Over the past month and a half I have attended three separate conferences to present papers and participate in panel discussions regarding various topics, which have included the Grand Army of the Republic, the U.S. military, and Civil War education in the k-12 classroom. I’ve attended a few scholarly conferences in the past, but these recent events represented a new personal endeavor. I signed up for these conferences on my own initiative and basically went in not knowing a soul, which felt a bit daunting to me at first. The conference at Ohio University was particularly nerve-racking as I walked into a pre-conference gathering hoping I would find somebody I could connect with. Thankfully, I found several nice people and was able to enjoy myself immensely the entire weekend.
I must admit that even as a public historian I am not 100% comfortable with “small talk,” although I know that we must engage in “small talk” because it establishes a relationship between interpreter and audience and provides a better comfort level for learning and discussion. If I get into a discussion that interests me, I struggle to stop talking. But starting a conversation from scratch is tougher. During my time with the National Park Service I was encouraged to start conversations with visitors by asking them what city they were from and to talk about the weather if more space needed to be filled. If someone was wearing sports clothing I would often use that as a way to start the conversation as well. Of course, if somebody wore Chicago sports gear I made sure to give them a lot of trouble!
During the breaks in these conferences I found it quite easy to resort to doodling on my phone to pass the time. While at Gettysburg I bought some very interesting literature and was inclined to skim through these works immediately. However, I made sure to remind myself that one of the primary purposes of scholarly conferences is to network with other students and professionals. Sure, live-tweeting and reading are fun, but it’s important to use these conferences to establish face-to-face communication with others in your field of study.
To get over my “small talk” issues, I developed an easy method to help start conversations with people I want to meet. It basically involves asking questions, but there’s a little more to it. When choosing what panels to attend at a conference, I try to take into account who’s presenting where, which is sometimes more important than what topics are being discussed. While presentations are taking place I do what many others do and take notes on what is being discussed. I’ll also write down and mentally rehearse lists of questions and ideas that I want to share with the panel or specific panelists. When the discussion is opened up to the audience, I really try to ask at least one question. More often than not I will weasel my way up to the front of the line and get my question into the discussion.
In the past, when a specific panel was completed I would simply walk out the door and prepare for the next panel. Yet I have now realized that asking questions during these panels is actually an excellent way to network and start conversations. By asking a question during the Q&A session, I am able to start my “small-talk” by thanking the panelist[s] for answering my question. From there we can engage in a dialogue about the panel, our academic studies, etc., and share our business cards. I felt like this method was extremely effective for me at Gettysburg. I also think it’s important that I thank these people for answering my questions. Everyone has a busy schedule, so I greatly appreciate those who are willing to take time out to attend a conference and share their expertise.
Of course, there are times when I can’t think of a question, nor do I necessarily need to ask a question at the Q&A to break the ice. However, I’ve heard stories of grad students who attended conferences and “saw” professional historians but were too nervous to actually go up and speak to these people. I admit that I felt the same way when I saw David Blight at Gettysburg. Yet I have learned that the “question-thank you” method is one way I am able to utilize conferences for my benefit, and as a grad student I think this method could help some of us engage in fruitful discussions with great historians that get us as excited about history as teenagers at a Justin Bieber concert 🙂