This post is designed to tackle a subject that many people might not even think about: how graduate students should behave towards other graduate students or academics they don’t know. I’m not talking about your day-to-day behavior around the other students in your department–as is always the case anywhere we go and whatever we do, there will be people we like, people we don’t like, and people we don’t notice (and who like, don’t like, and don’t notice us in return) and, assuming you are not intentionally vicious or catty towards anyone in your department, there’s nothing to discuss. You know how to be a decent person on a daily basis; it’s your choice as to whether or not to follow through. I have no opinion on whether or not you are Miss Congeniality or the biggest jerk in your program. I don’t have to sit in the same classes or share an office with you (yet).
I do, however, have something to say about the unwritten rules that accompany your forays into the Greater Academic World. Because when you attend conferences, colloquiums, workshops, or other group activities and events, there are many unwritten rules that apply, ones that I see broken with alarming frequency by students who otherwise seem perfectly fine, even kind and generous–heck, some of them ones that I have broken myself, in my own early days. Because, you see, nobody really explains them to you–you’re just expected to know them intrinsically, or to pick them up along the way as growing pains, part of the unwritten curriculum of professionalizing. Unfortunately, the simple truth is that if you don’t curb these behaviors early on, they become habit-forming and can lead to your being known as “that grad student who…” and then, “that job candidate who.….”, and then, perhaps, “that professor at x who.….” [fill in the blank with a not-great behavior] Which, in turn, can color your career in all sorts of ways you might never have foreseen or intended when you originally made that choice or set of choices.
I submit the following 4 scenarios, which present some of the most egregiously bad behaviors graduate students can (and too often do) exhibit at conferences, explain why they are bad behavior, and offer suggestions for avoiding the label of Miss or Mr. UNcollegiality. At the end, I share information on a new initiative being undertaken by professors to combat these and other instances of BAM (Bad Academic Manners) through the application and propagation of DAM (Decent Academic Manners):
Conference Scenario #1: The Jet-Setter Versus The Novice
Student A: at her graduate advisor’s suggestion that she get some extra conferences under her belt, submits an abstract that is accepted for a two-day graduate student colloquium. She gets the program, sees that her presentation is scheduled for Friday afternoon, and to save money (and because she is really busy and has a major assignment due the week following the colloquium and–let’s be honest, she doesn’t want to miss her friend’s party on Saturday night) she books a flight that gets there a few hours before her presentation is scheduled, and a return flight for later that same evening. She figures this way, she gets the CV credit without taking up too much of her time and energy trying to meet and talk to people who may or may not be directly useful to her later on in her career; after all, it’s “just a grad student conference,” not a “real” one.
Student B: is attending his first-ever conference, with the first essay he is truly proud of having written. He carefully packs his only good suit and overnight materials, and books a flight that permits him to get there several hours in advance of the conference’s beginnings, with a scheduled return flight for Sunday morning so he can attend the Saturday night dinner. He’s looking forward to meeting other students in his area of study, since few students in his program work in his field, and excited to participate in his first professionalization activity beyond his home institution. When he sees that the first session includes a paper on his own topic, he makes it a point to remember to go to the session and meet the other person.
You can probably see where this is going. Student B eagerly attends Student A’s session, gives her useful and helpful feedback, and offers up a few points that will definitely improve the quality of her paper towards publication. Student A then promptly gets into a taxi after her session and returns to the airport. Student B attends several other sessions on Friday and Saturday, continuing to give feedback and ask questions that ultimately will help his peers improve their essays; over the course of the conference, though, he begins to realize that the sessions are less-and-less heavily attended, as other Student A types give their papers and promptly leave. In the end, he is crestfallen to see that Student A doesn’t bother to return the favor of hearing and commenting on his paper and, in fact, his session, the last one of the conference, is sparsely attended, with very little Q&A afterward. Neither student has gotten the full benefit out of attending this conference–but at least Student B made the effort to be a good colleague and a generous scholar. Student A, on the other hand, was really kind of a jerk. Unfortunately, if this is how a student’s first conference goes, s/he is likely to learn the (wrong) lesson quick: conferences are a line on your CV; no one bothers to stick around; this isn’t important or worth your time. The next time, perhaps Student B, remembering Student A’s choices, will also duck out early. The vicious cycle of “I’m more important than this” has begun.
