No ho ho: The academic conference season

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In addition to grading exams and papers, thousands of academicians across the U.S. devote parts of their semester break to attending and participating in huge yearly academic conferences, hosted by whatever association covers their field of teaching and research. (For example, law professors may be headed for the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools.) Slate education columnist Rebecca Schuman humorously captures the emotional heart of the between-semesters academic conference season:

One of the advantages of an academic career is that most universities take a two- or three-week winter break. While students clog the overhead compartments of America with fetid laundry and then gorge on home-cooked meals, their professors presumably get to spend those weeks doing whatever the hell they want. No fair! Bah! Humbug!

Take heart in the anguish of your fellow man, Scrooges of the corporate world: Some of that winter break is ruined, thanks to the big annual conventions that academics must attend in early January. Whether it’s the Modern Language Association (MLA), or the countless others with countless other acronyms (AHA, SCS, APA), conferences loom just after the new year, turning the academics in your family-and-friends circle into shriveled husks of their former selves, darkening every festivity with stress about their upcoming trips. (I guess we should give the conferences a cookie for not clustering in the week between Christmas and New Year’s like they used to.)

Call me a bit of a cynic, but here are some of the qualities that can predominate these mega-conferences, some of which Schuman discusses in her column:

  • Badge-watching — There’s a lot of badge-watching at these conferences. Big names at prominent universities will get the most attention. Junior faculty at institutions of lesser renown, not so much. Most entry-level job hunters must depend on impressing and posterior kissing, described below.
  • Impressing — Whether you’re a big fish or a small fish, if you’re on a conference panel, conventional wisdom says that the immediate objective is to sound learned and serious, with just the right touch of lightness and pizzazz. This supports the broader goals of (1) getting more speaking invitations; (2) being asked to join some prominent executive committee or editorial board; and/or (3) being recruited by a higher-ranked university/department/whatever.
  • Posterior kissing — Making a good substantive and stylistic impression may not be enough to advance one’s goals. Some ego stroking may be advisable and even necessary. Done too transparently, it won’t have the desired effect. But the right puckering up approach may unleash a recipient’s largesse.
  • Job hunting — Some academic associations use their annual conference as an opportunity for schools to conduct screening interviews of promising candidates for faculty positions. For academic job hunters, this adds a humongous layer of importance and anxiety to the whole deal, especially at a time when full-time, tenure-stream positions are in heavy demand.

Like in many other professional settings, it’s all part of the hoop jumping game. And unless someone’s credentials are so absolutely impeccable that a complete lack of social skills doesn’t matter, most people have to play it, at least sometimes.

I plead guilty to having engaged in some of this game myself, but hopefully never to excess. While of course I want to do well if I’m giving a talk or on a panel, my primary goal is that people will learn something from what I have to share. As for badge-watching and posterior kissing, it’s not a natural part of my tool kit. I’m always happy to meet new folks in shared areas of interest, but prominent affiliations don’t necessarily impress me, and I’m simply not that good at kissing up in a superficial sort of way.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that being a curmudgeon or a jerk is the right way to go, either. It’s good to get along with others, to make positive connections, and to express gratitude and thanks when warranted.

The brighter side 

In any event, there is some good news on this front. First, the more senior you get, the less you have to contort yourself. In fact, if you’re sufficiently established in your field and not actively fishing for more invitations to move up the greasy pole, then you can settle back into being a relatively normal, sincere, authentic human being.

Second, not all larger conferences fall into the soulless abyss. For example, over the years I’ve sung the praises of the biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference and the biennial International Congress of Law and Mental Health, because both events attract a cohort of people who want to share, learn, and interact genuinely with colleagues and friends. Both gatherings are a lot more down-to-earth than the typical academic fare.

Third, once you’ve been around these blocks a few times, you can search out your friends and compatriots at even the largest of events, in effect creating your own little community. That may mean skipping the big reception and the stuffy conference banquet, and instead enjoying a nice meal over good conversation.

Finally, you can go small. I’ve become a big fan of smaller workshops, symposia, and seminars that nurture genuine interaction and allow people to get to know each other. Interestingly, some of these small-scale gatherings can lead to more opportunities, conventionally defined, than the larger cattle shows. Such events are also relatively easy to create if you’re willing to do the organizing work.

For what it’s worth, I’ve found that a healthy transition occurs when we go from pursuing ambitions to seeking meaningful connections and activities. Too many of the big conferences are more about the former. We should consider ourselves fortunate when we can get past that stage and seek out the stuff that matters.

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I published a short reflection on the benefits of smaller gatherings — “Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful,” Suffolk University Law Review Online (2014) — which may be freely accessed here.

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