Academics in public

In light of recent conversations around the blogs concerning surviving academic conferences, it seems like a good time to post some observations of my own on the heels of the ASA meetings in Atlanta.

Understand that these things take place in conference rooms spread around a hotel, or if you are particularly unlucky, a series of hotels. If you are unlucky in a serious way, the hotels are far enough apart to require riding a shuttle bus to make one’s way between them. By the conference’s taking place in a hotel, the diet of a graduate student is restricted for four or five days to essentially three food groups: Coffee, bagels and/or muffins, and alcohol, all of which are obscenely overpriced at the hotel concessions, and increase in price proportionate to your desire for them. For example, after a long day of humping your way from session to session, expect to find a glass of wine for $7. In the morning, the price for coffee will be extracted in the form of interminable lines and nondairy creamer. Cream cheese for the bagel is an extra $2.

About the conference rooms. The ballroom of the hotel may have vaulted ceilings decorated with frescoes and antique chandeliers, and persian rugs layered beneath grand pianos. The meetings themselves take place in meeting rooms with thematic names like “Tigris” and “Danube,” or “Magnolia” and “Pansy.” Imagine these rooms decorated in highly inoffensive color palettes, all of which include no fewer than three shades of either peach, beige, or taupe. Now combine those colors in alternating stripes and flake them with glitter. Add carpet of green or muave, and then spend four days there, at which point you would give your right arm for a $7 beer and a warm bagel.

Although the settings are indistinct and the prices are ridiculous, the meetings themselves can be productive. Line up some time with a mentor or other colleague to do some networking and plan research. It’s easy to feel productive and attentive when you’re in an environment that’s intensely all about your discipline. And as said elsewhere, if you get to see just a few good sessions and do a little networking, consider it a successful trip and redeem your receipts for some travel money.

Finally, some things to do and avoid doing:

  • It’s extraordinarily difficult to follow a talk that alternates between verbose reading from a text and off-the-cuff talking, especially when you’re rushing to fit an hour-long talk into fifteen minutes of time. Those tempo changes are just too difficult. Practice what you have to say, and demonstrate to the audience that you care about their comprehension, and organize the talk with this in mind.
  • Don’t say, “I’m out of time, so I’ll skip to the end.” Care about the audience’s comprehension and plan your time accordingly.
  • When you ask a question, ask a question. If you want to give a talk, submit a paper and give a talk.
  • Visuals: Don’t try to use all fifty of your powerpoint slides in a fifteen minute presentation. You’ll just skip them, saying, “Oh, I’m out of time.” Remember: Respect—rather than abuse—your audience’s interest in what you have to say.
  • Have a point.

Oh, and pack your own sandwich for the plane.