Going to conferences is an excellent way of learning more about your field, expanding your knowledge in a given area, getting inspiration, as well as meeting people who might help you in your research. More generally, they are important to staying informed of the direction in which things are going in your field, the major issues and ideas coming to the fore, as well as showing others that you are an active researcher.
All of these principles hold true for us eighteenth-century folk, and we are lucky to have some really wonderful conferences in our field. I have been to meetings of ASECS, Northeast ASECS, Canadian SECS as well as Southeast SECS, and each venture has been a success. In part, this is due to the fact that, as I mentioned in my previous post about this year's ASECS meeting in Williamsburg, VA, eighteenth-century scholars are, generally, a friendly and enthusiastic bunch. Additionally, we are well-organized; there is a regional eighteenth-century conference for several different regions in the US as well as several international and author-based conferences. Even if you only went to eighteenth-century specific conferences, you could still probably go to a different conference every month!
As an added perk, many renowned scholars in the field regularly attend these conferences. Rarely do you walk into a room at ASECS without recognizing the names of several people on their name tags from articles and books that you've looked up and read during your research. Of course, how to meet these people and get their help is another question.
Conferences can be daunting, especially if you are a graduate student or a junior scholar. ASECS is fairly large--over 900 people registered for the most recent meeting. How does one navigate a conference successfully? What does it mean to "network" at these functions? How can you still have a good time while you "work"? I've put together some tips here as suggestions for how to make the most of your next conference.
1. It's the people, not the topic. When choosing what panels to attend, make sure to pay attention first and foremost to the people on the panel rather than the topic. If there is a panel on a topic that relates to your research, but you've never heard of the scholars on the panel, it's quite possible that the panel will be useless for you. Frequently, people present on topics that are new to them; it's possible that you may know more on the topic than someone who is new to it. If, however, you go to panels to hear people whose work and research you know and admire, it is likely you will learn more and gain more useful knowledge and insight into your research, regardless of whether the topic is in your specific area or not.
2. Be a friend, not a fan. When meeting scholars whose works you've read and admired, resist the urge to be a "fan" and compliment the person on past books and articles. Conferences are stressful for all of us, so during breaks between panels or at receptions, people just want to be friendly. Discuss books, movies, the restaurants in the city the conference is held in--but don't be pushy about discussing scholarly topics and research. It can seen counter-intuitive, but trust me, the best way to "network" at a conference is to befriend someone. If you really want to talk research, here's how to do it...
3. Bring up research at an appropriate moment. If you're desperate to get input on your topic from a star in your field, or you just want some face time with someone, there are a couple of different methods for doing this.
a. Get someone to introduce you. Ask a friend, colleague, or mentor to introduce you to the person in question as someone who does "similar research." Usually this will lead the senior scholar to ask the junior scholar (you!) about what you do. Focus on your topic; again, don't seek to pander, flatter or be a fan. Pretend you are on the same level; remember: at a conference, you basically are.
b. Approach the person after their talk. It is customary for people to approach scholars after the Q&A on a panel. If there is a line, this may not work. If the line is short, hang in there! At this juncture it's ok to tell someone you enjoyed the talk, it reminded you of x text or theory, or it relates to a project you are working on. If the person responds well, that can lead to further conversations, exchange of contact info, etc.
c. Approach the person during a reception. If you attended someone's talk but didn't get the chance to talk to him/her afterwards, find the person during a reception. Introduce yourself, mention that you heard his/her talk, and respond to it in some way as in letter b.
In each of these examples, though, keep it brief unless the person you are speaking to asks you questions. If the conversation changes to other topics, go with it or leave and work the room....which brings me to my next point...
4. Go to the receptions and work the room. At receptions it is expected that most people will talk to a variety of people. The first time at a particular conference, you'll probably find a group you like and stick to them, but resist the urge to stay in one corner. This is why it's important to attend a variety of panels, especially your first time at a conference. At the receptions, work your way around the room, talk to people who were on your panel, on panels you attended, or who you recognize from other events. Don't be afraid to talk to people casually at the bar or to pop in and out of conversations. Everyone is doing it, and no one will be offended. If you are in a great conversation with someone, eventually someone else is going to interrupt. It happens! That's why it's important to follow my next tip...
5. Network after the conference, too. If you met someone interesting at the conference, you had a great conversation, you heard an interesting paper--don't let that experience go to waste, especially if you are intent on brokering new contacts and networking. Email those people a week or so after the conference. Don't email the next day, as many people have to travel and then catch up on work and family obligations. Don't wait too long, either, though, as you don't want people to forget you. The ideal time is about 1-2 weeks after the conference. Send a quick email, remind the person who you are and what you talked about, request a copy of their paper or bibliography or offer a copy of yours, whatever. This will help solidify your contact, even if you don't hear from or speak to this person until next year's conference.
Final thoughts: As important as it is to "network" at conferences, don't forget to make friends, too. Real friends--people you enjoy talking to and hanging out with, regardless of what they can "do for you." Remember that eventually senior scholars will retire; you need to have friends and colleagues from your peer group to hang out with, commiserate with, and keep in touch with. It will make your experience more fun (it's always nice to have someone to have dinner with!), more natural and relaxed, and help you out in the long run as well.