My earlier post on graduate student behavior at academic conferences (“It’s Not On The Syllabus”) was very well-received, for which I must pause to thank all of you for taking the time to read and to share your own thoughts on the subject on Twitter, Facebook, and via email. I truly appreciate your taking the time to read and consider my thoughts, and I do hope that the post proved useful to many just starting out in graduate school, as well as those already enrolled and navigating the world of academia.
The post also raised many good questions from readers around the world—questions about logistics, about juggling conference-going and adjunct/lecturer work, juggling conference-going and family obligations, and similar. This post addresses some of those nuts-and-bolts aspects of conference going, and is intended as a companion piece to the earlier one.
I want to begin with a few general comments. First, that earlier post was really about the shorter, one- or two-day colloquiums, symposiums, and conferences, and not so much about the longer, 5-6 day big events, such as MLA or AHA. Second, it should go without saying that I am not arguing that “no one should ever arrive late to or skip out early on a conference.” Extenuating events will arise…my point was that this should not be your usual mode of operation. Finally, it is, ultimately, your choice as to how you navigate conferences and collegiality; these are all just points you should consider while developing your academic persona and ethos. No one can tell you what’s “right” and “wrong”—but I will always advocate for what constitutes Decent Academic Manners. In the end, however, you do have to find the ways and means that work best for you and for your own goals as a professional academic. My point is simply this: if you have a choice between being selfish and being generous, it’s better to err on the side of being generous.
Those few comments out of the way, the rest of this post is devoted to two topics, in response to the majority of questions and comments I received from “It’s Not On The Syllabus”: (1) logistics – how to find conferences, colloquiums, and symposiums; how to apply to present at conferences and colloquiums; and how to pay for these professional development events and (2) a few remarks on the plight of the young parent, caregiver, and/or adjunct and lecturer, when it comes to conference logistics. Please do bear in mind that as an English doctoral student, my focus will be heavily on the humanities side of things; but there should be plenty of helpful and useful advice here for the science and technology, business, medical, and education folks as well.
But, before we start any of that, first and foremost I’d like to address the ancient mystery:
What is the Difference Between a Conference, a Colloquium, a Symposium, and a Workshop?
My husband—a newspaper editor—once joked to me on the matter of “conferences, colloquies/colloquiums, symposiums, workshops” that he thinks academics just made up a bunch of words that all boil down to “conference” to keep hoi polloi convinced that academia was this super-complex, mysterious entity with all sort of events going on that only academics could understand. Sometimes, it really does seem that way; yet, there are some clear distinctions between these many events that may matter to you in the long run. Here’s a breakdown of how I have come to understand what these words are intended to convey:
Conference: the Academic Conference is a formal, usually multi-day, multiple-session event—in literature, often assembled around a broad theme that lends itself to multiple subject areas and fields of study— that can comprise paper panels (people reading 15 or 20 minute papers, with a moderator and a question-and-answer session involving the audience for the panel), roundtable discussions (several people agree to speak for 5-10 minutes each on a specific topic or point, and then open up the floor for a general discussion involving all members of the panel, a sort of “conversation” about the subject), plenary addresses (speeches given by major names in the field, usually on current or recently completed research that is broadly interesting to multiple sub-disciplines), and workshops, which are hands-on opportunities to work with specific materials or ideas with a group of your peers under the supervision of someone knowledgeable in that area. The larger conferences—often referred to as “congress” or “convention”—also include business meetings for various academic organizations, a book exhibit featuring more-or-less discounted titles in fields of interest to conference attendees, publishers, editors, and agents prepared to speak with potential authors of academic monographs or edited collections, job interviews, and multiple meals and receptions. Often, even at smaller regional or local events, entertainment is arranged for conference-goers; at SEMA (the Southeastern Medieval Association) last year, for instance, we had Appalachian music—a distant relative to Scottish folk music, which has ties to the medieval popular music tradition, and Longwood University’s Meeting in the Middle Undergraduate Research Conference in Medieval Studies features a medieval drama performance or medieval weapons demonstration each year. Conferences are a good place to start as an academic seeking to enter the larger world of academia, because they comprise a broad range of subjects and topics, and can give you a good sense of the bigger-picture discussions and debates currently going on in your field.
