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Discuss This

I enjoy lots of things about conferences (see this post on conference fun and another post on conference inspiration), but I actually only sometimes actually enjoy presenting. Early mornings, small audiences, and lack of engagement can lead to a major let down after time spent drafting an article and preparing for the presentation. However, I’ve realized one thing distinguishes memorable and productive(!) experiences of presenting at sociology’s major conference, ASAs, from the less positive experiences is the level of engagement of the “discussant”. 

I have had the role of discussant only three times, but find myself enjoying it more and more each time.* Yet, inevitably, each time before I find myself in a panic about what am I supposed to do. I think most academics have little training or conversation about how this role works (though, be sure to check out this fantastic write up on a (queer) discussant role and this helpful informational). Since I have spent some time agonizing about it myself, I thought I would outline different tactics that can get the job done, and some that are sure to help elevate the panel overall. 

Expired**

  • Skip reading the papers and furiously jot notes down during the presentation (while simultaneously missing new information shared) and then wing the discussion portion 
  • Ask a straight-forward question that has been addressed in the paper ( like the “how did you measure X variable” question I once received) or a question that can be answered simply (ie., yes or no questions). 

Fired

  • Read the paper and formulate a well-thought out discussion question for each panelist. 

Tired

  • Name something the author did well, give constructive feedback for something they might improve for publication, and ask a detailed, well-thought out discussion question for each panelist. 

Wired

  • Think of a thread, puzzle, or debate that ties each piece together, overview the thread/puzzle/debate, state how each paper contributes to it, and direct questions for each panelist within that conversation.
    • Doing so allows you to pose a larger question to the whole room (i.e., “let’s all think collectively about X problem”), and a contextualized question for each individual piece (i.e., “here is how you enter into debate, now, how would you address this additional question that arises?”). 

Hired

  • Think about a larger thread, puzzle, or debate, overview the thread/puzzle/debate, then state how each paper contributes to a smaller, related thread, puzzle or side of the debate.
    • This allows you to put the papers into direct conversation with each other – sharing how one author might consider another’s contribution, which jointly can offer more significant implications.
    • Doing so provides constructive and critical feedback about each paper, the larger theme pulling the session together, and encourages the audience to think about the panelists collectively, which I find ultimately shifts the levels of questions from the audience.*** 

audience-raising-hands-for-questions.jpg

A few additional considerations: 

  • Email the authors prior to the session so all can be acquainted, and let them know about the format, including your basic plan for engagement, speaking deadlines, etc. 
  • If you have written feedback, send it to authors after the session. 
  • DO NOT take up more time than the panelists. I suggest a max of 10 minutes. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
* Honestly, if you’re not presenting at all or only once, I suggest volunteering for this role. You’re name is still in the program and you get the opportunity to read only a handful of smart working papers on a related topic (as opposed to all submitted papers as the organizers do). 
** Please excuse use my corny use of this meme (or phrasal template), but I’m trying to stay young the labeling seemed fitting.  
***I’m still working on this. But I’ve witnessed my PhD Adviser, Tony Brown, do this masterfully a few times and it is such a provocative route. 

 

 

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The Childcare-Conference Conundrum

I was really looking forward to the annual meetings for the American Sociological Association (ASA) and the Association of Black Sociologists (ABS). They are taking place in a city I have never been, and the conference themes are #lit: Feeling Race and The New Black Sociologists. I am not on the job market and not attempting to sell my book idea to publishers, so I don’t have to deal with that extra anxiety. It seemed like it was going to be a fun, productive, and powerful conference season.

And then I checked the daycare and back-to-school schedule… and the frustration set in. 😩 Once again, the university daycare my youngest son, Myles, attends was closing for the same three days that I would be in Philly. The conference scheduling also coincides with the dead week in summer (a.k.a. the week before school starts so all summer camps are closed) and the start of the school year for my oldest, Jackson. My husband, an Assistant Principal at our local middle school was already scheduled to be back to work. These final days leading up to the new school are treated almost like black out days for administration, you do not miss. Extended family was also non-viable, as we live 2000+ miles away from our parents and siblings. In other words, I was stuck with no clear childcare plan for my 2 and 8 year old sons.

