Joshua Barsczewski is director of the writing program and assistant professor of English literatures and creative writing at Muhlenberg College. He’s recently published in Peitho and Composition Forum and is the co-editor of an upcoming collection on labor practices in writing studies, due out in late 2024 or early 2025.
Last February, after a long day of conferencing at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in Chicago, I felt a twinge of melancholy as I was riding the elevator back to my hotel room. I had just come from a snowy stroll through Grant Park with one of my best friends, a few folks from my graduate program, and a new colleague I’d just met earlier that evening. After a pizza dinner, and not yet tired of lightly gossiping about our graduate programs and the discipline, we used the beauty of fresh snow against the Chicago skyline as an excuse to keep on talking, until finally our pants and shoes were too soaked to keep going. This conference was going to end, I realized, and it might be months or even years before I see any of these people again. After that realization, I was hit with another: I’m enjoying myself! This conference was actually fun! Who would have thought? Definitely not me.
I am, I confess, a former conference hater. In the early days of my academic career, conferences were anxiety-producing obligations to get through. There were so many people, so many sessions, and for some reason it felt like everyone knew each other already; even worse, it felt like everyone knew who they were already and could give you a brilliant 30-second pitch on their research. (This was never actually true, I realize, but that’s how it felt.)
But now, as the only specialist in my field on my campus, I look forward to conferences as a chance to learn, to meet new people, to reconnect with old friends, and to feel like I’m part of a larger academic community that transcends the immediacy of my job duties. I still get anxiety about traveling, but because conferences aren’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon, I’ve learned to make them work for me. And, with a little planning, soul-searching, connecting, and following up, they can work for you too.
Here are my four tips for conference success:
- Figure out which conferences are best suited for what you need.
Conferences come in all shapes and sizes, from small and intimate gatherings of a few dozen people in a university conference room to big behemoths with thousands of guests in major metropolitan areas. They can be narrowly focused or broad; they can be one-off events or annual traditions. It’s always best to ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience and use that answer to figure out where to go, when to go, and what to do while you’re there.
If you want to get a broad sense of your discipline, head to the big annual or biannual conventions—think Modern Language Association, American Historical Association, or Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). These are huge events that take years of pre-planning and offer a little bit for everyone without being overly specific to any subfield. On the other hand, if you want to network with those who might become collaborators, consider a smaller, regional conference or a conference highly focused on a specific topic. Smaller conferences can be more relaxing, with more people willing to talk to folks they don’t already know.
Learning which conferences are available to you takes a little bit of homework, but one easy trick is to download the CVs of scholars whose writing you admire and check which conferences they attend. This can give you a starting point on what type of conferences might fit your goals.
If you’re presenting, make sure you get your presentation ready to go before you travel. There’s an old trope about people writing their conference papers on the plane or in their hotel room, which happens, but I would caution against it. Do you really want to be working on your paper when you could be meeting new people or exploring a new city? I learned this lesson the hard way at CCCC in Houston when my laptop broke before I could print a copy of my talk and I had to miss an entire day of the conference while I taxied around the huge city finding a technician to fix my problems.
Then, check to see if there’s any guidance about accessibility from your organization. It’s helpful to print out a few access copies for folks to follow along with what you’re saying (even if it’s just bullet points). The conference may also have an online system where you can upload documents. Making your work accessible allows more people to engage with your ideas!
Finally, make a game plan. Download the conference program to decide which sessions you’ll attend. I recommend going to see a mixture—big names and emerging scholars, sessions in your subfield and new areas you’re just discovering. As you plan, make sure you’re giving yourself time for breaks to recharge, eat, and explore the area. You’ll probably go to many conferences in your career, so it’s fine to not attend every single session.
- Embrace the “real” conference spaces.
Early in my career, I knew I wanted to find other folks doing research on queer literacies, so I headed to the biggest conference in my field, used CTRL+F to find every mention of “queer” in the program I could, and figured I’d leave with a ton of new contacts. Years later, I can barely remember a single panel I went to. What I do remember are the conversations I had with folks after panels, at lunch, in the coffee line, at the publishers’ exhibits, at parties, and in the hotel bar. These are spaces where folks really get together to talk about their future projects, without the formal pretensions of a conference session. These are the spaces where you can talk about a half-formed idea you have and leave with a collaborator. These are the spaces where you get to meet editors who ask you to send them your work. These are spaces where friendships form.
Not everyone is comfortable navigating those spaces, and that’s okay. Many conferences organize more formal and structured space for conversation—roundtables or mixers or short courses. But, if you can, try to lean into the serendipity of it all and make connections with folks you might not meet otherwise.
- Follow-up with any connections!
Finally, follow up with people! If you really appreciated a talk, tell the writer after their session (believe me, people LOVE to hear this). Then, when you get back home, drop them an email, or see if they have a LinkedIn/professional X account. A quick follow-up can go a long way to establishing a professional connection.
At their best, conferences can help make a large and unwieldy profession feel intimate. Remember: you likely got into your discipline because there are problems you want to solve and ideas you want to put out there into the world. This is better—and easier—when you have a sense of the community you’re trying to enter, when you have a sense of who your readers might be, and who your colleagues are. And while it’s not the most important outcome, I’ll end by saying that having friends in the field makes academia a lot more fun. It might help you, like it helped me, go from being a conference hater to someone who loves conferences so much he’s sad when he must leave.