Colloquium, or Colloquy: in my experience, a colloquium is a much smaller, shorter, and more targeted event, assembled around a specific topic or subject. Colloquiums generally last either one or two days, and tend to be single-track events, featuring either a day-long session with multiple papers, punctuated by coffee breaks and lunch and either begun or concluded by a plenary speaker, or a series of sessions, each focused around a specific aspect of the subject being discussed. The papers are chosen specifically to create a dialogue about the subject being discussed, and the intent is to present multiple lenses through which to consider the subject; as such, colloquiums may be very interdisciplinary, even though they are also more specific. There is likely to be an informal reception and/or coffee and snacks provided throughout the day; if the colloquium stretches to two days, there will be a dinner on the evening of the first day. Because of their targeted, specific nature, colloquiums are a good resource once you know what areas you intend to specialize in, or what contextual areas you need to consider alongside your own work. It is not a good idea to submit an abstract for a colloquium unless you are invested in the subject being covered. Remember: the entire event is about [fill-in-the-blank] and everyone there is specifically interested in that subject. Expect to field very specific and direct questions from people who know a lot about the topic. Because of the shorter nature of the colloquium, and because it is designed to build from one session to the next in a thematic development, colloquiums are one of the events that I strongly urge people NOT to cut short—stay for the whole thing, or don’t go.
Symposium: in my experience, a symposium is a smaller version of the colloquium. Again, symposiums are arranged around a specific subject or problem or idea being explored. They rarely last more than one day—often, only a few hours—and they usually feature what is essentially a conflation of round table and panel discussions—the individuals presenting give their papers or talks, and then the discussion is opened up to create a dialogue around the subject being discussed. The presenters for symposiums are generally invited to present based on their expertise; it is rare to see a CFP for a symposium. It is a good idea to attend several symposiums as an audience member while you are in graduate school, because you get a really strong sense of the kind of research being done in your field, and how it is being disseminated. Because it’s a much smaller venue, there are far fewer distractions, and you can focus on the presenters—how do they shape their argument? How do their papers “speak” to each other? What kinds of questions are they looking at, and how do they go about researching answers to them? What kinds of evidence are being amassed to resolve the problems posed? I rarely speak up as an audience member at a symposium, but I always walk away feeling much smarter (at least, temporarily) for having heard such strong scholarship. Symposiums happen all of the time, and you will find that there are a number of them within driving distance of your home institution (or, perhaps, even AT your home institution.) It is worth your time to clear your Friday calendar of events to attend one or two of them—again, however, I strongly urge that you NOT come, listen to a single paper you were interested in, and leave. Hear all of the papers, and listen to the Q and A. You never know what you will learn that can benefit you in the long run, and because the event is so small, your departure will be noticed. It’s rude to walk out early when the attendance is small to begin with. Just stay for the whole thing. It’s ONE DAY.
Workshop: workshops can happen as part of larger events such as conferences, or on their own. They typically run from one to several hours, and are intended to provide the attendees with hands-on instruction and practice in a certain skill or knowledge set; for instance, at the big medieval conferences there is usually a workshop on reading Middle English aloud, or on digital humanities; one of my favorite workshops, ever was one conducted by Elaine Treharne at Vagantes (the Medieval Academy Graduate Student conference) on medieval manuscript production. Workshops are an excellent way to increase your skills set and you tend to walk away with good, practical material that can enhance your teaching. Find one or two you are especially interested in at each big conference you attend, and you’ll reap many benefits pedagogically. Workshops tend to not assume prior knowledge in the subject (if they do, this will be clearly indicated), so they tend to be great for people just starting out in the field, or for those interested in broadening their knowledge base.
Locating Conferences and Other Professional Development Events
SO, now that we are on the same page about WHAT these events are, the next question is, how do we find them?
