Real Talk: Reading the Academic Conference Terrain

Picture of scholars Aaron Hughes, Jason Blum, Mike Altman, Tara Baldrick-Morrone, and Richard Newton

My last post responded to a question about whether presenting conference papers is worthwhile. Readers weighed in with some great points that must be factored into such deliberations.

Dr. Josh Brockway noticed that I had used the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature as my frame of reference. Thinking about his first conference experiences, he likened AAR/SBL to “the deep end of the pool”and suggested looking into smaller conferences for those interested in getting acquainted with one’s intellectual peers and a work’s publication potential.



He makes a good point.

Too often grad students and junior scholars lay aim at making it to the big show. The attention makes sense since these meetings present themselves as the physical manifestation of the profession. You’ll find first-round job interviews underway, publishing deals going down, academics butting heads, and working groups making plans. A lot is happening under those lights.

But regardless of your academic rank, most of it is not happening for you.

You are one among the throng. And while you could have a jam-packed conference schedule, yours will only be an experience amid a sea of name badges. Are you in a place in your career and a season of life where you’ll get enough of a return on your investment? Can afford the liability of debuting your work there?

For instance, if you’re taking a seminar class paper out for a spin, you’ll have done the work of having researched a thesis (#CountTheVictory). But are you sure it can handle the scrutiny of experts in the field? Is this a challenge you even want? In practical terms, I don’t show my work in public unless I’m fairly confident that it’s contributing something defensible and apropos. Yes, conferences are a place to try out ideas in front of your peers, but if you haven’t proven yourself as a peer, assume that you’ll be getting tested.

That said, I’ve observed the following:

The more established you are in your career, the larger the conference you can “test” a project out without risk. The less established you are in your career, the more you have to gain form a good showing at a large conference.

So if you’re going to go to the big show, make sure your game is tight. Frankly, I prefer smaller conferences to fine tune my work.

There’s also a great case to be made about the small conferences as the place to be.

Subfield meetings have stepped their game up through attention to the inward and outward facing presentation of their work. Live in-person discussions are more focused. Twitter hashtags help conversations flow toward different conversation partners. And the intimacy of it all fosters a different look for networking.

I think #lizfest may be the best example of this. Check out the hashtag and the dope poster.Liz-fest.jpg-large

Graduate and regional conferences are also having a renaissance. Though generally more student-oriented, many advisors recommend steering clear of these low-budget, haphazard, hodgepodge events. But not all smaller conferences are created equal. Take a look at FSU’s Graduate Student Symposium–strong line up, participants from other schools, web presence, good headliner. These are all the makings of an event I’d want to be at.

And here’s the things: it’s often (though, not always) easier to get a proposal accepted there. Don’t sleep on these.

Two more things to keep in mind about the big show.

The affiliate (SBL) and Related Scholarly Organizations (AAR) programs that happen during the AAR/SBL meetings. Each year such sessions become more of a priority for me. They tend to be more focused while maintaining an honest-to-goodness conversation beyond November (month of the annual meeting) and March (review of proposals for the next meeting). My favorites include the North American Association for the Study of Religion and the Society for Comparative Research in Iconic and Performative Texts.

*Note that these affiliate/RSO meetings are happening on the Friday before the annual meetings kick-off, so plan accordingly.

And lastly, grad students should definitely check out the programs of the SBL Student Advisory Board and AAR Graduate Student Committee. They’ve been hosting some of the most proactive professional development and innovative scholarly programming at the meeting.

So should you be presenting at conferences? Yes, if your professional goals meet the venue. Reflect on both accordingly.

Next time I’ll discuss overlooked ways and reasons to participate beyond presenting a formal paper.

Richard-Newton PictureRichard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.



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