Conference Fun for Everyone

No matter where I am the phrase “professional development” strikes fear in my heart. I’m not sure why. When I taught in high school, this meant taking “classes” on how to effectively set up a grade book (I’m not kidding) or how to integrate technology into your classroom (aka “How Not to Make an Ass of Yourself Using PowerPoint”). At my work in the not-for-profit world, professional development means learning about grant writing, funding cycles, marketing, and whatever else (I’m still new to this one). For graduate students, professional development means dragging your sorry self to a conference in the middle of absolutely nowhere to practice puffing yourself (and your work) up in front of your future colleagues and your present peers. To be fair to any professional development attempts, I have to come clean of my bias right up front: I do not find any of this helpful.

Now, I realize that some find this very productive uses of time. And that’s fine for them. No judgment here. But I just don’t get it. If you’re presenting a paper, you’ve got 15 minutes to throw out to the unknowing and unfamiliar audience what is usually a very complex and well-reasoned argument. This is like saying to someone, “Sum up your life experiences for me in 15 minutes; some thematic help would be appreciated.” It’s so hard. What makes it even more difficult is that the floor is then opened for questions from people who could or could not know anything or everything about your topic. It’s a potential gauntlet during which you, as the presenter, have to also appear calm and collected.

If you’re just an “attender” to a conference, the whole tack is different. This time around I had trouble finding panels that fit into my interest areas. (Then again, I also had the revelation that my interest may not be academic sociology so again my bias creeps in.) But my general reaction to hearing panels of 3-4 papers generally grouped by a theme was definitely, “Why is this work important?” I didn’t mean it to be snarky. I just couldn’t see what it had to do with anything.

I’ll admit, and this is probably an unpopular opinion in the academic community which seems to thrive on this event-based collegiality but, I find conferences the number 1 ritual involved in “playing the game.” There is a correct and incorrect way to attend conferences. There are panels you “should go to,” dinners you “should stop in to,” hands you should shake, introductions you should make, names to remember, networking to treat very seriously. In other words, every conference is a political convention and you’re the candidate. Work it correctly and you could actually find that tenure-track job dangling at the end. Not take it seriously and the consequences aren’t dire; it just means you don’t really exist.

What I really wish is that the spirit of creating and building upon ideas was undertaken with as much fervency as the pressing the flesh. I would love to see politics take a back seat to letting really talented scholars display their work and letting us, as the audience, reap the benefits of hearing it.

Maybe you can do that now. But somehow, figuring that out has completed eluded me.

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