How to Have Your Best Academic Conference

Every year, the week before Thanksgiving week sees several major conferences for biblical studies and related disciplines.1 Not the least of these is the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.

Especially given the scale of SBL, it can be a challenging meeting to navigate well. And continuing atop that usual challenge are all the additional factors that go along with the COVID-19 pandemic.

For 2021, SBL is happening in person. But for now a second year running, the pandemic is requiring required some adaptations to long-standing patterns surrounding the conference. And among those adaptations are the inclusion of some online sessions alongside the in-person sessions.

All of this means that we’re very much still all re-learning as we go to varying degrees.

Some of what it means to do the conference well will be the same whether you’re attending in person or online or some of both. Other practices will depend on that mode or mixture in which you’re attending. But however that is, the following steps can help make your conference the best it can be.

Whether You’re Attending Online or in Person

Some practices will dramatically improve your conference experience, whether you’re attending online or in person.

1. Plan in advance what sessions you will attend and when you’ll have other meetings.

At just about any conference—and especially at the larger ones—there’s always too much to take it all in. And just because you can fit a session into your schedule doesn’t mean you should.

Instead, be choosey. Use the conference program or planner to find the sessions most pertinent for you. Don’t worry, you’ll still have plenty to do.

But by being choosey about the sessions you attend, you’ll be able to go all in on the few that most align with your interests.

In addition, an academic conference offers a great opportunity to connect or reconnect with others. Simply by virtue of attending, everyone who is attending is somewhat out of their usual day-to-day routines.

So, during the general time frame of the conference can be a great time to catch up, collaborate on current projects, or pitch new ideas.

2. Come to learn, and come to contribute.

Whether you’re giving a paper or listening to one, come to learn and contribute.

Come to learn from the presenters about their work and contribute to the discussion of it. Or come to contribute to and learn from the audience about yours.

In addition, if you come to learn and contribute rather than to impress, you’re likely to do more of both while also lessening the time you’ll spend faced with imposter syndrome.

Particularly if you’re attending a session, recognize that “contributing” doesn’t mean being the know-it-all who “asks a question” that turns into a monologue that scarcely leaves the presenter time to respond or others in the audience time to ask their questions. It means asking a question or making a comment that

  • might help the presenter refine his or her argument or
  • highlights a topic you’d genuinely like to hear more about.

And “hearing more about” it means that you’re hearing while the presenter is talking. If you want to have a fuller conversation, ask or try to catch the presenter after the session.

But even there, recognize that good academic interchange isn’t about strutting or “winning” while someone else “loses.” It’s about cooperative creativity where, even if differences remain (as they likely will), both sides walk away with something gained.2

3. Focus on the sessions you attend.

Nowadays, it doesn’t take attending many academic conference sessions in person before you notice something. During the session, some portion of the audience will be focused on … their email, Facebook, Twitter, the program book, or really anything besides the session they’re physically attending.

Maybe, they’re “multitasking.” But even if they are, studies show they’re not really paying attention.

I’ve been guilty of this practice in the past too, particularly later in a conference when sleep deprivation has tended to set in. But while this kind of distraction help with staying awake, getting adequate sleep is a much better approach that will also help you pay closer attention to the sessions you choose to attend.

What Multitasking Means

As you “multitask” between two or more increasingly complex tasks, your ability to track with either at the same pace drops precipitously. You’ll typically need to elongate the time you spend on the multiple tasks you tried to bundle.3

By contrast, habitual tasks that require very little attention can be more successfully combined with other tasks that require more attention (e.g., folding laundry while listening to a podcast). For this reason, Greg McKeown suggests a helpful distinction between multitasking and multifocusing.4

Why You Shouldn’t Try to Multitask in a Conference Session

But problems naturally arise when you try to combine two incredibly complex and language-intensive tasks like listening to an academic paper and checking your email or social media.

In addition, the easier you make it for your brain to “escape” an academic paper into the world of your email or social media, the more difficult you make it to maintain focus the next time around on a different paper or cognitively demanding activity.5

Plus, if you craft for yourself a very selective conference schedule to start with, you’ll already have biased your schedule toward the sessions that you find more worth attending. And if they’re more worth attending, they’re more worth attending to while you’re in them.

4. Take notes.

Taking notes in a session is a great way to help keep your mind from wandering off—let alone wanting to seek out distracting stimuli like email or social media.

It’s also a good way of helping you retain the content of the papers you attend, whether or not you look at your notes again afterward.

You may have some electronic device with you during a session. (If you’re attending virtually, you certainly will.) So, you may be inclined to take your notes digitally on that same device.

If that works for you, that’s great. But handwriting notes can provide benefits you don’t get if you’re taking notes by typing.6

And if you want to store notes digitally after your conference, Rocketbook has a great notebook-scanner app pairing that makes digitizing handwritten pages very easy.

If You’re Attending in Person

If you’re attending a conference in person, you can substantially upgrade your conference experience in several ways.

5. Budget adequate time to get from place to place.

Especially at a bigger conference venue, it can take a long time to get from place to place. Even if both places are technically in the same building, it wouldn’t be unusual for it to take 15–30 minutes to get between the two.

