what’s the use of ‘out of office’ notices?

I’ve had a pretty busy September. I was on leave for a week in late August and then went straight to a conference in Portugal. After a brief and frenetic period at home/work, I had two back-to-back conferences in London.

For most of late August and September I’ve had an out-of-office notice on my email saying I was away and that I would look at emails when and as I could, but I wouldn’t be able to deal with any attachments. So what did saying that accomplish?

Well, not much as it turned out. The rate of emails slowed marginally. One person actually cut and paste what would normally be an attachment into the body of the email so it could be read. Another couple of people apologized for needing an answer while I was away. But many still required me to respond straight away to requests for meeting dates, answers to questions, comments on documents – and several made decisions for me if I didn’t answer immediately. Everyday work just seems to have continued as usual – the customary expectations of turnaround time and responsiveness were the same as if I was actually present. I know this is a full-time academic first-world problem, but it is a bit of a problem nevertheless… Let me explain.

The thing I really need to say here, just in case there’s someone out there who doesn’t know this, is that academic conferences ARE work. They might be away from home, and there might be the odd dinner in restaurants or a moment of sightseeing, but giving and attending papers, networking, talking to publishers, meeting with potential collaborators – that’s academic work. And what’s more, the work doesn’t just benefit us. The conference is academic work that’s good for our institutions too. Universities get reputational benefit from their academics being out and about, and there are future benefits for them in the form of bids, publications and citations. The more citations and league tables matter to university reputations and enrolments, the more conferences matter too.

Being away at a conference meant that my workload substantially increased – because there was the work at the conference and then there was the relatively undiminished everyday work that needed doing at home. I know from talking to colleagues that I’m not the only one who experiences this double-trouble phenomenon. Lots of people find that being away at a conference is a very mixed blessing.

I don’t think this additional load was necessarily anyone’s individual fault. Everyone who sent me emailed demands was beavering away doing their own jobs. Some just couldn’t adjust deadlines and processes to account for one absent member of the group/task they were managing. They had to go with the set process. Others however seem to have internalised a set of very speedy institutional time-frames – I’m not convinced everything had to be this fast – and everyone inevitably depended on digitally mediated communications to conduct their speedy transactions … aka email.

Do you remember the time before email? When someone was away their office door would be shut and they just wouldn’t turn up at a meeting, and this wouldn’t matter. Only if the situation was extremely important would their away-activities be interrupted by a telephone call. These days however, the sheer ubiquity of mobile technologies means that the expectation more often than not seems to be that no-one is ever truly away doing something else or on leave. We all carry phones, tablets and notebooks everywhere so we’re always contactable.

It sometimes seems difficult to even contemplate that we might not all actually want to live on these gadgets, that we need a break. An example – I just noticed from the bounce-back on one of those routine group emails – now the way we routinely communicate with each other – that one of my colleagues had an out of office notice saying that they weren’t available over the weekend! The weekend …

I plead guilty to pandering to this be-available-all-day-all-year situation. When I was away over summer in a remote part of the country where there was pretty patchy mobile access, I and my mates ended up at the local pub each morning to check our emails. That’ll be four coffees please, and an hour or so dealing with queries, demon diaries and the please-respond-even-though-I know-you’re-on-holidays-because-I’m-desperate. Some ‘leave’.

However, there were lots of things I didn’t do during my leave and conference time. I’ve now forgotten what a lot of them were and if I don’t get re-contacted about them – well they can’t have been that important. And I did just tag a lot of emails while I was at conferences so that I could follow them up later. And that ‘when’ means, I’m afraid, when I have time to squash them into the everyday work that is already in my diary for the coming weeks.

But I figure I need to do something about this situation. My un-new years resolution is to get more ruthless about the continuous stream of communication. It’s clear that out-of-office messages are utterly useless as a means of controlling the onslaught of stuff that ends up in the mailbox. More hands-on tactics are required. I’m not sure how I will adjust to a new less responsive routine, as I have been well-trained to respond like Pavlov’s dog to the churn and to feel overwhelmed if it turns into an unanswered glut. I’m already one of the professionals who has highly permeable work/private life boundaries – Christina Nippert-Eng’s classic study documented this problem a long time ago. So it won’t be easy to change. But I’m going to try.

