On not going to conferences

I should add a ‘(some)’ in the title of this post of course, but I decided to go for shock and awe, with a pinch of clarification.

I’ve recently been thinking a little about conferences and my choice of whether or not to attend them. As a natural introvert who, with years of practice, has learned to enjoy the experience of conferences, I have still never quite become comfortable with big gatherings such as the International Medieval Congresseses in Leeds and Kalamazoo. I don’t really like having to run around from venue to venue (anyone who knows me will know that I like to lope around leisurely), or having to choose between four or more concurrent sessions. I think academic conferences in general are strange beasts. I mean, though the world of academia is becoming so much more ‘public’, with a greater emphasis on collaboration and interaction, academics in general are not renowned for being natural extraverts who love to ‘network’ and sell ourselves. If we were, we surely would have walked into careers in sales and PR, instead of spending hours pouring over books and checking our footnotes. For the most part of our working days we roam in the natural habitat of the library, the lecture theatre and the seminar room, with occasional forays into the coffee shop. On the other hand, conferences give us a wonderful opportunity to poke our heads out and have a look around at who else is there. They allow us to broaden our horizons, make new connections, generate more ideas, talk to other people about things that it sometimes seems only you care about.

As an early career researcher in a short-term research-council funded job, I am in a funny position. I can no longer get my university department to fund my conference attendance (and, as I understand, those pots of money are drying up anyway). I do not have the salary of a lecturer, yet I can no longer pay the subsidised conference fees that are allowed to postgraduates. So, I have to think a little about my conference attendance. Additionally, I have to weigh up the cost to my time, which should be spent accumulating research experience and publications as well as contacts and meetings with other academics. So, going to this year’s conference at Leeds would be out of the question for me, with its fee of over £200, plus travel, food, and accommodation costs.

The campus of Western Michigan University, where thousands of medievalists meet every year!

The campus of Western Michigan University, where thousands of medievalists meet every year!

There’s a game that I like to play with friends, a card game called Munchkin. In it, the little warrior munchkins are allowed to carry weapons to fight off the monsters that appear over the course of the game. However, because you are a munchkin, you are only allowed to carry two hand-held weapons (because you have two hands), wear one helmet (because you have one head), and one pair of footgear (because you have one set of feet). I believe that I am a bit like a munchkin. I have a monster to fight (or, preferably, make friends with), and I cannot be weighed down with too much fighting gear. I have to pick my weapons carefully. So, if I’m wearing my ‘armoured conference-going helmet’, I cannot simultaneously wear my ‘get on with this book proposal hat’. I want to carry lots of books in my arms, but I simultaneously want to ‘go into battle’ at a conference, to show all the other munchkins how good I am! I want to meet other munchkins to make them part of my amazing fighting team.

An armoured munchkin

An armoured munchkin

Ok, enough of the wacky analogy…

In the past, I have heard Ph.D students complain that their supervisors have advised them not to go to conferences. In reality, I am sure that no supervisor would want their students to hide in the library for three years. However, they are aware of how time consuming, distracting, and costly conferences can be. I have made the decision to concentrate my efforts for the rest of this year. I’m going to go to a one-day symposium directly related to my current project, and will spend more time training and writing a book proposal. To satisfy my need to discuss my ideas and collaborate, I am being proactive in contacting the people who I have already met. And next year, when I have money (hopefully) and the confidence of a book underway (hopefully), and a more permanent job (again, hopefully), I will hit up some of the big conferences. With all of my munchkin fighting gear in place.

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One comment

  1. I agree but primarily because of lack of funds. I think the benefits of communicating your work with colleagues can be more profitable than the time spent/lost in attending these conferences.
    Unfortunately I have also a temporary job, so I have decided to attend only those meetings where I present a paper.

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