How to Lose a Conference in 4 Days: why we attend the ISA to miss the ISA

5 February 2015, 1645 EST

I can still remember my first ISA conference. I was a PhD student eager to present early work at the freezing Montreal conference (not the last Montreal, the one before that). I remember being gobsmacked hearing academics talking about how they were booked up with meetings and hadn’t attended a single panel. I thought: What did that mean?; What was this ‘other’ conference or set of meetings happening and why was it happening at the same time as the ISA?; How was it possible to attend the ISA, but not attend any panels? But several years later, as I look at my ‘ISA Schedule’ I’m struggling to carve out time to attend panels that aren’t my own. Don’t get me wrong- this isn’t going to be a post about how important I am, or how busy I am: I’m not, and I’m not. And, don’t get me wrong, I love attending panels. For me, there is no greater conference satisfaction than folding over pages, highlighting panels, and placing stars beside ‘must see’ roundtables. But conference creep happens! With four days of conference, and 4 panels a day, there are exactly 16 opportunities to attend a panel…in theory. Here’s how to loose those opportunities, one at a time.

1. Your own presentations. This is a no brainer- the average ISA-er is on 2-3 panels (based on my total guestimation- note that participants are technically only supposed to be on 4, but there are a whole host of ways that gets ignored…a good topic for another post). Let’s round up to 3. That means you only have 13 possible panels to attend.

2. After-panel creep. If all goes well, your panels have attendees who ask questions and may even want to chat later. Or, you continue conversations with panelists (whom you only see each year at the ISA- there is SO much to catch up on!). Suddenly, you are far too late to bother sneaking in to another panel. This is an earnest excuse..and now you are down to 10 possible panels.

3. Pre-panel panic. I’m not sure about you, but normally I have one panel that really freaks me out. Either I forget why I agreed to participate, my paper is not fully formulated, I’m intimidated by the co-panelists, or I’m a discussant and I can’t quite figure out what two of the papers are about (hypothetically). This leads to pre-panel panic, which, for me involves pacing my hotel room, changing outfits, replenishing deodorant excessively, and listening to Beyonce. Now I’ve lost another panel and I’m down to 9 possible panels.

4. Lunch meeting. Ok, unless you pack your lunch, eat it on the hallway floors, and then don’t feel the need to brush your teeth before hitting the next panels, there is almost no way to organise a lunch meeting and get to the next panel. So trying to catch up with former colleagues, current research collaborators, publishers, editors, co-authors, or students means you lose a panels or two….and now you are down to 7 possible panels.

5. Hounding publishers. If you are pitching a book to various publishers at a conference then- forget it- you can just erase about 4 more panels from your list. The ISA is a great time to meet with publishers, but also a terrible time to meet with publishers. It is loud, busy, everyone is exhausted, you will inevitably be the 40th person the publisher has met with, and you will end up rehashing the same conversation by email the next week anyway. It is an important part of attending conferences, but imperfect and time consuming.

6. The Oops panel. Everyone has done this, right? You map out your day, highlighting a panel that you absolutely MUST attend. You find the room and sneak in a couple of minutes late, finally get settled and look up to see….the wrong panel. You wanted post-conflict reconstruction and you’ve now got an entire panel on Australian foreign policy. It might be interesting, but you secretly wish you could find a way to leave without looking like a total ass. *While we’re on the topic, why the F are so many rooms called the Colonial and why is there is Colonial A and a Colonnade A?

7. Jet lag. All of us non-US based scholars know that on exactly the second day of the conference at about 2pm a dark fog descends on the conference. One has two choices: let your head roll back and shamelessly sleep through a panel (been done), or head up to the room for a snooze and a fresh coffee.

8. Um, spa dates? Just FYI, these are legitimate business meetings that myself and another Duckie have held for about 8 years. They just happen to take place while we are getting pedicures or steaming. Don’t judge.

9. Less legit reasons. These include a whole host of difficult-to-justify but sometimes necessary conference outings, including: hangover, shopping (you forgot something, it is colder than you expected, you spilled coffee in your suitcase etc), meeting with old college/local buddies, and sight-seeing (I mean, if you are going all the way to NOLA, Hawaii, Toronto or wherever you might as well see at least one thing outside the hotel).

So there you go. The most earnest of conference attendees will struggle to get to the panels and roundtables they have earnestly taken note of (and I haven’t even mentioned business meetings, editorial meetings, workshops, or job interviews!!).  What is the solution? More time? A longer conference? Less sleep? This year I’m blocking out sections of each day as panel-only time and booking super-early morning meetings rather than lunch meetings (why?!?) in the hopes of getting in more of the conference. What’s your survival strategy?