You heard it here first. Don’t always expect an immediate response to your email. Maybe you won’t get a response at all. Maybe you will. So, if you really want to know what I’m thinking, maybe you could ask me for a conversation and a coffee instead. But then, *shakes head*, how will we set the date and time???

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conference blog – post conference follow-up

So you’re home. The suitcase is unpacked and the laundry put in the basket. You’ve turfed out all of the surplus conference detritus you inadvertently brought home and hung the conference bag up with its new companions. Now what? Oh hang on, there’s just a few more things to do…

Here’s a beginning list of those other things – six ways to follow up the conference:

1. Email the people you met and want to keep in touch with. Dear x, it was great to meet you at the conference. I was really interested in y and would love to keep in touch with how the project is progressing/any papers you might write/plans you might have to for future conferences etc. You might decide to send one of two of these people some of your own work – I thought you might be interested in…

2. Email anyone whose sessions you didn’t get to and whose paper you want – Dear x, I noticed that you had a paper on y at the recent conference., I really wanted to come to your session but it clashed with… I’d really like to read your paper because… could you please send… Tell them about any relevant work you are doing too so they have the option to open a conversation.

3. Email anyone with whom you were having a conversation about co-presenting at another event, developing a special issue with, plotting a bid with etc… and fix a time and process for proceeding.

4. Salvage the conference programme – it helps if it’s digital – to note in a well-labelled file any relevant work that is close to yours that you want to keep track of – these are projects where you don’t necessarily want to contact the authors but want to know what happens and what gets published.

5. Allow yourself a few minutes to reflect on your presentations. What did you learn from them? If there are changes that you need to make to your paper(s), note them now before you forget.
If you were co presenting and haven’t already, make a time with your co-presenters to debrief the presentation. Do the above exercise together.
Draw up a timeline for getting the paper to the stage where it can be finished off and submitted, if it isn’t in the publishing pipeline.

6. Email any publishers you connected with and say how pleased you were to meet them and that you expect to have a proposal for them within x months.

And now you get to do your expenses. Allow a lot of time for this if your university online system is anything like mine!

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conference blog – who’s coming to my paper?

You know those insecure feelings you get when you throw a party… that anxiety that no-one will turn up… You’ve got more than enough supplies for everyone you’ve invited as well as for some uninvited hangers-on. The food is arranged in appetising formations, the drinks are stacked in the fridge and cooling on ice in the bathtub. But here it is, the appointed time, and nobody’s here. Are they going to be fashionably late? Or is it your worst fear – nobody, but nobody, is coming!

Well, of course, they always do turn up. They might be an hour late, but eventually there everyone is, crushing crumbs into the carpet, spilling the red wine on the furniture, and generally having a good time. It’s a party.

The same is not always the case with the academic paper. Sometimes your worst fears are realised. Nobody does turn up. Or perhaps hardly anyone. You’ll probably feel awful about this lack of audience and suspect that maybe it’s the topic of your paper that’s to blame. But it is worth considering that the lack of warm upright bodies may not be about you at all.

An audience absence may happen for any number of reasons. Your paper might be up against a session with the most famous people in the field. You might be scheduled at the end of the day when everyone is shattered and has gone off for a lie down in a dark room before going out for dinner. You might be in the furthest room away from the conference centre of gravity. The lift might have broken down or gone so slow that people have given up. You might have the graveyard shift at the end of the conference when a lot of people have had to go in order to get the cheapest train ticket home.

So the first thing to understand is that you shouldn’t feel like a failure just because your session doesn’t have a big audience. It happens to just about all of us at some time. Indeed, just yesterday our (my and my colleagues) paper was presented to a very small audience indeed.