For English majors, the UPenn CFP listserv is your best friend when it comes to locating conference and publication opportunities: https://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/ Organized by subject field and searchable by date and event/publication type, this is a very comprehensive list that is updated regularly. There are CFPs for everything—from overall conferences, to specific panels, roundtables, edited collections, and similar. You can also consult the CFP List, a Call For Papers Academic Database: http://www.cfplist.com/ For all other disciplines, you can start at Wiki CFP: http://www.wikicfp.com/cfp/ They have pages for just about every discipline!
Beyond these larger databases of CFPs, you should already be subscribed to any listserv related to your field of study; beyond the fact that they are an excellent source for current and ongoing discussions in your field and for fielding questions about projects and research, conference CFPs go out regularly on these lists. As a medievalist in literature, I am a member of the MAA Grad Student listserv, ANSAX-Net (Anglo-Saxon discussion group), MEDTEXT (medieval texts discussion group), MEDFEM (medieval feminist scholarship discussion group), Chaucernet (self-evident, I hope?) and Arthurnet. I have benefitted enormously from my interactions with learned scholars and fellow graduate students on these lists. Sometimes, professors on the verge of retiring will post lists of books they are culling from their personal libraries, and you can score lovely out-of-print titles for much less than you would spend at the used books table of a conference book exhibit hall. Sometimes, it’s fun to just sit back and watch the fur fly over a particularly contentious point being argued out by two or more people invested in the topic. Sometimes, crowd-sourcing a question or research problem you’re struggling with yields fantastic results. Always, it’s nice to feel connected to the greater world of your field of study—because sometimes, you can feel like you’re the only one. But, most importantly for the purposes of this post, these lists are the go-to spaces for CFP posts by professors looking to fill panels for conferences.
Additionally, you should check the websites of the major organizations in your field, and if they have a Facebook page and/or Twitter account, friend and follow. Friend and follow people and organizations in your area of specialization liberally, actually. It is no skin off of your back, and it means you have access to that much more information and that many more contacts. Finally, check with your director of graduate studies and/or the department graduate secretary. Our graduate secretary, who is AMAZING, always sends notices of CFPs out to our graduate TA listserv, which is enormously helpful. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to go looking for ourselves, as well!
Finally, ask your advisor or mentor (and actually, after you’ve checked the listservs, it’s a good idea to run your options by your advisor and see what s/he has to offer by way of advice or comment on the venues you are considering.) If your advisor hems and haws and says something about your not really being ready to present/ your work needing a little revision/ other similar comments, take this seriously, not as a reflection of your worth as a student or a scholar, but as a gauge of how well you are presenting your work. Ask for specific ways in which you can improve your work to the conference level. Don’t ignore your advisor and decide s/he is simply incapable of recognizing the merits of your work. S/he knows the conference world much better than you do–if your advisor says “not yet” find out why and start working on it. If s/he tells you a certain conference or event might not be the best one for you, take that into consideration as well. Remember that your advisor (ostensibly) has your best interests at heart. S/he is not going to lead you astray in this regard, and if you’re not ready to present, you can still attend a conference or two to learn about it while you work towards being ready.
How To Get Your Paper/Talk Accepted
After you have located a conference or colloquium you want to attend, the next step is trying to get your paper or presentation considered for inclusion in the program. Almost always, this means you have to write an abstract. An academic abstract is a 250-500 word document that tells 1. The specific problem or issue or idea you are addressing; 2. What you are saying about it; 3. How you are supporting your argument/ methodology and 4. Why it’s important (the “so what?”) You’ll want to read the CFP carefully before beginning, and note and follow any specific instructions given—if they ask for 300 words, don’t give them 700 words. If they ask you to tie your abstract to the theme of “gifts”, then make sure your abstract centers on that topic. If the paper you want to give doesn’t correspond to the theme or themes of an event or panel, don’t submit to it. Don’t try to “creatively tweak” your work in order to force the square peg into a round hole. There are so many scholarly events every year, in every subject, that there will certainly be one that is more appropriate for your work. There’s nothing quite so uncomfortable as realizing halfway through your panel that your paper has nothing to do with the session and the audience knows it, and the Q&A can be kind of dicey when that’s the case (I am telling you this from personal experience, y’all. Feel free to ask me about it and I’ll tell the whole sordid story another time!)
