Or you’re wondering if you should go because you didn’t like it last time you went? I’ve been to some 6 ASAs now (not a lot, but enough to draw some generalizations, and hopefully make you feel better about your bad experiences or influence your expectations). So here are some general observations about ASA:
1.) Some people love ASA. Some people hate it. I fell into the latter category for my first several ASAs (see more below). I now don’t mind it. I think the reasons are twofold: (a) I changed my expectations, (b) I now know more people in sociology I don’t get to see very often. So I can do so at ASA. I still don’t like the conference that much. But I go to see people.
2.) You may learn something at ASA about sociology, but I wouldn’t go expecting to. Most panels are not good; many are actually bad. And it is very difficult to predict which ones will be. Think for a moment about the conference from our association’s point of view: They want everyone to go. Many will only go if they are presenting. So there are lots and lots and panels. This lowers the incentive for any one person to present a good paper (who knows if anyone will show up?). There’s a tipping point, and pretty soon all the papers are bad (regardless of how “good” the person presenting is). In my experience, the best papers are by grad students going on the market. I learn things when I go to panels I know nothing about (you usually can’t help it, although sometimes you later find out that what you learned was wrong). But my orientation to ASA is that it is not an intellectual conference. It is a social one. If I’m looking for an intellectual exchange I go to a different conference or hope for a good informal interaction. If you’re very new to sociology: I wouldn’t judge people or the discipline on the basis of this conference.
3.) For grad students in particular, the social interactions at ASA are very frustrating. This is aggravated by the fact that ASA is a social conference. In all likelihood you will get ignored by faculty in your department. This is not because the faculty are mean. It is because they see you all the time and they don’t get to see other sociologists (perhaps THEIR grad school friends) very often. So ASA is not a time for them to hang out with you; it’s a time for them to hang out with others. This is very hard to take, because you might feel snubbed. And it may be worse because some other grad student might tell you about all the famous people they’re meeting and how they’re having an awesome time and they’re just loving it while you’re alone in your room. They’re either lucky, on the market, or lying. Most faculty will take some time to include you, but they will also exclude you from things. This is simply part of the conference. Don’t take it personally. Think about how you will be at the conference in 10 years. You’ll want to see your friends (not grad students and colleagues). And you might get annoyed if a grad student keeps interrupting you. So take advantage of opportunities, but don’t demand them.
4.) Sometimes people are just rude. I have been chatting with folks who have seen someone famous walk by and simply walk away from our conversation. No, “goodbye,” or “sorry, I have to chat with so-and-so,” just complete abandonment, mid-sentence. I have been closed out of conversations (through body language where a circle of folks forms and I’m pushed out, by being ignored, or by having the person I know in the interaction refuse to introduce me). I try not to take this personally. It usually happens around someone famous. And it’s usually not the famous person doing it. It’s the non-famous people who want to get as much time possible with said famous person. You’re collateral damage. This stinks. But it happens. If it’s happened to you, worry not, you’re not alone. It’s happened to me.
5.) Because of #3 & #4 ASA can be frustrating and socially uncomfortable. I’m someone who is fairly socially adept (and in re-reading this sentence, also pretty arrogant!). And it is hard for me to manage the conference. I’m uncomfortable most of the time. I get anxious. So if you do too, you’re not alone.
6.) What frustrates me the most about ASA is just how status-conscious people are. But I think this is a bad strategy (if one is being strategic). It’s great to meet famous people. But here’s the thing: they’re busy. They’re unlikely to be able to help you by reading your work or chatting with you semi-regularly. They also have lots and lots of other people like you trying to say, “Hi! I work on X!” And they’re unlikely to remember you. So I wouldn’t play the status game at ASA (you know, the one where you make a list of famous people you want to meet and then cross them off one by one as you meet them and then brag about it to others). In part because you lose in the end. And you might also end up being rude to others in the process (if even inadvertently, see #4). Find people who can actually help you. People who do things close to what you do, who you can talk to, and who are likely to be longer-term associations within the discipline. This MAY be someone famous. But it’s more likely that it’s someone who isn’t. Someone like me!
7.) You may not meet anyone. You may not do any networking. This is perfectly fine. And it’s more likely than not. As you first start going to conferences it is frustrating. You hear about all this networking you should be doing, and it doesn’t seem to be happening. It’s a long-term process. So after a good few ASAs (and more importantly, specialist conferences) you will start to know people. But at first you are unlikely to meet anyone. When you realize that you just spent over $1000 to hang out with your friends (which you could have done for much less at home) it burns a bit. But in the long run, in addition to being dead, you’ll also meet people.
8.) It is perfectly acceptable, nay, even advisable to take breaks from the conference. I usually have a day when i leave ASA and wander around the city. This refreshes me. I can’t concentrate for more than 2 hours on anything, much less being “on” as a professional sociologists 24 hours a day for five days. So take a break and wander away. It’s worth it.
9.) I may ignore you at ASA. It’s hard for me to recognize people these days. If I do, say hi. I’ll get all embarrassed and feel bad. But I’d rather that than you think I’m rude!
10.) All of this is not to scare you about ASA. Instead, it’s meant to give you a sense of what one guy has experienced and now expects out of the conference. That, and if things don’t go well (or haven’t gone well before), you’ll know you’re not alone. The most fun I have at ASA is sitting at the hotel bar with folks. Something I could do at home, but not with folks who live thousands (or even hundreds) of miles away.
Oh, and Tina and I are planning our party. It’s going to rock. It’ll be the best time you have at ASA.