Enough of the bitching. I like conferences. I look forward to them. I love living near DC because there’s at least one decent conference here every year or two counting a couple of the specialty small fry. Want to enjoy a conference for a change? Try these simple guidelines.
- Make arrangements with a buddy to get together for dinner/drinks. Nothing like sitting down with a friend that you don’t have to smooze to lighten the mood. And while you’re at it, take your SO out to a nice dinner away from the hotel.
- Go hang out in the book exhibit. Cheap books in your discipline! Come on, we’re academics. We love to read. We’ve seen each other’s houses. I’ve seen small-town libraries with fewer books. Just ignore the would-be authors and publisher reps doing the kiss-up butt sniff two step and for God’s sake, avoid the textbook hawkers in aisle one. Just walk around the silverbacks beating their chests trying to intimidate their rivals in the aisles. The rest of the place is heaven on Earth. Check out the books in areas outside your own specialty. Go sneak a peek at the book in your area and see if they footnoted you (that bastard better have!) That history of prostitution in the Gilded Age that you don’t dare ask about in your school’s library? There a stack of them for sale for less than you’ll spend on a lousy dinner in the hotel.
Grad students: go check books out in those areas your advisor sneers at. Better yet, check out the books in areas that are not covered at your school. No proffie in your department covers Southern European immigration to Asia? Hell, there’s at least a few books on that here. Go grab one and stand there and read the intro and conclusion. Maybe there’s something there that will interest you. If you leave the conference with less than a shopping bag’s worth of books you’re doing it wrong.
- Visit the city for Christ’s sake. At my very first conference as a grad student I skipped an afternoon panel to see an exhibit of French impressionists at the local museum. Yeah my advisor was pissed, that’s one reason why I switched advisors. But, I would have forgotten the panel presentations I was supposed to see by the time I got home. I will always remember spending an afternoon studying Monet’s haystack series. Last year in New York I skipped an afternoon at the AHA, walked through the lower East Side and visited the building where the Triangle Waist Company was in 1911. Which do you think will better help me teach my students: a boring paper by an ABD on the latest theory or me actually looking up at the building where all those poor people died that awful afternoon?
- OK, go see a panel or two. Forget the panels with the silverbacks. They wrote the paper on the plane and will spend the time joking with their buddies and sniping at their rivals. Go see a panel with a couple fresh Ph.D.s in an area close enough to your own that you’ll be interested, but not so close that you already know it already. The best panel I ever saw was on Davey Crockett. Picked up some great stories that I use in lectures to this day and learned some things. Hell, isn’t that why we’re academics? We still love to learn things?