The World of Academic Conferencing
In May of last year, an article in the New York Times deconstructed the world of academic conferencing in the humanities – these regular, rather intense meetings, in more or less exotic locations, intended to enable academics to discuss their research and network. Highlighting the gap between these noble goals and a much direr reality, the article offered a manifesto of do’s and don’ts. Failure to respect this code, the author claimed, would pose an existential threat to the humanities as a whole.
If the article, nearly a year later, is still in circulation, this is because much of what it says is not just funny but also true. In fact, I am quite certain that anyone who has been in academia for any amount of time would feel guilty on at least one count. I don’t think anyone would contest that conferences are sometimes frustrating and that networking often is awkward.
However, when I went to a conference where a speaker deliberately broke all the rules (clownishly dressed; speaking for twice as long as planned; presenting personal anecdotes instead of engaging with academic literature and theatrically accusing the audience of ivory-towering and structural elitism) it was by far the most frustrating and awkward thing I have ever experienced.
It would be wrong to argue that there has been no attempt to reform the academic conference. In fact, the label “academic conference” includes a range of different events. These, I would argue, all have their pros and cons.
To avoid frustrating situations, it’s important to be certain of your intentions, as well as those of the organisers and other attendees. This article therefore sets out to offer an introduction to academic conferencing for those who are entering this strange and, at times, awkward but also often exciting and rewarding world.
- The postgraduate conference
This is probably where you will begin and it is a rather good place to start. The model is that of conventional conferences: an overarching theme, multiple panels, usually three 20 minute papers followed by a general discussion. Yet the setting is more relaxed and the coherence imposed. The papers will be variably good and usually diverse in terms of topic. This is a pro if you use it as an opportunity to present your research, without feeling you have to adhere too strictly to the framework and to a not-so-expert audience. Also, it is a good opportunity to practice asking thoughtful questions (an underrated skill), by probing fellow presenters in a friendly manner. Attendees are often approachable, whether they are students – who are at various stages of postgraduate research – or senior academics, who are usually there to help. So don’t expect to gain the most cutting edge academic insights, but you’ll most likely enjoy nice exchanges with like-minded people – academia at its best!
- The academic workshop
If the next thing you go to is a workshop, you will be amazed by the coherence of the panels and the presentations. On an intellectual level, I would say this is the most satisfying kind of event. Workshops typically involve around 15 people, all of whom are working on something similar, adding depth, breadth and novelty to a subject. In this sense, the workshop is unlike any other event. The small size of the workshop also enables you to acquaint yourself with everyone, over the span of a couple days. If you are doing research and there is a workshop being offered on your subject, it is definitely worth making the effort to attend in order to meet with people. On the other hand, only present if you feel confident about your ideas, as you might be surprised by a specialist audience – which can be quite fierce. For this reason too, the networking can feel daunting. In short, don’t be fooled by the name: a ‘workshop’ may stand for a meeting of experts.
- The large international conference
Somewhat counterintuitively, I would advise budding academics to try this as early as possible (namely as soon as you can find travel funding). It is a great way to meet people and bring you up to speed on research in your chosen field. The theme is typically very broad, allowing for a range of approaches, methods and topics. You will be overwhelmed by how much is happening – so be selective, strategic and not overly fussed about going to everything (you can read their book later – the main thing is knowing that they exist!). Parallel panels mean attendance at individual sections is sometimes low. So however big it sounds, panels can feel small and yet remain impersonal. This is a good way to get feedback from a variety of researchers, especially as many of those will be from abroad. These conferences are less about content and more about socialising. Another important factor in choosing an international conferences is therefore making sure that you fancy the destination!
- The research day/afternoon/ seminar series
These types of events are typically organised by your university or a local institute/department. They allow for less formal or structured contributions – more like short snippets, or perhaps longer working papers, but most likely “work in progress”. The event or series will usually have an institutional or educational rationale rather than a thematic focus, meaning it may be interdisciplinary or broad in terms of scope. The two main reasons to attend are to gain insight into colleagues’ work (and to get to know them!) and discover different methodologies in your field. As an attendee, be prepared to look and think beyond your current specialism and contribute to the discussion from a more distanced standpoint. As a presenter, this is a good opportunity to present a project overview, or a complex argument, and get a reaction from the small, specialist audience. This is especially useful when you’re at a writing stage that still allows for substantial alterations.
- The summer school
Schools (winter and spring, but mostly summer) are growing increasingly popular and for good reason. They make room for creativity. They may include a mixture of presentations by participants and lectures to attend; they may result in collective projects or publications; they usually allow for in-depth discussions of broad ideas. These schools also bring together a huge variety of people: from master’s level to post-doc, and from many different countries. The benefit is not only in getting to know the other participants during the week or two that the event lasts, but also learning in a fashion that is not purely subject-based. One also benefits from hearing about others’ experiences with projects, publication, teaching and study. Summer schools are demanding in terms of time: they require applying, preparing and attending, but I would recommend trying them at least once, regardless of where you are in your academic career. Offer what you can at that point!
The key to the world of academic conferencing is knowing what you want: is it about meeting people working in your field? Finding out about a subject? Presenting a new idea? Getting feedback on your current research project? Or letting the world know about your latest findings? If you establish this from the start, you’ll be better placed to handle the situation – and may even enjoy yourself as well.