This phenomenon of coming to a conference, giving your paper, and leaving either immediately after your own session, or after the first day’s sessions, or not attending any sessions but your own and, perhaps, the one or two sessions in which friends or colleagues who are presenting, or spending the first day of the conference holed up in your hotel room finishing your paper, is endemic among graduate students. It’s also terrible academic manners. Not only are you shortchanging yourself by not giving yourself a chance to hear papers beyond your own narrow discipline and, perhaps, broadening your approach to your own work through interdisciplinary measures, but you are also shortchanging others by not hearing and commenting on their papers. Further, you have also failed to take into consideration the conference organizers’ efforts to create a balanced program, one in which different sessions reverberate the same ideas or themes in different ways to encourage deeper, more reflective, and more interdisciplinary thinking. Finally, you are not contributing anything to the conference atmosphere, which should be lively and interdisciplinary, populated with engaged scholars exchanging ways of thinking from the first session through the final one. How do you think it would feel to be the conference organizer and realize that the people in the final panel are presenting to an empty room because all of the other grad students have left? How would you feel as a presenter in an empty session at the end of the conference? When you pull the “jet-setter” you’re the equivalent of an academic vampire, sucking others’ energy and efforts in and then waltzing away. Your abbreviated presence at the conference may have landed you a CV line, but is that really worth the cost of a plane ticket? What else did you get out of going? What might you get out of attending the rest of the sessions–and more importantly, what might you contribute to others’ work by asking questions and offering advice?
The unwritten rule being broken here is, be a generous scholar.
First, if someone makes it a point to come to your session and then to touch base with you about your scholarship, then–especially at a smaller conference, where there are fewer possible conflicts–you need at least to try to return the favor; If someone is presenting an essay in your subject field, then you really should hear his or her paper–first, to see whether or not your work overlaps in ways that might be helpful and/or problematic later on when you go to publish, but also because you may have resources the other person could benefit from, or vice-versa. If you can’t make it to his or her session, ask if s/he will send you a copy of the paper via email (and then read and respond to it when s/he does.)
Second, (and this really applies mainly to the smaller conferences with limited attendance, not as much the larger conferences in your field like MLA, or AHA, or similar): if you send an abstract to attend a 2 or 3 day conference or colloquium, then plan to be there for the entire 2 or 3 day event, barring travel conflicts (and that’s ACTUAL travel conflicts, like late or canceled flights or traffic jams, not “I want to be home by 6 p.m. Saturday because I have a paper to work on/friends are going out/ too much on my plate/ a concert I want to go to.) You have control over when you make the initial reservations or travel arrangements, you have control over when you work on assignments that are coming due, and you know how long the event is scheduled to be; plan your travel and workloads around those time frames to ensure you will be present for the whole conference.
Your submitted abstract is a written promise that if your work is accepted, you will actively participate in the event. The organizers are counting on your attendance in sessions, the other presenters are counting on your attendance in sessions, and believe me, people do notice when you aren’t there later in the conference. Attend sessions throughout the event, even ones not in your immediate area of study; as a graduate student, you can benefit enormously from broadening your understanding of your time period and field of study through listening to interdisciplinary papers. If you already know ahead of time that you can’t or don’t want to attend the whole event, or at least most of it, then just don’t send an abstract. Let someone who wants to be there and will get the full benefit of being there have that slot. There’s no benefit to attending an event only for your own session, and it’s really selfish of you to come in, read your paper, and leave, when so much time and effort by so many other people have gone into trying to create a dynamic and engaged intellectual environment. Play nice. Be fair. Be generous with your time and knowledge.
Conference Scenario #2: The Peacock Waved Its Plume, and much eye-rolling commenced….
Student A: going first in a session, reads an admittedly graduate student-quality essay, clearly taken from her term paper in a course. Although there are some issues with the essay, the student does have a central point that is interesting and, with development, the paper could in time become a good article (or, alternately, couldn’t itself ever be published, but might lead to important thinking in another, closely related area.) The student is nervous, but excited to be giving a conference paper to an audience and eager to receive feedback.
