A few weeks ago, I posted some tips about networking and conferencing. As well, over the past couple of years, I have written about my experiences at the annual College Language Association (CLA) convention. For a little background, founded in 1937 by Black scholars and educators, CLA fosters innovative scholarship and study that “serves the academic, scholarly and professional interests of its members and the collegiate communities they represent.” Today, I want to expand some upon the networking and conferencing post as I relate my experiences at this year’s CLA convention in Chicago.
Before I arrived at CLA, I made sure to check the program to see who may also be attending. The great thing about the convention is that each year you see a lot of the same people as well as new scholars. For me, this makes the experience welcoming, and, as some of the members proclaim, like a family reunion. A conference, no matter what the field, should be that way. It is a place of individuals to gather and share ideas, pedagogy, and life. CLA fosters all of this with its focus on scholarship and connections. Every year, there is a reception and dinner for all attendees, and this serves, in essence, like a large family dinner where people, at various tables, talk, laugh, and reminisce.
Since I went to CLA in 2016 and 2017, I already knew some people at the convention; however, I still looked over the program to see who may be there. As I mentioned in my post about networking, I have gotten in contact with fellow scholars over the years through social media or even email. This year, I contacted one of the scholars I linked up with via social media and asked him if he would like to get lunch or dinner. As well, I contacted another colleague I am working together with on a project, and I asked him the same question. Both of these invitations led to meals where we could talk and share our experiences and scholarship, ultimately creating stronger contacts.
Being able to meet with individuals, outside of the conference area, is important. It provides a space, away from the hustle of the conference, to really slow down and talk without worrying about racing to another panel or leaving a room before the next panel starts. It also allows for a more relaxed setting where you may feel more comfortable because there is just a small group of you together. I find that these spaces allow for more discussions that extend beyond the realm of the academic space, thus creating, hopefully, long lasting relationships and friendships. This does not always occur, but this setting fosters that.
I make the previous claim because while at CLA I also met up with a colleague who I have known for about three-four years. We have been out to eat or get coffee before, and every time it has been an engaging experience. This time, as we ate, I started to realize the extent to which individuals I have met over the years have become colleagues (yes), but they have also become mentors. As we ate, we talked about some of the research ideas I have been kicking around. I told him about the projects I want to work on, and he told me that one sounded better than the other one. After that, we dove into the topic, and he, essentially, walked me through possible avenues for pursing the topic and texts to explore. He gave me other advice as well, and in this moment, he served as a mentor.
On the flip side of this coin, conferencing also allows you to become a mentor as well. At CLA, I spoke with another person I had met through social media. We started talking about time management and productivity, and he intoned that he needs to get better at it. I spoke with him about my practices and how I manage these issues, basically relating what I have written about on this blog before. At that moment, I was helping him out, imparting practices that had worked for me. I do not really like the term mentor here, but it fits based on the previous example.
Another thing that I do at conferences is go off and explore the city. I do not, unfortunately, get to travel much unless it is for conferences. Whenever I do go to a conference, I try to find a local bookstore, record store, comic store, sporting event, or someplace that I cannot visit in my city. During these excursions in Chicago, I met people who I would never had met if I stayed in the conference hotel, and I saw things I would never have seen.
As I was going to a comic book store and waiting for a CTA train, I was busy reading some Frank Yerby. A woman sat down next to me and engaged me in conversation. She asked what I was reading then we started to talk. I learned she is a probate lawyer who loves to read. She mentioned enjoying Ralph Ellison, Colson Whitehead, and more. During the course of our conversation, she also told me that she was a product of the Great Migration. Her father was from Birmingham, AL, and her mother was from Clarksdale, MS. If I had not ventured out of the conference area, I would have never met her and enjoyed a conversation where we talked about literature, Chicago, and our families.
The experiences of conferences go well beyond what occurs in the panels. In fact, I would argue that most of what happens in a panel will leave your brain before you even return home. What will not leave, however, are the conversations you have, the connections you make, the people you encounter, and the things you experience. These are all important aspects of conferencing, and travel. I view conferences as travel, and I know that sounds like a luxury. However, travel is also enlightening and educational. As Mark Twain wrote in 1869, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
I had planned to write about some of the amazing presentations that I heard at CLA this year, but I will save those for the next post. Until then, what suggestions would you give to students about attending conferences? As usual, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.