An academic’s life: Back from a conference

First of an occasional series on an academic’s life

Last night I returned from a political science conference, the New England Political Science Association (NEPSA) annual meeting, which was held in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Why do academics go to conferences? How does it relate to their overall work?

Most nonacademics are hazy about what academics do. Heck, even my own mother doesn’t really know, often saying things that imply that I’m off for the summer — something that’s decidedly not the case.

In fact, all of my breaks — within and between semesters — are awfully busy. In March, the University of Maine had a two week spring break, during which I took two days off.  My typical week during the academic year finds me working all day Monday-Friday and working an average of five evenings a week (Sunday-Thursday) and at least one weekend day.

One reason I and most academics are so busy is that our jobs have three main parts: teaching, research, and service. As I continue this occasional series, I’ll explain more about each.

Conferences mostly involve the research piece.

At NEPSA, I presented two co-authored research papers, one with Prof. Jim Melcher of the University of Maine-Farmington, and the other with Prof. Emily Shaw of Thomas College.  Including footnotes and bibliographies, one was 36 pages long and the other 37 pages. One compared the themes of the tea party movement, as identified by scholars and journalists, to the rhetoric of 14 tea party-associated governors. The other discussed cultural, political and structural aspects surrounding and affecting voting law politics in Maine.

As these papers were co-authored, this meant I did not write the entire first drafts. As collaborative projects, however, every part of the paper was planned, discussed and edited by me and by my co-authors.  We have been working on the research for awhile and having these two papers to complete and present were some of the sources of my busyness this particular academic year.

Moreover, the paper on voting laws was part of a panel on voting law changes in the states that I proposed for the conference, after having recruited scholars to write papers about New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Every paper presented is part of a set of papers that are presented in a session of close to two hours. As part of the panel, the discussant — a scholar who has received the papers beforehand and read them closely — offers comments and suggestions for revision. Panel members, the discussant, and audience members ask questions and discuss the papers and issues related to them.

Besides presenting two co-authored papers, I was the discussant on a panel with three papers. One was an analysis of all states that had passed voting restrictions and it used a series of statistical models to determine which factors led to these being proposed and adopted. Another assessed campaign messaging involving illegal immigration and tested whether and how messages’ effectiveness was affected by explicit and implicit biases involving Hispanics.  The last assessed the link between membership in the contemporary black church and other sorts of civic and political activities.

Typically the conference presentation is an early step for research. Taking this feedback into account, the paper is revised and then submitted to a journal, where it undergoes blind peer review to determine if it will be published. The papers on voting laws, if determined to be of adequate quality, will be published together, as part of a special issue of a political science journal.

What else happens in conferences?

Besides such formal activities — presenting papers and serving as a discussant — I went to other sessions, heard two speakers at conference luncheons, and talked to a lot of political scientists.

One lunch talk was really amazing, as I heard fascinating stories behind the deliberations for the major school desegregation case, Brown v Board of Education. I’ll likely buy that speaker’s book and weave what I learned into lectures about the judiciary, a topic that’s not my main research field, but about which I teach as part of an introductory course.

I ran into a political scientist who offered an explanation for why Connecticut is “going the other way” on voting laws, expanding access with a law enabling election-day registration.  I’m hoping he can write a paper for the special journal issue in the works.

I had a conversation with another who encouraged me to think about the Senate run of Angus King in the context of New England’s marked regional propensity to support independent governors and senators. This will inform my writing and commentary for the public and might even prompt me to write something scholarly on the race.

I was offered and accepted an opportunity for service, in the form of membership on the board of the New England Political Science Association. I’m pleased about this since it’s an exceptionally good meeting and has a warm place in my heart, perhaps in part because I once won the group’s award for the best paper presented at the conference.

Conferences vary in size and thematic emphasis, and some are less oriented toward research but may concern teaching or involve individuals who are all recipients in a particular grant program.

In any case, academics go to conferences mostly because of research, but they also get involved in service, develop knowledge for teaching, and learn and build networks. I’ve found future research collaborators at conferences and made connections enabling me to bring resources to my own campus.

Any questions? Please ask.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.