Relationality: Intermingling at Academic Conferences

Thanksgiving is upon us. Hopefully, for all of us, this will be a week of good cheer, warm reunions, and full stomachs. Besides spending a little time with my digital project and syllabus for the Spring semester, I plan on carving out a few days of relaxation with my partner to cook, bake, and do NOTHING (have you heard of that?).

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Last weekend, however, I stepped out of my comfort zone. I attended an academic conference. Even though I’m in academia, attending and presenting at conferences is not my favorite thing. They require public speaking, constant performance, inconceivable amounts of intellectual attention, and self-interested networking. 

Some senior scholars claim that it’s not worth it to go to conferences at all; they take up precious time during the semester, the feedback isn’t always valuable, and then there’s the fear of intellectual plagiarism, or conversely, wasting your time listening to too many half-baked ideas (a full professor in my graduate department once said that the only way to attend a conference is to go to your own panel and ditch the rest … and others have confessed to the same habit). And yet, while few scholars actually enjoy conferences, most (especially early-career scholars) must “endure” them to expand their professional network. Some have written on ways to attend conferences “strategically” and not exhaust yourself. But let’s face it: For many of us, it’s still just-a-little-too taxing to try and strike up conversations with 5 to 10 random people in a day, especially when we’re thinking in the economical, self-interested terms of: “what might this person do for me, now or in the future?”

Most of the time, we do not talk about how uncomfortable and fatiguing this part of academia can be. So, to “fill that gap,” here’s a review of my most recent experience at the 2018 PAMLA conference that I attended last weekend in Bellingham, WA. I applied specifically to this conference because there was a call for papers from an organization to which I belong, Women in French, asking for submissions related to “the theme of food in literature.” To my excitement, there ended up being three panels at the conference on the topic, which meant lots of food for thought (haha) and suggestions for further reading. On the second day of the conference, at 8AM (!), I read my paper, “Consumption of the Flesh in Marie NDiaye’s La Cheffe: roman d’une cuisinère,” in which I thought about how Jacques Derrida’s maxim on ethical consumption, “Il faut bien manger” (“one must eat well” OR “one must eat, of course”), structured the female protagonist’s culinary practices. Fortunately, I got a couple questions in the Q&A that helped me to think about how to move forward and flip the piece into an article.

After the session, a fellow panelist engaged with my paper; she said she didn’t really like to speak up in larger groups, which was why she followed up with me afterward. I appreciated this confession, which made me feel comforted, less alone, and more open to conversation with her. I then later struck up a conversation with another one of the panelists. It was a fairly comfortable exchange because I was able to ask her a question based on some pre-conference research I had done on her faculty page. This initial experience let me know that I wasn’t isolated in my feelings about conference gatherings, and that some pre-conference research on fellow panelists can really pay off. Especially if you ask questions that generally interest you, and that don’t feel like you’re just making a connection for connection’s sake. 

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The beautiful conference setting, tucked into a hillside of Bellingham, WA.

Usually, after my panel, I like to run back to my room and lay prostrate on the bed for a good while to regain my energy. I am an introvert, and these little hideaways are sometimes necessary for proper functioning (I have come to accept this habit as fine and normal, thanks to Susan Cain). However, for this conference, I felt the need to stick around. Not just for the next panel, but for the concluding forum and reception to which I had RSVPed. That’s because, even though networking requires putting yourself out there, which can feel superficial and (and exhausting for introverts), it can be helpful to get to know people in your field to see how they ended up in their position, get ideas for how to position yourself on the job market, get recommendations on how to get that manuscript published, etc. Luckily, I have become a member of an incredibly supportive group of scholars, the (aforementioned) Women in French organization. In two of the conferences I’ve attended in the past few years, I have presented on WiF panels and had very positive experiences. They are engaged, make sure to give feedback to each person on the panel, and provide a warm, non-judgmental community of encouragement and guidance. This is a gem––the needle in the haystack––in academia.

And yet, I still found myself wanting to retreat back to my Airbnb in the late afternoon and skip the cocktail reception to have some down time. But then, during a short break I gave myself before the final forum, I read some inspiring words from one of my favorite Buddhists: “You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing” (The Heart of Understanding 4). I read that phrase within my own immediate context. At this particular conference, I was surrounded by people in my field, who shared my research interests, and wanted to get to know one another. Couldn’t I just give myself over to “inter-being” with this group? No woman is an island. So I sucked it up, and I went. I got the free drink, and I talked with some smart, amiable fellow scholars. I got future ideas for courses, playlists to share with my French-language students, and ideas for ways to bolster my resume. And this meant ending the conference on a very positive note, and leaving me excited to prepare for the next.

Lessons learned? In future conferences … Attend a few, select number of panels. Being choosy means that you don’t have to overextend yourself. Do some pre-conference research on conference presenters and attendees to decide who you want to bump into. Talk to just a few faculty members, journal editors, publishers, or whoever it may be. And see if adopting the mindset of “relationality”––that such environments provide the opportunity to be in touch with like-minded people, rather than just to climb the ladder––can bring a sense of calm, even joy. Ultimately, I felt like this conference, and the reception in particular, fostered some authentic moments of relationality instead of inauthentic moments of self-aggrandizing networking. This experience gave me a boost for future academic gatherings as well as upcoming family holiday meals. I hope it can be inspiring for you, too. Cheers to you and yours.

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