Academic Research and the Social Hierarchy of Conferences: or, How to become a Player by allying yourself with the hot topics and getting a big audience to follow you enviously in atriums of big ugly conference hotels.   

Scott Campbell
© April 1994

How unfortunate to work earnestly for months on a paper, practice five times in front of the Hyatt hotel room mirror the night before (having turned down a night on the town with your old buddies), only to have seven earnest people in your session!  To boot, the anemic audience doesn't even fit into one of several Desirable Audience Categories (DAC):  (1)  an influential faculty member at a university where you want to move;  (2)  the faculty at your old graduate school you want to still impress (and prove that you are not still rehashing your dissertation results years later);  (3) potential publishers or funders;  (4)  recognized intellectual players (RIPs) that assure other audience members that they have correctly chosen the "cutting edge" panel from the conference program; (5) faculty from preferred university towns who might invite you to a conference or even a semester (Paris, London, Milan, Berkeley, or Berlin will do nicely) or (6) at least old friends who nod and laugh at the right moments. 

Don't let this happen to you again!  The trick is to realize that it is not  hard work, a good data set, or even original conclusions that will make you a hit on the conference circuit.  Here are the steps:

1.         Pick a trendy topic.  Choosing a topic simply based on academic merit will not help you gain DACs. 

2.         Topics involving a pressing social need have potential.  Avoid topics, however, that are too concrete and depressing (e.g., economic revitalization in Detroit, AIDS in Africa, chromium in ground water).  These only make the audience feel helpless (big loss of DACs).  Instead, pick topics that give the audience a warm fuzzy feeling of being socially critical and a member of an enlightened elite.

3.         Avoid topics involving excessive data.  We may desperately need more empirical support for our shaky theories, but it will make you look too nerdy.  Besides, it involves too much pre-conference work.  Save this work for the earnest foot soldiers of academia;  graciously (with a hint of colonial paternalism) refer to their necessary work while you blithely synthesize their results.  Make the audience unconsciously sense a hierarchical division of academic labor, with the data grunts at the bottom and the pithy, conceptualizing, hiply dressed (i.e., you) at the enviable top. 

4.         Borrow theories and terminology from other disciplines.  Someone else's tired, refuted paradigm can seem new and cutting edge to your own field.  Later on, when the mainstream of your discipline begins to grasp the paradigm, refute it at the next conference.  This way, you benefit both coming and going.  Timing is crucial. 

5.         Do a strategic analysis of conference sessions over several years.  Highlight panel topics that have overflow audiences with a high DAC count.   Do a content analysis of these topics.    Using trend analysis to forecast the rising and falling topics.  Project yourself one to two years into the future (but you don't want to be too far ahead of the curve!) and get to work.  (Here is where borrowing shamelessly from other disciplines can be very helpful.)

6.         Hang around with a clique of young, trendy players.  Be seen with them and have them make you either the panel organizer or discussant.  Have the panelists make reference to your important (unpublished) works.  Say little during the session, but say it elliptically, mysteriously.  This will make the audience believe that you are one of the elusive but desirable "behind-the-scenes" players, and they will invite you to be the discussant for their session next year.  Play hard to get, but accept most invitations.  The whole process will snowball nicely. 

7.         Like a trendy Manhattan or Hollywood party, don't arrive at the conference on time or stay until the last session on Sunday.  (Nothing looks worse than to be the last one on Sunday waiting for the airport shuttle!)  You want to maximize your exposure over the shortest period of time (an overnight stay is optional for those at the top).   Rush in late, hurriedly but confidently, muttering something like "... terrible connection at Heathrow..."  or "... I don't know why they built Narita where it is ....".   While in the conference hotel lobby, never be seen alone looking lonely.  If caught in this position, dash off to make a phone call.  If you can't escape this naked exposure, sit down in a comfortable hotel chair, put on a supremely confident and otherworldly face (don't look up to much), and pull out your novel or newspaper (no best sellers or self-help books;  David Lodge is passé,  Malcolm Bradbury is better). 

Post Session Indicators that you have become a player:

1. Audience members hover around you after the session like birds around the pigeon lady.

2. Others come in later and apologize for not coming to your session (and they mean it).

3. People hold your business card like a communion wafer from the pope. 

4. Other Recognized intellectual players (RIPs), gather around you to form a collective, wall of players that protect you from the eager unknowns seeking your paper, wisdom or prized business card.  The ideal choreography should be an inner circle of players and an outer circle of the rest (who feel slightly out of place and over their heads but still brave enough). 

5. Other Recognized intellectual players (RIPs), as they are walking out of the room, hold you on the shoulder (showing an informal intimacy that could only be gained at you both having been at numerous elite, invite-only summer conferences held in Northern Italian villas) and say:  "I'll speak with with you later, Bob."  (This gesture will benefit both parties.) 

6. You don't go home still with 20 copies of your paper weighing down your airline luggage.

7. You no longer stand around aimlessly in the hotel lobby hoping for lunch or dinner companions, pretending to look busy to cover up your desperate scanning of the crowd for a friendly face.  Instead, you can selectively turn down offers knowing that a better one will always come.  As at the end of sessions, a protective circle of other players is useful.