In just a few hours, the moment our conference committee has been working toward for over two years will be upon us: the registration desk will be staffed and ready, the hors d’oeuvres will be laid out before us, the wine will be flowing, and soon – blessedly soon! – our opening plenary session will begin.
This is all very exciting, and we can’t wait to see everybody deep in the heart of Texas.
As the conference chair, and as someone who once upon a time (2013) attended my first-ever USIH conference, I want to say a few words of encouragement and reassurance to our first-time attendees this year.
First, I’ll repeat what so many have observed: this is a very friendly group. Many of us have attended this conference every year since our first visit, and many of us know each other by sight and on a first-name basis. But this is not a closed group. This is not an insider’s club. This is a welcoming and inclusive intellectual community. If they’ll take me, they’ll take you. I promise.
That said, I know from experience that it can be very intimidating to feel like you are the one person who doesn’t know anybody, or to feel like you don’t belong in a conversation among some circle of friends. Even with my blog handle on my nametag, even as a returning attendee, I have sometimes stood on the sidelines and watched other people chatting happily, and have been shy about just breaking into the conversation. So I empathize with others’ hesitancy to step forward, to step in.
I encourage you to do that, and I assure you that when you do, you will be welcomed.
And I encourage all of our “regulars” to be on the lookout for the faces we don’t recognize, or the folks we only know through social media, so that we can bring those folks into our conversations and our community with all the warmth and kindness we can muster.
Second, I want to acknowledge and encourage those folks for whom attending conferences and making small talk takes an extraordinary effort to overcome shyness or natural reserve. Some of us (including myself, to be honest) are introverted. We’re not energized by the social whirl of a busy conference, but rather drained by it. It’s not a character flaw; it’s just a different kind of experience. We run out of extrovert minutes quickly, and we need to step back and recharge. I have found a strategy for dealing with this challenge: I bring a wingman with me to the conference every year, somebody who knows me and knows how I am and will keep me company when I just want to get away somewhere quiet and not be part of a larger group.
So to those of you first-timers who are running low on extrovert minutes, please don’t feel like you have to be present for every scheduled event, or attend a panel in every time slot, or always be chatting with someone. You don’t need anybody’s permission to step back and take a few hours for yourself, but if you feel like you need it, you have it. You have my blessing, for what that’s worth, to just find a quiet place or go back to your hotel room or head down the sidewalk to a café and take time for yourself. If you need to, find a wingman, or ask me and I’ll help you find one. But do what you must. Recharge. Re-center. Reserve what you need to of your emotional energy so that you can have the best possible experience.
Whether or not you are shy, you might be a very private person (they’re not the same thing). You may not wish people to post your photo to Facebook. You may not wish to have your paper or presentation live-tweeted. That’s okay. I don’t put my photo online, I never put anyone else’s photo online without getting their permission, and I don’t live-tweet papers unless there’s explicit permission to do so. This isn’t a matter of my “rights”; it’s a matter of my sense of courtesy and respect for other people’s boundaries. We academics live in a fraught time when words and images taken out of context are leveraged against us.
So, to our newcomers and our regulars: please be thoughtful, as you always are, about the boundaries other people have set for sharing their work with an audience beyond the group to whom they are speaking. I hope we can preserve some “rehearsal space” at our conference where our colleagues can try out ideas without having them put on blast in real-time to the whole world. That’s my preference, not an official conference policy. But we should all be acutely aware of how fraught these times are, and tweet (or not) accordingly.
Now, a final practical matter, since we are all embodied knowers: our committee made sure that on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, we would be able to offer substantial appetizers or a sustaining meal to our attendees. Travel budgets are tight, and for grad students especially, figuring out what to eat, or if you can afford to eat, can be a challenge. So we made sure that you could have something to eat, even if it’s not quite enough for a full meal, during the first three days of the conference. There will be appetizers before the plenary on Thursday, a luncheon during the noon plenary on Friday, and an appetizer reception before the keynote on Saturday. Beyond that, I have found that the senior scholars attending our conference are generous and gracious, happy to pick up the lunch tab for a grad student, as someone no doubt once did for them.
We are excited to meet you. We welcome you. We want you to have a wonderful experience this weekend, meet the folks you want to meet, make new friends, and find new collaborators for future conferences and writing projects.
And we want to come back to the conference next year in Chicago.