My blogging frequency has dropped off lately because: 1) it’s summer, and I have been traveling and I need a break and have less to say anyway; and, 2) because I recently began writing a column dealing with professionalization issues for Inside Higher Ed. The column is called “Tyro Tracts” and is intended to deal with the professionalization issues that face advanced graduate students and junior faculty (in all disciplines). Because of the column, most of the stuff I have to write about professionalization issues, a past focus for this blog, will now be posted over at the Inside Higher Ed site (I won’t be cross-posting the columns, though I may index them somewhere here on 3 x 3). I’ll continue to write about issues specific to rhetoric and composition here at 3 x 3 in Cullowhee, and my blogging frequency will pick back up in the fall. With the IHE columns, I’m trying to address issues that don’t typically get addressed, or that people may find awkward to ask about, or not even know to ask/think about. If you have a topic for a column, I’d love suggestions. For example, I had no idea that the column on how to properly address professors would get such a strong response. Anything is fair game. Just drop a line or leave a comment if you have a column question or idea. The column runs every two weeks.
My first four IHE columns are here:
Respect Departmental Staff
Doctor, Professor, or ‘Hey, you’?
Rules of the Game
This is the the first in
three four posts about “hacking” conventional academic conferences. The next two three will be about how to get in, and how to present, and networking, respectively.
I’ve recently become a big fan of THATCamp‘s “unconference” conference model, in which nobody presents (ahem, nobody grandstands), and the content of the unconference is determined collegially by the participants on-site. It’s a great thing, and yet, conventional academic conferences aren’t going away, but nor should they go away.
I love conventional conferences (there, my THATCamp friends, I said it), but I didn’t used to. I think I love them now because I’ve learned a system, an admittedly idiosyncratic system, for enjoying them, and for gleaning as much useful intellectual content from them as possible. I realize that some people have grown weary of conventional conferences, and I’ve grown weary of particular ones, but certainly not of conferences as an intellectual and social “genre.”
Upon realizing recently that I have been refining how I view and attend conferences, I thought I’d type up some of the ways that I feel I’ve made attendance of conventional academic conferences more productive for myself. I’ll start with an anecdote. At the 4Cs in New York in 2007, my first major academic conference as a graduate student, I made myself somewhat notorious within my grad program by, while in the audience at a presentation, leaning over to my friend (who shall remain unimplicated), muttering “This is why our field is a fucking joke,” leaving mid-presentation, and walking 30 blocks to a Manhattan fly fishing shop. (A “joke” to the disciplines that don’t respect rhetoric and composition, is what I was referring to.) The presentation was terrible, but part of the problem was that I hadn’t yet learned how to attend a conference. It’s this notion, that there are particular skills that we must learn to attend a conference productively, that prompts me to write this post.
What I should have done was save my comment for later (in my defense, I was very quiet, and nobody overheard me), and quietly slipped out to try another session that, ideally, I would already have scouted in the program and marked for quick reference. So long as you are quiet and discreet, there’s nothing rude about leaving a presentation. I left, but I blew off the whole conference for the whole day instead of finding another session. It is less rude to leave a session in between speakers. But, particularly at large conferences and in a large audience, one shouldn’t be shy about politely leaving. This is somewhat more awkward at small, intimate conferences, and so I’d use more discretion at those. Similarly, I’ve often not attended brilliant sessions because they were too packed. Particularly if someone I know is presenting, it’s not worth it to me to wander into a room, realize it’s full, and spend the next hour and a half standing and sweating. I can can catch them later. (Incidentally, people I know are very split on whether to attend all your friends’ sessions, to support them, to to venture into the unknown. I try to do both.) I’ll slip out to a less crowded session. So, be willing to leave, politely and quietly and dsiscreetly.
I have come to feel that small but elite conferences are the best ones to attend. Every field has its major conferences, and at least early in one’s career, it’s probably necessary to attend the majors, if only for networking purposes (which I’ll return to in a bit). Small conferences are more intimate because of their smallness, and I feel that this intimacy leads many presenters to think more thoughtfully about their contributions, and their interactions. The smallness also makes meeting and socializing with new people more possible, less awkward, and less intimidating. I recommend hitting a few small, focused conferences, even if they aren’t necessarily in your major field of study. Part of the fun of conferences is learning that you’re interested in something that you didn’t know you were interested in.
