Edje and several readers gave some excellent advice for first-time MHA attendees. I heartily endorse everything that was said, particularly the need to show up to events like the First-Timers’ Breakfast and the Student Reception (find them here with the rest of the program). MHA’s student rep, Hannah Jung, has worked incredibly hard to make the reception successful. Show up. Get some food. Win a book (everyone that attends will get one). Seriously. DO IT.
All this being said, I think that there are several important things that first-time attending graduate students should keep in mind. After all, we have different concerns than other groups. MHA is one of the better academic organizations I’ve seen for encouraging student participation which can be to your benefit. Before diving in, I want to stress that you need to find ways to make conferences work for you. They are significant investments of time, energy, and money. Make sure that you are doing what you can to get the most out of your MHA experience.
So you’ve decided that you’re going to submit at paper to MHA (you can attend without presenting a paper, but student travel funding from MHA and most academic organizations is contingent upon being on the program). If you’ve been invited to join a panel proposal, congratulations! Panel proposals are more likely to be accepted (you can read more about why HERE). If you don’t have a panel, then take advantage of JI posts like THIS that are designed to bring people together to form complete panels. I would also recommend that you look at previous conference programs (HERE) to see if there are other folks that may want to team up for a panel submission.
As a graduate student, it’s understandable that you’re just focused on being accepted to the program. However, I would encourage you to think about the composition of your panel. Have you invited women, people of color, or other historically underrepresented groups to join your panel? Have you invited more than one? MHA, even more than the Academy itself, is whiter and has an underwhelming ratio of men/women participants. If we want that to change, we have to be a part of the change we are seeking. If you’re attending this year, be sure to attend the Women of Mormon History Panel at MHA.
When you submit your paper, be sure to apply for Travel Funding from MHA. They really work hard to fund as many students as possible. In my experience, I can cover conference costs by using travel funding and sharing a room with at least one other conference participant. The student representative can help point you to others looking to share rooming costs.
AT THE CONFERENCE
Go to panels that feature topics you’re interested in and where scholars you’d like to know are presenting. Ask good questions, which I define as questions that show that you listened and that you want follow-up information, not “I wanted to mention my own research” or “I have a hyper-specific question that will take a lot of time from the Q&A.” In fact, you may consider seeking out the presenter and asking the question after the Q&A panel. If your question is complicated and/or will take awhile to answer, you may want to ask the speaker if you could send them an email after the conference. That gives the scholar time and space to consider the question. It also means they have your email address–which may help you with forming panels or other relationships down the line.
Try to meet 3-5 new people at the Annual Meeting. You don’t have to be bosom buddies. You don’t have to call each other throughout the year. But it’s a good idea to get to know people, support them, and be a friendly face. Follow people on Twitter and tweet about their paper. Keep in touch. Go to meals, especially smaller meals like the First-Timer breakfast and the MWHIT breakfast. Go to meals with people.
MHA is the only conference I’ve ever been to where a Bancroft winner and one of the top scholars in American religion sat by themselves in several sessions or at receptions. In my experience, although with notable examples, senior scholars are kind and are willing to speak to you if you’re not trying to take all of their time. If someone doesn’t have time at one point of the conference doesn’t mean they won’t be able to speak to you for a few minutes later on.
Buy a book from one of the many presses that come to the MHA Exhibitor’s Hall. Reward their investment. Think about where your projects fit in with their Mormon History offerings if you’re considering turning your work into a book. Books are often discounted, whether from presses or from Benchmark Books. If you don’t have the funds, then you may consider reviewing the book for Juvenile Instructor, the Journal of Mormon History, or other periodicals. If you’re interested in reviewing a book for JI, please let me know!
In short, I believe that conferences are about the relationships you create as much as about the information you gain. Relationships are almost certain to last longer than the specifics of a presentation. Whether you’re introverted or extroverted or somewhere in between, be kind and reach out as much as you are comfortable.
AFTER THE CONFERENCE
When you’ve come home from the conference and caught up to your responsibilities on the homefront, take some time to evaluate what you enjoyed at MHA and what you’d like to do differently in another year. Did your paper go as well as you liked? Did you use or not use a PowerPoint? What questions did the audience ask you? Do you think you’ll turn your paper into a peer-reviewed article, blog post, book chapter, op-ed, or bumper sticker? Was attending worth your time and money? Are there folks that you’d like to stay in touch with on social media or via email? Are you planning to submit for the 2019 Conference in Salt Lake City? What should I submit to the Publication Workshop? Did I learn about grants or awards for which I may be eligible? When do they need to be applied for? You should adapt questions to your individual circumstances, but be sure to take stock of these types of things. You’ll be glad you did when it comes to applying for and attending other conferences.
What other suggestions do you have? Leave them in the comments!