This spring, a couple of academic bloggers I read were excited about being invited to give a paper at a conference.  I don’t mean invitations to give a keynote address, just to contribute a regular paper to a themed session or a conference on a particular theme.

I had enough self-restraint not to rain on their parades in the comments, but being a cynical old bat, I wondered whether it’s worth getting excited.  OK, it’s true that even getting the invitation may mean that your work has drawn someone’s attention, that you are known for working in a particular area, and that may be a good thing.

The yeah-buttal: the session or conference organizer may have asked you because there haven’t been enough submissions (I have been in this position, on both sides).  The organizer may have asked friends or other people on the program if they can recommend someone who can give a paper on a particular topic; so, sure, you’ve drawn someone’s attention, but whose?  It’s also possible that the organizer is trying to skew a session in a particular direction.  I myself have been asked to give a manuscript-y paper for a session sponsored by a society when the session organizer felt that the society’s interests were getting too theoretical, and was not getting support for this view in the society’s planning meeting.  As it happened, I did have something to offer, and the conference paper led to a publication, so the session organizer and I could be useful to each other.  But I was aware that I was asked for a reason that was not simply that I am awesome.

For annual review, at most schools, conference papers don’t mean squat.  What counts is what’s in print.  So if you need a deadline to get something written, if you know what your process is for developing a conference paper into an article, then sure, give a paper.  If there’s a conference you’re dying to go to, in order to meet people (new important people or your old friends), and you need to give a paper to get funding for it, and you can’t afford to go otherwise, then, sure, give a paper (but make certain that it’s an idea you can do something with, afterwards).

Think carefully, though, about your priorities.  Is this idea something that you want to be working on for the next however-long?  Is it something you’re working on anyway?  Can you cut down an article-in-progress, or excerpt a finished one that hasn’t yet appeared in print?  Or will this paper take time away from your book, your series of articles, whatever your plans were before you got the flattering invitation?  People who invite you to give a conference paper usually don’t know what your plans are.  They’re thinking about their own priorities: getting good (or controversial) papers on their panels, making sure they have enough people at a conference for it to be interesting and to make whatever quota their institution has to make a gathering cost-effective.

Of course it’s flattering to be asked.  Last week I got such a request myself.  And although my first response, given the time and place of the conference, was “Oh hell no,” my second was “but I do have this idea I haven’t managed to work on for awhile because of the MMP Octopus.”  My third thought was “That project needs to wait its turn; I am not putting down the swyving Octopus now that I’m the one who’s winning.”  I haven’t worked on the topic of Other Project in awhile; I was a little surprised even to be invited to this conference, and thought about replying that I don’t really work in that area any longer, until I remembered the Other Project.  But my priorities are the MMP Octopus and then a book project.  And I work better when I focus on one thing until it’s done; otherwise, I muddy the waters flitting from one thing to another, never really finishing anything, confusing myself by working on too many things, and subject to thrashing when I can’t decide what to do first.

And mainly, my priority now is publication.  It’s true that I don’t need to meet people so I can put them on a list of outside reviewers for my tenure application.  That’s really the only unassailable reason I can think of to go to conferences in the humanities.  (The sciences are a completely different ball of wax.)  I’m not saying don’t go.  I am saying to think about whether a conference is part of your masterplan, and what your CV will look like if you add another paper rather than another publication.  If you don’t like the answer, then Just Say No to conference invitations.  Sweetly, gratefully, enthusiastically, and/or regretfully, as called for.  I’m delighted you thought of me, but I’ll be wrestling an Octopus for the next few months.

7 thoughts on “Conferences, priorities, and Octopods

  1. This is very different in the natural sciences. First, invitations to deliver talks at conferences are given some weight on your CV in assessing your stature in a field. Second, presenting your new work at conferences is an opportunity to prepare your audience of potential peer reviewers to be receptive to your work when they encounter it in manuscript form.

  2. “presenting your new work at conferences is an opportunity to prepare your audience of potential peer reviewers to be receptive to your work when they encounter it in manuscript form”

    And grant officers sometimes stop you after and suggest you apply for a grant.

    Don’t you guys get insightful feedback when you present that makes the paper better?

    I guess none of that is a reason to write a paper specifically for a conference. I’ve only done that once, but I was on sabbatical and it was a free trip to Europe for a week. In the end it became a nice little publication.

  3. Social sciences are also different. I can see the point of preparing peer reviewers, but I wouldn’t say that’s necessary in the humanities, only desirable. And everybody always talks about the insightful feedback, but actually, I’ve never had any really useful feedback from a paper given orally. People don’t listen well. I do a lot better with writing groups or friends who will read a paper or just a section of a paper, and give truly thoughtful feedback based on a real grasp of the issues involved. Listeners tend to comment based on their own notions of what’s important, that is, out of what they’re working on or interested in, regardless of whether that has any real bearing on the presenter’s work. Grant officers? Ha ha. Not in the humanities. This wasn’t supposed to be a post for all disciplines; note the caveat in the last paragraph.

    1. Preparing potential reviewers isn’t necessary in social sciences either, but it helps.

      From the interdisciplinary conferences I’ve been to, I’ve noticed that not all humanities presentations are the same either. The worst are the folks who stand up and read their paper verbatim (particularly in monotone, shoot me now, I’d rather just read the damn paper). One tends to actually listen to and provide feedback and good questions with presentations that are framed as presentations (generally with a good powerpoint that provides useful visuals). Or at least they seem to get better questions and better feedback from my perspective as an audience member. It may be that those presenters are also better at dissimulating.

  4. Good points about submitting to conferences, Dame Eleanor. It’s hard to sit out a CFP and not submit, and it’s harder still to say no if you’re asked. There’s also the energy factor you get from presenting and discussing your work, especially if you don’t have an in-person writing group (as I don’t) to whom you can turn for feedback. That said, though, I’m with you.

  5. I love going to conferences, especially because I’m the only early modernist at my school, so I have no one around who knows what I’m talking about on a deeper level than “oh yeah, Shakespeare.” I have been writing conference papers that are interrelated in hopes that I will be able to revise them into a book in time. Thing is, teaching a 4/4, there’s no other way to take time to write a book. Conferences help give me deadlines and also get me instant feedback. So to me, they are extremely helpful. I have three conference papers toward the book idea at this point. If I keep going at this pace, I’ll have a book proposal by the end of the school year, though admittedly the papers will need fleshing out to become chapters. Nonetheless, my teaching (and two small children) make doing research very difficult. So I do what I have to do. If that means it takes two years of conferences to cobble together a book proposal, so be it. Conferences help me a lot!

  6. Look at my vita and you will see how I have been talked into going to far too many conferences. Reasons: being on market — having to get to MLA; being really unhappy/isolated in job and really, seriously, needing to see actually interesting academics (especially before e-mail, blogs, Facebook) and experience feeling normal for a day or two, and also see books; and then also, being talked into going to conferences I shouldn’t and giving papers I shouldn’t.

    There’s a conference in October I have sent an abstract to and want to go to, because it will be a good writing goal, and I want to raise my profile, and it is going to be very interesting / I will learn a lot. But if I get in, I really should not go if not fully funded. It is going to be a hard call.

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