But what do you do… if there’s no one there, if there’s you and one other person, if there’s you and a few others? Well the right answer here is that unless no one at all comes to your paper, you do the paper as planned and scheduled. And if there’s no one, you should wait for a bit till it’s really clear that no one is coming. Don’t give up too soon. And even if there’s only one person, it’s one person who came to hear what you had to say. With one person you might structure the session as a more informal chat. If it’s two or more, you can do the paper just as you would if the room was crowded.

It’s not the end of the world if there’s not a big crowd. And you never know, the few that turn up may make for a great discussion.

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conference blog – dealing with ‘post paper’ questions

I like lippiness. When I was a teacher I liked the lippy kids the most. They had a bit of spark and energy. They were often smart and funny. And of course I’ve been more than a bit lippy myself on occasion so I always secretly thought we had something in common.

I remember being asked in a job interview whether I thought I could handle the leadership demands of a new school, given that I had a small child. A question that, even then, wasn’t supposed to be asked. Interviews were meant to be about public, not private lives, and there was legislation that said so. So interview questions about childcare were really off limits. But there it was! A naughty question. Should I have refused to respond? Reminded the questioner that this was the kind of question they shouldn’t ask? Politely said I had it covered? Well I did none of the above… I said “Oh, it’s no problem. I’ll just tie him up to the clothes line with a bucket of water and a sandwich and he’ll be fine till I get home.” You see, I was lippy. Definitely lippy.

Now it’s that kind of lippy response you probably don’t want to give in answer to some of the questions you might get asked after you’ve given your conference paper. You know already that not all questions will be benign. Some will of course. They’ll be genuine inquiries seeking more detail. And these kinds of information-seeking questions will be pretty helpful because they’ll provide a few clues about what you might need to do to improve your paper. And similarly helpful, but sometimes less easy to hear, are comments or comments-disguised-as-questions which point to things you haven’t thought of, connections you haven’t yet made, or books or papers you haven’t yet read. Best not to be lippy in response to those. Control the urge to be defensive and simply thank the person for their contribution – or say you’ll follow the suggestion up, think about it some more or talk it over with your supervisor/ co-researchers.

However, it’s the gratuitous supervision advice, the long speech about superior work (theirs), the snide comment about the research you didn’t do rather than what you actually did, that produces the urge to bite back. You might want to say “Oh, was that a question?” “Sorry, I wasn’t aware we’d already started the next paper,” “Thankyou, that would be helpful if that was actually the question I was looking at”… These kinds of retorts might be at the forefront of your mind and on the tip of your tongue, but just don’t give into them.

The urge to be lippy to ill-mannered audience members can be almost overwhelming. There’s nothing you’d like better than to verbally smack the competitive, the patronising and/or the self absorbed questioner into submission. However, it’s better to take the moral high ground. Be polite. Yes, be polite. Acknowledge the input and then swiftly move on. Hang the Bad Conference Questioner out to dry as quickly as you can with your polite response, and then get back to talking with the rest of the audience.

There are of course exceptions to the Be Polite rule. If questions or comments are sexist, racist, ableist or ageist then there’s no reason to put up with them; there’s no call to give the speaker any more time than they’ve already had. And rather a lot of conference questions are subtly or not so subtly about reinforcing status hierarchies. You don’t have to put up with that either. If you spot these power plays, you can choose to draw attention to them…” It might be interpreted that what’s going on here is… I’d hate to assume that your comment was actually…” Or you could be polite. Or you can just get lippy.

Not everyone likes or approves of lippiness, but I find you can often get away unscathed with the lippy come-back if it’s delivered with a smile and in a friendly tone. The real trick to being effectively lippy is being quick enough on your feet to put your thoughts into the right words. Being a teacher allowed me to engage in daily banter practice with the kids – good natured joking kept my lippy skills honed. And practice might work for you too. Practicing banter with your friends might help get you in the right frame of mind and be an entertaining pre-conference diversion. Verbal karate rehearsals can be good fun, and knowing what’s going on and having some different ways to respond can take the sting out of the post paper rudeness situation when it arises. But if this kind of practicing will make you nervous, then don’t do it – do just think of a few polite responses to the rude question/comment, and don’t worry too much. You’ll get along fine with polite.

