Thursday, June 03, 2010

Conference Burn-Out

So, around this exact time of year 14 years ago, I attended my first academic conference. I had just graduated with my B.A., and my undergraduate thesis adviser had encouraged me to submit an abstract, and I was nervous and excited and feeling totally like a fraud. Oddly enough, I presented on a novel that I subsequently abandoned for 14 years, and now I'm presenting on that same novel at this upcoming conference of mine.

But so anyway. That first conference experience was exhilarating. I was interested in every paper and wanted to go to every panel and I was bursting with new ideas and I felt so... I guess I just felt like, "Oh, these are my people. All of these people here are passionate about the same things about which I'm passionate. Here is where you get to talk about these things about which you care so much and the people to whom you talk won't glaze over and change the subject. This is the place I've been looking for."

I am no longer that exhilarated, excited girl. That's what I've been realizing over the past month or so at least, but really, it's been coming on for much longer than that. Do you know the last time I went to a conference and attended all or nearly all of the panels? I seriously think that it was 2004 or 2005. Do you know the last time I felt like my mind was blown by a conference (not just one talk or one panel, but the whole conference)? Me neither. (Actually, that's when I stopped going to panels at conferences, I think: when my mind stopped being blown by going to them.)

So what has changed? Because I would like to get some of that exhilaration and excitement back.

  1. One thing is that I haven't had time for the past 7 years to really sit with any idea for a long period of time before presenting it at a conference. And while I do think that it's valuable to present new work at conferences, I also think that my brain hasn't recharged since before I got on the tenure-track, and that's a bad thing.
  2. At a certain point, you feel like you've heard every paper before. I found myself perusing programs for a couple of conferences that I'm not attending this summer, and I found myself... well, I didn't care that I wasn't attending because nothing sounded new. And this conference at which I'm giving my paper - I sort of felt the same way as I looked over that program. This is not because people aren't doing interesting things, I don't think. I think it's me.
  3. But also, too, familiarity breeds contempt. With professionalization and embeddedness in one's field, one starts seeing the same faces over and over again. And once you get to know these people - and really, at a certain point you can't help but know these people - you also get a sense of what they are likely to present at a conference. And so at a certain point, you read over a conference program and instead of it being like this tome of sparkly shiny new things it's more like an alumni bulletin that talks about what people are doing lately. You think to yourself, "Oh, so X is still working on the trauma book," or "Y must have finished with the transnational project and is moving on to this new thing that she was talking about as a tangent three conferences ago." Now, this is great, that you know the people and that you can follow their careers in that way. But it sort of takes the luster off of actually going to listen to a conference paper.
  4. Conferences become work, and as work they are as much about meeting with people as they are about attending as an audience member. One of the reasons that I no longer get to go to panels is because I always have to find blocks of time to meet with people. All of this is important to do, and often it's even just plain fun. For one thing, these people are my friends. Of course I want to see them. But also, these are important professional connections. These are the people who recommend one for things and who endorse one's work. These are people who introduce you to other people. At this point in one's career, one probably should be doing all of this meeting and greeting and rubbing of elbows. But I don't get the same charge out of doing that stuff.
  5. Speaking of meeting with people and knowing people, I think that I have met all of the fancy people I have ever really wanted to meet in my narrow specialization, and a lot of people who I never cared about meeting but who are fancy, too. Maybe I need to start working on some new stuff so I can find some new celebrities and heroes?
So, here's the thing. I think sabbatical is going to be good for this problem. I think that the deep thinking and time that sabbatical is going to give me is going to energize me in ways that make me excited not only about my ideas but also about listening to what other people are working on. I also think that going to some new conferences - ones that are far afield from what I typically attend - will help, and BFF and I are hatching a plan to maybe go to a Brand Spanking New conference next year, which I think will be a good thing.

But you know, maybe I'll never get that former excitement back. The reality is that I'm part of this world now, and I'm a fixture. I know people. I have responsibilities and obligations. A conference isn't like vacation - which it was when I attended my first one. It's work. And maybe some time off will make it less like work - or at least less like drudgery - but I don't really think I can recapture how I used to feel about conferences. That makes me kind of sad.


Susan said...

I'm with you. Part of it is the more familiar you are with the field, the more you say, "Yes, OK, I see where that's going". Also, I think the limits of the 20 minute conference paper really get to me. When I'm thinking about a new area, or planning a new course, a conference can be a good way to pick up some bits and pieces...

Belle said...

Sabbatical really helped me re-focus and rediscover my own interests in my research. Of course, I've presented squat on it since, as I realized how much I'd let slide by as I was scrambling on the tenure-track stuff.

I'm with you on the not-excited about conference stuff. I can't remember the last time I saw more than one or two panels that even mildly interested me. And none of them were unmissable, or even regrettable when I did miss them.

Shane in SLC said...

Interesting. I like conferences a whole lot more than I used to--or dislike them less, anyway. Throughout grad school and beyond, conferences just reminded me how much I struggle to make small talk with strangers, and how much of a wallflower I feel at receptions and in those awkward moments before and after a panel. Now I know enough people in my field that I find myself in those awkward spots much less often.

I still don't love conference-going, though: it's a necessary professional evil, but not really something I look forward to with excitement. That's also partly owing to reasons Flavia outlined recently on her blog: like her, I don't process oral information well (and so have trouble staying focused on dense academic conference papers), and my original and interesting insights tend to come from quiet reflection and writing rather than talking out loud. So intellectually, I've always found conferences of limited use. Good luck with yours, though!

Dr. Crazy said...

I feel like I need to jump in and note that I REALLY love conferences, or have done, historically. A) they speak to my social personality, B) I would in most cases rather listen to somebody read a paper than actually read it myself - or at least get a glimpse at a conference before going and finding an article by the person, and C) I like the communal aspect of conferencing - talking to people about things that we've all seen and getting varying perspectives, or talking about different things we've seen and getting 3 panels for the price of one.

In theory, and in history, I LOVE all of these things. But for about the past year, I'm so freaking tired. And I'm BORED. And I'm BORING. That's the thing I'm hoping changes, really. The problem is so not conferences. The problem is my relationship to them.

PhysioProf said...

When I go to conferences, I try to stay fucking drunk the whole time.

Brian Ulrich said...

I like conferences just because no one at my home institution has research interests in my area, and it's a chance to meet up with people who do and see what's going on.