How to attend a conference in a couple hours

Following CKelty’s inspired description of either productive efficiency or clever cheating – depending on your take – and reflecting on a conference I recently attended, I attempt a complementary exercise: How to attend a conference in a few hours (or less). Strictly speaking, I guess, this should be a list of things one could do to ‘attend’ a conference without actually being there. The easiest, of course, would be to read associated publications: either the book that compiles the papers after the conference, or better yet, just the abstract pamphlet via the web. And why waste time bothering to read the whole thing? Emending CKelty’s method, you can cover it in an hour or less. [Thinking about it, I’m beginning to wonder if an hour is perhaps too much time to spend reading a book. I propose a shorter method: Simply note the following items, by texting them into your iPhone — the title, the author, the author’s professional position, the endorsements by other authors, the press, and the design of the book cover. All of this can be done in about two minutes. {Or: Just take a picture of the front cover and the back cover with your iPhone’s camera, and look at them during class. We’re down to about 30 seconds I think.}] But at many conferences, we as professionals are required actually to present papers. If you can’t get out of this by having someone else read your paper for you (which requires a certain stature), it is important to remember a couple of rules that govern the conduct of conferences. It is a mistake to assume that a conference is about the content of its papers. This is because:
A. Conferences are not about ideas: they are status rituals

Other people’s ideas are boring. And you can read them (or “read” them) later on anyway. The point is not the fruitful exchange of ideas. It is the performance and assessment of relative rank in the hierarchical social structure of academia.

B. Conferences are not about ideas: they are fashion shows

It follows that the actual content of what anyone is saying matters less than the form through which it is said, especially insofar as that form exhibits mastery of rule A. Form includes the lexical repertoire and trends, analogous to the heavily indexed terms in a book, that characterize the discourse of a conference. It also includes the manner (intonation, speed, gesture, and so on) in which people speak, and also what they wear, how they look, and how they comport themselves.

Yet an academic conference is nevertheless ostensibly all about an Idea. Do not be fooled; the claim to truth or importance is simply academic mystification, as when we assume that it is the content of books that matter and not their place in reproducing the scholarly fashion system. This is the ideological function of the conference: to pass off the content of its discourse (ideas, texts, images) as either ‘true’ or ‘important’ while concealing the objective manner in which that truth or importance is reproduced: that is, through the mechanisms of agonistic status competition. Mastery of a conference therefore involves a mode of ironic comportment and disposition, a self-mystification. You should know that the most important factors impinging on your success involve your ability to dominate other conference members through status (as measured and mediated principally by ritual/fashion); yet, given the manifest content of the conference as a ritual disclosing something ‘true’ or ‘important’, you must pretend not to know this. It is also legitimate to pretend to a version of such noble ignorance by reflexively pointing out that ritual/fashion objectively accomplish what the conference pretends to do otherwise – which is, to secure the social order of status through which truths are cemented – as, for example, the present exercise.

Given the two main principles, I attempt some guidelines on how best to conduct oneself in the social environment of the conference, especially when you are pressed for time.

1. Pay attention to what you wear.

People are looking at you. They might only catch a glimpse of you, so you must manage their impressions. There are two conventional strategies. The first is ‘dressing up’: display class and style through tasteful professional attire. Trendiness can be garish, and colors are difficult to manage in relation to status, so people working in this mode often default simply to wearing something neutral, like khaki, gray, or black. Not a bad choice — if your blacks don’t clash and they signify ‘Anne Taylor’ and not ‘the Gap.’ The second is ‘dressing down’: display radical nonchalance through casual disregard for the rules of fashion. This too is a fashion strategy. It is typically associated with those who, in ignoring ideas, wish to appear that they are paying the most attention to them, since the conference is supposively about the Idea. Yet, in an anthropology conference, this mode often also shades into the question of the relative ultimacy of fieldwork as a value versus theory as a value within the discipline, where casual or sloppy attire can index orientation toward the field – especially when the field is a place considered ‘hard core’ (e.g. the Xingu valley) – in opposition to theory.