Student B: looks agitated throughout the student’s reading, and can barely sit through the next two papers. His hand shoots up during the Q&A session. “Yes, this isn’t a question, but rather a comment, for the first reader–I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name. [doesn’t bother to check program or wait for the student to tell him her name] But in listening to your essay, I wondered if you had considered……..read…….knew that X wrote an article on the subject in Very Important Journal……realized that your point has already been made by these 5 other Important People…..” This goes on for an uncomfortable several minutes, with the student in front of the room coloring up nicely in humiliation as the second student proudly waves his plumage for all to see: Look At Me! I know what I’m talking about and she doesn’t! Aren’t I smart? Aren’t I learned? Aren’t I on top of my game? When he finishes (in some cases, when the moderator finally has to interrupt him) he leans back and levels a pleased look at the essay reader, who looks in turn as though she might either cry or throw up (and in fact goes directly to the bathroom after this session to do just that.)
Another student in the audience takes offense or umbrage at some perceived infelicity of phrase or inaccurately-expressed idea or comment on the part of the second student, and raises his hand–then, when acknowledged by the moderator, proceeds to address not the panelists, but the other audience member. Suddenly, the session becomes a two-man debate. They ignore the moderator’s efforts to redirect the discussion. The session ends, and no one got anything out of it except the arguers–who now take it into the hallway, congratulate one another on being Masters of the Universe, and go along their merry way, satisfied that everyone who witnessed saw and remarked upon their respective brilliance.
This is called Grandstanding, and it’s ugly and unnecessary, particularly from one graduate student to another. The unwritten rule being broken here is, again, be a generous scholar. You don’t need to score points off of another person in a bid to be the smartest person in the room. That’s not the point of a conference or colloquium. We’re there to learn, to get (helpful!) feedback on our work, and to create an engaged and dynamic intellectual environment. When you shut someone down like that, you may think you are coming across as very sophisticated and knowledgeable. In fact, most of the people in the room wish you would just shut up, already, and Ms. Mentor believes we should carry peacock feathers to wave around when this happens, so people can have a visual cue that they’re engaging in the vain behaviors of the peacock, grandstanding away, parading their knowledge for the world to see.
Unfortunately, this happens far too often, and it is often an accidental thing that spirals into a bad habit. You’re a new conference-goer, so you go to a few sessions and watch how they unfold. You notice that this is kind of how the Q&A sessions seem to go, so you imagine that’s what you should be doing, too. You figure, Academia really is as cutthroat as you were told it would be. Girding your loins, you enter the fray and buy into the adage: if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. After all, the point is rigorous scholarship, right? I know this was my own experience at my first few conferences. One early one–a regional conference in my field populated with a lot of younger scholars vying for attention and position in that field–was pretty cutthroat (I didn’t cry after my session, but I wanted to….) The next, a graduate conference, was worse. By the time I was attending a regional, field-specific conference, I didn’t like it much, but I thought I had the hang of it–and fortunately, at that point a very wise, very wonderful scholar stepped in and gave me permission NOT to be that way. Here’s the scene: I responded to a panelist by pointing out the deficiencies in his paper–trying to be nice about it, and frankly, failing miserably because there’s no not-embarrassing way to call out someone’s errors in such a public space as a conference session. After the session, as I stood to leave, a Great Scholar came up to me. “You sure are knowledgeable about this area of study. I’m pleased to see so much interest! You know, this is an area I work in as well.” I nodded and colored up at the praise.
“But you know, I think you might have embarrassed that poor fellow a bit,” he continued, nonchalant, conversational. I (of course) went on the defensive: I didn’t mean to embarrass him! I was just trying to be helpful, I didn’t want him to try to publish the paper or take it further without considering these other aspects that would be expected. I wanted to give him advice he could use. He nodded encouragingly, smiling, attentive. “You know, you’re a very kind person,” he said (unexpectedly) when I had explained my reasons for speaking. “I think anyone would appreciate such concern about his work from a fellow scholar. In fact, I like to show that level of care myself. But you know how I like to do it? I like to kind of step up to the individual after the panel, when it’s just the two of us, and kind of have a private conversation about it. Maybe grab a cup of coffee. You know–just to keep him from feeling embarrassed in front of a room full of people. He’s probably not going to like conference going much if he gets treated like that, don’t you think?”
