I’m not a fan of advice giving, probably because I don’t want to be held responsible for any advice gone awry. Whether out of modesty or narcissism, I’ll turn the assignment inward: instead of telling you how to make your AJS conference better, I’ll tell you how I’m planning to improve my own conference experience this year.
(1) Don’t read. This is my big one. I’m going to try to give a paper without reading directly from it. Instead, I’ll look up. I’ll refer to just a few notes. I’ll have practiced so I don’t ramble and exceed my time limit. In doing all of this, I’ll try to connect with the people in the room, all of whom are as capable of reading my paper as I am. Transgressing this norm of conference comportment may, in the end, allow us to transgress other ideological and intellectual norms that have stultified what we do and don’t talk about together.
(2) Meet new people. I have my buddies—grad school comrades, fellow travelers in my own subfield, and a few others—and I love the chance to catch up with them. The best conference experiences I’ve had, however, reflect my willingness to approach new people and learn from them. That’s the intellectual justification for a conference in real time with real people. So I’m going to try to take advantage of the opportunity.
(3) Commit to a session. In the last few years, my track record of session attendance has been, well, abysmal. So, not only do I hope to attend more sessions, I also am going to make an effort to avoid session hopping. In the past, I have convinced myself that I can curate my own conference session, by hearing person x at one panel and then moving to hear person y at a different panel. Never works. My timing is almost always off, and I end up feeling awfully rude. So this year, even if I attend fewer sessions, I’m going to try hard to commit and truly be part of a session, so I can ask questions responsibly and without qualification (“I came in late, so I don’t know if someone already covered this, but….”)
(4) Go outside. Note: this is not the same as going for a stroll in the mall, which inevitably fuels a shoe-buying habit.
(5) Don’t look over people’s shoulders. It’s common conference practice to scan nametags, see who’s who. No problem. But I’ve noticed that I sometimes do this while talking to someone. Not nice. I will try to stop.
(6) Follow up. Often, during a conference, I’ll feel inspired by a person or idea, and then I’ll wait an entire year to feel re-inspired by the same person and idea. This year, I’m going to work to extend good conversations beyond the conference. I’ll stop thinking of AJS as simply an annual touchstone and instead will imagine it as a starting point.
(7) Buy shoes. Even if all my advice to myself backfires, I might as well come out of the whole thing in style, right?
Lila Corwin Berman is the Murray Friedman Chair of American Jewish History and Associate Professor in the Department of History, and Director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University.