Conference Advice from a (Semi) “Western Veteran”

I’ve been to a lot of Westerns.  Which means I have wandered the downtown streets of Denver, Vancouver, Portland, etc., coffee-shop styrofoam cup (actually, more like 100 percent recycled paper cup) in hand, trying to look busy (except in San Antonio where it is strangely impossible to find coffee near the Alamo.

Years of riding up and down hotel escalators has taught me a few things.  First and foremost, this is a great job!  While each of us can get bogged down in the minutiae of our institutional and departmental cultures, we’re the lucky ones that get to talk about fun stuff with students, unpack interesting questions, and trade ideas (or share drinks and trade ideas) with good friends in great cities year after year.

The Western is a great conference.  What keeps me coming back is the welcome community of scholarly inquiry the association members and leadership have created.  It is the one conference that recognizes there are many different ways to be a political scientist.  It’s a place where you’re much more likely to get useful, instructive feedback on your work, instead of the ego-driven, caustic, one-upmanship type of feedback you might get elsewhere (can you tell I just got an article rejected).

If this is your first conference, I have some advice for you.  Make it a point to break out of your comfort zone.  And if you’ve been going for a while, make it a point to welcome new people into your comfort zone.  Too often at conferences, I’ve seen people stick with their “tribe” and not really make an effort to “build both vertical and horizontal networks” (sorry… political science geek out)!  This can be an extended “friendship” tribe of grad school friends or it can be the “subfield” tribe of people you keep running into on panels.

Building “bonding social capital” is important to do at these conferences.  But equally important is to make space for those serendipitous moments of insight you might gain from attending a panel in an area you know nothing about.  And while panels can become pedantic and derivative, our colleagues almost always have the ability to reframe the way you see a problem you are working with or even point you to new areas of study.

This might sound like dumb advice since we’re so often taught to narrow our disciplinary focus. When you’re a younger academic, the idea of having to conform to standard norms of what it means to do this work is palpable.  But the really good work comes from those scholars that stray from the norm… the scholar who incorporates the good work in other disciplines and sub-fields to change the conventional wisdom.

So talk to someone you’ve never met.  I know it can be scary… it is for me.  As social scientists, it should be obvious to us that we’re all social creatures.  But sometimes, we forget that lesson.  Rather than see the conference as an “opportunity” or as a “chance to get free drinks at the reception,” we should see them as a chance to build a broad, diverse, and pluralistic scholarly community.  Too often, we get caught up in the “seriousness” of our work, when at its basic level, we do the work primarily because it is interesting to us.

So let’s have fun in LA!

Tell us about your conference experiences/advice.

Jose Marichal

California Lutheran University

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