Both of these strategies, given the agonistic status environment of the conference, operate according to schismogenetic principles. Dressing up vis-à-vis dressing down is characterized by ‘complementary’ schismogenesis: status assessment and ranking is achieved through relative orientation to the quality and value of ‘formality’ and ‘ornament.’ Concomitantly, competition within each strategy occurs in a symmetrical fashion, under the sign of ‘taste.’ Out-dressing your competitors can mean very subtle moments of attention. Those working in an ‘up’ mode can play with accessories (branded watches or glasses). Those working in a ‘down’ mode can play with grooming (messy hair, for example). It is crucial to analyze the specific social emphases of the conference prior to attending it in order best to position the impression you make in a favorable light. For example, you must assess the value placed on ‘authenticity’ and its various registers (truth, sincerity, suffering, and also the reflexively faux or pomo) as these play out in particular disciplines and cross-disciplinary contexts. The anthropological authentic is a moving target; schismogenetic balance is tipping away from ‘casual’ as an index of the field imagined as bush and toward ‘formal’ as an index of cosmopolitan panache and theoretical mastery, where the ‘field’ has vanished and been replaced by a sophisticated sampling of transnational ‘trends’ or ‘headlines’. As elsewhere in society, conformity to gender norms in dress is expected, except where nonconformity contributes to status, along the lines just described. Some academic statuses are so high that those who inhabit them display this through complete contravention of all of the rules. These figures are mad professors of various sorts. Slavoj Zizeck would be a good example.

2. The most important thing you wear is your name tag.

Everyone knows this. They reproduce it by telling jokes about it. Whilst scanning name tags in the room, people will comment that everyone is scanning name tags in the room. Despite their conventional appearance, name-tags are in fact non-obvious. Minor differences in name-tag appearance, and their potential impact on status, can become the over-arching theme of a conference — more important than any particular paper, as measured by the amount of time people actually spend talking about, looking at, or otherwise noticing them. Why are some badges pink and others white? People at conferences will generate elaborate conspiratorial scenarios to divine the meaning of such ostensible inconsequentialia. While you very often cannot do anything about this aspect of your name tag, the talk associated with the tags should indicate for you their overall importance in the semiotic economy of a conference. People who work in association management know that associations (like AAA) are obsessed with having the right infrastructure in relation to name-tags: safety clips vs. lanyards is a huge issue and many association management back offices are sent into tailspins of despair when the lanyards run out. This is evidence of the importance of the name tag.

Are name tags important because of what they say? Yes, but again this is complex. Their principle function is not to remind people of your name, unless your name is one likely already to be known because of prior mastery of social environments like conferences. Their principle function is to ease assessment of relative rank. IF your name tag carries high status in itself, either by dint of your name (whether sufficiently famous or exotic sounding) or your institution (whether sufficiently prestigious), this fact significantly bears upon decisions about conference conduct in other domains (such as dress and paper presentation). Thus, if your paper sucks, but you are famous or from an Ivy League university, it may be best to discourage people from paying attention to your paper and divert attention to what you are wearing, including your name tag. However, if your name tag does not carry such worth in itself, it is imperative to compensate or mitigate this lost status through alternate means, including dress and other forms of impression management. Strategies for increasing the worth of your name tag, and therefore your over-all status, can include minor hand-written alterations to it. A change of institution almost always signifies prestige or desired status, and so highlighting this by writing-in the name of your new institution can elicit the right kinds of attention. If your name is misspelled, this could mean that it is exotic sounding in the right ways, and so correcting it in obvious fashion can also increase esteem. Consider strategies such as these, even, or especially, if you are just ‘popping in’ to the conference. Finally, you should always wear your tag, lest you appear like a cheap-skate or perhaps flaky because you lost it. As usual, those of the highest status can demonstrate their unique position by flagrantly ignoring the rules because everyone already knows who they are on sight. The number of anthropologists who occupy this status is diminishing without being replenished, a trend that reflects the declining rank of anthropology within the over-all economy of attention that comprises academia.

