My First Conference

Recently I presented a paper at the T.S. Eliot Society Annual Meeting , and we (CLSA) thought it would be good to share the experience. NB: I am aware that passive voice is (supposedly) "bad writing". However, I use it in several places to eliminate agency. No one cares WHO did what, only what happened, and there is no reason to post "who" on the web for eternal archiving.

I saw the posting on the UPenn CFP list a year or so ago, but it took a while before I had a paper worth submitting. I submitted an abstract, per the requirements, and heard back a month or two later. From what I understand, one would normally receive an acceptance letter or something, but I just received a draft of the program to check for the correct spelling of my name. I waited a month or two after this e-mail before telling anyone I'd been accepted, because I thought I might just get edited right off the program, since I hadn't really been 'accepted'.

Then I had to consider travel arrangements. The University has "Independent Student Travel Funding" to be reimbursed for travel (up to $600 per fiscal year), but it's very limited, far from guaranteed and often first come first served, although this year it may be based on distance, financial need, or other factors. In fact, I know of only one person who has successfully received it in the past and the College of Humanities says this year the decisions are being held off and done after receiving a substantial number of applications. I was told I will hear back from the Co. of Hum. by mid-January at the latest. Then the money from all of the Colleges goes into a jointly-held pool, and there may be distribution from that in March. I mention this not to discourage people from applying to either conferences or funding, but to discourage them from counting on that $600 reimbursement for survival. As a side note, although it probably wouldn't help many people, it *can* count as a miscellaneous deduction as a business expense if you itemize your taxes.

I also had to decide whether I was allowed to take my husband, as I wasn't sure of the etiquette. Since I blew our annual family travel budget with little hope of being reimbursed, I decided he could go site-seeing or something, and took him along. After extensive research of the area, including resident's opinions regarding "safe" neighborhoods, I booked a hotel closer to downtown (the Arch) and decided to take public transit (Metro) to the meeting site.

Shortly before the conference I went to the website to check the scheduling and saw the 'deadline for registration' was coming up. No one had said anything about this to me, maybe it was in the invisible acceptance letter, so I wasn't sure what to do. Do I have to register if I'm in the program as a presenter? I'd seen postings on the CFP list that said you had to be a member of the society before you present, so figured I'd have to at least pay a membership fee. I e-mailed the society treasurer and asked. Yes, I'd have to register to attend (w/ fee) and join the society (w/fee) and pay for the formal meals I intended to attend (w/fee and fees for my husband). But, I figured, at least I got confirmation that I was allowed to bring a spouse.

Then I worked on packing. I checked the weather online and found it was going to be over 80 degrees F the whole time, so my turtlenecks were out. I was fortunate in that prior year events were photographed and on the website, so I had somewhat of an idea on what to wear. I was going to wear a dress to the dinner, as it was the most formal event, but after reviewing the pics decided that was too formal, and just wore what I did the whole time: dress slacks and a nice knit top. I made my fella wear a button down and slacks, he probably could have worn a tie or a jacket, maybe both for the dinner, but it didn't seem required. An official suit would probably have been a bit too much. Generally the expectation was what was called "business casual" when I was working.

Before the conference I had prepared by e-mailing my paper to classmates who had some experience with at least one element of what I was doing. One person knew one author, one knew another, one knew my theoretical framework, one knew my foreign language, etc. This was particularly important to me as I realized I had typo'd a character name which wouldn't be noticed if you didn't know the work. Then I read it out loud to yet another person to check for time, pronunciation, awkward phrasing and bad cut and paste jobs. I was also trying to remember that this was an oral presentation and thus needs information prepared differently than a written paper. Repetition, rather than bad writing, is a necessity since the audience can't 'flip back' to the page if they forget something.

I entered all of my edits on the plane, and read through the paper once the night before and once the morning of, ensuring I was still within my time and that I could present it effectively. I was surprised by how many people went over their time, as that was the first thing I was told about conferences in general. I assumed (since I hadn't been told) that I had 20 minutes, which was right. Each panel had 3 people at 20 mins each, and then Q&A/coffee break for 30 mins. The chair kept track of time and kept the Q&A 'civilized', i.e. making sure people didn't talk over each other, everyone got a chance to talk, etc. The audience was ~30-50 depending on the day and panel.

The first activity was the luncheon. I tried to sit with people who were on my panel so I'd know what to expect. I also met a few people familiar with my area of interest, and felt much more at ease after socializing. One fellow student presenter had come wearing jeans and a T-shirt and felt a bit under-dressed. (He went back to the hotel after the lunch changed into a full suit w/ power tie, even though he wasn't presenting that day. It seemed a little like overcompensation.)

There was one panel after the luncheon, and then my panel. While I was nervous, it helped me to see how nervous others were: one person's hands shook while holding up visual aides. A couple of presenters assumed there would be Powerpoint and projector accessibility, something that should have been confirmed before arrival. Instead, they were thrown off on time and presentation because they never asked. Several people were called for time. I think the single most important thing about conference presentation is PRACTICING YOUR PAPER. I know teachers always say you should practice for oral presentations in class, and I hardly ever do, but for a conference it is vital: once for finding the wonky phrasings and the words that are hard to pronounce, twice for timing, thrice so you have it down well enough to engage the audience. (And so I can use the word 'thrice' in a sentence.)

Everyone always says that the Q&A time isn't as intimidating as it sounds. That was not the case in my presentation: I had a couple of people bat me around like a cat toy. But I lived, so I guess it all works out in the end. Most people didn't have that many questions, so I think generally Q&A isn't too bad. There were sometimes people trying to defend presentations they had made in prior years that conflicted with the current presentation, there were people trying to promote their own ideas which weren't really questions at all, there were people who asked innocent questions of person B to take the heat off of person A. In some ways it was more strategic than useful.

I didn't go to the presentations on Saturday, because I am a bad person. I should have gone, I should have been an active member in the society, I should have supported the folks who listened to me, etc. But I didn't. Partly I was exhausted from gearing up for my presentation on the Friday, and partly I wanted to see St. Louis. I'd intended to go to one or two of the panels, but didn't manage to get around to it, and my spouse was a bad influence. I did go to the formal dinner Saturday night (because I'd paid for it), and my absence from session that day was noted by several people. After the dinner was a more laid back, informal social event and the single most fun I had the entire time. Even my husband had a blast.

I skipped the church service on Sunday (out of fear of being struck by lightning, heathen that I am), and skipped the early morning panel, and made it to the late morning panel and a few other activities before flying out. I made a few contacts and have been e-mailing them regarding projects they are working on and things I'm working on, so it was a very helpful experience. My non-academic couldn't-care-less-about-literature husband who had to sit through the panels, however, is never ever going to another conference again. And I owe him big time. ;)


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