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Making the Most Out of Conferences by Erin Wais-Hennen

Lots of graduate students think of conferences as extended vacations away from their office, cohorts, and possibly below freezing temperatures. In reality, every conference should be a chance to
network with others in your field, interest group, and even possible employers.

First things first--apply to present a paper at a conference and get your paper accepted. You can find out more about the deadlines and dates of thelarger annual or biannual conferences at:
Writing Studies Resources

Second, you want to get a hold of an online or paper copy of the schedule of the conference--this should have in it a list of all panels and presentations.This is your conference "golden ticket." You should take this valuable list, read through it and mark down what panels you want to see. This should help you keep a schedule of where you want to be when.

So third, here you are--going and listening to panels instead of laying out on some beach or partying it up with friends--this is good, it may be painful now, but it is time well spent. Now that you are at these panels you need to make the best of your time. Don't just sit at the panel, listen and walk away. If one of the presenters is doing work that you are interested in or says something particularly meaningful to you go up and meet them after the presentation. Say something smart to this person, ask them a question you have or make an appropriate comment on their presentation. Before or after you comment to this person introduce yourself to this person, for example "I am Erin Wais-Hennen, Dr. Berkenkotter's student at the University of Minnesota and I am also working on medical rhetoric." Now this person knows who you are, where to find you, and that you are an intelligent human being--these are all great accomplishments.

As you go through this process (over-and-over again) you begin to know people and they begin to know you. The more people who know your a smart and interesting person, the more people can ask you to be on their panels at future conferences or know you before you see them at an interview.

The fourth step is remembering the people you meet and connect with, before the next conference and contact them--set up a time to chat or talk about specific parts of their research during the coming conference.

Finally, always say thank you! Drop the people you feel you really connected with an email thanking them for their time, insight, and/or interest.

As well as there being things to do at a conference--there are also things NOT to do:

  • Gossip about your adviser, department, or graduate student colleagues
  • Talk negatively about someone else's presentation or panel
  • Stalk people
  • Wear clothes that are inappropriate
  • "hook-up" with someone also at the conference


As usual, Erin has hit all the nails on the head in terms of conference participation.

I'd add three bits.

1. Join MLA early if you think you'd like to interview at MLA. Students who join MLA in 2008 will be eligible for a subsidy or cheaper rate to register for 2009 -- but students who join in 2009 can't apply for such benefits in 2009. It's their way to encourage you to think of MLA as a part of who you are, not just a site for interviews.

2. Investigate smaller conferences and
3. Investigate whether a publication might come of participation in a conference.

I yoke these together because smaller conferences or sub-conferences are more likely to yield meaningful publication opportunities -- both because the focus is tighter, and because networking is more meaningful.

There are four ways that participation in a conference can turn into a publication:

1. Someone gets some energy together and starts the ball rolling. That's how Art Walzer's ASHR preconference at NCA turned into the book he co-edited with Richard Graff, "Viability of the Rhetorical Tradition." Look for those go-getters. Sometimes, you can see them coming. Marguerite Helmers has turned several conference panels into books or special issues of journals (see her website at UW-Oshkosh) -- if I saw her on a panel I was on, I'd introduce myself doubly.

2. The conference has a Proceedings volume. This is true of the Alta conference on argumentation and RSA, for example -- though RSA is careful not to call it a Proceedings because those "count" less in tenure cases. A few conferences I have seen but not attended have tried "Preceedings," in which papers are submitted early and printed before people get there.

3. Papers are submitted to a journal. In a month, I will be talking about "From Work to Text to Document in the History of Rhetoric" at the Document Academy conference in Madison. The editors of _Archival Sciences_ will review the papers for possible revision for publication in their journal.

4. Of course, there is the old fashioned way: turn the paper into a submission on your own. That's the traditional model, and it still works, but these new models are growing more widespread.

This rarely happens at the big conventions (NCA, MLA, CCCC), so keep your eyes out for the smaller ones or the preconferences at the larger ones.

Good luck!