I attend a lot of conferences. sometimes giving papers, sometime just hanging out, taking notes, and drinking afterward. i find them to be the one of the necessary antidotes to the isolation and loneliness that comes with doing phd research; especially when you’re based in a very small department in a fairly dis-connected scottish town. that said, i have to come to the belief that there is a sort of un-written code of conduct that makes for the best conference experiences, and after recently attending a conference (which will not be named) in which all of these rules were broken time and time again, i’d like to outline a few of these simple rules.
first, and most importantly: if you’re presenting a paper at a small conference with no parallel sessions, go to other papers besides your own. in my mind, nothing makes a graduate student seem more pretentious than traveling to a far off city to present at a conference, skipping all the other papers, then showing up for your own and expecting people to give a shit. at the conference i attended recently there were 7 papers (with responses) over the course of 1.5 days. out of all of the presenters, a friend and i were the only two to actually go to the other papers. even the (very well known) keynote was there for the entirety of the second day of the conference, yet many of the graduate students simply came and went, showing very little respect to the other presenters.
another thing i recently noticed is something that should never be said while giving a paper at a conference, and in can come across in a few different ways. examples:
‘i would talk more about (topic x) but this is actually from a larger work/article….’
‘if i had more time i would go into (x), but…’
Okay. you’re a graduate student. someone put out a call for papers, likely telling you at the outset that you had 20 minutes to speak. you sent in a short abstract, and had months to figure out what to say during your presentation. please (please) do not show up with some 8,000 word article you’re working on, and then attempt to rush through it in 20 minutes, all the while acting like what you have to say is so deeply important that you can’t express it in 20 minutes.
and along with this, can we all agree to stop providing textual summary, literature reviews, and exegesis in short conference papers? wouldn’t it be much more productive (and fun) if we made arguments? i thought phd theses and journal articles were our opportunities to prove how many books we’ve read and how many footnotes we have? why not take advantage of the chance to be around other young scholars working in a similar area and make an interesting, even provocative, argument and then have a lively discussion afterward? i hate being self-referential, but alas, this is one of the things i really appreciated about all of the students presented by graduate students at the conference in dundee last month. they each stayed to 20 minutes, and provided interesting/provocative arguments that lead to productive discussion. and along with this, they were committed to the event as a whole, interacting with the papers and ideas of others the whole way through.
i’ll stop there, but will return later to offer some more thoughts on conference etiquette and strategy. in particular i will attempt to offer the perfect ratio of alcohol to coffee that allows one to spend 2-3 days barely sleeping yet somehow able to interact with complex ideas during the day and drink like a frat-boy (or sorority girl) at night.