I am going to be 100% honest with you, folks — the idea that I was perpetuating the cycle I despised myself had never even occurred to me. I instantly hunted down the fellow I had spoken to and apologized profoundly (and privately) for unwittingly embarrassing him (and he had the grace to accept that apology), this Great Scholar instantly became one of my favorite people in the academic world and I still adore him, and I have never forgotten that important, life-altering, wonderful lesson he gave me on that Saturday morning. If I can pay that forward even for one other graduate student out there, I will feel really good about it. So–this is me, paying it forward:
The truth is, the grandstanding, the corrective comments, the embarrassing Q&A, is NOT the way it either should or has to be, for anyone involved. Maybe you see it happening, but let those participating in it go on ahead and do so (or, better yet, raise your hand and try to redirect the discussion to the work of the panelists.) You are there to present your paper and get feedback on your scholarship, and to listen to and discuss other people’s ideas, and to help them, of you can. If you have suggestions for one or two sources someone might want to consult, or have knowledge of recent developments in the field that might strengthen someone’s claims but that s/he didn’t mention, then by all means bring it up in the Q&A for everyone’s benefit (beginning with “thank you for a lovely paper/ I very much enjoyed your paper/ I appreciated your argument about” or similar, then transitioning into your suggestion.) But if you have more and harsher critical remarks to make, either keep them to yourself (my personal choice now, because I genuinely don’t see the benefit in ripping someone else’s work to shreds) or wait until after the session, when you can approach the panelist alone, to discuss it in private. Make conferences a safe place for yourself and others. Offer encouragement, offer suggestions, and by all means, offer praise, whenever you can–but make sure you are doing it constructively, not destructively.
Incidentally, even years later, I still avoid the fellow who tortured me at my first conference. (It’s deeply uncomfortable to be around people who hold your work in such disdain, and having seen him take out others as well I just don’t think there is much point in investing time and energy into cultivating a scholarly friendship with him. He has become, for me and my circle of friends, “that grad student who’s such a snarkmaster asshole.” He and his intellect can be very happy together.) But I have Facebook-friended untold others of my critics, who delivered their suggestions and comments in collegial and helpful ways and thus demonstrated themselves as good colleagues and scholars. Because we do need critical feedback–it’s just all in the delivery.
Conference Scenario #3: Time Stops For No Paper……
Here’s another common conference scenario: You write a really strong term paper for a class, and a professor suggests you present the paper at a conference for feedback. Sounds good to you! You look up conferences, submit an abstract, and it’s accepted (YAY!) You tell your professor: “Wonderful! Now, remember, conference papers should only be twenty minutes long, so make sure you cut it down.”
*blink*. *blink*. What does she mean, “cut it down”? But you can’t ASK her, that would be embarrassing and suggest that you don’t really know how to be a good graduate student. You skim through your twenty-page paper. You cut out a few sentences here and there, tighten up the argument a little, and get it down to 16 pages. Still well over twenty minutes — but you know, what can you do? They accepted the abstract so they like your idea, and if you take much more out of the paper then you’ll lose the important parts that make it good. You don’t bother timing it– you decide you’ll just read it really fast, and if it goes a little over, that won’t be a big deal.
At the conference, you are the second reader in your session. The first reader reads his paper so fast that you can’t follow his argument. The moderator–who is supposed to be keeping time on these papers–doesn’t stop him when he goes ten minutes over his time limit. You realize now that you can’t read your paper as fast as you were going to, because you just experienced being the audience to that kind of reading, but if you read slowly enough that your audience can follow your argument, you are also going to go over time. At least the moderator won’t stop you. You have the moderator pass your handout around, and wait until she finishes to begin reading. You read your whole essay, with relish, with pride. People in the audience are nodding and making agreeing noises to the points you are making. You’re a rock star. Then, you finish and look up at the clock — and realize that you are also a complete jerk, because there’s not enough time left for the third panelist to give her paper. And so, she doesn’t. Congratulations, you just wasted someone else’s registration fee and travel and hotel costs.
