Have I mentioned how much I love conferences! In fact, I get so excited about them (especially if I am getting reimbursed) that I am like little kid on the eve of their favorite holiday/birthday. I even have trouble sleeping a night or two before because I get so excited. And this year, “Southern’s” is in my city (that means it is cheap for me to attend). Southern’s is one of my regularly attended conferences. I especially like it for when I am presenting on topics of social psychology and queer studies. However, I do prefer my “home” conference of the Southwestern Social Science Association when presenting on topics of demography or to reunite with my grad school people.
This morning I went to a wonderful research incubator session where “older” (meaning more experienced, nothing related to age ) scholars chime in on the work of younger (less experienced, perhaps even new to the field) scholars. The room was set up like a board room and I my heart beat for these two, yes only two graduate students who were presenting their work to some big names in the group process world. Luckily, for us, Group folk are very nice and really do want you to succeed. Some of this session really took me back to when I was first presenting on my dissertation ideas and the way that presenting really further develops, not only one’s actual work, networking, etc., but also one’s confidence and demeanor within academia–you know the things our mentor’s tell us as to why its important and why we should do it.
Like most who are indoctrinated into academia, I have always thought that conference attendance and presenting at conferences was important and very practical, however as a graduate student and early professor I took for granted the many different more subtle ways your research and you as a researcher and teacher gain from conference participation. Things we “know,” but only really realize after our nerves settle–usually because we have some presentations and publishings under our belts. For the last couple hours, I have not stopped thinking about these more subtle nuances.
First and foremost, I have been thinking about how it helps us to build our identities as academics. As young scholars when we critical of something we hear and are validated by other responses…this allows us to feel right and builds our confidence…the same thing as when we are understanding and agreeing with presenters. My favorite is when you have the same question as a “big name.” This is the best because the question means something is unclear to you…but then when “big name” brings it up it just really seals that you may have had your eye on the ball and were hearing things in the same way. This is always a confidence builder. Q&A time also allows you to see who thinks like you, who things differently, and who thought of something new to you, all of which in my opinion can really spur one’s micro-creativity. In fact, after attending just one session this morning I have a new paper idea–something that is always exciting.
None of this is not to say that presenting at conferences gets easier…rather presenting at conferences just gets different. I do miss the days when I was rather naive and did not recognize the faces in the crowd as “names.” In many ways this was quite helpful. The good news is that for every name you recognize in the crowd, you probably also can see a “friendly” face too and that always helps. A “friendly” face may be a friend you have made from academia and your conference attendance, or it may also just be a friendly face. In fact, one of the most friendly faces I have ever seen actually turned out to be the mom of one of my fellow panelists. Throughout my entire talk, she held eye contact, was constantly nodding yes, and just sent such good positive energy my way. I didn’t know who this person was, but they loved my work and I was a more awesome presenter because of it. I have a friend who has similar story, however, her friendly face ended up being a big name in the field. So you just never know.
Conference attendance also makes me a more efficient teacher and researcher. I get to hear about and learn about a number of papers and topics that I, in all honesty, would probably not have known about or looked into. It further allows me to remember the research(er) with out really trying. A context is created for the researcher, their work, and that time period in our field and in my life that gives a much bigger insight into the research, field or even academia than merely reading the paper. It also saves a great deal of time. I will see many more presentations in one day and hold on to that information, than I would if I read as many papers. Although I guess one could make the quantity vs quality argument where you perhaps would not use all that you saw but would read papers that were more focused-in on specific topics of interest. But in the case of conferences, I actual prefer former.
I prefer to attend sessions that are outside my areas of interest just to stay up on the field and what is going on. I find this helpful especially for my teaching and for the students. While I do try to peruse at least one of the main journals each month…that goal often goes unmet. And once again, being exposed to these different areas and their perspectives really does stimulate my own brain and research agenda.
It also helps with my colleagues. I like to go to their sessions to support them, this in turn creates a fuller understanding of them academically and a fuller understanding of what they do. This is especially helpful in advising graduate students and also discovering new possibilities for collaboration. All while building closer ties with colleagues and boosting morale.