Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ms. Peppercorn Considers: "How to Survive the Conference"

As we mentioned last month, guest blogger Sarah Barringer Gordon is helping us launch a new, reader-driven feature here on the blog:
Readers have responded so enthusiastically to [Gordon's] posts that we have invited her to stay on as a sort of advice columnist in residence -- someone to respond to questions about everything from applying to graduate school to publishing a third or fourth book.

She is doing this for nothing -- a peppercorn consideration, as they say in contract law -- and offers her advice with the proverbial grain of salt. With a nod to advice columnists past ("Dear Abby," "Dorothy Dix"), we will title these occasional posts "Ms. Peppercorn Considers."
Today Ms. Peppercorn considers how to survive the academic conference:

DEAR MS PEPPERCORN: I am planning to attend the ASLH meeting for the first time.  I am a graduate student in history, and I have been to the AHA, where nobody talked to me other than a couple of equally lonely grad students.  I have heard that nobody at ASLH goes to any panels, and that the conference is full of people who all know each other. Like many academics, I’m kind of geeky, so I’m really excited to meet some fellow legal history geeks but terrified at the prospect of 72 hours of social awkwardness. Should I cancel my registration and come back when I am a more established scholar?


DEAR JOYLESS:  you have raised a fundamental question about “how to survive the conference.”  One could write a treatise on the subject.  For certain, the AHA is its own beast, and Peppercorn has nothing to say about that.  The ASLH, however, has distinct qualities, some of which are virtues, and others are tolerable.  First, the panels.  Very very substantive, and full of strong new work.  Yes, you are right, there is a coterie of those who spend their time drinking coffee, and doing things like laughing and gossiping.  Believe me, when you get to that point, you have arrived!  You may well be the next in line for president of the society.

In the meantime, however, Peppercorn suggests that you attend panels, preferably in areas related to your own interests.  Sit down NOT at the very back and by no means stand awkwardly at the rear wall.  Then, chat up the person next to you, perhaps with a comment between papers that reveals your own cleverness.  Then make sure to approach one of the paper givers or commentator with another bon mot or two.  This is a tried and true strategy.

Killing time between panels can be, well, a killer. Resist the urge to bury your face in your smartphone, and don’t eat that third bagel! Consider instead visiting the book tables, and let the book editors take over some of the heavy lifting. They are expert at dealing with geeky graduate students, and very good at making introductions and connections between scholars.  That is their mission (it’s good for recruiting authors).

Last, at the hotel bar of a late afternoon or evening, you will find a dedicated crew of bent elbows.  If your taste runs to the odd cocktail (Peppercorn is a devotee of sherry, no less), you will find a jolly cohort.  Pull up a stool or a chair, if you can screw up the courage.  You will be rewarded! (FYI, this strategy works less well at the hotel fitness center. Even geeks need to exercise, but not everyone likes to make small talk when they’re wearing gym shorts.)

So these are the three things you must focus on – panels, publishers, and pubs.  These are Peppercorn’s considerations on the question.  She cedes her remaining time to the pearls of wisdom offered by other readers.
Do you have a question for Ms. Peppercorn? Send it to the blog email address.