So here I am, once again, weighing all of the possible options on how to make this conference season work. Do I miss the conference? Do I fly the kids out with me? If so, do I find someone to fly out to watch them? If I don’t, who do I find to watch my kids?

This *Children-Conference Conundrum* is not new to me. As a mother of two, who had my first in graduate school and my second on the tenure-track, I have attempted to manage the children-conference conundrum in what feels like every different way imaginable. I know I am not only person stuck in this conundrum – this also affects most single parents, primary caregivers, and two academic households – so I decided I would write about this conundrum by outlining the benefits and drawbacks I have had to weigh when deciding how to manage a conference and childcare. I end with a short pitch for what I see as the best solution: institutional and financial support for conference attendance with dependents.

Option 1: Miss the conference.

Now, if your main goal is to attend the conference then of course this isn’t a viable option. But if this isn’t a crucial year and you don’t want to attend the conference, family commitments might be a great excuse for missing. I missed the conference cycle the year after my first was born and the year I was pregnant with my second. To make it work I declined any panels or roles requests for that year and encouraged them to reach out again in the future. Then I followed the Twitter hashtags with envy but also kicked up my feet with some adoration for a more relaxing start to the school year.

  • Pros: The obvious benefits include saving money and time.
  • Cons: The drawbacks include missing out on valuable networking, fun socializing, and opportunity for feedback on work-in-progress. This drawback is amplified, however, when you can’t attend for multiple years.
  • Tips: Enjoy the break. Think about a smaller local conference if you really need to add presentations to you CV.

Option 2: Attend the conference with kids (and arrange your own childcare)

I have only attended one conference with my child alone and when there was no on-site childcare. It was ABS in Memphis in 2016. Myles was under 2 so he could fly for free and it was on this trip I learned I had reached expert level in public nursing by feeding him squished in my middle seat on a small airplane. I was rooming with a close grad school friend, and she was (thankfully) excited to see the baby. She also had her car at the conference and offered to help provide transportation. My biggest concern was how I would present and lead the session I organized with a small baby so I decided I would try to find someone to watch Myles during this part of the day. To do so, I reached out to the local conference organizer and trusted wonder woman who I knew had small children and asked if she had any sitter recommendations. She responded by saying that my son could join hers at the home daycare she used consistently and ran by a cherished granny. The plan worked pretty great for that day. However, I didn’t have as much success when I tried to bring Myles to the sessions with me the following day. He was a little noisy and I was stressed that he was distracting presenters. So I darted in and out of sessions for a bit until I reclined to hanging out in the lobby.

  • Pros: This options allows you to attend the conference and be with children (added bonus when kids are still nursing).
  • Cons: One of the more significant drawbacks can be the added costs. We all know conferences are absurdly expensive (a recent facebook thread suggests we spend about $2k for ASAs). So, in addition to the exorbitant fees of conferences you will may have to add additional airfare fees for children over two, and then and money to feed the children. (For instance, if I took the kids with me to Philly, the flights would be an added $1100 alone). An additional important drawback is the pre-conference work to arrange the specialized childcare and stress that comes with that, having to manage presentation of self + children during conferences, and not being about to be wholly committed or present during sessions. For these reasons, this is my least favorite option.
  • Tips: Be creative and ask for help. I am super thankful to the conference organizer and my friend for helping out with rides and Myles.

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(^ me, Myles, and grad school friends at ABS)

 

Option 3: Attend the conference with kids (and use onsite childcare)

I used it once and I was sold: the onsite childcare at ASAs is great! The staff was professional and friendly and my kids enjoyed hanging out with other kids. I was still breastfeeding, so I could pop in and nurse my son without any major interruptions to either of our schedules. I did this option when I attended ASAs in 2016 in Seattle. Since Seattle is on the West Coast, the flights were reasonable and my whole family attended, however my oldest and husband had to leave a day earlier to make it to the first day of school and the youngest stayed with me for an extra day.

