How (not) to conference

In early April, I once again attended the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG), this time in Washington, DC. While there, I presented, along with my research assistant/co-author, a paper on the geographies of rotationality in the US and Canadian foreign services. Rotationality is a basic condition of work in almost all foreign services, and refers to the movement between foreign postings, and sometimes back home to the ministry or department headquarters in the national capital, over the course of a career, usually every two to four years. It is, we argued, a fundamental spatial practice shaping the work and life of diplomats, but is understudied within geography. So we looked at some basic examples related to rotationality and working ‘at post’, including embassy location and design, the foreign post as a workplace and social cohesion within it, and the role of diplomatic spouses and families and social reproduction amid rotation of personnel. It was well-received, all the papers in our session were quite good, and even though we were stuck in a tiny room in a back hallway with only about 18 chairs, we had a good, robust engagement with the other presenters, the audience, and the discussant. We were also able to do a bit of research while in Washington, though I won’t get into that since part of it involved an interview. Overall, on a personal level, a pretty successful conference, and in the midst of all that, I learned that the final version of a paper I presented at last year’s conference in New Orleans (co-authored by two previous research assistants and including bits from a paper presented at the 2017 Canadian Association of Geographers conference) had been published in the journal Political Geography. I am quite happy with our work on this one, and thanks to the magic of SSHRC funding, it is available open access, i.e., accessible to the world with no paywall. If you are interested, it is available here for download.

But back to the 2019 AAG and the title of this post. This year I traveled to the conference with the whole family for the first time. This meant my spouse and a small but vigorous child accompanied me, and this makes for an interesting experience of the large academic conference, which is not, as you may know, even remotely designed with children in mind. And why would it be? In any case, it was quite fun but did throw a wrench into a planned day of attending sessions, especially when they start at 8:00 am, and your child decides that 7:57 am is the proper time to take a big dump in his pants.

Those without children will likely find this gross. Those with will perhaps think, yes, but how many times did that happen? Only once? Count yourself lucky.

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In the end, my attendance at conference sessions was, let’s call it, minimal. I did find time to attend a plenary session at which former US Attorney General Eric Holder spoke about gerrymandering, to peruse the book exhibition and find ideas for my 2019-20 courses, and to attend a few other sessions and the Political Geography Specialty Group business meeting. There were several paper and panel sessions I might have attended, but either chose not to attend or simply missed because of time commitments I made with my family to take some advantage of being in Washington. And we did, with multiple trips to the National Mall, including visits to the cherry blossoms at the Jefferson Memorial, the US Botanical Garden, the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which is relatively new and had an excellent exhibit on place and meaning. I also took the chance to visit the Department of the Interior’s main building, in order to get some stamps in my nerd book, i.e., my national parks passport. They have a very small museum about the department and the National Park Service, but also some beautiful WPA murals and reliefs on the walls, more apparently than any other federal office building. I could not go roaming around in the building, but right outside the museum are these two reliefs by Boris Gilbertson, of moose and bison, completed in 1939.

None of this is that different from previous AAG conferences, when I often do not get up early enough for 8:00 am start times for paper sessions, and simply can’t sit through multiple sessions in a row in what are often inhospitably cold, bland, and windowless conference rooms. I also have become over the last several years very selective in what I like to attend at the conference. I cannot get much out of four or five academic papers read to me in succession, or series after series of Power Point slides. There is an art to conference paper writing and presentation, and a lot of academics simply have never been pushed to hone this aspect of our craft. The paper sessions I did attend — in particular a couple on urban America in the 1980s, organized by some close friends of mine (check out their work here and here) — were great, and good conversations always follow. But I also did not do my due diligence this year in preparing by reading through the program closely before leaving for DC, or plotting out which sessions might be of most interest, or, most importantly, by making a clear schedule with my family beyond the day I had my own paper presentation. So… how not to conference, based on my own experience this year. I trust that some of my readers will be able to respond with tips and advice and their own experience of attending conferences with family in tow, and I have an idea to finish with that I hope will be useful for all of who might attend the 2020 AAG in Denver next April.

First, then, I didn’t have a real conference plan more than a day in advance and that was a mistake. Coordinating with my spouse about what was going to happen each day meant trying to scroll through the program to see what I might attend or remind myself what I had bookmarked in the AAG conference app, usually either late the night before or early in the morning. In the former case, it meant we had to be quiet since we were in one darkened room with a sleeping toddler; in the latter, it meant trying to identify a daily schedule while one of us had to feed said toddler and get him dressed while the other scrambled to get ready and then decide collectively on a breakfast plan. Not the most ideal situation. I think it would have been better to do one or both of two things: one, just declare some days ‘conference days’ and other days ‘family days’ and never the twain shall meet, and two, not stay in a regular hotel room, which did not provide the space or infrastructure to have breakfast properly to start the day with someone who doesn’t quite have spoons down yet (but is close!). These options might constrain the conference experience by blocking whole days off, but would have reduced stress and made planning a lot easier.

Second, there was a lot to do in Washington, as there would be in almost any large city that can host this behemoth conference (almost – sorry, Tampa, I loved you in 2014, but your options are, relatively speaking, limited), and so my spouse had a lot to do since the conference was not her bag. But, toddler in tow means a lot of equipment and a real limit on how many interesting museums you can stroll around in or the number of nice restaurants you can check out, or whether you can navigate the metro and the city and thousands of other tourists on your own and not be exhausted by 4 pm, especially if your partner is spending his/her day funning it up all day in windowless conference rooms back at the hotel. So again, family day versus conference day, but also we should probably have spent more time charting out some realistic options for what to do with a little kid. We did some of that, but I wish I had made some maps and done a bit more research and planning for that so we could all get the most of our experience of Washington and the conference. My very helpful DC-based friend with children who I happened to see at Chipotle one afternoon did give me excellent local guidance on the location of some playgrounds and even offered some family-friendly restaurant advice. Local knowledge to the rescue! But the AAG also offered some subsidized daycare services at “Camp AAG” that I did not investigate until too late and then didn’t have a chance to use. This seems a good idea, but it was basically local childcare service providers in a couple hotel conference rooms with toys, videos, and so on. Not so bad, but again, research in advance would have helped.

To that end, I propose an idea here to any and all who might be headed to Denver next April for AAG 2020. Can we make an open map (like on Google Mpas or something) in which we share knowledge of local places that are good for children and parents in Denver attending the conference together? Over the next year, anyone with knowledge of places in Denver and the surrounding area that might be good for children – playgrounds, parks, places to eat, museums, activities and events, advice on getting around with kids, any of this – could add to it with brief descriptions or tips and ideas and questions. I know lots of colleagues in the geography world are doing research on “children’s geographies” and that many, many people are accompanied to the conference by family. So anyone with much more experience and expertise than I can muster, please let me know if this is re-inventing the wheel or if something like this already exists. If not, I can create some kind of google map accent to get started and share it with the world, or if there’s a better platform or format, let me know.