3. Your paper is not about what you say, it is about how you sound.

Remember that a paper is more a performance than it is a recitation. Embrace the possibilities. Your main goal is to dominate others while pretending not to do so by presenting something that sounds important but, in fact, isn’t. (Actually presenting an important paper would elicit envy in others, thereby exposing one to the negative and status-diminishing strategies of others. There is a very fine line between playing the game with as opposed to against the other conference-goers.) Strategies abound, and they cluster around the axis of ‘in/formality within fashion’ defined earlier. Thus, you may chose deliberation and concision as qualitative indexes of commitment to and mastery of a certain professional paradigm. Basically, you read a short paper very slowly. Alternately, you can pursue spontaneity and ornamentation as stylistic cues, and you run over the time limit or rapidly edit in situ. A further possibility is elegant extemporaneousness. Contrastively, you may be really casual and humorous to indicate, ironically, just how serious or ‘real’ you are. Remember that the over-arching dynamic is always contrived status masked as ‘an Idea.’ Conference papers often seek status by participating in someone else’s Idea, and so not infrequently, they consist principally in citing literature that the author thinks is fancy and fashionable, and therefore of high value (in promoting their own worth). It may be a good idea to read through abstracts and titles prior to the conference and take notes on frequently-used terms. These could indicate centers of attention at the moment and may provide raw material for processing into the status-generating product your paper represents. However, if one has successfully mastered guidelines 1 & 2, guideline 3 is rendered moot because:

4 . Your paper is unimportant.

No one is listening to it. Rather, they are watching you. Act accordingly. Above all, be seen engaged in activities that promote your ‘brand,’ such as talking to those of equivalent or higher status. Always try to ignore people who are below you; they are status pollution. In conversation, use as many fashionable and high-status names and titles as you can to show that you know what people are or should be reading. This is especially effective when you can cite something that another has never read and will feel inadequate for not knowing about. At an anthropology meeting, carry a Duke University Press shopping bag if possible, unless Duke runs out; then you’ll have to settle for Princeton (a good second choice right now) or California (likewise). Be seen engaged in conversation with an editor at a big press. Again, given your limited time, it is vital that you be seen in the right places. These could include, immediately following your panel, the hotel bar – but only insofar as the bar is where people of appropriate worth are also gathering. Remember that every adjancency pair constituting a conversation replays the whole status ritual of the conference in miniature. Accordingly, your first response to questions about your work (in the undesirable instance where someone would actually need to ask you about its content) should always be: “My first book was about….” Also, you should show disinterest in students and teaching, because they very rarely (if ever) contribute to your status. However, an exception to this is if you teach at a prestigious liberal arts college, where emphasizing the rigorousness of instruction builds on the branding strategies (and therefore the status) of your institution. In the event that you find yourself stuck in conversation with someone you would rather not be talking to, complain about your flight, especially if it was through Heathrow.

Your hours are up. These strategies can be duplicated over days or extended temporally within a single day. There may be others. Granted, managing all of this in about an hour is quite difficult, but not impossible. I am simply recommending efficient measures for maximizing return on money in the context of the conference. The key, always and ever, is not to mistake the visible content of a conference (the Idea) for its actual mode of reproduction (status).

13 thoughts on “How to attend a conference in a couple hours

  1. with two hours like this, who needs a whole weekend 🙂

    what you haven’t addressed is how to accomplish the same when you have children. Rule #1: be seen with your child at the bar, or have your child watch Dora on a laptop while you give the paper (cf. “your paper is unimportant”) thus intimidating peers into believing that not only are you incredibly hip (your duke press bag proves it), but you manage to do so while being a mom. or a dad. Rule #2, however, is never to be seen with your partner (who is not giving a paper) taking care of your child while you schmooze because this is an instant indication that You Are Not Enlightened.

  2. You know the “Polyglot Conspiracy” blog has linked back to this post and framed it as if Strong was “calling bullshit” on conferences. But the wonderful thing about this entry is that this is exactly what it DOESN’T do. What about this post makes people think Strong thinks the fashion-conscious world of conferences is a BAD thing? 🙂

  3. Strong, I repeatedly guffawed while reading this, but when I came to that image of Zizek I almost fell out of my chair. Brilliant, mate, brilliant. Towards an anthropology of anthropology!

    PS when I was on the job market and shortlisted at one state institution in the northeast U.S. which shall remain Unnamed (unless anybody asks me to name it), the chair of the search committee, who seemed to have decided that I was her pet favorite, informed me in a long telephone conversation prior to my visiting campus (the sole purpose of which seemed to be to prep me to perform well and thus confirm her decision that I was the best candidate) that I should be sure to wear a tweed skirt and a cashmere sweater for my job talk. She then proceeded to complain at length about how when she and her husband were hanging out with Clifford Geertz, she just couldn’t *believe* how scruffy he looked and how disheveled his dress. She was simultaneously displaying her canny eptitude (there’s an eggcorn for you) for name-dropping and at the same time showing an astonishingly un-anthropological appreciation for sartorial statements in academe. I didn’t wear tweed. I didn’t get the job.

