How to Conference: The Messy Social Stuff

For many people, those first few conferences can be stressful enough to put you off the whole thing altogether. Particularly at the very big conferences, it’s very easy to feel insignificant and invisible. Everyone seems to know each other, it can be hard to crack existing social networks, Big Name Scholars walk around being (mostly unintentionally) intimidating, and it can all make you want to just go back to your hotel room and call it a conference.

Which, if I’m being completely honest, is what I did for about the first five years of my conferencing career.

So how do you make a place for yourself at a conference? How do you meet people? How do you negotiate the complexities of social interaction? Depending on the size of the conference, there are different approaches you can take, but one that works for a conference of any size actually happens before a conference: namely, making connections through social media. Academic Twitter is pretty extensive; if you’re in media studies, it is vast and often well-worth dipping your toes into.

“But I really, really hate social media!”

The beauty of Twitter is that you don’t actually have to be a proactive tweeter to participate in conversations. Begin by following a few people whose work you like – not necessarily the biggest names, just people who you’d like to read more from. Like tweets that you, well, like. Comment if the tweet especially speaks to you. Wade into tweeting by retweeting them, by posting when you have a publication or other milestone, tweeting interesting articles or publications… all relatively low-key, but things that will help you be seen. Liking and retweeting, in particular, sound very passive, but that’s one surprisingly effective way to make your name recognizable to others. There are more than a few grad students who have followed me and – critically – engaged with me (even just by liking my tweets) to the extent that I now recognize their names on conference badges – all of that makes a difference!

As I said above, my modus operandi for the first years of conference-going was to give my paper, return to my room, and hide out until it was all over. What changed this was attending a small conference, and I highly recommend it to anyone with the opportunity to do the same. This tends to be a bit easier in the United Kingdom and Europe than other places, simply on the basis of geography, but there are many specialized conferences with few people and, thus, often a more intimate vibe and more opportunities to talk to people. This is also where being on social media can be useful – connections made at small conferences can often be sustained – even grown – online.

Even with connections, though, it can be very easy to feel lost and alone at a large conference. This is often where academics go not just to present and/or attend papers, but also to catch up socially with academic friends, meet current or potential collaborators, etc., and it can be very, very difficult to know when it is and isn’t appropriate to go along with the crowd for, say, dinner or drinks. It can easily be the most socially awkward part of conferencing, and I’m writing from my 100% Diagnosed and Medicated Social Anxiety (= probably much more harrowing for me, and my take reflects that), but in general just be aware of subtle cues. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re invited, you’re welcome to join. If not, it’s often a good idea to assume you’re not invited, even if the group of people you’ve been talking with are all heading out somewhere without you.

Similarly, you may find that everyone in your small group of known people is pairing off, or having smaller get-togethers, or what have you. Being outside this is NOT a reflection on you; usually, it just means that people want to catch up on a more intimate level, which is hard to do when you’re with someone you’re just getting to know.

One way to alleviate some of the feelings of awkwardness and even exclusion that can result from this is to take advantage of sponsored social activities: events sponsored by Special Interest Groups or Caucuses within the organization, by the organization as a whole, graduate school get-togethers, and so on. Those can all help to take the place of those smaller conferences – more intimate settings where it’s easier to talk to people and feel a part of the whole.

Finally, I just want to say a word about panel attendance and questions. I have literally never presented at a panel that had more than, maybe, 20-25 people – and that’s actually a lot for me. I have presented at panels with three people, seven people, and I have friends who have presented to fellow panelists because no one showed up. This all happens, and it’s often the result of a very competitive schedule,NOT a reflection of you or the panel. Similarly, come question and answer time, you may get exactly no questions – this, too, is normal. It can feel discouraging, but in truth you were accepted to the conference and that alone means that someone saw something in your proposal they liked. It may be that you answered any questions people might have had. It may be that it’s a new or esoteric enough an idea that no questions immediately present themselves. It can be a bit discouraging, but remember that you’re there for a reason. Whether you feel it or not, you have a place at that conference.

Thus endeth the conference series, but if you have questions or want to talk about anything I’ve posted here, feel free to ping me on Twitter at @acafanmom!