This winter, for the first time since I joined the Chronicle in 2005, I won’t be at the Modern Language Association’s annual conference. I’ll be at the American Historical Association’s confab instead. (Hello, Chicago in January!)
Every conference has its own style. The MLA is not the AHA is not the APA is not the [insert association acronym here]. No matter whose meeting it is, though, conference-going is a grueling experience. Germs are abundant; sleep, good food, and power outlets are not. Sessions start too early and go too late. Here, learned the hard way, are my survival tips for conference-goers. Add yours in the comments.
1. Stay hydrated. You’ll stay healthier and feel more energetic if you’re not parched. Easy to forget, and you’ll regret it if you do.
2. Go easy on the caffeine. You’ll be tempted to keep the coffee train rolling from dawn til dusk. Refrain. You’ll sleep better, and the caffeine you do consume will be more effective. Go easy on the alcohol, too, and save yourself an embarrassing scene at the cash bar.
3. Wash your hands. A lot. Nobody wants to come home with (or transmit) a case of conference crud. Hand sanitizer’s a good idea too.
4. Always be charging (your devices, that is, not your credit card). Take advantage of power outlets when you find them, and plug in whenever you can.
5. Pace yourself. Sometimes it’s better to take a break and skip a session than to run nonstop from panel to panel from sunrise to sundown. Know your limits and respect them. You’ll get more out of the sessions you do attend.
6. Check in with the backchannel. Even if you’re not active on Twitter, figure out what the conference hashtag is–many conferences list theirs now in the program–and cast an eye on it from time to time. You may hear about a knockout panel you’d have missed otherwise, or catch the unfolding of a good conference-driven conversation. And if you are on Twitter, write your handle on your conference badge.
7. Take a sweater/jacket/thermal underwear or some other warm garment of your choice. Those conference rooms get cold–bone-chilling, blood-freezing, Peary-to-the-Pole cold. This applies to conferences held anywhere, at any time of year.
8. Do at least one thing that’s unique to the locale. Some of the soul-draining effect of conferences derives from the unpleasant sensation that you could be anywhere, or nowhere. A windowless conference room in Chicago looks a lot like one in Seattle. Take a walk through the historic district near your hotel; find a greasy spoon and order the breakfast special. My personal best: At a conference in Utah, I got there a few hours early and went caving. You don’t have to be too strenuous, though. Even reading the local paper, if you can get it–and you can sometimes if you ask the front desk–will help you get a sense of place.
9. Find your big idea, one that will change what you do and how you approach it. One good idea, one that really inspires you, can make all those sleepless nights and airless rooms worth it.