I’m at a conference. A huge, utterly ginormous, gobsmackingly giant North American conference. As only the North Americans can do. It takes up a whole downtown conference centre and the meeting rooms of two additional hotels. The five-day conference runs from 8 am till 7 or 8 pm each night with no set break times.
A monstrous fifteen thousand or so people manoeuvre their way through the programme, trek from venue to venue, orienteer their way to their next room, queue for coffee in between sessions, and hope to find somewhere to sit for lunch. There are multiple and simultaneous keynotes, lectures, workshops and symposia as well as papers.
Every hour and a half, most of these fifteen thousand people get up and move. Each individual presentation is between thirty and twenty minutes long and ninety minute sessions operate to time – there is always a session after yours and people are anxious to get in and get set up. Prepare for the crowds, lifts that have stopped working, escalators and general hustle-bustle.
So this is actually a research town. A town that’s much bigger than your average village. The British town is officially between 1,000 and 100,000 people. This conference is getting on to be what would be classified as a large town, as large starts at 20,000. Just think what it takes to make a town function. Conferences as large as this take years in the planning and have large logistical teams to make sure that people can get registered, housed, and timetabled. They don’t always get everything right, and there are the inevitable cancellations, changes and complaints to deal with before, during and after the actual event.
This Sumo size conference is not just about giving papers. This is academic business writ large. There are meetings of journal Editorial boards and sessions where you can meet the Editors of just about every journal in the field. There are hiring sessions where you can meet and greet prospective employers and try to impress them with your suited bootedness and gorgeously laid out portfolio. And there are social events. Publishers hold receptions, as do various universities. You are supposed to have invitations to such events, not gatecrash, as they are primarily intended to provide an opportunity for colleagues to meet up in the middle of a busy conference schedule.
There’s also the book exhibition where every known academic press in the field has a stall. There are research companies and technology businesses represented too. My conference has ninety-nine booths altogether. Exhibitors are only supposed to display books that have been published in the last year. If you ever wanted to see academic productivity on display here it is. How did one discipline write so much in one year, I think to myself. Again. (And I must admit to feeling as if there is no point writing anything to add to this library.)
I always have two questions about conferences this big. One. Is a conference this monstrous worth going to? And a related point – Two. How does anyone make their way through this kind of event?
I guess the answer to the first question depends on whether you really do have to go. If you are in the US then this conference is just about mandatory. And if you’re elsewhere, then it is interesting to go at least once so you can see and experience just what a big academic conference is like. I went every year for a while but then got tired of it. I haven’t been for nearly ten years and I’m really only going to this one because it’s in Toronto and I can do other academic business at the same time. And to be fair, the conference is pretty competitive to get into, so there is some prestige in getting your paper through the reviewing process. This may matter a lot to some people for job-getting and promotion.
But I reckon whether you are there for the experience or because you must, then there are a few things you really do need to do in order to make the whole shebang manageable.
Get organised. That’s the mantra. Sort as much out in advance as you can.
If you don’t want to feel completely alienated from the entire conference, spending your five days wandering lonely as the proverbial cloud looking for someone you might know, go with some friends, or organise to meet some people you know while you’re there. Line up a couple of social events and dinners.
Read the programme in advance. Most conferences give you the option of a hard copy programme or digital and either one is helpful for pre-organisation. Online programmes are usually available a few weeks beforehand. Sort out your timetable and where you want to be when. Consult the conference map. Plot your routes as well if it looks as if getting to places will be tricky.
It’s good to find a special interest group or two that you want to follow. Most SIGs are programmed in the same set of rooms for the whole conference. Communities of academics gather around special interest groups – there can be ongoing conversations as presenters often refer back to other presentations and discussions continue between sessions. SIGs are a great place to meet like-minded people to share ideas and, well who knows what might follow from that.
Prepare for queues for food, and water. Bring a water bottle. It’s easier to refill than buy new bottles all the time. Bring some emergency food with you in case the queue is too long, what’s left looks disgusting or they’ve simply run out. Locate a couple of coffee places outside of the conference venue and get your re-useable cup ready. You can’t really prepare for loo queues other than plan not to go to every session – the ladies are always going to be more available during session times. Oh, and a small pack of tissues too, just in case the loo paper situation is desperate.
Also consider your clothes. If you’re meeting publishers or hirers then, of course, you have to look smartish. But you do need to think about just being at the conference too. Shoes you can walk and stand in – sometimes the sessions you go to will be standing room only. Comfort – sometimes you might have to sit on the floor, you may need layers to cope with the aircon inside and the weather out. A decent bag that is not going to give you backache or shoulder problems and that will hold your supplies as well as papers and books.
Making connections. Business cards are helpful in big conferences. It’s a simple way to provide your contact details to people. And, if the presenter doesn’t have a paper but says you can email them for a copy, jot your name on your business card with “email title of paper please” and hand it to them. That’s if you don’t want to have a conversation or if you can’t interrupt the conversation they’re already in.
There’s more you can do to make big conferences work for you too. I always take some time out to visit the city that my conference is in, usually it’s a gallery or museum or a mandatory must-see local landmark. Otherwise, if you’re in a corporate hotel and a big conference centre, you could just be anywhere.
I’m treating my conference as a writing retreat. So I’m going to a couple of sessions each day, keeping social events to a minimum and writing every day. It doesn’t feel as much like being at a conference, but it’s certainly productive!