  • Pros: Can attend conference and be with children in the evenings. Having an excuse to travel and expose your children to different places can be an added bonus in this case.
  • Cons: As with the drawbacks of Option 2, the costs can be the biggest deterrent. In addition to the extra flights and extra food, are the more significant childcare costs of onsite care (its $55 per child per day at ASAs). Another drawback is that the childcare closes at 6:30pm, which means you either have to miss out on receptions and dinners or take the kids with you.
  • Tips: Inquire about stipends to pay the ASA childcare fees.

Option 4: Attend the conference with kids (and bring along partner or other family)

I’ve seen this option done fairly frequently – a partner who has time off from work can attend the conference and hang with the kids. I think it is a great option for those who have the availability. I actually did this last week when my husband had a conference in San Diego. He went to the conference and I took the kids to the zoo one day and Legoland the next. Sometimes it’s a sister or grandparent that tags along. Sadly, the timing of ASAs makes this nearly impossible for my family.

  • Pros: The benefit here is that you get to spend time at the conference and with your family. This is really great when you can carve out time to explore the city as a family.
  • Cons: Consistent with Option 2 and 3, the cost is a major drawback. Another drawback I felt when I did this was the work-life tug. When I was at the conference I wanted to be with my partner and kids. When I took time away from the conference to hang with them, I felt a little bad that I wasn’t doing things I had planned to at the conference. And when I was the person in charge of the kids – I was exhausted from exploring a new city alone and wanted to crash by the time by partner was done. Despite the cons, this is still probably my favorite option.
  • Tips: Communicate with family about your schedule and make sure they are up to what it entails. Another great idea is to try to find a sitter so you and the partner/family member can get a little adult time together as well.

Option 5: Attend the conference without kids (and arrange childcare at home)  

This year my Mom planned a visit to California when I had a conference. I took the opportunity to go to New Orleans for Southerns with my partner while she watched the kids. This was wonderful and I wish we lived closer to family so this could happen more. For ASA and ABS this is not feasible and, as I mentioned above, I really struggled to figure out a plan. I was finally able to arrange childcare ‘swaps’ with other parents. For one family, I will watch their child today and they will watch my kids on Friday when I am gone, and for another family they will watch my kids on Monday, and I will watch theirs the Tuesday I return. This means the week before the conference I am home with Jackson all week and one of the days babysitting his friend, and then babysitting two other children the day I come back. It works, but is a lot of work. (And if you wondering about other sitter options, the student sitters I use are gone for the summer and watching two active children is hard high school students for full days – I tried it last year – so this is the “best” option).

  • Pros: Can attend conference and get uninterrupted sleep in a hotel room to yourself.
  • Cons: Figuring out childcare plans in a pitch is never fun (and, once again can be very costly). For me this includes additional work pre- and post- conference. If you are nursing and leave your children at home, it can present additional obstacles. I remember the one time I pumped in a public bathroom was at a conference in Chicago.
  • Tips: Plan ahead. And when you are gone try to enjoy the alone time.

 

No matter which option I choose, the work-family supposedly life balance tug-o-war is heightened when it comes to conferences. When I am away from my children, I miss them and often feel (undeserved) guilt for being away. This typically equates to me trying to attend the most minimal amount of days. When the children are with my at the conference the tug is also hard, as I worry about their temporary childcare plans or think of all the fun they are having without me. It’s hard to find the perfect balance, especially with the weak support system we currently have.

 

Many have begun talking about what we would like to see to improve support. One recent article in PNAS, authored by Rebecca M. Calisi and a Working Group of Mothers in Science, outlines their proposal for CARE and I want to amplify their proposal here. To me, this proposal hits nail right on the head for what caregivers really need:

  • Childcare – financial support for childcare, either onsite or at home. Some conference offer a grant for just this. I think ASA should be added to this list.
  • Accommodating families – this includes family friendly dates (i.e., NOT the start of the school year, and more conferences during the week) and conference scheduling (perhaps childcare in the evening).
  • Resources – this can include further financial incentives and also physical resources such as ample closed spaces for nursing and changing areas, and better accommodations for children with disabilities.
  • Establishing a conference-specific social network – this would provide more social support for parents and caregivers, where they can arrange child care swaps, schedule activities and provide support.  

