As I write, I am preparing to attend several academic conferences, including the Evangelical Theological and Philosophical Societies, the Society for Biblical Literature, and the American Academy of Religion. (Or, as I call these conferences, “Revenge of the Nerds”). I’ve attended these meetings for more than fifteen years now, starting as a doctoral student and continuing throughout my career as a professor and administrator.
Over the course of time, I’ve come to appreciate them for being academically stimulating, socially energizing, and career enhancing. For that reason, and based on my experience, I’m offering a few tips to graduate students and younger scholars who wish to “attend a conference for all it’s worth.”
Make a plan.
My first recommendation is to spend some time studying the conference schedule, highlighting the plenary or breakout sessions that seem especially valuable or interesting. If you don’t do this, you’ll probably wind up attending too many sessions, selecting the wrong sessions, and walking in tardy after the sessions have started.
There are at least three criteria that could make a particular session valuable for you. First, and most obviously, the subject matter might be especially relevant to your research and teaching interests. Second, you might select a particular session because the presenters are especially good speakers or debaters; in other words, regardless of the subject matter, some presentations are worth attending so that you can watch a masterful performance. Third, you might attend a certain session because you wish to connect with the type of people who will be in the audience during that session.
For what it’s worth, I make my conference “plan” while I travel to the conference. Most travel itineraries involve several hours in planes or airport lounges, which is plenty of time to pour a cold one (diet Coke), pull out my conference itinerary, and highlight the sessions I wish to attend.
Attend paper presentations selectively.
At an academic conference, many of the sessions are organized around “paper presentations.” Make sure to attend a few of those, but not too many. After all, who wants to sit on their can for 16 hours a day, 3-4 days in a row, listening to monologues? As a general rule, your best bet is to prioritize scholars who are presenting in their “wheelhouse” and who are known for interacting with the audience (e.g. Q&A) rather than windbagging it until the final bell sounds.
If you choose the right presentations, you’ll leave with your mind sharpened and a memory made. I remember my first AAR. I had highlighted several “must-attend” sessions, including one in which James K. A. Smith presented. At the time, he wasn’t nearly as well-known as he is now, but I’d heard that he was a provocative presenter who gave time and attention to questions from the audience. I wasn’t disappointed.
Prioritize panel discussions.
One problem with academic conferences is that many presenters think the audience actually wants to hear them read their scholarly paper monotonously, word-for-tedious-word; these scholars often take more than their allotted time, cutting into the Q&A time or eliminating it altogether. Who wants to sit in on hermetical stemwinders like that? Some people do. More power to them. But as for me and my house, we will not do it. Or at least not very often.
Panel discussions provide an easy way to avoid such tedious bloviation. The panel format allots each participant time for a short presentation, followed by freewheeling discussion and debate. Taken together, the combined experience of the presenters and the back-and-forth nature of the session leaves the audience not only awake, but energized and well-informed.
At the same AAR I mentioned above, I attended a four-way discussion and debate between Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Rorty, Cornel West, and Jeffrey Stout. I mean, seriously, when would I ever again have had the opportunity to be in the room with those four men? It was the experience of a lifetime.
Ask good questions and avoid being “that guy.”
There is something about academic scholarship that can twist our personalities in odd and even ugly directions. It can foster social unawareness (nerdiness), verbal aggression, and—worst of all—a smug sense of self-importance. And there is something about academic conferences that encourage those qualities to emerge during the Q&A sessions following paper presentations and panel discussions.
In order to avoid being “THAT GUY,” I suggest a brief examination of one’s academic-question-asking habits. Ask yourself:
- When the moderator has allotted 10 total minutes for Q&A, does it take me six minutes just to articulate my question?
- Do I reference my own work and bring up my pet theories, struggling to adapt them to interrogative form because I like talking more than listening?
- Am I personally committed to uttering, in the form of a question, every stray thought I’ve conceived during the presentation?