I will write a post later that explains in more detail how to go about crafting an abstract, with some examples.
How To Pay For It
By far, this is the biggest discussion-generating topic from my earlier post about conference-going, with many complaining that it’s all well and good for me to say “stay for the whole thing” but I should realize that sometimes, that’s economically not feasible.
I do. I do realize that finances are always an issue, especially for graduate students, adjuncts, and lecturers. However, there are ways to cut costs, there are places (especially as a graduate student) to find money, and ultimately, I think the burden still rests on you to decide whether or not to attend an event. If you genuinely cannot swing staying the whole day for a symposium, or arranging for an overnight stay for a 2-day colloquium, then maybe you should not attend that particular event at that time. Again, in terms of this I am not speaking about the HUGE convention/congress/ 6-day extravaganzas—feel free to jet in, give your paper, and take off again, no one will notice. Okay, back on track—how do you finance these events? I am focusing primarily on graduate students here, but there are a few suggestions for adjuncts and lecturers as well.
First and foremost, plan ahead. You should consider conference attendance and participation another expense that you need to cover, right alongside tuition and fees and the cost of books and housing. I have a savings account that is reserved for conference expenses. It sits at about $1,000.00 – which I find to be enough to cover one big and one or two smaller/regional conferences per year. Some years, I don’t have to dip into this at all thanks to outside resources; some years, I wipe it out almost completely. But I always know that it is there if I do need it, which means money is not necessarily an obstacle to my attending and presenting at a conference. If you are working to save up for Graduate School, then consider also saving up for this kind of account along the way. If you are getting student loans, set a small chunk aside for this account. If you get a big tax return, put some of that into this account. If your family asks you what you want for your birthday/Christmas/Hannukah/other special occasion, tell them you would very much like to be funded for a conference you are attending. In short, do what you can to ensure you have funds to cover one or two events per year. If you’ve never tried it, then try the weekly savings trick that’s flying around on the Internet: http://www.pinterest.com/savinmakescents/52-week-savings-challenge/ Seriously, it works, and you’ve got your $1400 for conference attendance in a relatively painless way. Consider it an investment in your future every bit as important as the tuition you pay to attend grad school.
Beyond this, there are four places on campus that you should visit to seek funding for conference participation: The Graduate School, the Graduate Student Association, the home school for your department (for me, that’s the College of Arts and Sciences), and your department.
This should start before you arrive on campus to begin studies. When you are applying, one of the things you should consider and ask about is whether or not a school provides financial support for graduate student professional development (this includes conferences, workshops, presentations, and other travel associated with professionalization efforts.) This is important information to have, and should go into your consideration of where to study as much as other benefits such as stipend, health insurance, research spaces, and similar. It won’t do you much good to get a $20,000 a year stipend if your institution does not also provide travel funding for conference activity, because you’ll be using a chunk of that stipend to cover those costs; conversely, your institution’s stipend may not be large, but you may find there is a fund available for graduate student professional development, which can offset that. At my university, the Graduate School does not offer a lot of professional development funding, nor does the College of Arts and Sciences; but the Graduate Student Association offers funding for professional development, for theses and dissertation completion, and for travel associated with research, and my department also offers travel awards for conference presentation. So, while my TA stipend is smaller than that at many other institutions, it is supplemented by funding from the GSA and the department, and that makes a huge difference.
If you have not received any funding for any professional development events you have attended, consider asking around—check with the Graduate School, and check with your director of graduate studies. The worst thing that can happen is that they say “no, there’s no money available.” But—especially in spring, as the academic year winds down and the end of the fiscal year approaches—there may well be funds left in some account or another for a stipend towards your expenses, and you’ll only know about it if you ask about it.
Finally, check with the conference organizers and with academic organizations to which you belong. Many of the larger conferences and organizations have travel grants available specifically for graduate students and/or scholars such as adjuncts, lecturers, or independent scholars, who otherwise could not afford to attend a conference.
