Over on Twitter, @qui_oui recently shared a link about why we should abolish the humanities megaconference, which started us tweeting about whether or not the writer had a point. Two things struck me about the article that I disagreed with. First, it plays down the role of face-to-face interaction between people, and the ‘off-programme’ benefits of being in the same space as folk who think Interesting Things. (That this kind of unscheduled brainstorming and mentoring can’t be replicated via virtual conferencing was one of the points brought up in the Guardian Livechat on sustainability in higher education.) Second, I wonder whether the humanities megaconference is an American phenomenon, because most of the problematic features the author describes do not appear to fit the conferences I’ve attended in the UK. Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve been to any, but I think the basic fact that UK classics conferences cater to a comparatively small number of people from a smaller geographic area makes them more like regional conferences like CAAS and less like the American Philological Association conference. (And, yes, the APA does display some of those megaconference features that the original article gets irate about, but so does every conference of that size. I also reserve the right to change my thinking on this after I update my UK conference experience!)
I started thinking a bit about why I don’t think megaconferences are actually such a bad thing - part of which is related to the geographical. A discipline needs to have the opportunity to gather together, and when you have a big landmass with lots of people on it, that’s going to mean more people in one place. That kind of, for want of a better phrase, clan identity matters. Second, you can game the unwritten rules if you know what they are. So I thought I’d write some of them down in the hope that someone else might find them useful.
1. Don’t try to go to all the paper sessions. In a smaller conference, this would be Very Silly. At a megaconference, if you go to all the sessions, you will (as the author of the original article says), be running on fumes. I know some people who don’t go to any papers at all, which strikes me as a bit extreme. However, you can be canny about what papers you do choose to go to: topics directly related to your research interests, stuff that might help inform a course you’re teaching or might want to teach, that kind of thing. I’m also a big advocate of going to all of the panel which has the paper I want to hear in it, rather than just dipping in for the paper; if they’ve been grouped together, chances are you might hear something else exciting. I’m also a big advocate of stepping outside your comfort zone and being stretched by listening to something you know nothing about – but the megaconference isn’t really the place for doing that. You need to harbour your energies in a way that you don’t at a smaller conference, and going outside your comfort zone is not a particularly good use of them.
2. Cluster. My normal rule is “don’t stick to your fellow graduates/departmental colleagues like glue – go meet new people”. Unfortunately, as I discovered through painful trial and error, that doesn’t work at a megaconference. Everyone is busy catching up with old friends and acquaintances, and if you detach yourself from a support group, you drift around feeling bizarrely alone in the middle of all the bustle. I did this at my first megaconference, and had an absolutely miserable time until I was rescued by some kind women I knew from attending CAAS. So, at a megaconference, take advantage of your pre-existing networks and use your current acquaintances to introduce you to new ones; informally striking up conversation over coffee won’t work in the same way it does at regional conferences. It’s also another excellent reason to go to smaller conferences before trying a megaconference, as you’re then likely to know a wider range of people and thus get to meet yet more interesting people (which is, after all, the point of networking).
3. Get organised. Plan who you want to speak to and make contact with. If an academic idol is giving a talk, make sure you’re there and you either ask a question or introduce yourself afterwards. If an old friend you haven’t seen for ages is speaking, make sure you know when their talk is so you will definitely see them. Plan out military-style objectives for what you want to get out of the megaconference in advance – and drop everything that isn’t going to advance them. This sounds a bit ruthless, but it’s vital to taking care of your mental and emotional health while you’re there (and there’s no reason one goal can’t be ‘spend an evening in the bar with my grad school friends’). There is just so much going on that if you try to decide what panels you’re going to go to and who you’re going to meet when you’re on the ground, you’ll be completely overwhelmed. Plan in advance – if things change and opportunities emerge, you can reschedule accordingly, which is a vast improvement on flailing.
4. It’s alright if you don’t like the parties. Most megaconferences have parties hosted by institutions or organisations in the evenings, often three or four in parallel. Some of my friends love them. I loathe them. I find them crushed, claustrophobic and impossible to actually talk in. My first megaconference, I tried very hard to be a Good Sport and do the parties like people who like the parties – but it didn’t work, and I was miserable. Now I’ve learnt that it’s perfectly alright to show your face at the parties you need to show your face at and say hello to people you know will be there – and then go up to bed with a good book. This rule goes for most of the elements of the megaconference. If something doesn’t work for you, don’t try to make it. The beauty about the megaconference is that if you miss this opportunity, there will be plenty of others.
Yes, megaconferences have problems. But the rules can be bent, and with a little bit of forethought you can make them work for you.