- Do my questions start with the phrase, “But don’t you think that…?”
- Does the moderator wince or get an odd look on his face when I raise my hand, because he knows me by reputation?
- Do people groan and roll their eyes when I ask questions?
- Do my interrogatively-framed bloviations cause other scholars in the audience to look like they are hamsters swimming in a bucket of Thorazine?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might be THAT GUY. And if you are THAT GUY, stop it. Stop it right now.
Instead, ask questions that keep yourself out of the spotlight, convey respect for the presenter, and stimulate the thought processes of the other people in the room. And please, for the love of all that which is good, do not ask a question that takes you longer than, say, 30 seconds to articulate.
Skip some sessions.
Not to ruffle feathers, but I strongly recommend session-skipping as a healthy practice. That’s right. One of the most valuable aspects of a professional conference is the opportunity to just say “no.” Instead of serial session attendance, carve out some time to engage in conversation with other scholars and students.
The easiest way to strike up a conversation, from my experience, is to ask the other person about their research interests, teaching post, or conference presentation. There is something to be gained from conversations with every type of conference attendee: senior scholars, junior scholars, graduate students, publishers. So, spread the love. Find a person or a group, hit up some good coffee shops and restaurants, and be enriched by the back-and-forth.
It was at a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society that I had my first opportunity to interact informally with the great New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner. I had read his books for years, but now I had the opportunity to ask some questions in person. I think my biggest takeaway from the conversation was how kind and personable he was; his extraordinary success in scholarship hadn’t caused him to be aloof or impersonable.
Take advantage of publishers’ receptions and meals.
Publishers often host meals or other types of receptions. Don’t underestimate how valuable these events can be. In addition to the complimentary refreshments and meals (rubber chicken!), you’ll have the opportunity to rub elbows with publishers, acquisition editors, and authors who can help initiate you into the book-writing guild. (If you’ve just finished writing a dissertation, you’ll probably need all the help you can get. Although dissertations are helpful for learning to build a sustained argument, they are usually enormously deleterious of your ability to write a book that other people might want to read.)
Put some thought into your self-presentation.
At a professional conference, you will meet dozens of people. I suggest that you think carefully about the most helpful way to present yourself to them. In addition to giving your name, institutional affiliation, and scholarly discipline, consider how to best articulate your research interests to persons outside of your scholarly discipline or sub-discipline.
In other words, when your new friend, Dr. Curleybrows (a scholar in, say, Ancient Near Eastern languages), inquires after your dissertation topic, your first impulse might be to say, “Oh, yes, I am analyzing Ludwig Wittgenstein’s private language argument as it develops during the “Blue and Brown book” phase; I am arguing that he is a non-reductive physicalist in his anthropology and neither a realist nor an idealist in his epistemology.”
You should resist your first impulse and, instead, say something like, “Thank you for asking. I am studying a Cambridge philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein, who emphasized the embodied nature of human existence and who explored how our bodies affect the way we gain knowledge, speak to others, and live ethically.” Or, “I am studying a philosopher who believed that human beings have bodies and, as such, are not gods. And if we are not gods, we should stop pretending that we can think, speak, or act like a god.” Eh?
Be engaging and professional as a presenter.
If you are presenting, make sure to arrive at the venue ahead of time so that you can have your act together when the session starts. Consider presenting the main ideas of your paper instead of reading the entire thing, point-by-point. In other words, give your audience the privilege of seeing your eyes from time to time rather than forcing them to stare at the crown of your head while you stare at your paper and its footnote apparatus. Leave time for questions at the end; aside from the occasional rude question or comment, you’ll find the Q&A session helpful for you, the questioners, and the audience alike.
Attending a Conference for All It’s Worth
If academic conferences are approached properly, they will prove to be sources of academic stimulation, social connectivity, and career enhancement. For that reason, I hope the tips I’ve offered will help those of you who are graduate students and younger scholars learn to “attend a conference for all it’s worth.”