Travel Expenses: How To Cut Corners and Save
There are many really good ways to cut corners and costs in terms of conference attendance, and I can really only touch on a few here because this post is getting loooooooooooong. But, first and foremost, as a graduate student you need to reach out to other graduate students. Get on the listservs for your field and post announcements that you are looking for a rideshare and/or roommate. Consider attending with someone from your department or another graduate student from your host institution. Sharing a car and gas expenses, and sharing the cost of a room, will halve the amount you are paying for a conference. It’s even better if you can carpool with 3 or 4 people—first, you’re making more contacts, second, the conversation to and from is more dynamic and third, of course, it costs less split 3 or 4 ways. If the event is taking place on or very close to a campus, ask the event organizers if there are students willing to put graduate student attendees up for the night. As you meet and get to know people over the years, you will make contacts from many universities and colleges. Ask them if they will consider letting you sleep on their couch for the event. The answer is nearly always, “yes” (especially if you have exhibited Decent Academic Manners at earlier events and the other person thinks you are a great person to have around.) The thing is, all graduate students feel the financial crunch. We KNOW it’s expensive, and we KNOW it sucks, and it’s rare that someone who can help you out by letting you crash for a night or two would say “no” when asked for that favor, it really is.
Travel deals, Plane Tickets: Again, if you plan ahead, you are in a better place to score the cheapest prices. The best time to buy a plane ticket is Tuesday afternoon around 3 p.m. The best day to fly is Wednesday (Tuesday and Saturday are also fairly cheap days for flying). The most expensive days to fly are Monday and Sunday. If you purchase a ticket 14 days or fewer in advance of your event, you might be paying up to $200 more for that ticket. In general, buying tickets 7-8 weeks in advance works well for scoring a good deal; however, if you are going to an annual event that takes place in a fixed location, buy your plane ticket at least 4 months in advance, because the price for that same ticket jacks up the closer to the event it gets—airlines know, for instance, that the medievalists are coming to Kalamazoo in May. Go ahead and check ticket prices for a May flight to Kalamazoo, Michigan in November, versus those same tickets, say, now. OOMPH. Try using the mix-and-match option, in which two or more airlines are combined for your trip, which is often cheaper than flying a single airline. And bear in mind that seasonal and holiday considerations can cause tickets to be more expensive as well. Knowing all of this, plan accordingly. If you really are concerned with finances, you may want to forego the conference in December in Paris, France. I know the Chaucerians are thrilled to be going to Reykjavik this year for the bi-annual conference, but the pricetag for a summer trip to Iceland is…… definitely not manageable for the ordinary graduate student.
When flying, try not to check a bag. The bag-checking fees are out of control nowadays. Get really good about packing for a conference. Get a carryon bag and practice filling it until you can pack for 3-4 days without too much effort. Consider the following as a guide to packing for a 4-day conference: 2 pairs of shoes (the most comfortable of which you are wearing on the plane), clean underwear for each day, one set of pajamas or other nightwear, 3 bottoms and 4 tops that can be mix-and-matched for different looks, your toiletries (in a one-quart plastic see-through bag, because they’re going to make you take it out of your bag so they can see everything) and, if you feel you need it, a small assortment of jewelry or other adornments and cosmetics. If you MUST work out or run (and I must, so I feel you!) add one set of sneakers and one or two sets of shorts and t-shirts. Bring a few plastic bags to store dirty clothes so they don’t rub against clean clothes. Wear your suit jacket, of you have one, or carry it over your arm on the plane, because it’s really too bulky to pack in a carry on. Add your paper and/or laptop and other items, and you’re ready to go. You CAN get it all into a single carryon bag, you really can. Just practice.
OR, consider driving if it is at all possible, especially if you can rideshare. By far, renting a car is cheaper than almost any flight, and then you don’t have to go through the TSA hassle. Bonus: you can buy as many books as you can afford to buy at the book exhibit, because you don’t have to worry about how to get them home. Throw them in the trunk and go! I have a friend who drives every year to Kalamazoo—one of those big, five-day congresses–because she can bring her own bedding and other creature comforts, which makes it much more pleasurable to stay in the dorms.