Some version of this — either forcing the third presenter to give a highly abbreviated version of his or her paper, or causing him or her not to get to present at all– happens at almost every conference, and it’s completely unfair. While we would like to assume that the moderator will stop us if there’s a problem with our going over time (and, indeed, this is one of the responsibilities of moderating) that is not always the case, and as professional scholars we are ultimately responsible for policing ourselves. Again, the unwritten academic rule being broken here is be a generous scholar. You know your essay is supposed to be twenty minutes long (fifteen minutes, in a 4-panelist session) so TIME IT and MAKE SURE you don’t go over that twenty minute slot. If you genuinely don’t know how to cut a term paper into a conference essay, ask your mentor or advisor for help with it. If you can’t get their help, ask a friend to work with you. Use your University Writing Center. Get another person you know who has presented at conferences before to help you. But don’t assume that if you go over by a few minutes, it will be okay; often it isn’t and even if it is, you’re still being pretty egocentric. The session is about all of the papers, about the overarching theme the papers present, you are PART OF the session, not the star speaker. Play nice. Be fair.
There are several good ways to condense a longer work for conference purposes. Step one — cut out the introduction, the literature review, and the conclusion. Rewrite the beginning so you have a lead-in statement followed directly by your thesis, then launch directly into your evidence. Cut out one or two of the examples you presented in your longer work and hone in on the ones that are left; you can gesture towards the cut parts (“while there are many excellent examples of this in my longer work, for the purposes of time I have chosen to focus on this example…”). Cut out dictionary definitions unless they are ABSOLUTELY necessary to your work; try for no more than a single statement (“For the purposes of this essay I define human rights as….”) If you need to elaborate, your audience will let you know during the Q&A and that’s when you can trot out the more specialized and in-depth information. For the most part, leave out quotes from secondary sources; gesture towards them (“In his article on jets, John Edwards writes that they are central to our understanding of human flight fantasies. This is important to my argument because…” You can have the quotes on a separate paper, and you can give them if and when they are asked for during the Q&A. If you have several lines of argument in your longer essay, choose one or two at most for your conference paper, again gesturing towards the cut parts (“in my longer work I deal with these five things, but for today’s presentation I’m focusing specifically on this one part of that, because…”) Anyone who is interested in the other materials will come and ask you about them. In short, the conference paper is really a snapshot of the bigger picture, not a forced condensing of a long essay.
Conference Scenario #4: I’m Nobody—-Who Are You?
Maybe you have been to a conference before, maybe one of the big conferences in your field. If so, then you can’t help but have noticed the Nametag Shuffle. This is when everyone is staring at the midsection of everyone else’s chest area striving to determine who the person is and what university the person hails from. Maybe you have suffered the humiliation of getting up the nerve to smile at someone (because, let’s face it, socializing is hard and stressful when so many of us are introverts) and having him smile back at you, only then to have him peer at your nametag, realize you aren’t a Very Important Thinker or that you don’t hail from an Ivy or top public university, and excuse himself to seek out more impressive pastures. there’s not much that is more soul-crushing than realizing that you are, in fact, nobody at all, especially when you are at a conference to meet other scholars. How do you meet these scholars if they automatically dismiss you based on that little square of cardboard hanging around your neck?
In my field, everyone talks about the Best Year Ever: the year one of the largest field conferences left the institutional affiliations off of the nametags. For once, no one was being judged based on whether or not s/he was at a community college or a top-twenty research institution, a SLAC or a HBCU–no, it was just a sea of names and faces without places, and I hear it was just great, that people got to talk to each other in ways that had never happened before, because the institutions didn’t get in the way of socializing with the humans. (Unfortunately, the Status Police complained vociferously–ostensibly, because they had ended up speaking to so many people not aligned with their particular level of importance and hadn’t paid good money to surround themselves with no-name scholars–and the institution affiliations have been carefully included on the name tags ever since.)
The unspoken rule being broken here is–yet again–be a generous scholar. So what if the other person is someone you have never heard of and works at a community college? S/he is a scholar at the conference, just as you are. You don’t like the way it feels to have your name tag scanned and then be promptly ignored, do you? Well, neither does anyone else (except the Status Police, maybe.) It is not going to kill you to strike up a conversation with an adjunct, or (gasp!) a high school teacher or an independent scholar. In the end, we go to conferences to present our papers and get feedback on them, to hear others’ papers and give feedback on them, and to meet and network with other scholars. It is not a bad thing to meet people who are wide of your own personal interests or field of study. It is not a bad thing to meet other….human beings.
