Conference communities

2015-03-23

Being a scholar is more than sitting at a desk writing or in an archive reading or in the field collecting data. A critical part of scholarship is being an active member of a community.

Last week I participated in the American Society for Environmental History annual conference in Washington DC. So I got to thinking about why I made the long trip from Umeå across the Atlantic for the event. If you look in the conference program, you’ll see my name in several places: I gave an oral paper, I moderated a roundtable, and I participated in a PhD student writing workshop. On paper, you might think that I came to share my knowledge with my peers and students. But that’s not why I came. Conferences for me are about networking and community, not presenting research.

Where is my conference community formed? Some community building takes place in the sessions. In the sessions, I have a chance to share a small bit of my research with others and I get to hear what others are doing. But contact after the presentation is more important than the talk itself. I think asking questions during the Q&A period is very important to show engagement with the community. Asking a question gives affirmation to the speaker that his/her talk was worth listening to. It is also an opportunity to make connections. When I ask a question, I always make sure to introduce myself by name and affiliation so that everyone knows who I am, and it often leads to hallway conversations.

More connections are made in those hallways, at lunch tables, and at the coffee stations. All too often I see a small group who already knows one another huddled in a corner together at each and every break. I have particularly noticed this with Europeans at North American conferences. This is precisely what not to do. Talking to people you don’t see often or people you don’t know at all—asking about their papers or posters or jobs or research projects—is critical to the conference as community.

The book exhibit is always a great place to strike up conversations when I see someone looking at a book I’m also interested in. The people working the exhibit are also important to talk to. They are often not just people selling books, but editors who contract books. I try to gauge the field by talking to them, asking about what’s selling right now and what they would like to publish.

Formalised social activities like receptions and tours are excellent opportunities to network. Moving around from one conversation or table to the next allows me to catch up with old friends and make new ones. Having one-minute and three-minute versions of my research pitch are important in these kind of settings, because people want to know what I’m are working on, but need to get that information succinctly.

Interest group activities likewise forge communities. At ASEH, I always attend the Envirotech breakfast to find out what my colleagues are working on at the intersection of environment and technology history. These are people that I see once a year or every other year, yet getting together is like a family reunion. I’m excited to hear about their new books or new jobs, as much as their new babies or grandbabies.

More and more, social media is also a place where a conference happens. The Twitter hashtag for this conference #ASEH2015 was quite active. By seeing who was tweeting, I was able to follow some new environmental historians. On the flip side, others saw that I was tweeting at the conference and followed me. In addition, I got to meet several people ’In Real Life’ whom I had only known via twitter before this conference.

Universities and funding agencies may think of conferences as ‘research dissemination’, but for me they are sites of scholarly networking. After three days of engaging energetically at a conference with my fellow scholars and friends, I know that we are a community.

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