On a related note, it is simply important for graduate students to attend both small and large conferences within their field. Conference attendance is an important part of acculturation into the field, and one of the best ways to learn what people at other programs are doing and thinking about, one of the best ways to get out of the insular bubble that is your own program. I never was, and am still not, a fan of conferences specifically for graduate students. About the only thing they are really useful for is getting the experience of presenting, but even then, you can get that experience at a real conference, one that will count for something on your CV.
Similarly, many new faculty place too much emphasis on conferences. If you’re on the tenure track, publishing is far more important than conference attendance, both within your own institution and when you go back out on the job market (if you do). I’ve heard of several people hitting the conference circuit hard, not publishing in the mean time, and find themselves in bad tenure review situations. Bad deal–don’t privilege conferences above your publishing. But do use conferences to test new ideas, as a springboard into your publishing.
One of the most obnoxious conference attendees is the one who asks a question at the end of a panel, usually eagerly, and uses the moment as an opportunity to: a) recite their own esoteric and usually irrelevant knowledge; b) mask some sort of comment in the guise of a question; c) baldly self-promote; d) disparage the presenter; e) all of the above. In short, don’t be that guy. It’s OK to ask a tough question, so long as it is relevant, asked politely, and doesn’t involve any grandstanding. As a presenter, I prefer a tough, even combative, question to having to deftly parry some mope who’s done nothing more than spend two minutes reciting everything they’ve read in order to make a comment on my paper that I can’t quite determine the relevance of.
One reason I enjoy conferences more now than I used to is because of my note taking. I take notes on speakers and presentations in conference programs (god help me if one of these annotated programs ever falls into someone else’s hands). Basically, I scribble “BAD” or “GOOD” over the entries for the individual speakers I see. Along with a quick reason for what made them a good or bad speaker. Now that speakers have developed “reputations” in my own mind, I refer to these past programs before attending a conference and make a point of avoiding speakers I’ve previously categorized as “bad” and seeking out those I’ve identified as “good.” Basically, I’m saying that it is better to go see a good, smart speaker on a topic of only tangential interest than a bad speaker who is talking about exactly the thing you’re most interested in (in most cases). Making use of such a system of course also means that you check out the conference program ahead of time. I love the routine of going through a program very thoroughly as I fly in to a conference, if I can get an advance copy.
- Socialize with people from within and without your own program, no matter how daunting it may seem. Introduce yourself to people, or ask friends in-common for introductions.
- Take notes on presentations and presenters, preferably within the conference program (whether analog or digital).
- Don’t try to attend every session, but . . .
- . . . attend a meaningful number of sessions.
- Get to popular sessions early.
- Don’t be a sycophant, with anybody.
- Follow a lark–attend a session that doesn’t on the surface appeal to you on the recommendation of a friend, or simply on your own whim. If it’s absolutely awful, politely slip out and to a session you’ve designated as a backup.
- Ask questions at panels, but refrain from comments. And keep your question CONCISE.
- Attend a combination of panels within and outside of what you think your areas of expertise/interest are.
- Enjoy a nice or local or exotic meal if you can, preferably with others.
- See some of the city/area (see photo).
This post has gotten too long already.
ProfHacker recently posted: Open Thread: Advice for Personal Versus Professional Websites? I didn’t have time to post a reply at the time, but I have strong feelings on this one. Folks should read through the original ProfHacker post and replies if they’re looking for more diverse perspectives on this issue.
Foremost, I think the important thing, especially for emerging scholars, is to have a web presence that you define. No matter where it’s hosted. It’s an opportunity to present your work, from the perspective you want to. Anecdotally, I know that it helped me a lot on the job market to have a site that re-presented virtually all of my job materials except for a few items. And I think that the competency to build and maintain basic sites like this one will become less and less of a “bonus” in job candidates, and more and more of an expectation in job candidates.
I set up this off- .edu website for a variety of reasons. One was that, in the summer in between my dissertation defense and the start of my tenure-track gig, I was essentially without an institutional home. This made me consider the ramifications of being beholden to any institution for the hosting of my professional website. In short, I didn’t like the idea of it, and the prospect of building an autonomous site was exciting. I also like the idea of having a really complete set of materials housed on one site, even if some of those materials are also duplicated on other, on- .edu sites. It was also cheap, and easy. (For technical info, check out the About 3 x 3 section.)
