I made a quick trip to Boston for my field’s biggest conference, which is now held a few days after the new year.  As I took stock of my visit today, I realized that the pros and cons of conference attendance have really changed for me in the past few years.

Cons:I need to do something differently when I travel, since I now tend to get migraines that obscure the first few days of my trips.  Talks that are already difficult to follow don’t get any easier with a blinding headache.  This time the migraine lasted until the day I left, no offense to Boston.  I also failed to get enough sleep in the weeks preceding my travel, so I took the jetlag hard, and found myself unable to get rest on either the British or the American schedule.  So, so much for making the most of my days away from my children by resting up.  Sigh.

Pros: Since I couldn’t sleep, I did get in some great morning gym sessions.  If you think it’s hard to get out to the gym on an average weekday, you’d be how surprised how eager you might be to have some quiet time in a gym that’s just a few steps away from your bed after you’ve spent the past five years juggling pregnancy, nursing babies, and the time crunch that really picks up when you have more than one child.  I practically danced to the gym this week, and I’m no fitness enthusiast.  Besides, Boston was a lot colder than England is this time of year, so I didn’t have anything close to the clothing I’d need for a walk outside, even if it was light.  I mean, I could run, but who are we kidding here?

When I was new to conferences, most things went over my head, so I spent sessions listening to words and grasping at anything familiar.  By now, I’m comfortable enough to attend some talks on my areas of specialty, others in areas I’d like to learn more about, and others that tackle some of the big issues in the field that might get me thinking.  I’m grasping fewer factoids and more styles, theories, and debates.  I have to hope that these things will someday translate into a bigger perspective in my own research, which tends to be very nose-to-the-page interpretive.

Most significantly, I am feeling less lost in a sea of people.  Some of that is practical: I set up several tea and lunch dates with friends, colleagues, and collaborators, and those were by far the most “productive” parts of my conference attendance.  But some of that is also the hard-won assurance I’ve earned by working on my own since we moved to England.  Even if I don’t know anyone in a room, I’m pretty comfortable striking up a chat, or watching as others do so.  It helps that I no longer feel part of a particular clan–grad student, grad school, or other.  Perhaps the only major benefit to being a free agent, other than the lack of committee duty?


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