So, be sure you plan this transit time into your schedule. For instance, I’ll often try to leave 30–45 minutes ahead of time.

And as a bonus tip, if at all possible, wear comfortable walking shoes. You’ll thank yourself after several days of getting in more than your usual step count.

6. Enjoy the book exhibit and the serendipity of spontaneous meetings.

Two things that an in-person conference facilitates really well are book exhibits and spontaneous meetings—often in the same space.

These features are another reason that, if you’re attending in person, you want to be choosey about which sessions you attend. The program doesn’t have a slot for “go through the book exhibit, find what’s been published that you hadn’t seen yet, meet new people, and bump into old acquaintances you’ve lost touch with.”

But both of all of those activities are part of what makes an in-person conference something you can leave feeling satisfied about when it’s done. So, make the most of these kinds of opportunities during the conference.

7. Observe the appropriate public health protocols.

The whole guild of biblical studies will breathe a collective sigh of great relief when COVID-19 is behind us and the “public health” measures necessary on a regular basis go back to things that go without saying.

But for the time being, it will improve your in-person attendance if you follow the pertinent guidance about masking, distancing, and the like.

It will help keep you healthy. And even if that’s not particularly a concern for you, it will help keep you from picking something up that you then unknowingly spread to other attendees. And those other attendees not falling ill will definitely help optimize your own conference experience too.

Of course, masking and distancing make in-person meetings rather more awkward. But the burden of asking for those measures shouldn’t have to fall on other attendees.

Instead, take the responsibility on yourself to do what you can to ensure a safe and healthy meeting for everyone. And take that responsibility not grudgingly but charitably and as a way of exercising good, polite neighborliness to the others who are attending in person with you.7

If You’re Attending Online

If you’re attending a conference online, there are also some specific steps you can take to enhance that experience.

8. Have your software and hardware ready.

Well before your first session, be sure to install (or update) and test any software as needed, like Zoom. Also, test your speakers and your microphone.

By getting all of your technology set up early, you’ll avoid last-minute troubleshooting frustrations or delays immediately before a session.

Also, if you’re presenting or otherwise likely to speak during the session, try to use a headset or dedicated microphone.

The microphone built into your webcam, laptop, or mobile device can do in a pinch. But the audio will be much better for the rest of the attendees if you use a dedicated microphone.

If you’re moderating an online session, you might also want to take a few minutes to put together a simple timer background for your webcam.

9. Connect early.

In my first fully online conference, I was scheduled to presented a paper. The morning of my paper, I got on to connect to my session in what I thought was enough time.

It just so happened, however, that my computer also decided that it needed to reboot to install an update that had just come in that morning too. 😐

I ended up still connecting to the session on time even after rebooting and even though I was a bit tighter on the time than I would have liked. But if I hadn’t had the buffer provided by trying to connect to the session early, I could easily have been late for my own paper.

Don’t let that happen to you. Instead, connect ahead of a given session with enough buffer to handle any last-minute issues that arise.

10. Don’t be afraid to break the ice.

“Zoom rooms” and the like do a great job facilitating the structured interaction that occurs in person during paper presentations and discussion times. For the unstructured times before and after a conference session convenes, virtual rooms introduce some special awkwardness.

When you attend a conference in-person, the room allows any number of things to happen before and after the session.

You can sit quietly by yourself. Or you can converse with one or a few other attendees in that session. There might be still more people in the room sitting by themselves or talking in their own groups.

But in a virtual room, everyone attending the session is all in the same group. That can make interaction before and after the session pretty awkward.

If you’re talking to one other person, all the rest of the attendees are listening to your conversation. But the alternative is for you all to sit around staring at each other while you stare into your webcams.

Any way you slice it, the unstructured time before or after a session is going to be awkward. So, try your best not to worry about it.

If everyone’s having a staring contest, feel free to do the same. But also don’t be afraid to break the ice by making some light small talk, especially if you know someone else in the session.

You’ll get to catch up with a colleague. And if anyone else jumps into the conversation, you might meet someone new too.

11. Don’t hog the line.

At the same time, there’s another principle that goes closely along with the fact that you can break the ice. And that is that you shouldn’t hog the line.

A virtual meeting room is a shared communication space. So, in one way, that room is simply another iteration of the concept of “party line” telephone service.

Given that similarity, similar etiquette applies. If you break the ice, be sure also to leave enough space between or after you do so so that others can chime in if they want to as well.

And particularly before the session, it should go without saying that the small talk needs to give way immediately and easily to the moderator when it’s time to bring the session to order.

Conclusion

It can take some work to get the most from an academic conference. That’s true whether you’re attending in-person, online, or some mixture of the two.

But with some forethought and preparation, conferences can provide great opportunities for you to hone your craft as a biblical scholar.


  1. Header image provided by Compare Fibre and Product School

  2. For further discussion of this kind of dynamic see, Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 193–296. 

  3. Multitasking: Switching Costs,” American Psychological Association, 20 March 2006. 

  4. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 219–20; cf. C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212–15. 

  5. Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (New York: Grand Central, 2016), 157–59. 

  6. Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” Psychological Science 25.6 (2014): 1159–68. 

  7. Similarly, see also Martin Luther’s Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague, reproduced with permission in 2020 by Christianity Today

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