I also think it might be more to the advantage for younger, less established academics to set up off- .edu sites, in addition to maintaining necessary web presences on their home institutions’ servers. The simple facts are that young academics always–I think–hope to stay at their jobs for a long time. But careers are more volatile than they used to be–largely because of market forces–and very few people seem to stay at the same institution for an entire career. An off- .edu website is much easier to carry around with you if you find yourself moving from one institution to a new one. Your own site also can help to “brand” you within the field, and provides a space for professional communication that’s less formal than traditional publishing venues. If your home institution will allow you to run Drupal, you might have a little more autonomy than otherwise. Here at Western, a kind soul in the Coulter Faculty Commons even designed a WCU-specific WordPress theme for our faculty to use on the WCU servers, which is badass. I love my instutition, but I know that a lot of my peers who are also junior faculty look at the current economic/budget situations around the various states and worry that they could be looking for a new job sooner than expected. So, portability might be something for some folks to consider.
I’m a big fan of autonomy. My idea was that by going off- .edu I could simply control more of the site. The look, the traffic monitoring, the nature of the content. I could make the site as quirky or straight-laced as a chose, without worrying about aligning with institutional aesthetic themes, or other institutional bounds of design. I can run the Google Analytics myself, and I have control of the design of the site, which was very important to me. So, for me the big reason to have an off- .edu site was, as much as anything, that I enjoy having a visually rich site, and having the freedom to indulge some of my extra-academic interests on the same site. Some people like to keep those lives separate, but I don’t see much point, because they aren’t very separate in practice for me. The office comes home with me, and sometimes the office is home. It’s all muddy. We don’t have the luxury of punching in and out, and this site somewhat captures that dilemma, I think.
I don’t think it’s really an either/or situation. A lot of my mentors, peers, colleagues run off- .edu websites, but in almost every case I know that they maintain on- .edu websites at their home institutions, primarily for teaching purposes, as well. Here are some examples of both:
Clay Spinuzzi, University of Texas at Austin
Jim Brown, Wayne State University
Will Burdette, University of Texas at Austin
Patricia Roberts-Miller, University of Texas at Austin
One thing to remember–and remember very damn well–if you’re using an off .edu site to run your classes, is that absolutely no FERPA protected data should go up, ever. And if you’re unsure if something is FERPA protected, you should probably just assume that it is. Keep in mind also that every educational institution will have its own legal counsel, and its own interpretations and procedures for the finer points of dealing with FERPA data. Even if you operate an off .edu site, I would recommend abiding by your home institution’s best-practices, to the letter. Though, you should realize that by running an off .edu site, you are accepting greater personal liabilities if there is ever an occasion for you to be held liable for something. In my own case, this is a non-issue for the sorts of courses I teach. I keep FERPA data as far away from myself as I can, so I don’t have to safeguard it, and because there is very little that I need to collect. If I keep student names, grades, and identifying information off the site, I figure I’m on pretty solid ground.
In the spring my graduate students enrolled in Visual and Digital Rhetorics and I will launch the Rural Image Cooperative [URL works, but site is not yet built], which will fill a new niche in visual rhetoric scholarship. While I haven’t crafted the mission the statement of the RIC entirely yet (primarily because I want the grad students to have a role and stake in that crafting), I did choose to purchase an off .edu URL because the site will hopefully be “pan-institutional.” My hope is that other instructors at other institutions will periodically take over the site and, along with their students, make their own contributions. In this sense of cooperation, I didn’t want the site to appear in any way proprietary by falling under the purview of my home institution’s, or any other institution’s, URL. My institution is great, but in the sense of, say, performative rhetoric, I feel its important that the site perform what I hope it will be, which is to say, not owned by any one academic institution, but cooperatively owned by all of the contributors that I hope the site will attract in the coming years. I’ll have lots more on the RIC once the spring semester rolls around, and mention all of this only to say that there are lots of legitimate reasons to go off- .edu, both for individuals’ websites, and the sites of larger academic endeavors.