Travel deals, Train tickets: Amtrak offers weekly specials between Tuesday and Friday every week, and those fares are CRAZY discounted. It’s worth looking into. The Boston to DC corridor has a regularly-offered regional discount, if you purchase at least 14 days in advance. There are discounts available for travel by train in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the west coast. Train travel in the Midwest and central southern US tends to be expensive any way you dice it, but it’s worth a look. As with plane tickets, when you buy matters. A ticket purchased at the station the day you are leaving will cost much more than a ticket booked 14 or more days in advance of travel.
Travel deals, Bus Fares: Okay, no one likes to take the bus—but sometimes it is the cheapest alternative. Like, you can get a ticket for $1.00 cheaper, y’all. Here’s one blogger who has done the legwork on this for you: http://frugaltraveler.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/04/a-guide-to-cheap-buses-including-how-to-score-1-tickets/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0
Odds and Ends: Finally, if you’re driving, bring a thermos of coffee for the road, and some bottled water, because buying a 6-pack or case of water from Wal Mart rather than buying a bottle at a time from gas stations is cheaper. No matter how you travel, you may want to pack snacks for the event, but also remember that most events serve at least light refreshments, and take advantage of that—they don’t want leftoevers, and you don’t want to spend money on a meal later on! If you have dietary restrictions you might consider packing food for yourself just in case the meals and snacks offered do not meet your needs—otherwise, you may find yourself paying more than you want to for meals. Always take advantage of a discounted dinner option offered at a conference, because it will nearly always be less expensive than other alternatives, unless you’re fine with the McDonalds Dollar Menu.
Okay, All Of That Is Super-Helpful, But I Still Can’t Attend the Whole Event Because I’m A [poor adjunct/lecturer, mother, single parent…..]
I am in awe of people who are able to rise above the challenges life throws at them with grace, humor, and strength, and there is no question at all that in academia, those people include non tenure-track adjuncts and lecturers, mothers, and single parents. Everything that is hard for academics—finding the time to research and write, writing a paper or presentation for a conference or other professional event, negotiating travel plans—is doubly hard when you are also dealing with a shaky or unprofitable employment situation or the needs of a family.
(And, don’t hate me.)
You still have the choice as to how you want to proceed, how you want to behave, and how you want to be seen as a professional. And it is still uncollegial to be the jet-setting scholar who comes, presents, and leaves.
If you want to attend a shorter conference, colloquium, or symposium, and you are going to lay out the finances to attend it at all, then I still believe that generally speaking, you should plan to attend the entire event. You know in advance when the event is, you know what it is going to cost, and you know what you have to work with. While there are, of course, extenuating circumstances and sometimes it really isn’t feasible—let’s say an emergency arises at the last minute and you feel obligated to attend and present because you committed to it, but then you really do need to get home—and while, as I have repeatedly stated, this is not necessary at the larger conventions, I do think the smaller regional conferences should be attended, whenever possible, in their entirety, and not cut short for reasons of funding or other things that you have control over planning for.
If it’s a question of funding, do some research and see if you can find money to cover the expenses. If you can’t, consider not attending this particular event, and saving up for another one. The reality is, sometimes we just can’t afford to go—but if you genuinely can’t afford an overnight trip, don’t stress yourself out by only going for a day and then jetting home, because the cost of registration and travel just isn’t worth it in the end. I still maintain that you are not benefiting from that enough to make it worth your while, or anyone else’s.
If it’s a question of not wanting to take time from your family, this is a choice you need to make. It’s a choice that is not going to go away, either. That family is going to be there for a while. You’re going to need to find a way to negotiate between family needs and professional needs. Many conferences now offer support for mothers and/or academics with families: at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, for instance, the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship is offering lactating rooms; some conferences are even arranging for on-site child care. If the event you plan to attend does not offer such assistance to parent-academics, consider suggesting it to the conference organizers and/or to one of the major organizations attending the event, or contact and work with other academic parents towards finding a way to provide childcare or the means to pump and store milk during the event.
