Friday, November 11, 2016

Conferencing Dos and Don'ts

You never know who you will meet at AAR/SBL! My friend Melanie Trexler and I met the one and only (very gracious!) Cornel West in 2009.
And then William Young, author of The Shack attended one of my sessions.
It's that time of year again - time to fly across the country and join your fellow nerds at your guild's annual conference. For me and my kind, the Big One is the American Academy of Religion and Society for Biblical Literature's annual meeting (aka AAR/SBL). Once a year, thousands of religion scholars descend on an unsuspecting city and bring corduroy jackets (with elbow patches!), old-timey pipes, and all-around questionable fashion sense to discuss the latest trends in religious studies research. For first-timers, it's overwhelming!

For your first-timers (and long timers), I offer a few modest suggestions on how to make the most out of your academic conferencing experience.

Leah's Lucky 13 Conferencing Dos and Don'ts

1. Don't be fooled - the conference begins on the plane. You never know who will sit next to you on your flight. I recommend dressing in conference attire and having a stack of business cards with you at the airport.

2. Do bring comfortable shoes. I know, I know. I sound like your mother. But one year of walking around with blisters and a forced smile during your third late-night reception will cure you of your vanity.

3. Don't build your schedule entirely around paper presentations. There are a plethora of panels at large conferences and it can be tempting to spend your time jogging from one session to the next. But, a few years in and you'll find out that - with a few notable exceptions - most AAR-SBL panels are... boring. Painfully boring. And also pompous. Exceedingly pompous. Unless you are going to see a celebrity scholar or you are working on exactly the same thing as the panel you'd like to see, don't spend all of your time running after research papers.

4. Do be strategic when it comes to food and beverages. The line for Starbucks will be LONG. Happy hours in a 2 mile radius from the conference will be crowded. Plan accordingly.

5. Don't forget that much of the real business of conferencing gets done informally. So make sure you are prepared to stay out a bit and recruit some outgoing friends to go reception-hopping with you. Network!

6. Do give yourself permission to sleep in the day after a night of receptioning (this is a verb at AAR/SBL - I can assure you of this).

7. Don't take up too much of your scholarly crush's time at their university's reception. I learned this from a mentor of mine who will remain nameless. As gracious as many of them are, star scholars are usually at receptions to catch up with old friends, not to hear you talk for 25 min. about religion and 12th century Romanian folk art. So (unless told otherwise) introduce yourself, make an impression, and exit in less than 5 min.

8. Do remember that the religion scholar world is small... if you are gossiping at a hotel bar, you never know who is listening. You've been warned!

9. Don't get so nervous that you ignore normal social cues. Smile at people. Shake their hands. Laugh at their bad jokes. You get the idea.

10. Do take time to enjoy some local foods and take in some local sights. You never know who'll you will meet or when you'll be in that city again.

11. Don't forget to drink a lot of water. You'll thank me.

12. Do remind yourself that everyone feels insecure at these things. You aren't the only one; impostor syndrome is real. Take a deep breath and try to enjoy yourself.

13. Don't feel bad for playing hooky a bit with your friends. This time last year, while skipping out on a session, a casual conversation with Dr. Keri Day about a video of Paula White praying over Donald Trump led me toward my next research project (and predicted the bizarre political dystopia in which we now live). You never know what great ideas you'll get from talking to your brilliant friends!

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