In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here.
by Lauren E. Osbourne
Thesis # 16: Apart from professionalizing themselves through research and publication, candidates should consider the cost of regularly attending regional and national scholarly conferences simply as the price of being a graduate student. Waiting until one is on the job market is therefore too late to consider attending and trying to participate in such conferences–especially when one learns that being placed on the program of such annual meetings often comes about gradually, over the course of several (or more) years. Whereas regional meetings are often useful places to try out one’s research, become accustomed to speaking in public, and learn the rituals of the question/answer sessions that follow the presentation of papers (knowledge especially important during on-campus interviews), national meetings play a crucial role in efforts to integrate oneself into networks of colleagues at other institutions who share one’s interests.
Is this thesis still relevant? As my students often hear me say, “yes and no.” I am reluctant to agree with McCutcheon that graduate students “should consider the cost of regularly attending regional and national scholarly conferences simply as the price of being a graduate student”; while I do think that conference attendance may be valuable (for reasons that I will describe below), it should not be understood as a financial obligation necessary for advancement of one’s career.
For many, the cost of attending a national meeting is prohibitive. There’s the membership fee, the registration fee, the airfare, the hotel, ground transportation between airport and conference, any food or drinks consumed while traveling (always more expensive than what one would eat at home)—these costs are out of reach for many graduate students, most especially those from working class backgrounds who may not have a financial “cushion” or family members who are able to help. Thankfully, some professional organizations now offer some financial assistance for graduate students, non-tenure track faculty members, and unemployed people to attend annual meetings (in addition to the standard of scaling membership and registration fees by employment status). The American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature both offer travel grants (information here and here, respectively) for those who may need support in order to make attending and participating in an annual meeting possible. Additionally, many institutions now offer financial assistance for their graduate students to attend conferences, although the details of these programs differ depending on the institutional context. If you are a graduate student who would like to attend a conference, always ask if your institution provides support for such activities.
But in many ways, national conferences are not all they’re cracked up to be. Many associations are so large that the chances of rubbing elbows with “famous” senior scholars in one’s field are slim to none; in many cases, those senior scholars might not even be attending the conferences anymore. The programs are so bloated that you may end up moving in a small pack from one panel to the next of similarly-minded people in your area of specialty, rarely or never encountering anyone from a different area of specialization (ironic, considered that you’re constantly surrounded by thousands of people). Competition for inclusion on the program is fierce. And should you be lucky enough to get to present, you may receive little to no feedback. I’m not the first to point out these shortcomings of the meetings of national associations. In this 2011 piece in Inside Higher Ed, Rob Weir argues that large humanities conferences are, as he puts it, “past their sell-by date.” Why? He cites, among other points, the abominable practice of reading written papers aloud and the financial hardship of attendance.
So why do we still do this? Fear of change and force of habit, yes, but I might dare to suggest there are some benefits to attending conferences. Close readers of McCutcheon’s thesis have probably noticed that I have thus far considered the thesis primarily in light of national conferences, while he in fact refers to regional conferences as well. He notes, “national meetings play a crucial role in efforts to integrate oneself into networks of colleagues at other institutions who share one’s interests.” I disagree. While a graduate student, I found regional and similarly small conferences to be considerable more hospitable environments for integrating myself into a network. The national meetings were simply too large for this. It was through participation in regional and other small conferences that I actually came to speak with colleagues across a range of areas of interest and career stages, and even to keep in touch with those people after the conference. When we consider the substantially lower (but not nonexistent) financial obligation of attending regional or other small meetings, in terms of forming a network, this is a no-brainer. Small conferences are absolutely the way to go.
But even here, I offer an additional word of caution: do not feel that, as a graduate student, you must submit to or attend every conference that appears in your inbox. You do not even need to consider most. This is not to say that most conferences are not worthwhile. Rather, this is a point about quantity of conferences. There is a point at which attendance can become burdensome (both in terms of expense and use of one’s time). You can keep up with what’s current just as easily by following a few academic journals; this is easily accomplished via RSS feed, email updates, or even by flipping through the current periodical section in your institution’s library.
Before ending this post, it is worth mentioning the conference interview, which is probably looming large on the minds of many graduate student readers. If you are able to, it is likely worth attending one national meeting before entering onto the job market. The conference interview is an awkward format. Thankfully, many institutions now mention directly in job ads that interviews via Skype or telephone are possible for applicants not attending national meetings. And also thankfully, some have recently pointed to the unjust system that is perpetuated by conference interviews; interviews via Skype or phone aren’t perfect, but they at least don’t cost applicants thousands of dollars, nor do they require that search committees spend days on end sitting in cubicles in the middle of a convention center—a dehumanizing experience for everyone involved.
I will close by noting the one major benefit of attending, and when possible, participating in, conferences small and large: cultural literacy. Conferences have their own culture, and familiarizing oneself with the workings of that culture, as a graduate student, is important. It is not, however, worth thousands of dollars, nor is it worth extensive time away from your research. It is a benefit that may be gained through targeted attendance of and participation in conferences that are most likely to sustain and reinvigorate your excitement about the field, with minimal impact on your wallets.
Lauren E. Osborne is an assistant professor in the department of Religion at Whitman College, Walla Walla, WA. In her current book-in-progress, Iqra’!: Aesthetics and Experience of the Recited Qur’an, she considers the text, sound, and experience of the recited Qur’an in terms of discursive and non-discursive modes of meaning.