Today we continue with Part Two of the “How to Work the Conference” series (see Part One here). Today’s post deals with how to behave during the conference–that is to say, how to look like you’re very busy and in-demand. Because conferences are performance art. You may know almost nobody and feel like a total fraud, but you’ve got to ACT as if you are the next hot thing.
Now, to preface, if this post seems uncustomarily terse, it is because I am writing from vacation in San Diego, in a few short minutes between chatting with friends on the deck and leaving for kayaking at La Jolla Cove. I am ambivalent about the kayaking because of the Great White sightings at La Jolla this past week (not to mention the Great White sighting at Mission Beach yesterday that actually closed the beach for the first time in living memory, and put paid to our surfing plans).
However, The Professor’s motto is: feel the fear and do it anyway. So unless the beach is actually closed, kayaking we will go.
Now to the conference. Conferences are also about facing your fears. Few young professionals really enjoy conferences. They are terrifying and intimidating. This is normal. You go anyway. You go and present. You go and organize panels. You go and attend the business meetings of subfield organizations that interest you. You go and participate in the workshops on publishing and the job market. You go and hang out at the open bars (that part may be less difficult). You don’t necessarily go to the Saturday night dance party.
But once there, what do you actually do?
First off, you dress correctly. I am not going to repeat my admonishments about appropriate professional attire here; I simply refer you to this post. Don’t ignore it! What you wear matters. People notice and judge you. Maybe not consciously, but they do. You must look like the young professional that you are.
Second, you must network. But how do you do that? There are a few ways, and the best ones require advance planning. If you are very junior and have little or no social capital, then hoping to grab an influential senior scholar for a conversation or coffee or a meal, on the spot, is virtually impossible. Your only real chance is by inviting them ahead of time.
A month before the conference, compile a list of the scholars whom you’d most like to meet. Be clear in your mind about why you’d like to meet them.
Do you just want to say hello? Then study the program and find out their panel and plan to attend it. You may approach them afterwards to shake their hands, congratulate them on their paper, briefly tell them about yourself—no more than one sentence–and give them your card. And then walk away. Walk. Away. Do not cling or drone.
[A note on business cards for graduate students. Have business cards. Make sure they are university business cards, not personal. They must have the logo on them. Include your department, status (ABD, Ph.D. student, VAP, etc.), email, website, and cel phone number. Always carry your business cards in a small case made for this purpose. I saw these at Office Max the other day. Do NOT put them in your back pocket or knocking around the bottom of your purse. They should always be clean and pristine. Practice ahead of time reaching in and quickly and gracefully extracting one. No fumbling.]
Do you want to ask them to serve as an external member of your committee? Or perhaps ask them to contribute to an edited collection? (Which, as you know from this post, I completely frown upon and urge you to drop immediately.) Then send them an email, in the briefest and most courteous terms explaining who you are, why you’d like to meet them, and asking them if they are free for coffee. Understand that they will likely not have any meal-times available for you. Those are reserved for older, dearer, and higher status friends and colleagues. But you might, if you’re lucky, get a 20-minute coffee slot. But only if you ask ahead of time.
Do you want to get to know very influential famous scholars to cultivate them as potential supporters (and tenure letter writers) in your field? Then do the same as above, but be very, very careful about how you couch the invitation. You don’t invite someone to coffee for such clearly self-serving reasons. Rather, you have a substantive reason for seeking their advice. i.e., you’d like advice on how to proceed with publishing your book—recommendations for editors or presses, perhaps. If your request is flattering enough to their ego and identity as a leader in the field, and they are the kind of senior scholar who enjoys mentoring junior people, AND you promise up front that your requested meeting is no more than 20 minutes, and scheduled ENTIRELY at their convenience, then you might score a coffee or a pre-dinner beer at the hotel bar. Use that 20 minutes wisely. Be brief. Well rehearsed. Do not cling. And at the end, give a firm handshake according to the instructions in this post. And walk away.
You will notice the emphasis I place on not clinging. The status jockeying of conferences is a major element of the conference and is ignored at your peril. You must not look like a hanger-on or a sadsack who has nothing to do and noone to meet, even if you are. You must give the impression of being a busy and dynamic young scholar who has it going on. How do you do this?
First off, read and memorize my post, “The Six Ways You are Acting Like a Grad Student (And how this is killing you on the job market). Eradicate every one of these six behaviors prior to stepping foot into the conference hotel.
Beyond that, I can do no better on this subject than to quote extensively from The Tenured Radical’s post on this very subject, written about how to behave at the book exhibit of the AHA Conference of 2010, but frankly applicable to any corner of any academic conference, any year. The emphases are mine.
- Greet your graduate mentors but do not cling to them. In fact, it is best, when you see them, to look as though you have somewhere very important to be. Practice saying into the mirror: “Gosh, it’s really great to run into you — I’m off to the Chapel Hill booth to meet up with a friend/an editor/someone on my panel. Have a great meeting!” Only break this rule if they happen to be with someone very important in your field, in which case, keep a keen eye out for an introduction. Count slowly to five in your head: if the introduction is not forthcoming, skate out of there.
- Leave any and everyone before they leave you. If you see someone’s eyes drifting over your shoulder, even slightly, say warmly: “I’ve really got to run — so nice to have had a chance to say hello,” then skate.
- If there is someone you know, but are unsure whether to greet or not, casually pick up a book and leaf through it. If said person greets you, look very surprised and say: “OmygodIcan’tbelieveIdidn’t see you!”
- If someone important calls you by the wrong name, let them. If they do it twice, correct them. If they keep doing it, forget it. There is one historian, who will remain nameless, who has greeted me for twenty five years as if I were Isabel V. Hull of Cornell, and I no longer correct her.
- If you run into someone you just did a hotel room interview with, you don’t have to act like you are employed by an escort service and pretend you have never met them. Smile and nod; if you are close enough to speak say hello and say you had a good time in the interview. Even if you didn’t.
- Have one sentence to say about your dissertation if a senior scholar asks. One. (KK: ONE!!!!) “I’m writing about the transgender community in Havana after the Cuban Revolution,” for example. Most people are just asking to be polite, although in the rare instance that the person really is interested in it, be conversational — do not launch into your interview speech.
- Never, never, never ask a senior scholar what s/he is working on unless you are dinner partners. Your just-to-be-polite question is: “Are you having a good meeting?”
- Check compulsively, but discreetly, to make sure your fly is not open.
The Tenured Radical also mentions workshops, such as one on interviewing. She writes:
I cannot stress enough how important this workshop is, particularly for those of you who are not yet on the job market. Interviewing is not just about saying, doing and wearing the right things, although it is that. It is about reading your audience and responding to the questions that are actually asked while delivering the information you want your interviewers to have. Much of the workshop consists of mock interviews held in a large ballroom that is not unlike the gang interviewing room in the basement where you might, one day, actually be interviewed. The people who pose as interviewers are kind and helpful, and will honestly critique your performance.
Yes, yes, and yes. The workshops on turning your publication into a book, or interviewing, or teaching at community colleges are some of the greatest services of the conference. They also require advance registration, so do that. It is invaluable professional training.
Today we stop here. Next week we pick up with the question of how to score dinners with senior people, and how to work the book exhibit. Until then, happy kayaking!