 

Bringing more CARE into conferences can help solve the Childcare-Conference Conundrum and open the doors for more parents and caregivers to attend conferences while attending to their dependents. This is especially important for diversifying the academy, as it provides support for women who are most harmed by the baby penalty. I hope that sociological organizations – who are full of scholars who understand the ways institutions can either harm or help those attached to them – can take steps to ensure more support and equity in conferences soon.

 

 

 

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Remaining Inspired & Becoming an Inspiration

I wrote an earlier post on “how you might come back thinking ‘that was a great conference’“.  The conference was more or less a specialty conference, which means everyone there studies a very specific topic. This also means it is easier to connect to the ‘bigwigs’ in the field. I was aware that I’d be citing a large portion of the scholars in the room while and I remember being the most nervous I had ever been to give a presentation. The night before a fellow grad student and I were up late in the lobby practicing our presentations when a scholar whom I respect tremendously stopped by to check on us (awesome, right?). She told us that it is perfectly fine to be nervous for a presentation, in fact, she went on, it is best to remain nervous throughout your career because it means your work is important to you.

Will they like my work? Will I say something that can offend someone? Am I pronouncing someone’s name right? Did I really double-check all my stats? Do I have a stain on my shirt? Do they think I am smart enough? To be honest, I really do not want to remain nervous when present my work, or when I introduce myself to new faculty, or when I walk in to teach a class. I could seriously do without the shaky legs, swarm of butterflies in my stomach, and laundry list of questions that make me doubt every aspect of my professional self. But what I decided, however, is that I always wanted to remain inspired.

As I reflect back, I was nervous to present my work in that room because I was so inspired by those filling the room. Much of their work laid the groundwork for my own. And being in front of them would mean I had the opportunity to *ahem* inspire them. When I peeled back the layers of nerves I realize it comes down to one primary thing: I want to succeed in my role and give back as much as I receive.

As academics we use “informed” to describe the borrowing and building off of others’ work. Your methods can be informed, your theory can be informed, even your book title can be informed….but I think “inspired” might better explain what is really going on. I get inspired reading a journal article, whether it be for the groundbreaking theory or because the abstract is clearly written. I get inspired when a faculty member encourages me. I get inspired when I see a second draft of a term paper. And if its not obvious, I get really inspired at conferences.  But, the thing is, if we are open to it inspiration can come at any point and from any source.

So the advice that I give you (and myself) is to walk into that conference (or a job talk, new class, oral examination) and channel the inspiration into what you are doing. I’m speaking somewhat figuratively, but also literately – use the inspiration you received and put it into your presentation, that is, think of the person whose presentations you most admire and try to replicate it!

This advice is coming straight from Dr.  John Glavin, a professor of English who also moonlights as a speech coach.  Glavin told our seminar class a story in which he was working with a politician who was flat out strugglin’ in his speeches. Glavin felt as though they were at a dead end until he suggested the politician mimic his favorite speaker. A few days later the politician delivered his best speech to date. Who did he mimic? Martin Luther King Jr.

So okay, we won’t all be mini MLKjrs but what I am suggesting is to find your inspiration and use it to become an inspiration. Embrace the nerves by remembering why they are there. Allow them to be a reminder of your passion and use them as self-encouragement for the task at hand- if you are one fire, someone is sure to finds a bit of inspiration in you.

https://i0.wp.com/cleveland.ncsy.org/files/inspire.jpg

(too cheerleader-ish? sorry, i’ll try more broodiness next time)

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How you might come back thinking “that was a great conference”

I was recently told “no conferences are fun”. While the nerves, awkward intros, and early mornings might not be fun, I have found a few ways to come back from a conference and think “that was great!” Ok, so maybe fun wasn’t the right word but -at this point in my career- I don’t dread conferences, I enjoy them!

