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.