  4. Oh, “bullshit” just means that he’s calling out the fact that what conferences claim to be about (Ideas) is not in fact what they’re about. Not necessarily a value judgment on their *actual* function. (But this is getting so meta I am not sure I know what I’m talking about anymore…)

  5. CKelty. Good question. Listen, I love children and especially babies (someone brought her 3-month-old son into the office yesterday and I was completely smitten). However: I am inclined to say that being seen with your small children at a conference would be status-diminishing because it would expose holes in your social network, viz., your lack of good domestic help. Moreover, having your children with you only magnifies and intensifies the problematics of guideline 1, because now you not only have to dress yourself, but you have to dress your kids too! AND, bringing older children along raises the question as to whether they should also be registered for the conference. Many associations actually offer special family rates for registration and provide special badges to children and spouses, which, again, only underscores the crucial significance of the name tag in the conference game.

    However, and again contrastively along lines indicated in the post, bringing along the children and then _critiquing_ the politics of childcare may in fact augment your worth, especially if you are principally using ‘politics’ as your marker of distinction and authenticity. Regarding children as ornaments in this fashion is no doubt an ethically and emotionally troubling proposition. Nonetheless, conference-goers must beware the status consequences of refusing to take into account these dynamics. Brutal – but true. 🙂

    LL & Rex: I’m glad the spirit in which this was written is coming through.

  6. excuse me, but this and ckelty’s offerings seem a little too neoliberal for my tastes.

    how: the “best practices” and “lifehacker” approaches to concepts of productivity, efficiency and measuring your time in terms of cost-benefit participates utterly and breathtakingly in the neoliberal regime. building productivity scaffolds and fractilizing your indices may seem like timesavers on one level, but at the other they produce a deliciously ineffective and untextured subjectivity where more time is spent rethinking about the presentation of things instead of their “social life” (to paraphrase the latest brands). imho, and stuff.

  7. I think there is a tendency to turn conferences into a fetish. Personally, I don’t like them and I think as far as status is concerned – well all I can say, is some people are more prone to conferencing and others not. A bit like smoking in the seventies. Perhaps more time should be spent in the field rather than in offices, corridors and conferences. There is the performative aspect of conferencing for sure, but perhaps that is only in the ascendancy when good ideas are lacking – which in social and cultural anthropology right now – they are. Actually as far as developing ideas goes nothing really beats sitting for a few hours with someone, reading a book and thniking. Also as regards the comment regarding an anthropology of anthropology – well I thought that was what theory was all about. If theory demolishes the practice of anthropology then we can take a La “tour” escape as to its demise. Also, regarding children in the context of holes in social networks, well, either the author has not or is not bringing up children or his/her notion of social network is a little awry. In the field the peope I worked with welcomed my children but my children were a little more selective with who they would go to or with.

  8. Chilled:
    I think when Strong wrote “I am inclined to say that being seen with your small children at a conference would be status-diminishing because it would expose holes in your social network, viz., your lack of good domestic help.“ He means that bringing your children to the conference might lower your status since it would show that you don’t have a complete social network, NAMELY it would show that you don’t have a good maid or child-care person or fancy pre-preschool to look after the children elsewhere.
    “viz.” means “namely.”
    Or, did you evaluate this comment using ckelty’s reading methods and simply respond to the (indexed) presence of the words “children,“ “holes in your social network,“ and the oh-so-classically-not-to-say-sterotypically-male-homosexualness indexed by this devastatingly funny and absolutely satirical post’s sassiness ?

    1) I don’t think “neoliberal” means what you think it means.
    2) I think Strong’s tongue might be lodged somewhere in his cheek, maybe. See above.
    3) Why are you using the name “yoni?” It’s a little 1980s Northern California vegetarian Caucasian-Hindu midwifery retreat or 1970s Vagino-feminist for my taste. But maybe I’ve over-fractalized my indieces a little too much?
    One way or another, as linguistic anthropologists and other fans of bakhtinian ‘genre’ like to point out, thinking about the “presentation” of texts (and things!), their voicings and what they index, is often all about thinking about their “social lives.”

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