Sunday, April 6, 2014


I have now been to a fair number of academic conferences.  I've got quite the collection of acronyms going: ASTR, IFTR, MATC, CDC (not the one you're thinking)... and I have some thoughts.

1) Going to a conference alone is hard.  I am not super high on the social skill-o-meter, and just striking up conversations with strangers does not come naturally to me.  I know that the schmooze is part of life, but it's a part for which I've never developed any proficiency.  And I can't say that the little groups of people who probably haven't seen each other since the last conference don't always do much to reach out to newcomers. So often, these things can be pretty lonely affairs for me.  Bringing or meeting one or two conference buddies changes the experience in a big way.

2) There seem to be two kinds of conferences: the ones where everyone wants to make themselves look bigger, and the ones where everyone gets jazzed about how big everyone else is/could be.  It's hard to tell before you go to the conference what the particular culture of it will be, but once you get there, it's sort of unmistakable.  You can feel the vibe when people ask and answer questions - are they trying to show off? catch someone in a mistake? Or are they trying to follow out the work, expanding their own understanding or the writer's understanding or all of our understanding in the process?  Do you leave feeling dejected, or energized?  Of course, both kinds of people go to both kinds of conferences, but I do think there tends to be an overarching feel to any given conference - and I definitely prefer the latter.

3) Conference book discounts really are pretty good!

4) If at all possible, stay at the main conference hotel.  That usually means you can easily sneak away to your room if the conference is getting a little overwhelming (or boring... or whatever).

5) Don't feel like you have to be present for every single second of the conference.  Maybe you fly in the morning of the first day, missing the first session or two.  Maybe the last flight out on the last day is at 5:00, so you'll miss the last couple sessions.  Unless you're IN one of those sessions, or unless there's something specifically applicable to your research, it's okay to leave.  I know that kinda sucks, because the people presenting in those sessions deserve every bit as much attention as anyone else, but the fact is, people are going to stay, people are going to be there to hear their work, and sometimes those extra nights of hotel time are just too much of a price to pay.  Don't feel guilty about it.

5b) Just because a session is a plenary session for everyone doesn't mean that you're remotely interested in it.  It's okay to take a long lunch.  It's beautiful outside!

5c) Don't miss the keynote!  Even if you don't think you're interested in them, there's probably a reason they're a keynote... they're probably pretty bitchin'!

6) Business cards.  I don't have business cards - what with my not having a job.  I mean, I have my old actor ones with my headshot, but it would feel a little weird passing my headshot around academia, so I'm holding off.  But I'm constantly wishing I did have something to just hand to the few people I actually have the guts to talk to.  Maybe someone dug my paper - I should give him a card!  Maybe someone had a really great resource or tie in to my own research - I should give her a card!  Writing on their forearm in sharpie really doesn't have the professionalism that I'm going for.

7) Don't expect every conference to be awesome.  You're going to see great work, you're going to see mediocre work.  You're going to have great conversations, you're going to hide in the back corner.  Once in a while, you're going to have an amazing couple of days that really get your academic juices flowing, but more often than not, it's going to be hit and miss.  Just keep your eyes open so that you don't miss the hits.

8) Do make a point to see at least a little of the city you're in.  Some conferences are in crappy places, some are in awesome places... but if at all possible, try to be in the place a bit.  You can't really say you've been to Cleveland if you never left the hotel.

9) WATCH THE PEOPLE.  Academics are weird.  And theatre academics are even weirder.  Collect some of these characters for the future!  There was this one fascinating woman I kept encountering at this last conference - I am so going to use her as an improv character one of these days!

9b) While you're watching the people... also watch yourself.  Don't get caught trying to reproduce their voice or mannerisms right there... 

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