The summer is nearly upon us, and that means conferences. I’m not the most avid conference-goer, though I generally enjoy them when I actually make it. We academics can be a difficult lot, with fragile egos and precious little affirmation to go around. For that reason, conferences can be brutal, disenchanting experiences, particularly for those in doctoral programs or early in their career. Having some familiarity with these negative exchanges, having both suffered and more often inflicted on others, I thought I’d draft a minor list of tips to help those entering the fray. Needless to say, this list is neither exhaustive nor authoritative, and others have offered more useful practical tips elsewhere, but these are things that came to mind.
- Praise others effusively and genuinely whenever possible. Academics are critical people, and rightly so, since we are invested in the careful weighing of claims and sober assessment of evidence. But that’s no reason why we have to be guarded in our encouragement when we see others doing well. I have sometimes feared that I will appear undiscerning or naïve if I am too ebullient in commending someone on a paper or a career success. But in this field in which rejection is plentiful, some warm-hearted adulation can go a long way.
- Network without instrumentalizing. The need to connect with other academics, to network, is crucial and one of the real benefits attending conferences in person supplies. But we’ve all been the victim, at one time or another, of the relentless badge-scanners who quickly size up whether you’re worth talking to by the name and institution on your name tag. It can be dehumanizing to find oneself so summarily disregarded, and it’s worth making a conscious effort not to do this to others. Rather, in this regard, be Kantian and treat others as an end in themselves, taking an interest in their work, their story, their paper, and so forth, rather than merely reducing them to what they can do for you. And don’t dismiss people simply on the basis of their school, since none of us like to be pigeon-holed merely according to institutional lines. And we become less interesting when only talking to people who think just what we do.
- Don’t be offended if someone hasn’t heard of you or your work. The amount of material published in our field is staggering, and it is simply impossible to keep abreast of all the new arrivals. Your new article or book may be the definitive word – erudite, exhaustive, unsurpassable! – but it may not be on the top of everyone’s reading list. I vividly remember the indignant look I got one SBL from a mid-career scholar when, after we were introduced, I asked him what his field was. How could I not know he worked in New Testament? Especially in our early years, we tend to know the major players in our thesis area but may not know those working in other parts of the discipline, and it’s only fair to extend grace toward others and to exercise humility about our own work.
- If someone has heard of you or your work, ascribe this to your interlocutor’s erudition, rather than to your own importance. These are very small circles and big egos crowd out more interesting encounters.
- Don’t scorn those earlier in their career than you. I have always had great admiration for people who went out of their way to listen to me and engage with my work while I was a lowly doctoral student, without any formal obligation on their part – wonderful scholars like Ross Wagner or Steve Moyise. Pragmatically, bear in mind that tables turn easily in the academy. You may find your book being reviewed by a junior scholar or doctoral student, or may find yourself in a few years applying for a job or a grant on which those scholars sit. Lording it over those in earlier stages of their career will only result in making needless enemies, a pyrrhic victory at best.
- Don’t recite your CV. Being at a large conference can cause all sorts of understandable anxieties: how can I possibly hold my own in these massive gatherings of established scholars, among the sprawling book halls and endless torrent of journal articles. But for some of us, those anxieties tempt us to overcompensation, seeking to prove to those we meet that we really ‘belong’ by referencing that forthcoming Novum Testamentum article, or dropping names (‘I was just chatting to Jimmy Dunn when all of sudden Ed Sanders came up to me and said to me, Tom Wright and I were just talking about you’).
- Do have fun. Enjoy making good friends with scholars around the world. Get drinks. Skip papers. Sightsee.
The doctoral and early career stage can be a lonely one, and the less we act like jerks, the better it will be for everyone.