So… What’s an Academic Conference, Anyway?

A bison friend I made at the Western Literature Association Annual Conference in Big Sky, Montana.

If you’ve ever been an English major, you’ve probably had family members who haven’t the slightest clue what that means. And if you’re an English PhD student, this confusion increases exponentially.

If you’re an English PhD, you’ve also probably had complete strangers snidely remark about your being “one of those eternal students” who “doesn’t go out and get a real job,” because it is traditional in many human cultures across time and space to mask confusion with just about any other emotion, ever. And disdain is far more hip than any other option, ever. This is hardly English-specific, but English is probably up there with underwater basket-weaving when it comes to tired academia-jokes people enjoy making. (Shoutout to all those English MAs/PhDs who are also simultaneously working “real jobs,” by the way.)

And I say this even though I confess I’m not a good person to ask about what English and other humanities-type folks actually “do”–because I’m on one hand leery of literature actually being worthwhile, and on the other leery of the drive to turn education into a vocational stream, or a utilitarian pursuit. But that’s a ramble for another time.

Today, I’m here to say that if being an English major elicits confusion, and being an English PhD elicits confusion squared, going to an academic conference–to a non-academic audience; or even a non-humanities audience; or even a non-your very specific field audience–probably stops being any kind of increasing confusion, and the confusion just turns in on itself and starts chewing on its own bowels–sort of like a cochleoid.

Are they like, some kind of weird vacation that your institution might pay for or what? Are there freebies? What are they supposed to do? Do you just sign up?

1. Yes, they’re a vacation! Honestly, they are. But let’s define our terms here: Academia is 24/7 and even if you’re not working you are working–or are, at the very least, certain you should be working. There are very few acceptable times to truly not be working; so academic conferences are a vacation from work where you go work. They’re kind of great. Sometimes there are freebies. I got a great bag that I use for carrying groceries once; and another time, a bag of lentils. Sometimes you even get a pen.

2. In the utilitarian mode, conferences are meant to attract attention for your work (and if you’re a professor, potentially jobs or book deals), provide a space for networking with powerful people, and facilitate the spread and cross-pollination of ideas–such that in a perfect world, everyone produces better scholarship. That may have slipped from utilitarian to utopian, but as far as the alphabet is concerned they’re close enough, so we’ll roll with that.

3. No, you don’t just sign up. You’re more than welcome to attend an academic conference without submitting a paper for consideration, but it’s honestly fucking weird, so I wouldn’t recommend that. To go to an academic conference, you will typically submit a 250-300 word description of the presentation you would like to make, or an “abstract.” What that means and what that looks like is, again, a subject for another day, but the merits of this abstract, in the eyes of the conference organizers, will determine whether you get accepted or not. How difficult this is varies widely, though conferences don’t typically publish acceptance rates, so this often remains mysterious.

If you’re accepted, you’ll write your paper, and present it orally over the course of your 20-minute segment of the entire conference. Again, conferences vary widely in size, but it’s safe to imagine that over the course of a conference weekend, you’re sharing that limelight with 300 other people.

If you’ve never been an English major, an English PhD, or an academic conference-goer, you’ll have to look elsewhere for a continuation of this play-by-play. (Though I’d probably recommend you pull out any DVD you own and watch its Behind-the-Scenes featurette instead.)

If you know any grad student academic conference-goers in English or other literary studies, here’s what they did that one weekend when they flew somewhere, for some reason. Rather, here’s what I did, when I went to the Western Literature Association‘s Annual Conference in Big Sky, Montana last weekend. I’ll leave it to you to ask yourself, “To generalize, or not to generalize?”

So switch hats again. “You” are a graduate student at an academic conference again, not their concerned/skeptical relative and/or random stranger on the street.

No really, you are. More specifically, you’re me. And here’s what I did at the WLA last weekend:

Networked with graduate students. This generally isn’t utilitarian networking. You might find someone with whom you’d like to trade research recommendations, but this is mostly solidarity networking. Finding people who are as much of a hot, flailing mess as you are, hearing how other universities organize their doctoral programs, and trying to make enough friends such that when time comes for the inevitable conference happy hour with the cash bar you don’t have to awkwardly stand alone. Which is, incidentally, exactly what I still did, never mind the huge number of conference friends I really did make. Life’s hard when you don’t enjoy alcohol enough to want to pay for it, and there’s no snack table to hide beside.

Networked with professors. Again, this can be utilitarian. I’m not great at that, because I don’t like asking people for things. But professors will often point you toward people you should speak to, and serendipitously useful things can arise from perfectly non-utilitarian conversation. I sat next to a professor on a bus once during the WLA Conference, and it turned out he was not only living my ideal professorial life (on 12 acres of rural land nearby his university, with his own garden and his wife who makes jam and pickles things) but also knew people who might be directly and critically helpful to my dissertation research. So now, not only do I have a vision of what my dream job would be, I also have a kernel of something that might be more immediately and concretely useful to my academic obligations in the here and now.

Note: I distinguish this from utilitarian conversation because I didn’t know I was going to get these things out of said conversation, and therefore manufacture some weird, crappy fake conversation to get them. And maybe by “utilitarian conversation” I mean “networking,” and by “networking” I don’t mean networking at all. I mean “be a human being.” Academics, like humans in general, aren’t always that good at this.

Presented their work. Within English, as a discipline, it’s typical to read your 10-page conference paper. This makes sense to me if you genuinely approach it as a type of performance art, and you opt to give a reading of your obviously-creative academic work. This does not make sense to me if your conference paper is essentially just a short version of writing you’d publish in an academic journal somewhere; that’s just not how auditory processing works. This is all to say that dear god, academic conferences can be really hard because everyone’s reading papers that were written to be read, not heard.