I wrote the following post after returning from a conference in Ireland the summer of 2012, check out what I had to say:

I complain a lot about graduate school but a tour guide in Ireland reminded my how blessed and privileged I really am. He asked why we (a friend and colleague of mine) were traveling to Ireland and when we told him that we were there for a conference on social stress he said “oh, so you are traveling to present research on the ways stress impacts health because you really don’t have any stress”. While I disagree with his observation because I have dealt with a lot of stress in my time, I think his bigger point was clear: we, as graduate students and future faculty members, are a relatively privileged bunch. Unlike those of the population that are hit hardest and the longest with stress and strain, we have opportunities such as advanced degrees, great social networks, financial incentives, that can help decrease the amount of stress we are exposed to and provide us with resources to help cope with the stresses we do encounter.

Indeed, I spent most of last week in the beautiful country of Ireland, and while I was there for business I had the opportunity to tour and relax. Here is how it all happened:
An esteemed faculty member in my department was asked to give the keynote address at a conference that he has been a long time member and supporter. He suggested that I come up with something to present, and with the help of another mentor, I was able to. Since I was presenting research on the faculty’s behalf, they found some funds to assist in the costs. I also asked my graduate school for a travel award (they grant $500/year for US travel and $1000/two years for international travel). So, in the end, I was able travel to Ireland without breaking my bank.

While the week before I left and the first few days after I arrived were spent in a frenzy trying to finalize the presentation, reflecting back on the trip I would say it was fun and refreshing. I have gone to a few conferences now and finally feel like I might have a few tips to share:

First, and importantly, make sure your research is sound and your presentation is interesting. Practice your presentation in front of your webcam, your family, your pet, or some peers. Practice won’t make for a perfect presentation but it will decrease the chances you fail. 

  • Stay within the time limit. No one likes the person who talks for 15 minutes about the theory then is either cut off before the findings or takes up everyone else’s time.
  • Premising presentations with the phrase “this is in the beginning stage” opens the door for audience members (and especially occasional haters) to give you “advice” on every part of the research they don’t like or think could be improved on.
  • Also be sure not to bore the audience. They don’t need to know every single author who has studied your topic or why you chose one measure over the other. They want to know what question you are asking, what you expect to find, what you did find, and why you think you found what you found.
  • Be clear, be concise, and be yourself! If they want more than that they can catch you during Q&A or in a break.

Second, network! Networking is key. If you think you might not be the best at walking up to someone and introducing yourself there are a few tricks to help. 

  • Scan the program before you leave and email anyone that you know will be at the conference and you want to me. You can schedule a coffee or lunch date that will minimize the awkwardness and feeling of “stalker-ness”.
  • Find a person you know and have good rapport with (faculty member or other seasoned person – but not another graduate student) and become their temporary shadow. They will run into old friends and automatically introduce you or you can be more blunt and ask them to introduce you to persons you have in mind.
  • Always remember that they are just people. Even if they wrote an article cited by 3000 people, when they ask the hotel staff which way to the restroom they are no different than you or me. Strike up a conversation about research, sports, weather, you name it– people, especially academics, like to talk!

 Finally, partake in all of the “scheduled fun”. Yes I know, “scheduled fun” is kind of like an oxymoron but it is an important part of conferences. One annual conference I attend schedules an annual “house party” (that sometimes is in the conference room)  and the conference I went to in Ireland schedules “karaoke nights”. Getting down on the dance floor and ruining ballads at the mike are some of my favorite things to do but I never thought I would enjoy doing it with my mentors or scholars who I admire or very senior scholars. However, seeing that person who laid the framework for your dissertation make a complete fool of themselves has the power to break down all walls and open a space to really connect like old friends.

I think these three tips go hand-in-hand. Even if you can give Whitney Houston a run for her money on karaoke, if you deliver a less than par presentation the faculty still might not want you as a colleague. However, if your presentation is impressive, you talk about research over lunch, and can still have fun over drinks… you are in for the win! Now I can’t really assure that you will find a job if you do these things, but I can assure you that you will come home feeling like you learned a lot, meet great people, and had a blast 🙂

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