Making Sense of ASTR Plenaries and Working Sessions: A Primer for Graduate Students (& Others)
Sam O’Connell, Worcester State University
Hello, and welcome to ASTR’s annual conference in Baltimore. By now the opening plenary and reception is probably over and you’re wondering to yourself and the three other grad students crammed into your double hotel room:
What the heck do I do with these working sessions? Do I go to them? If I go, do I dare speak? I haven’t read any of the papers, but Old So-and-so Senior Scholar will be there, and I really admire her or his work. And then there is this other one that sounds like it would really inform my dissertation project. Ooh, and look at this one over here that’s on Saturday at 8:30am. I don’t have anything to do with the topic of the session in my own work, but this session participant is at Such-and-such Research 1 that is hiring a tenure-track position this year. It’s my dream job. If I go to that one and look really sharp and sound even sharper (if I speak) I’m bound to get a phone interview, right?
These may not be your questions or thoughts about working sessions at ASTR, whether it’s your first year or not, but they are all things that I thought at one point or another at ASTR over the years. To spare you some of the anxiety, here’s some advice on how to handle plenaries and working sessions:
Go to the plenaries. They are an awesome chance to hear new research and get a sense of where the field is and where the field is going. They are also one of the only times that the majority of the scholars in our field gathers together in one space to share works-in-progress, near-completed works, or completed work. Even if the topic of a plenary does not resonate with you, they also effectively model how scholarship in Theatre and Performance Studies is conducted and presented.
If your abstract was accepted to a working session, go to your working session and participate following the instructions, prompts, etc. outlined by your session conveners. In my experience, they often run like seminars in which everyone has done the reading and comes in with questions and ideas to help shape the conversation. A mistake I feel that I made early on was to take a predatory approach to working sessions that I was a participant in. I was largely self-interested in the ideas that other participants had about my work. I was not as engaged or aware of how my work was contributing to a larger conversation that we were all equally engaged in. Once I realized working sessions were not about me, I actually began to get more out of them.
For all other working sessions that you want to attend, here are some rules of thumb that inform my own decision making process of which sessions to go to and what to do when I’m in the audience:
· Choosing a session
o Does the topic relate directly to anything I research or teach? Or, am I vaguely interested in it? If it answers any of these questions, I go.
o Is there a participant in the session whose work I am particularly interested in hearing? Or a paper title that really resonates? If so, I go.
o Does the session have any conflicts with any of my other goals for the conference? These goals could be: grabbing a coffee or drink with an old friend who is also at the conference, checking out the exhibit hall and press offerings, prepping for my own session later that day, attending one of the offsite events, etc. If there are no conflicts, I go.
o Do I need to rest? Conferences can be exhausting. Sometimes you just need a break in your hotel room, in the hotel lobby, or away from the conference site, just to relax. If I don’t need a rest, I go.
· What to do in a session
o Do the session conveners make any obvious signal to the audience that they will be invited into the conversation? If not, I don’t speak. Also, if not, sometimes I will politely and quietly step out to find another session. Some sessions are more open than others for the audience. Not all, though, are meant for the audience. Sometimes you don’t find this out until you’re already in the room.
o If the session does invite participation and questions from the audience I speak if I have something to say that engages with the questions asked and the conversation being had in the overall session. I try not to showcase my own research that no one in the room has read. Instead, I become involved in the conversation that is already in progress.
o If there is a direct connection I want to make between my research and one or more of the papers/participants, I approach them after the session to chat.
o Try not to speak just to be seen speaking. And, try not to grad-splain. This is the graduate student version of “man-splaining.”
At the end of the day, working sessions are where works-in-progress develop. They give you a chance to hear what other people are working on and meet the other people that are working in an area similar to your own work. Future ATHE panel proposals and future ASTR working sessions can come out of the unanswered questions and social connections that develop in a working session.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll also be the tall-ish, bald-ish guy with glasses floating around the hotel bar between sessions and plenaries.