Further, as graduate students, contrary to what you might believe, it is CRUCIAL TO MEET OTHER GRADUATE STUDENTS. Sure, it’s great to meet professors, especially the important professors in your field. It can’t hurt to get to know them, and is often a delightful process. But the other grad students at these conferences are going to be your colleagues, your peer reviewers, your external reviewers, your co-written article partners, your edited collection partners, your conference presentation partners, your fellowship fellows, your supporters and cheerleaders when times get rough, when you’re working on your diss., when you go on the job market–in short, these are the people you need to get to know, because they are your working peers. You are all in it together. Act like it. Don’t ignore graduate students because they have nothing to offer you (yet.) Get to know them now, form good academic friendships, create a circle of colleagues you will be able to turn to for years to come. That kind of relationship is best cultivated at conferences… but it does require that you talk to people you don’t know and have never heard of.
I have adapted my own “no affiliations on the name tag” approach–I don’t look at people’s nametags, at least not as a first action. Conferences are much more fun this way, honest. I make eye contact, I smile, I say something (hopefully, somewhat) witty, urbane, clever, significant, or interesting, and I wait for the other person to respond. Generally, they do. Sometimes, I then learn later that Big Name Scholar told someone else I was a delightful person and s/he should meet me. I had no idea when I grabbed a coffee and small-talked with him that he was the author of ten important books — I was just a conference attendee in need of a caffeine fix when I met him. If I am at lunch and I see someone from the conference sitting alone, I twist up my nerve and sit with him or her. Sometimes that means a pretty dull conversation with someone working in a very obscure area of research–but more often, it means I meet someone incredibly interesting and well-read, and sometimes her group of friends as well. It’s helpful when you have made some friends at prior conferences, or when you are attending a conference with people you know who can introduce you to others–but in the end, the more people you meet, the better, and it honestly isn’t about the big names–or, at least, it shouldn’t be. If you are an engaged, generous scholar, who attends sessions and gives helpful and constructive feedback on papers, who tries to meet people, who participates, then eventually those big names you want to meet are going to get wind of you and want to meet you. They’ll hear about you from someone else you have met.
I may not have convinced you to ditch the practice of looking at someone’s nametag–but at the very least, try to refrain from dismissing another person when you read his or her name tag and realize you’ve never heard of the person and/or affiliation therein inscribed. After all–who are you?
SO–this is a much longer post than I expected it to be. I’m wrapping up, I promise. The above scenarios map out some of the most egocentric, selfish, thoughtless, uncollegial behaviors you can encounter or embody at a conference. They are the epitome of BAM (Bad Academic Manners.) They are also, sadly, all-too-prevalent in Academia overall, and this is part of why academics get a bad name as Ivory Tower-dwellers out of touch with reality, as snobs, as intellectual elitists, as snarky know-it-alls. If you have engaged in these sorts of behaviors in the past, or more recently, consider revising your approach. Take into consideration that conferences are a balancing act–you need to balance your needs with the needs of the other attendees and with the focus and scope and purpose of the conference. You need to remember that conference-going both IS, and IS NOT, all about you. And everyone is watching and judging. I’m not saying don’t make mistakes–I’m just saying, when you do make them, acknowledge and learn from it, and use it to become a better, more generous scholar and colleague. Anything you do or say can and will ultimately paint a picture of the kind of scholar you are or want to become. If (like me) your offenses are unintentional (the road to hell is paved with good intentions, after all) you can tweak your approach so it reflects those intentions (it helps if a very tall, very kind, very generous scholar in a hat and greatcoat steps in to give you some advice.) I mean, if you WANT to be an elitist jackass who doesn’t concern him or herself with anyone else’s ego or research or the basic niceties of human being, then ignore all of my advice (and please don’t bother introducing yourself to me at a conference.)
But, if like me you really WANT to be a generous academic who makes a difference for the better and enacts positive change in the academy, then you should know that you are definitely not alone, and it is never too early to start cultivating the habits that will lead you to become that academic–someone who practices the foundational values of generous scholarship: Honesty, Integrity, Intellectual Capaciousness, Respect, and Tolerance. In fact, from a recent initiative to deal with the ongoing problem of BAM in the academy has sprung a whole movement headed up by some major scholars and devoted to cultivating these values: DAM (Decent Academic Manners). Consider joining their open group on Facebook and becoming part of the solution, instead of the problem: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1472850896264170/
What about you? Have you encountered instances of BAM or DAM at conferences? Share your experiences in the comments section below to continue the conversation!