When I was in grad school and teachers talked about professional development (which was not nearly enough for my tastes), one of the things they frequently mentioned was the academic conference. Conferences were many things; they were places to share ideas, mingle, develop contacts, network, interview, gain publications. They were an opportunity to be a professional in your field amongst other professionals. They were a break from teaching and an opportunity to be, first and foremost, a scholar.
I wish those teachers would've added "your mileage may vary."
Don't get me wrong. I still love going to conferences. I still love presenting, hearing other presentations, getting the chance to be a scholar. Conferences, though, have never really been the mystery wonderland of academia others make them out to be.
The problem is, I suspect, one of marketing.
My best two conference presentations were the two that were explicitly organized around a specific theme. When I presented at the American Studies Association, I was on a panel about comics, so everyone there wanted to hear and learn about comics. It was cool, keeping in mind I see problems being marketed as a comics scholar. The second one was something about medicine and popular culture at the North East MLA. I got great feedback, but my paper was on House, M. D....and who doesn't like talking about hit television?
But the rest of the time, I end up being the "which one of these things is unlike the others?" presentation. As a result, I normally don't get many good questions. If I don't visibly fit in, if I'm the oddball, then how will any good questions come? Who will be impressed/interested/curious?
And yes, I know that being an academic oddball is ultimately down to my own choices, but every academic ultimately has to answer the question: do you want to be a small player in a big field, or do you want to be an innovator yet have no peers? This is something I've been working on since starting my Ph.D.; I initially was going to study Twain as post-traumatic stress syndrome literature (thus becoming one of a million Twain scholars) before settling on deconstructing definitions of the mainstream in 1980s popular culture (a field that has, as far as I can tell, only me). However, I'm still not 100% sure where I want to be.
So, for my New Orleans conference, I honestly tried to present with marketing in mind. I submitted what I thought was a nice topic with wide appeal, involving New Orleans, football, race, and Katrina. I applied to the television area, which I assumed would be fairly mainstream. However, I was on a panel with one presentation analyzing some HBO drama about a psychiatrist and an analysis of the nineties sitcom Wings...so right away, I didn't fit in in spite of my attempts to market my presentation. However, as there were utterly no commonalities between any of the papers, ultimately, no one fit in...so I guess that's something.
Then I had A/V difficulties. I assembled my first powerpoint for a presentation ever. I made multiple copies (on flash drive, on cd, mailed to 3 different e-mail accounts). There was no computer. Luckily, I had my dvd and knew the exact times of my clips. However, the panelist closest to the dvd player could not, for some reason, fast forward to my second clip for me; I had to bring my presentation to a screeching halt to get to it. So much for flow.
Nonetheless, I thought I did a good job on my presentation. I spoke rather than read. I had neat clips. I was on time. But then there was the Q/A session. I got one good question, but I got one person who blatantly attacked my premise on the grounds that how can sports broadcast do anything other than cover sports? He obviously didn't like or hear anything I had to say. Sigh.
So academically, it wasn't the most smashing success I've had, and ultimately, my attempts to market myself made utterly no difference whatsoever. However, how upset can you really be when you still get to hang out with long-dispersed friends in New Orleans?