Why I Attend Small Conferences

For meaningful interaction with colleagues, avoid the national mega-meetings, writes Kevin Brown.


March 19, 2010

In my nearly decade’s worth of experience in higher education, I’ve been to a handful of national conferences, both to present a paper and to attend the meat market that is attached. I’ve seen the benefits of those conferences: hearing scholars who have spent lifetimes in a sub-field present new research; listening to keynote addresses from national leaders; interviewing for positions at schools where I had dreamed of working.

Of course, I’ve also seen or heard of the negatives of such events: people in awe of the names or schools on others’ conference tags; graduate students embarrassed by insecure scholars who seize the floor during question and answer periods; and the feeling that one’s research simply does not matter, just one more presentation among the 3,500, lost in a sea of scholarship.

Granted, not every large conference has all of these downsides, but many of us have felt this way, especially early in our careers. Now that I’ve been in the profession much longer, I’m sure I would benefit more from such conferences. I would know how to mingle, for one thing, and I would understand that such connections are often the point of a conference; the papers are often second (or third or fourth or further down, if one is honest). I would be able to hold my own during the question and answer period, and I would understand the dynamics of it, as well.

However, the small conference has benefits of its own to those of us not at top-tier research institutions (or those people trying to get to one), which is why I still favor local events.

First, I actually get to interact with peers from colleges and universities that are more like mine. When I look at the list of presenters from national conferences, I recognize the names of almost every institution. This recognition would not surprise those presenters, but it would surprise people who look at the conference program for ones I attend.

If I handed one of them to a colleague from a school outside of a 100- to 200-mile radius, they would be hard-pressed to tell where most of our schools are located, and they certainly would not know anything about them.

At a recent state conference, though, almost every person I met was from a school that was either similar to mine or I had some connection with. At the banquet, I sat with professors from schools that were similar both in size and mission, so we could discuss our struggles and our successes in ways that we all could understand. I had lunch with the chair of the hosting committee, who works at an institution very unlike mine, so I was still able to broaden my horizons and hear about a world that is so different from mine that I wonder if we are employed in the same profession. Thus, I am able to enjoy both levels of discussion, which I have not found at other national conferences I have attended.

This year, I had the same types of interactions, as we discussed assessment methods that actually work. We talked about the benefit of a senior thesis as opposed to the portfolio method of assessing a writing program, then moved into a conversation about the Major Field Test and how we use such information. Because we share similar types of students, faculty, size and mission, we implicitly realized that we were all aiming for the same outcomes for our students, which we did not then need to elaborate on. We have since shared materials with one another in the hopes of strengthening our own programs and each other's.

Along the same lines, I am able to receive encouragement, support, and constructive criticism on the papers I present. There are too many horror stories of young professors and even graduate students who have been flayed by the questioning at national conferences.

Of course, one could simply argue that they should not be presenting at such an event if they are unable to stand up to withering questions and comments afterward. However, the people who ask such questions are not concerned with improving the presenter’s argument; instead, they are simply trying to prove them wrong, to show who really is the smartest in the room. They are defending their territory, not trying to help a colleague formulate a stronger argument.

At a state conference last year, another faculty member, one who had come to the conference only for that day, spoke to me briefly about my paper after my presentation, but I and a co-worker had to leave immediately to drive home before bad weather hit. Thus, I was unable to have a lengthy conversation. However, by the time I had gotten home (a six-hour drive), I had an e-mail from that professor following up on our conversation. He had taken the time to look up a quotation in a book he owned, type it out, and email it to me, as he thought it would make my paper stronger, should I hope to continue working on it.

A similar event happened the year before at the same conference when a retired professor, a longtime member of our organization, sent me a letter nearly a month after my presentation to give me more information he thought I would find valuable. In both cases, my fellow members were encouraging and supporting, acknowledging that I had good ideas, but that they could be strengthened. They then provided a way that I could do so.

What I find especially heartening is that both of them did so after the presentation, not during the question and answer period. They were clearly not trying to impress anyone else there or show how little I knew about the subject; they simply wanted my paper to be as strong as it could be, and they had an idea of how that could happen.

Last, smaller conferences offer opportunities for leadership that national conferences often do not. Most people in my discipline will never hold any sort of leadership role in the Modern Language Association or the Conference on College Composition and Communication, but we do have opportunities at the state level. I and three of my colleagues served as the host committee for a state conference this year, giving us the chance to bring in scholars from across the state, showing off a campus that has experienced a great deal of growth. Our students were able to attend the sessions for free, as well as work the registration desk, meeting people who were only names in books they had seen in our library.

Also, after we hosted the conference, the nominations committee (consisting of two people) asked me to become a member of the executive committee, which leads to the presidency of the organization in three years. The meeting will more than likely take place at my alma mater, a connection that would never occur in a larger conference. This role will not earn me any prestige in the field or allow me the opportunity to reshape the discipline in some grand fashion, but it will give me the chance to give back to a field of study that has given to me, and, more importantly, it allows me a chance to grow as a leader, a chance that I would almost never have had in a national organization.

Large, national conferences are important for a number of reasons, especially to younger faculty who are just beginning in the profession and who are looking to make a name for themselves, earn tenure at universities that emphasize research, or make contacts with some of the most well-known people in a discipline.

However, for the rest of us, smaller local conferences make more sense and are much more enjoyable. They help us to build smaller communities within the discipline with peers who hold similar values and who want to see everyone involved improve. In a sense, we approach these conferences as we do our teaching, another opportunity to help someone improve his or her ideas within a community of learners. I don’t know why anyone would go anywhere else.


Kevin Brown is an associate professor of English at Lee University.


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