I’m just back from the conference I mentioned in my recommendations for this month and am full of ideas to pursue, books to read, and potential articles to write. In fact, the past month and a half has proven an incredibly exciting time for my research, largely thanks to the stimulating conferences I’ve attended. I may habitually complain about the time conferences consume when travel, paper-writing, and attendance is factored in, but, the fact is, a good conference can be worth weeks of dedicated library time in terms of advancing research goals, introducing new perspectives, and tweaking arguments. It’s not just the act of pulling together a coherent 20-minute paper – as we all know, a pretty spectacular feat in itself – but also the sometimes uncomfortable necessity of introducing yourself to peers from other universities, of making a point of meeting scholars whose work you appreciate, and of generally putting yourself out there as an interested individual engaged in (one hopes!) interesting, related research. In a word – networking.
If I’m attending a well-established conference for the first time, I more often than not find myself suddenly and uncharacteristically shy and socially awkward. This is when the great social lubricant – wine – can come in very handy, and I think the practice of hosting a wine reception on the first evening of a conference a very good idea. Kudos to the person who thought that up! Although it’s a good idea to proceed with caution, especially when you’re a lightweight like me, these receptions afford the perfect opportunity to meet and greet, as, of course, do the many coffee breaks, dinners, social events, and impromptu drinks. Many a fruitful collaboration has been forged in these more informal and therefore, more comfortable, spaces.
That’s not to say, however, that the formal activity of conferences – paper presentations and the discussion that follows – is not also extremely productive. So valuable can such participation be, in fact, that I can think of nothing worse than presenting at a conference to an empty room, or to an audience comprised of one or two stragglers who, it turns out, have mistakenly wandered in while searching for another session altogether. Of course, it’s pretty standard to meet someone’s apology for not attending your paper with a self-deprecating statement such as, ‘Well, you didn’t miss much’, but I’d venture to say that, when it comes down to it, most of us would vastly prefer a packed room or even a less well-attended room full of interested and attentive readers, than nobody at all.
We all have stories of sessions where that scholar hijacked the discussion for his/her own self-aggrandizing agenda, but, in general, the conversations that follow your own presentation and those you’ve attended, can be both rewarding and instructive. Certainly, I’ve walked away from both of the presentations I’ve given at recent conferences with a new understanding of my research, the potential for fine-tuning it, and what’s more, a newfound confidence in its academic worth. At the end of the day, we attend and present at conferences because we need the input and validation of our peers. This is why we so often work ourselves into a mass of angst-riddled nerves in the days and hours preceding our presentations; this is why we worry endlessly about whether anyone will attend our sessions or not; this is why the socially-awkward teenager suddenly becomes our prevalent mode when speaking to more senior colleagues. Whether our peers agree or disagree with our arguments or conclusions is, in the end, largely irrelevant; what matters more is that they see our work as making a valuable contribution to the existing body of scholarship. (Maybe I should be using a personal rather than a collective pronoun here?!) To a certain extent, of course, this unceasing search for external validation is built into the academic profession and its peer review process, its external funding bids, and its performance evaluations, but conferences allow us a generally friendly space for testing ideas before putting them to the test, so to speak. So, while I’m glad the conference ‘season’ is almost over, I’m already thinking about the next conference papers to give.