/order your notes! I use highlighting for something to chase up or remember. I also now write a blog entry about presentations and the conference as a whole, which really helps with ordering thoughts and remembering!
Tweet about how much you liked the conference, and what you take from it.
I also try to connect with people afterwards by following them on twitter or sending friendly emails to say it was nice having met them, or asking about a hand-out or something.
I realize that Twitter has come up in all three sections of Before, During, and After, and I think that’s no surprise. Because we are all working away in our little book-filled attics, purely by the nature of our work if not the inclination of our own natures, Twitter has become a way of connecting, sharing, and staying abreast of what’s happening. I think it’s a great way of being part of bigger conversations, and finding and offering help on book suggestions and the like. The only thing is, alas, Twitter is bad for the environment, using coal for 80% of their server activity. I’ve written to them many times and complained, because Apple amongst others is showing us that you can do it differently. They have built their own solar energy farms in California, which Twitter, being as big as it is, could just as well do without huge losses. I am in two minds about keeping my twitter account, because, yes, you can be an academic without it, and maybe you’ll be more focussed actually; but I find that I like feeling part of a community, and sharing with others in that way. So for now, I’m keeping it, but, yet, you know, uneasy…