Notes from the Road

Hello again, my friends and readers!

I am writing to you from the JetBlue terminal at JFK in the midst of my most hectic week of the 2011/2012 academic year.  I am currently en route home from a week in California and will return to Boston tonight only to be greeted by a desk full of projects and only two days in which to accomplish them before a full week’s course-load crammed into three days (one day of which involves a major project due).  On day three directly after class I leave for the Comparative Drama Conference where I will be giving a paper (which, by the way, is not quite ready to present yet) and, in the next four weeks, I have to give three class-related presentations in addition to my usual course reading and the three seminar papers whose due-dates loom ever-nearer as the semester winds down.

Suffice to say I’m going to be a little tired and harried.

I did, however, want to take a moment to check in after the National Gothic Fiction Conference.  Obligatory weather comment: I managed to be in San Diego for the three days out of the year when it wasn’t sunny in San Diego.  It rained off and on and the entire trip was covered in ominous clouds perhaps as a result of the conference itself.  I have to say, the setting was rather… well… Gothic.

My paper was extremely well-received and I met some very interesting people (and got to spend time with a dear old friend).  I do have a few observations that I would like to share for you graduate students who do conference, have conference, or will conference.

Every time I’m at a conference, I notice some things that I firmly believe the entire profession of academia would be a better place without.  As the next generation of tweedy professors, it’s our job to change these things.  Just like on the New York City Subway; if you see something, say something.

So here’s a list of things that no matter what happens, no matter how much the conference gods beg, no matter how much easier this would make your presentation/flight/life, just don’t do them.  Seriously.

1)      Wear jeans.  No joke.  If you are conferencing, that means that you have an eye towards professional development, which

means that you would like to get a job in the near future, which means that as many people as possible should take you

please excuse the decor, but do you know how hard it is to find a full-length mirror in a hotel with enough landing strip to actually get a full-length photo? Anyway, this is my default conference wear.

seriously.  Jeans may be okay in some people’s professions, but they’re not okay in ours.  It doesn’t take that much effort to put on a pair of slacks and some nice shoes.  Wearing jeans to a conference is like wearing sweats to class; it shows that you just didn’t bother to take yourself seriously enough to get dressed that morning.  This rule also goes for Hawaiian shirts, tee-shirts, miniskirts, and see-through shirts.  Present.  Yourself.  Professionally.  It makes me so angry when I see my colleagues not taking conferencing seriously enough to look their best because they are, in turn, making me look bad.  Graduate Students unite and show the big boys that we mean business.  Do yourself a favor and stop giving me headaches; it’s a two-for-one!

2)      Not have business cards.  Even if you don’t have official university cards (I don’t), get yourself a little slip of cardboard with your name, e-mail, affiliation, etc. on it.  They are not expensive, and they add ages to your credibility.  Also, they’re a great way to quickly give someone your contact information (which happens a lot at conferences).  I don’t have time to write something down, my pen isn’t accessible, etc., but I can definitely take your card and stick it in my pocket.

3)      Have one too many at the bar after hours.  This is especially true of the night before your panel.  There is nothing more disrespectful than being late or hung over while giving a talk.  Remember: the industry of academia is reliant upon time and brainpower.  If a roomful of people have shown up to hear you speak, they are foregoing other important things to do so.  You owe it to them to be as polished and on point as you can.  Also, think about impressions.  You may be drinking with people who will be deciding the fate of your career in the future.  These aren’t your friends from home, they’re your colleagues.  They’re important and vital connections for you to have as you go forward in your career, and they’re what you’re here to do (network, that is).  Getting a bit sloppy means you run the risk of offending them or embarrassing yourself, or a whole host of other ailments which come with drink.  This is not to say that you can’t relax, but treat schmooze time like an interview (albeit an informal one).

4)      Read your paper directly off the page without any connection to your audience or mind for presenting.  I really don’t understand why people do this.  If I wanted to read someone’s paper, I would have had him e-mail it to me.  Remember that a panel consists of three to four papers and generally lasts 45 minutes to 1.5 hours.  The last thing I want to do is listen to someone drone on tonelessly about a work I may or may not have read while using vocabulary that is simply beyond my aural comprehension for that long.  It’s boring, it’s superfluous, and it’s a sure-fire way to lose your audience.  Don’t you want them to listen to you?  Don’t you want your ideas to be heard?  Give it some zing!  Spice it up a bit!  Make it interesting!  Chances are if you are boring yourself, your audience won’t want to sit through it either.  The best papers I’ve seen involve visual stimulation (via powerpoint usually), an engaged speaker who knows what she’s saying and isn’t afraid to speak from notes, and an attention to the feel of the room.  If you’re going first thing in the morning or directly after lunch, this is especially important.

5)      Dominate someone else’s panel from the audience.  The audience is there to ask questions of the panelists, not random audience members.  You need to be a gracious and attentive listener when you come to hear a paper.  Even if you know something that the panelist doesn’t seem to, make a note of it, and quietly go speak with the panelist after the Q&A concludes.  The panelist has done a lot of research on her presentation topic and, should a question arise that she simply can’t answer, it’s her job to find a way to talk around it.  This is great practice for teaching undergrad.  Also, unless you really know your who’s-who of academia, you may be inadvertently stepping on the toes of someone who is influential in your field.  Do you really want your name black-listed from top universities because you were rude at a panel that one time in Graduate School?  Remember that you’re wearing a nametag… it’s not that hard to track you down.

6)      Go over your allotted time.  This comes with rehearsing and being prepared.  When you practice your talk, make sure it’s at least two minutes shorter than the panel calls for.  That way you know that you will be fine for time even if you have to divulge into a tangent or two, which does happen.  Going over is rude to your fellow panelists and your audience and is highly unprofessional.  Just don’t do it.

7)      Come unprepared.  Bring a pen, bring a notebook, bring a time piece, bring business cards, bring a bottle of water, bring a snack.  These are all vital bits of my “conference survival” bag (I also usually include some ibuprofen, lip-gloss, mints, a compact mirror, an extra hair tie, a folder, a jump drive, hand lotion without an overpowering smell, my netbook, and my iPad… all of these are items which I have previously needed during a conference).  Also, bring a smile.  Seriously.  It helps.

Now that that’s out of my system, I think I’ll go work on my CDC talk.  If you’re in Baltimore next weekend, be sure to say hi!  I’ll be speaking on session seven which, while still depressingly early in the morning, is at least not the first panel this time so you have no excuse as to why you’re not dressed yet.  Hope to see you there!

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