Kaari Newman is in her final semester as a graduate English student at St. Thomas. She will be writing her Master’s Essay this fall and presenting it at our ME presentation event. Below she shares 5 Things You Should Do at a Conference as a Graduate Student. The graduate program offers $500 in conference funding per year to every student.
My first conference experience was overwhelming. But that’s probably because I was one of the very few undergraduates wandering around the Marriott Hotel downtown at the MMLA Conference in 2008. There were well over 100 panels on every conceivable topic and genre you could imagine within the humanities. I attended a session held entirely in French, and it was all I could do to get the gist of what was said. I attended a lecture by the publisher of the UMN Press entitled “How to Get Your Manuscript Published,” which turned out to be more of a seminar for PhD candidates on how to turn their dissertations into books, not a general step-by-step guide to getting your (very bad) fiction manuscript published.
So yes, I was intimidated, but I was also inspired. Here was where serious academics shared ideas and rose to the challenge of defending them against the snide criticisms of that learnèd scholar with grey hair and elbow patches. Here was where allusions to Austen’s wit and Byron’s snark dropped into casual conversation in the hallway. Where people conversed on a level of intellect and language both familiar and yet far above mine.
Even back then, I knew that if I ended up pursuing academics as a career, I was going to be that plucky young scholar with fresh ideas at the front of the room.
So You Want to Attend a Conference
While I can’t vouch for whether I’m succeeding at being plucky, I have made conference participation and attendance a regular part of my St. Thomas experience. Below are some of the things I’ve learned as a graduate student participant at academic conferences.
1. It’s OK to start small.
The first conference I presented at was a very small regional conference held at South Dakota State University. It was the perfect venue for my début. There were only about 100 or so attendees, mostly from schools in the Upper Midwest (and one guy from Idaho State). This meant while I feared having to battle wits with the aforementioned elbow-patched scholar, I found instead a congenial group of professors and graduate students who were genuinely interested in my perspectives and asked intelligent, thought-provoking questions. Most sessions ended up being more like normal classroom discussions than aggressive Q&A’s.
2. Ask your question, even if you think it’s stupid.
I have routinely observed the truth of Emerson’s maxim that your own rejected thoughts always return to you in alienated majesty – usually in the form of someone else looking smart and insightful. If you have a question for one of the speakers in your session, ask it! Odds are, someone else has a similar or even the exact same question, and the best part about asking it first (other than looking smart and insightful) is that you might open up discussion for the whole group.
It also might lead to follow-up discussions after the session with the speaker or other attendees, in which case you feel included and respected, not like the loser in the corner on your smartphone killing time until the next session.
3. Attend the pre-conference social hour/cocktail party and especially the conference dinner.
Yes, I’m talking about networking. I don’t like it any more than you do. The nice thing about being a literature geek in a place swarming with other literature geeks is that you will always find something to talk about, even if it’s as simple as what books they’re currently reading. And most of these gatherings will include a free drink or two of alcoholic persuasion, which often provides the social lubricant needed to break the ice (but drink responsibly! No one wants to get pegged as the conference lush).
When I went to the British Women Writer’s Conference this summer, I didn’t know anyone, but I made a few acquaintances at the pre-conference cocktail hour. These people became friendly faces throughout the four-day conference by whom I could snag a seat at the plenary talk or approach at the coffee station to talk about the sessions we’d just attended. Meeting people is also a great way to hear about other sessions you wish you could have attended but couldn’t because the conference organizers saw fit to schedule a Mary Shelley panel during the same time as a Jane Austen one (you’re seriously making me choose between them?!).
Furthermore, conversations around the dinner table open up interesting tidbits about the state of the field, including:
- New trends or scholarly “fads” in research
- What publishers/editors seem to be looking for these days
- Just what exactly digital humanities entails
- Fabulous research tools and databases you’d never heard about before
- What teaching a 4-4 load actually looks/feels like
- How a “job talk” interview went and what questions got asked
- What actual scholars think of the academic job market (as opposed to what the Wall Street Journal or New York Times thinks about it)
4. Try to attend as much as possible. You’re here to learn!
I’ve met some conference-goers who attend only half the conference, or just go to the session they’re presenting at and little else. In my mind, this is a waste of time and money. You’ve paid (probably big bucks) to fly or drive to this conference, not to mention your conference fees, so make the most of your experience.
Spend some time before the conference perusing the program and selecting which sessions most appeal to you. You don’t have to stick to your plan, of course, but it helps you minimize choice paralysis on your first day, when you’ll be more concerned with checking in, getting your free swag, finding East Ballroom C for that first session, and locating the nearest bathroom for when that large coffee inevitably makes its way through your system.
I usually re-evaluate my plan at the end of each day (if it’s a multi-day conference) for the next day based on good speakers I’ve heard or topics that maybe appeal to me now vs. when I first registered.
5. But it’s ok to take a break now and then.
That said, it’s ok to take a break for a session or for lunch by yourself. Your brain can only take so much deep concentration and stimulating thought. Well-organized conferences will include about 15 to 30 minutes of downtime between sessions, but you may need a little more time to process. That’s fine. Take a walk around campus, the town or a nearby park. Bask in a sunny window, jotting down notes or thinking deep thoughts about what you’ve been learning and what questions it sparks for you. Reflection is good for the soul.
Ready to conference?
I could go on, but I think the main takeaway here is that attending a conference can take you out of your comfort zone in the best possible way. It will give you new insights into your chosen field, fresh ideas for your next paper, contacts at other universities, and most importantly, the satisfaction of belonging to a community that’s just as excited and nerdy about your topic as you are.
If the thought of attending or presenting at a conference still sounds intimidating, try participating in our very own annual Graduate English conference here at St. Thomas in the spring. It’s only one day long and local (so no hotel fees or transport costs), attended by your friends and professors you know, and always includes dynamic speakers with worthwhile ideas to spark conversation and further discussion.
And no, they didn’t pay me to write that.
P.S. I still haven’t quite got my courage up to attend the MMLA again, but I’m getting there!