Consider making it a family trip, carpooling with your family and letting them sightsee the city while you attend the conference sessions. Look for conferences in or near a town or city where you have relatives, (Grandparents! Cousins!) drive instead of flying, and let your children visit with people they otherwise might not get to see while you are at the conference. Ask colleagues and/or friends and/or your children’s classmates and/or grandparents or other nearby relatives to have the kids over for a night or two, or a weekend, while you attend the conference. There are many, many creative ways to deal with the question of how to handle conferences with children.
The thing is, it’s easy to use “I don’t want to be away from my children for so long” as a reason not to attend a conference, or as a reason not to attend the whole conference, and it is a valid excuse, it really is. You will get no judgment from me, none, whatsoever, for using this as a reason not to attend conferences. But, it is an excuse, and we need to recognize that. Be really honest with yourself: if you attend a 3-day conference—3 days, out of the 365 days in a year—how much are you really taking away from your children? I think that as women, what we do is let everything build up—all of the hours we spend in the office, and teaching, and researching, and writing, and attending committee meetings and department events—and we feel tremendous guilt because it seems like we are never home; then, suddenly, a 3 or 4 day conference seems like a luxury we can ill afford, one that takes too much time from our families.
I maintain in this case, that in fact going away and staying for the whole conference, once a year, ought to be required behavior for academic mothers, especially young ones and ones newer to the profession, like graduate students—because for the space of that conference, you get to be just you, the academic, and not the mommy-trying-to-be-everything-to-everyone. It’s a chance to step out of your everyday juggling act and just focus on the academic, scholarly you. It’s FANTASTIC, and deeply restorative, and you WILL come back feeling refreshed, renewed, invigorated, energized, and totally able to deal with the crayon on the wall and the sour milk stains on your shirt. On the other hand, generally if you come in, give your paper, and leave early to get home to your family, you are feeling every kind of guilt there is for an academic woman to feel: I shouldn’t have left the kids to go to a conference at all, what kind of mother am I? I shouldn’t be so worried about my kids, what kind of an academic am I? I feel like a fraud because I don’t know anyone but I can’t stay to meet everyone because I have to get home! I should have stayed the whole time but I just couldn’t! I shouldn’t have taken that time away from my kids! I shouldn’t have spent so much money on this! I should have just knuckled in and spent the money for the extra night! And ohhhhhhhhhmyyyyyyyygosssssssssh I am so tired and stressed out and burned out and when I get back I have fifty papers to grade and that committee meeting and that student who needs the letter and oh crap I didn’t get that article revised yet and my committee wants another draft of my chapter by Tuesday and ALL THE THINGS! I hate conferences!
This is not necessary. Don’t do it, don’t beat yourself up like this. Arrange for the family to be cared for, arrange to attend the whole event, arrange to have that time cleared so you can just focus on the conference/event, just those three or four days. It makes such a huge difference in how you feel about yourself as a mother and as an academic when you give yourself that space. And if you really and truly can’t make it work without shortchanging yourself, if attending an event in whole or in part is going to place you in this guilt cesspool, then do yourself the favor of just not going to this particular event. It’s better to wait until you are in a place where you can truly participate and benefit from a conference, than to constantly be rushing around trying to please everyone, only getting to do half of anything, and ending up completely fried.
One more note on mothers, especially: DO NOT commit to participating in an event more than an hour’s drive from where you are if you know you are going to be heavily pregnant—like, “I’m going to have this baby any day now” pregnant—at the time at which the event is taking place. You are more than likely to bail on the event because you are EXHAUSTED, especially if you are still working full-time, or your doctor will forbid you to go, or there will be some complication that arises, and you’ll have to forego attendance. That’s registration costs down the drain for you, possibly a fee for canceling a flight or other travel plans, and you’re letting others down because they were counting on you to give your paper/presentation/talk. I know we can’t always plan these things and conferences are often announced and planned well in advance of when they are held. If illness or pregnancy strikes, as soon as you know you cannot attend an event, let the organizers know. There may still be time to find someone to replace you on the panel or as the speaker, or someone may be able to read your paper for you.
And with that, I close this epically long post, and open the floor for discussion – what suggestions do you have for finding and funding professional development opportunities in academia? How do you negotiate your family and professional responsibilities when it comes to conferences? What advice would you give to graduate students in terms of conference attendance?