How to Work the Conference (Part Three of Three)

This is Part Three of our three-part series, “How to Work the Conference.”

Today’s column discusses mealtimes and the book exhibit.

In last week’s post I quoted extensively from The Tenured Radical’s column on conferences.  One of her best lines in that post reads

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?”

You will notice the reference here to “dinner partners.” Your ultimate score as a junior person is to be invited to dinner with important people in your field. There are two ways to do this.

The first way is to organize the dinner yourself. You can accomplish this ONLY IF you have organized a panel. Keep in mind that this is one of the primary reasons TO organize a panel—the panel dinner. Not all panels (and perhaps not all disciplines—I’m not sure on this point) will have a panel dinner, but many will. Or failing that, a panel lunch or a panel breakfast. It is a wonderful custom. Prior to your time slot, you meet to get to know one another and talk over your papers. Assuming you’ve stacked your panel with some cool people you really want to meet, voila, you are suddenly sharing a meal with Professor So-and-So. And that is where you want to be. Never fear, you as organizer do not pick up the tab for this.

Be aware: the timing of this meal is always arranged around the convenience of the most famous and busy person on the panel.

Now, secondarily, you may put yourself into the circumstances to be invited. You must never cling or hint or insinuate or invite yourself or tag along uninvited. Do you hear me? These are KODs professionally.

What you CAN do is be at the right place at the right time. Business meetings or membership meetings, etc. of subfield units, which are often held from 4-6 PM on the low status days (Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday) are an excellent opportunity. If you find ways to participate effectively in that meeting (most obviously by volunteering to take on one of the leadership roles, such as secretary or treasurer or award committee member), chances are, the established people in the unit may well invite you to dinner. These meetings are listed clearly in the conference program. Unless they are clearly listed as “private” or “board only,” you are allowed to attend.

You can also, if you have the right kind of well connected and cooperative and savvy graduate mentor (and few do, but you might be one of the lucky ones), arrange to meet him or her for a beer at the hotel bar at a pre-dinner time slot such as 5:30 PM.  At 6 PM, when his or her friends arrive for their dinner, you may well be invited to come along.

If you happen to be lucky enough to inspire dynamic discussion at your panel among a group of enthusiastic audience members, and they mob you after your panel, you can sometimes spontaneously plan to meet later for a meal as well.

OK, Aside from the scheduled meetings and planned or impromptu meals, which are the real bread and butter of conference networking for junior people, you will also work the conference by utilizing the book exhibit.

The book exhibit is a little-understood element of the academic conference. It is one of the best places to see your academic heros not “on stage.” This does NOT mean that you can accost them at will. It means you can watch them and see what they do, what books they look at, and who they talk to.  And I certainly struck up a number of pleasant conversations with people in my field while browsing side by side at the California or Duke booths.

You also get to attend the wine and cheese receptions at the major presses, usually on Friday night, launching their major books of the season. The authors will also be there, and you might get to shake their hands (beware, it’ll be a mob scene).

You also get to see something very important to your career, which is, how senior people talk to editors. Because one of the major kinds of politicking that go on at conferences is the book deal negotiation. Editors are there to cruise the panels and find good materials for future books. Heck, if your paper was really outstanding, they may even come talk to you! If the press is a top, top press, that’s a score. If they’re a non-top press, it is not a score, and do not, under any circumstances, commit to a book with them just because they asked.

What you want to see, though, is how savvy senior people broach the subject of a book with the senior editors. They often do this right there at the book exhibit, and if you’re standing there, you get to surreptitiously listen in.

This is how I learned to sell a book, in fact. I used to haunt the book exhibits as a young MA and Ph.D. student, and by the time I was advanced and had a book mss. to peddle, I was pretty damn good at it. And as I mention elsewhere, I had competing offers from Duke and California, and extracted an actual monetary advance out of it.

The last thing that I will say about conferences is this:  they are often depressing and alienating places.  Everyone, it seems, is jockeying for status.  Sometimes the overt politicking can be a shameful thing to observe, let alone participate in.

Although I did all of the methods that I advocate here, with a great deal of success, I never really enjoyed them, and never really enjoyed my national conferences, until one critical change occurred.  That was when I reached out to, and joined, the Society for Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists.  That small but dynamic society, within the umbrella of the American Anthropological Association, was a godsend to me personally.  The members were warm, welcoming, funny, irreverent, passionate, opinionated, and above all–completely down to earth.  I had never imagined it was possible to find a “home” in the national organization that felt as much like a home as its business meetings and open bar receptions.  The dinners and drinks that flowed naturally from these events were actually fun, and yielded plenty of opportunities for potential publications and professional activities.

I’m not recommending, Dear Readers, that you all join the Lesbian and Gay units of your national organizations!  What I am recommending is that you seek the sub-units that feel most like “home” to you.  Certainly I don’t advocating hiding away in them, and never going out to the bigger, scarier business meetings and book exhibit events, and workshops.  But in addition to all of that, find (or create) the professional organization that is filled with the most like-minded souls you can find, the ones who really care about what they’re working on, more than they care about jockeying for power.

As you know, I have absolutely no objection to jockeying for power.  But for your own mental and emotional health, try to find some real friends and “family” at your conference as well.

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How to Work the Conference (Part Three of Three) — 7 Comments

  1. Totally agree about the subunits… although I’d probably suggest being a good member of your primary unit too (going to the division meeting as described above.)

    But yes – those subunits are hot!!

  2. Oh, and as an alternative to the sub-units… sometimes these sub-units have their own mini-conferences and/or smaller journals. Gathering allies at these venues that you can use to your advantage at the bigger conference is very helpful.

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  5. Sub-units are key! As an MA student, I started going to a meeting in my field with 1000 people… I was at a disadvantage because it was a US conference and I am Canadian, so I didn’t know as many people. I was lucky that my mentor invited me to be in her panel (if your mentor knows you want to go to an upcoming conference, and you mention early enough, without being cloying, but in an offhanded way that you would like to present, you may get invited to participate in their panel).

    I went to the new scholars/first time attendees reception that many organisations have. There was also a Q & A session with the executive that I attended which was very sparse. I asked a question or two and that scored me some attention.

    I also went to a few sub unit meetings.

    I rested at points in my hotel room because some of this was exhausting. At a big meeting that isn’t that noticeable, as long as you attend something before every meal… people are likely to as over lunch: “were you just in the session on women farmers in the Sudan?” as you are having a meal. They’ll expect you just came from a session.

    Early morning sessions or evening sessions are another way to make an impression. Different in every field, but in mine, not many people show up for those.

    After two years of doing this, I was head of the largest sub-unit group, awarded a prize from another, had meetings with a press at the conference, was solicited by the top journal in my field to publish my work based on my conference paper, and so on.

    My point is, it is hard work, but it can pay off really quickly… if you have the right mentor and put yourself out there.

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