But in the interest of sharing lippy and not so lippy responses to irritating and inappropriate questions and/or comments, can I ask, what are your favourite ways of handling tricky post paper situations? Any favourite ripostes you’re prepared to share?

Posted in conference, conference papers, conference presentation, conference questions | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

conference blog- should I go to the conference dinner?

Most conferences have a dinner. Oh no, they don’t, I hear you say? Well yes, it’s true the giant ones don’t, that’s simply a matter of logistics. You just can’t find venues and caterers able to deal with the teeming hordes that over-populated conferences attract. And, well yes, relatively large conferences don’t even try for dinners, but they can and sometimes do put on drinks and finger food for their couple-of-thousand attendees. But the majority of conferences generally do offer a dinner as an additional optional extra, knowing that a limited number of people will sign up for it.

So should you be one of them? What’s the conference dinner about and is there any reason at all to think about going?

Well, there’s lot of reasons for thinking you mightn’t. For a start, the conference dinner is seldom cheap. It’s rarely even good value for money. And you know before even looking at the menu that it’s not going to be a taste sensation. It is mass catered after all, so it’s going to be something that can be pre-cooked, kept hot and then doled out quickly. The conference dinner also has to cater for majority tastes so it’s going to be predictable… in the UK it’s likely to be chicken ( a thick lump of relentlessly chewy beige) or perhaps pollack (don’t expect chef-fy crispy skin here) followed by something very sweet with savagely whipped cream.The wine, limited quantities thereof, will be average. In other words, the conference dinner is highly unlikely to be the kind of meal you’d choose yourself for that amount of money.

So if gourmet delight isn’t the reason to go, what is? Well, like the conference itself, the dinner is all about the networking – it’s either an opportunity to see people you don’t get a chance to catch up with very often or it might present an opportunity to get to know someone new.

But if the conference dinner is going to work as a networking occasion you might have to work at it. Plan. Think ahead. You absolutely don’t want to be a Johnny/Janie-no-mates who’s wandering around after everyone else is sitting down, still trying to find someone you know. So it’s good to organise beforehand to be with at least one or two other people who can be at the same table. You can do that bit of organisation during the day, or at the pre-dinner drinks if there are some – and there usually are. Just make sure that, towards the appointed dinner time, you’re standing with a group that you’d like to spend the evening with. You can then nonchalantly shuffle into the dinner hall with them. Or, if you’re standing with someone like a supervisor or mentor, then you ought to be able to rely on them to broker some new acquaintances and to usher you into dinner at their table. Trust me, it’s very bad form for experienced conference-dinner-goers to leave novices standing.

Now, if this planning strategy doesn’t work, don’t despair. It is actually possible to meet new people at the conference dinner. Just confidently sit down in a vacant spot, introduce yourself and talk. And here’s the rub. It’s OK to make small talk. It’s OK to talk about something other than your research and the politics of higher education and the crappy working conditions at your university. And it’s also equally acceptable to talk about research, politics and the crappy stuff if that’s where the conversation goes. Just talk, OK?

You ought not to expect, of course, that you’ll emerge from your conference dinner with a new friend; it might just be a pleasant evening and a new acquaintance. But making new friends can happen…

So this is the point in the post where I produce an anecdote to add veracity to my comments, and I try to convince you that the conference dinner needn’t be a three hour ordeal in which the conversation is as limp as the lettuce accompanying the unnaturally orange salmon roulade. And here it is.

I remember being at a conference dinner in Greece. The menu consisted primarily of lamb. Several courses of lamb. One form of lamb after another, served at a leisurely pace. Lamb kebabs, lamb stew, courgettes stuffed with lamb, lamb meatballs, roast lamb. Hardly a vegetable in sight. Just lamb. There was however quite a bit of wine. And quite a lot of time to drink in between lamb. I was sitting next to someone I didn’t know well. By the time the third course of lamb arrived we had developed a fine line of repartee, mainly lamb puns, which stopped very marginally short of us both standing on the table singing a version of the Monty Python Spam song. Lamb lamb lamb lamb… Needless to say all this lamb-i-ness was a deeply significant bonding experience, and we have remained friends ever since.

