by Donna Lanclos
I started going to academic conferences when I was an undergraduate, and hanging out with a lot of graduate students. I was studying archaeology (in an anthropology department, US style) in southern California, and in my fourth and final year the Society for American Archaeology meetings were in Las Vegas.
I didn’t present at those meetings, I just went along to be with friends and see what they were up to. My friends, as graduate students, had papers to present, and some of them had job interviews, and all of us tried to go to at least one of the plenary talks. My most vivid memory was of the “book room”–the exhibit hall where all of the publishers had their tables set up. That was where, if I hadn’t run into a friend yet, I would be guaranteed to find them, checking out what was available, making a note of what they wanted to try to get on the last day when everything would be at a discount, and running into people they knew (occasionally meeting new people!) and chatting with them (and making plans to go out, obvs).
The sessions were fine, some were boring, some were interesting, but the “book room” was fantastic. It felt like an academic bookstore, but with people you knew you could hang out with.
As I made my way through graduate school, and started attending national (American Anthropological Association and American Folklore Society) meetings as well as smaller more regional meetings (Berkeley Andean Society, California Folklore Society), my pattern of meeting activities seemed pretty fixed:
- Present a paper (the only way to get departmental funding to go to meetings),
- Hit the “book room,”
- See friends and meet people.
- I never got to the point where I had job interviews to go to (though many of my friends did)
I noticed, the more of these meetings I went to, that at the big meetings (thousands of people go to the AAAs), the senior scholars were far less likely to be presenting papers. They were in the halls, they were meeting friends and colleagues, they were in the “book room” but if they were in sessions it was usually as discussants, or on a panel discussion. The content of their conferences was no longer in the paper presentations, but in their network of friends and colleagues, and the conversations they had.
My weird path in academia meant that I fell away from regular attendance at academic conferences. When I started attending conferences again in the mid-2000s they were the American Library Association, Educause, and ACRL. These were both familiar and strange – I still had to present papers to get to go, but the “book room” was a massive exhibit hall, filled with vendors selling very expensive systems to libraries and university IT. I did not, when I started attending these conferences, have a circle of friends the way I did as an undergraduate and graduate student, so being in the exhibit hall was nothing like the “book room” in my memories–I was awash in a sea of content (and vendors who looked right through me because I clearly was not the one in charge of the budget at my institution), without my network, I was back to square one.
Persistence in the fields of library work and education technology meant that eventually I did have a network, and I got to experience conferences the way I witnessed senior scholars in anthropology did–as a place to reconnect with “my people” as well as to meet new folks, and build new connections. When I submit proposals for conference presentations these days, it’s much more likely to be a workshop or a panel discussion than a paper presentation.
ALT-C has a lot of content to engage with, and the institutional insistence that people present papers at conferences to get funding to attend conferences persists in many places. And presenting your content at conferences is an important mode of engaging. I think, though, that it’s a first step in engaging with the community that you encounter in any given conference. And, if you only attend a conference one time, that might remain the extent of your engagement–broadcasting your content.
I think it takes multiple opportunities to engage before it’s possible to get to the point where you can move away from broadcasting and focus on engaging with, experiencing, building your network of people as the content of any given conference.
So those of you who will be attending ALT-C this year, what is your history with conferences? What was the role of broadcasting/paper presentation in your experiences? When did your experience (or, did your experience) change to one of conversation and networking? Or, has it always been a mix?
If you are a first-timer at ALT-C, when you are there, I hope you think about what could be different the next time you attend. I hope that you return, to be able to experience your own arc of development around conferences, connecting, and the balance between broadcast and engagement.
You can find out more about ALTC23 on their website.