I write fiction recreationally, and while this often manifests itself poorly in my academic writing (for instance, in academic writing, you should not be “Show, Don’t Tell”-ing; you should be telling, doing all the telling, always), I think understanding what dialogue is, and how natural speech can be written, is really useful when it comes to writing a conference paper people can actively listen to. After all, you’re there to get people thinking about the ideas you’ve just presented. If you do your audience the service of putting them out there in a way people can actually process aurally, isn’t that…the point?

I speak loudly, exuberantly, and I prefer to stand close to my audience, rather than sit behind a table. I believe that this is the way oral presentations actually “work.” Yet I worry constantly that this presentation style is too informal, and that future employers will interpret this informality as lack of care, or lack of academic rigor. Which isn’t to say my presentations are informal–I definitely script myself; but I put just as much work into sounding approachable as I do into elegantly articulating my theoretical frameworks. It’s hard to know what will cost you, in this strange and excessively weird academic world.

But at least at the WLA, multiple people came to me to compliment my presentation style (both immediately after, and entire hours later–which means they really did remember me! though I’ll confess that I was wearing a dress emblazoned with rainbows and hundreds of sharks, which might also have been part of the whole remembering thing). That gives me hope that I might be okay.

Answered probing questions about their work. Some people get really excited about Q&A sessions. And if you actually have it together, that makes sense. Of course you’d want to talk more about your awesome project, or have real conversations that might deepen or challenge the great work you’re pour your 24/7 into. I mean, obviously. But I lack that togetherness and that self-confidence, so I live in righteous fear of Q&A sessions. I suspect this comes from my own paranoiac tendencies and my low estimation of my skill level, but it also comes from the fact that academia can be a genuinely shitty, undercutting, vitriolic place to be. At the WLA, though, I actually had more answer to the questions posed to me than there was time to voice said answers! Which made me wonder, do I take this conference paper further? Could it become a more robust and discursively situated journal article? If your Q&A goes well, it can often give you a hint as to how you might further your work–and give you the emotional impetus to follow through.

Asked probing questions about the work of others. I’m also garbage at being on the other side of the Q&A. Maybe I’m genuinely not that curious (which would be a dealbreaking problem, in academia), or I just don’t think fast enough to think of questions, but they’re not a thing I vocalize often. But asking questions is how you synthesize your field, or go beyond this superficial “I think some guy just talked for twenty minutes and I think I just listened” understanding of someone else’s ideas. Inquiry is mutually enriching–though again, academia can be evil and questions can be underhanded, passive aggressive, or straight-up combative. Combat can be important, too.

What I loved about the WLA was how often one person’s question for one aspect of one other person’s paper would so often turn into a discussion around the room, where everyone was weighing in and offering expansions, wrinkles, and alternatives. There was knowledge being generated, connections being formed, and collaborative critical thinking happening. People just going all-in with their intellectual capacities and disciplinary backgrounds, while also remaining cognizant of the many ways others might approach the same objects, and the values that may wend their investments this way or that.

Which is, in the end, one of the main points of academia. But it’s so rare it’s a damn wonder anyone has ever answered the “so what exactly do you do?” question. And even then, there are probably plenty who will read the above paragraph and think, “Yeah, okay. But… why? To what end? What?” Which is yet again a discussion for another ramble.


[I mean, look at these people. They’re literally having a fireside chat!]

The point of this one is to say that academic conferences aren’t really a vacation, so much as they are a fishbowl cleaning. The good ones, I mean–not the bad ones. The bad ones are made of despair and disillusion and are probably an insult to grotty fishbowls everywhere. But the good ones–those are fishbowl cleanings.

You are the feeder goldfish who gets scooped up and thrown into another tank, hopefully without predators and without more temperature/salinity difference than your poor homeostatic desires can handle. You go to fend off the isolation of your home institution, ingest new flora and fauna (and come home with new reading lists, key terms to look up, or theoretical frameworks to try on), and find conversation and solidarity amongst fellows. Then, when you get home, you know what your ideas sound like outside of your own head, and what sorts of questions people are interested in with respect to them. You know what other people are doing, and have notes scribbled as to how your work might connect with theirs–directly or indirectly. You even have a better idea of what you are doing, and how you do it. You come home ready, anew, to do your thing.

I mean, sure, you just spent an entire weekend “on,” from 8am-11pm nonstop, and you’re exhausted, and you spent far too long in an uncomfortable plane, and you’re confused about your timezone, and your transition back to normal life is probably a shock to the system because you definitely haven’t lesson planned for your class you’re teaching in 12 hours, and you’ve committed yourself to writing the world’s longest, disorganized blog post that somehow incorporates two different second-person POVs and a first-person POV, because you yourself are a 20/21st century cultural production, goddamn it. But you’re ready.

You swim and swim, around and around your clean new fishbowl, caught up in the flurry of your ideas as they bend around the glass and distort through your water, oxidized by your travels from afar and the new microbial academic ecosystems you’ve let populate your skin. You’re ready, you’re working, you’re ready.

And one the outside, people ogle or ignore you just the same as they always did. Academic conferences are everything, and nothing at all. Maybe you’re dissatisfied by the truism, the cliche. The anticlimax! But if you’re an English PhD student, probably the one thing you need to hear more than anything else–aside from “there are fish flakes in the grad lounge, and they are free!!!”–is

I’m not fucking crazy. This is not pointless. It is not nonsense.

Maybe that’s a bit subjective, given that you heard it from a conference put on by an association with more than a little skin in this game called academia, but a good conference will go beyond pure talk; and fishbowl or no, it will put bodies and people and conversation all together, and you’ll be able to recognize, even if it’s only for a little while, that whatever it is you’re doing is more than bytes on a page.

And you’re ready, you’re ready, you’re ready, to begin (again) the work of telling the rest of the world why.


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