So that’s my anecdote, probably slightly embroidered in hindsight. And it was convincing, eh. Proof, in the form of n=1, that it might just be worth risking the conference dinner. Naturally, there is also a moral to the anecdote, and this post, and it goes like this: the key to the conference dinner is to be prepared to take a social risk. After all, you have nothing to lose but a few hours of your time and some hard-earned cash. And you might just get something worth much more.

And of course, you don’t have to go every time!

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conference blog- let’s flip the format!

It’s the end of the standard conference day. You’ve seen every session. Keynote. Panel. Three papers. Keynote. Three papers. Panel. Each session Chair has tried to allow time for discussion and most of them have succeeded – sort of. A very few people have managed to ask questions of the presenters. Some eager others waved their hands around hoping this would pressure the Chair into extending the discussion. It didn’t. The occasional loudmouth tried to butt in. Many more didn’t even bother to think of anything to say, they knew already there was no way they’d get a turn. You see, if you don’t get your hand up at the start of question time, it’s not going to happen.

I suspect a lot of people are like me. They listen to the presentation or paper and then have to think. When question time begins they just haven’t had time to put their thoughts together and so they can’t put a question or a thought into anything like a coherent sentence. It’s not till some time later that the ideas crystallise into a thought-thing that could have made a worthwhile contribution.

There’s something wrong with this style of conference. It’s not very interactive. It’s hardly a discussion let alone a debate. At its worst this kind of conference is more like primary school show and tell than an actual conversation. And perhaps that’s what its meant to be – the conference is just a place to present rather than discuss. The conference organisation is all about maximising the presentations, not the dialogue. Line ‘em up, roll ‘em out.

Some conferences do manage something other than this relentless through- put. The organisers sort the presentations in such a way that there are common threads for people to follow, and there is more of a chance for conversations to start in one session and flow on to another. Or they simply allow more time for questions – not that that necessarily allows we slow thinkers to participate fully.

If the conference is large, it’s pretty hard for everyone who’s actually had a thought-thing and who wants to have a say, even if there is more than the usual allocation of time. Someone runs round the room with a microphone and the pattern of conversation goes audience speaker audience speaker audience speaker. Occasionally this pattern is broken, but this is the dominant mode. This is not really a conversation. It’s too centrally mediated to produce continuities and to build up ideas.

Occasionally you do find a conference that gets the right combination of human size, time for discussion and format. The unconference for example brings people together to talk about topics that they declare via a pre-unconferene wiki or simply on the day. (If you want more detail, see a little clip about unconferences here). There’s little formal input other than what people decide to say at the time. This structure can of course end up with some people still doing the equivalent of a paper, but by and large the unconference allows much more time for interaction. The unconference is a design to promote collaborative idea generation and in depth exploration of issues not presentation churn. The unconference has been a bit prone to becoming corporatised and may have lost some of its edge…. It is however a far cry from the usual style of people just presenting their work for others to consider.

One alternative to the usual paper driven and paper dominated conference format is to flip the arrangements. Instead of all the time going on presenting, and much less on talking, the talk gets the biggest slab of time. The flipped conference requires people to write and circulate their papers well beforehand. These are generally posted somewhere online expressly so that people can scan the papers to make an informed decision about which ones they want to read in detail. They then sign up – also beforehand – for actual conference sessions which have set, restricted numbers. It’s a first-signed-up, first-attending system.

The flipped conference offers extended time for each paper, a limit on the number of people who are present and everyone has read the paper and has thought about what they want to discuss. If each session is an hour for arguments sake- and this is typical of the flipped format – then the paper writer gets five minutes to do an introductory pitch and nominate something they’re interested in discussing. Then it’s on to a round table discussion beginning with some questions and the paper writer’s preferred topic, before the conversation goes on to everyone else’s ideas and comments.

