I love conferences. Absolutely love them. If done right, conferences are the highlight of an academic year; they can be fun, interesting and stimulating all at the same time. Even ‘bad’ conferences are usually useful in some respect. I’ve just returned from a good conference.
As Jenny Daly has written, there are many useful tips for people presenting at conference. She has provided a useful start, and I encourage others to read and incorporate those tips whenever they present at conferences. But I love conferences for other reasons.
1. Travel. Most conferences I have attended have not been on my home university campus. I’ve had to visit other places in the UK, and even one (hopefully more) in the US to attend a conference. This is a fantastic opportunity to play tourist for a bit, as I have been able to visit these cities usually on someone else’s expense. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Newcastle, Edinburgh, Manchester and Washington, DC, amongst others, due to conference travel. I usually try to stay off campus to as to get a sense of the city at my accommodation. A great way to get a cheap place to stay and meet friendly locals is through Couchsurfing, a site that connects travelers. It’s how I stayed in Newcastle, Manchester and even Glasgow; though, due to conference duties it is sometime impractical to stay with people. Still, had I not had conferences to attend/present at, I’m not sure I would have visited many of these places yet. Even if I’m only at a conference for a day, I’ll try to arrive early or stay late to explore what the city has to offer. Some places I have absolutely loved; others I have not. But I wouldn’t have known had I not attended these conferences.
2. Networking. I used to be rather afraid and shy about networking. I am usually reserved and do not meet people easily. Yet conferences provide an easy opportunity to meet and talk to new people, often within your field. Whether it’s commenting on someone’s paper, someone’s question about a paper or even just mentioning that you saw another person in the same session there are many ways to begin conversations. And if you didn’t see someone at the session, asking which panel they did attend (assuming there are multiple panels occurring simultaneously) can also spark interesting conversation in comparing and contrasting the different panels. More than just talking to people about papers, though, a real opportunity for friendship arises. If you are attending any sort of annual conference, yes, you will often see ‘conference friends’ — people you see and interact with at the conferences, but generally don’t see outside of that setting — which is fine in itself. It is always nice to recognise people and faces, so conferences provide a way of catching up with these people. But occasionally you’ll meet someone who instantly becomes a friend. I met someone at a conference in December and we’ve been corresponding ever since. I got to see this person again over the weekend at a similar conference. I have plans to attend a completely unrelated conference at their institution in September, so whilst I won’t see them at the conference, I know I’ll have a friend who can make suggestions on where to stay and what to do. Oh yeah, we can catch up in person then, too. I’ve also met people at conferences who I then invited to speak at one I organised. Having seen them present at a conference meant that I then knew their work and themes made it easy to invite them to present at my conference. They, of course, passed the information on to others they knew, and soon the word of my conference spread to people I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
3. Academic interests. This is very catch-all, so I’ll explain in more detail. Since there are many different types of conferences ranging from the small, specialised talks to large, interdisciplinary multi-day and multi-panel meetings, this ‘interest’ can have multiple meanings. At the smaller specialised conferences, it’s often an opportunity to get feedback on your ideas from the leaders in your field. If you’re a physicist at a small conference about black holes, for example, you might get a question or concern from Stephen Hawking, for example (note: I have no idea if Hawking attends conferences anymore or if he asks questions would he attend). How invaluable would that be if you were working on black hole theories, though? At the other end of the spectrum are the larger conferences that offer a chance to see things way outside your field. I work on sixties popular music, and presented a paper in a panel with a similar theme. That’s fine, I expected to be in something like that. But I attended panels on everything from race and gender in television and film to feminist theories in nineteenth century literature to data mining on the internet. On the surface those don’t necessarily have much in common, other than I had a passing attraction to them. Not only were the papers almost uniformly interesting and enlightening, I was amazed by the connections I could make between such diverse fields; not just between them, but between my work as well. Without even being asked a question, I was rethinking some of the assumptions and conclusions about my own work. Plus I got to learn new things in the process.
Good and great conferences are inspiring; they confirm my aspirations to stay in academia, pursue work in popular culture in all of its forms — from music to television to film to maybe even comics and literature and more. They provide new opportunities to think about a variety of academic (and possibly real world) topics, usually in a friendly, receptive setting. That’s why I love conferences. In a later post I’ll discuss the flip side of this, though, because sometimes not so good things happen at conferences, too.