I’ve attended flipped conferences and they really do give time for people to have serious discussions. They seem to work best with a tight focus, quite smallish numbers of like minded people who are committed to writing on time and reading the papers well in advance. As a flipped conference paper writer you certainly feel that people have engaged seriously with your work, and you often get really helpful suggestions which allow you to make fruitful additions to your initial work. And as a flipped conference participant you have the time you need to consider what you want to say – and you get to have a say without worrying that you’ll never get a word in at all, ever.

However, that’s not what I’ve got in store this week. It’s the usual format – keynote, paper, paper, paper, paper… I’m not expecting a lot of feedback on my papers, and not expecting to say a great deal either….

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conference blog – questions of etiquette

There are conventions about conference behaviour just as there are in every other area of academic life. Here’s three conference basics.

1. If I’m late for a session, should I go in or wait outside?

It’s just about acceptable to come into a session slightly late. It happens a lot and it’s often unavoidable. The trick is to acknowledge that you are disrupting proceedings. You should get in as quickly and quietly as you can and take the nearest available seat. Don’t go clambering over lots of people, make a huge amount of noise or generally draw more attention to yourself than you need to. If the speaker stops because you’ve interrupted proceedings, then you need to look suitably apologetic. You may feel the need to silently mouth the word “sorry”, but this isn’t mandatory.

However it is much less OK to come late to keynote sessions. They are generally timed to be first thing in the morning or after lunch so that everyone has time to get themselves in and seated. If there is a way to quietly sneak into the back of the room/hall/lecture theatre, then that’s OK. But if you have to make a grand entrance in front of the entire audience, then think more than once about whether to do it, particularly if your presence is going to continue to be distracting for some time while you find a seat. If you are really unavoidably detained, by weather, traffic or something beyond your control, then you’ll probably do it and find a way to make excuses later to anyone that seems put out.

2. Should I just bowl up to someone I don’t know but would like to, and start a conversation?

As long as you’re not interrupting another conversation, absolutely yes. Getting to know new people is what conferences are all about.

If it’s someone who’s given a paper there might be a bit of a queue to speak to them afterwards, so wait in line rather than just butting in. You might want to say that you liked their paper, or you like their work, or you could take up an issue they referred to and that you’d like to know more about. You might want to ask if you can email them later and you can ask for their business card or offer yours with a note on it about your interest. The idea is to create the opportunity to either have a conversation at the time or later.

If it’s someone standing around, looking at books or having coffee, the answer is still yes. And you still need to work out beforehand what you are going to say. Again it could be something about an aspect of their work, or it could simply be thanks for a piece of their work that you’ve found helpful and/or interesting. Don’t overstay your welcome, the object is to introduce yourself, to make contact you can follow up later. Look for non verbal cues that might signal that this is either to be a short or longer conversation. You may not get to have the big deep and meaningful first time, but simply create the space for more interaction later.

3. Should I have a paper to distribute?

Many conferences stipulate that you bring 20 or so copies of your paper with you. This is as much observed by absence as it is in reality. Many people have to travel long distances to get to conferences, and presenters are often worried about using all of their cheap budget airline luggage allowances on papers. Equally, many people don’t want to take the papers on offer at conferences because they don’t want to carry heave the carry on equivalent of a thesis into the overhead luggage compartment. The alternatives to bringing a paper are:
– A handout of slides with a contact address to follow up if people want papers
– A sheet of paper to circulate so people who want a paper can register their interest
– A concluding slide which gives your email address so people can write to get the paper
– Business cards which have the address where people can contact you for follow up and the paper
– Loading your paper onto an open access site like academia.edu or researchgate and giving the location on the first and final slides of your presentation or as a tiny handout.
Any of the above shows that you are happy to share your work.

Of course, if you can’t yet distribute your work because it’s embargoed – and I’m about to do that at a conference next week – you just have to make excuses and say how people can get the paper when it finally gets out of limbo.

What more would you add to this etiquette list?

Posted in conference, conference papers, conference presentation, networking | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments