Monday, June 01, 2009

Things I learned at the LSA

I'm back! I had a productive and overall good experience. I presented and got some good feedback, I attended panels and learned interesting things about new research projects and developments, I schmoozed a bit, talked to really nice people who are interested in my future, and explored a bit of the city. I maintain that Orly Lobel still has the best advice for how to have a successful LSA experience, but here are a few of my own tips for struggling, poor graduate students, and lessons learned the hard way.

Cheapness tips:

1. Don't stay at the conference hotel if you can't afford it.

With another friend, I split the cost of a cheap motel (the Ramada Inn) a good mile away in the grungier parts of Denver's downtown, at a rate that was at least $50-75 less per night than the conference hotel. True, it was a bit of a 20 minute walk, but the motel had free wireless, and a free shuttle service that dropped us off and picked us up wherever we wanted in downtown. The reviews were pretty bad, but I like the idea of gonzo academia (which this wasn't!) and I thought of the pervasive smell of smoke and '70s decor as part of the hotel's character. I actually liked the grungy neighborhood, which reminded me much of Liberal College City, except with restaurants actually open late with lots of young, happy and hip people inside of them drinking and cavorting. Denver is a cool city! Seriously, take TripAdvisor's reviews with a grain of salt. If you are not The Princess and the Pea, you will be fine. I am all bourgie and up in that with my 350 thread count sheets I got on sale and my Le Creuset dutch oven that I got for Hanukkah and love of brand named snack foods (generic Doritos != the same!), but I did just fine. I loved the neighborhood full of brick houses and dive bars and coffee shops, and the only "characters" I ran into were two nuns who tried to convert me.

2. GoogleMap your location to find grocery stores and reduce the amount you have to eat out.

I wanted to pack food, but I also wanted to not check in luggage. I compromised by hitting a grocery store (Whole Foods! Very bourgie!) 0.5 miles away when I arrived, picking up lots of non-perishable fruit, muffins (if our motel room had had a fridge, I would have bought cereal and milk and lunch meats and bread for lunch), nuts, and graham crackers. I spent maybe $25 for the two of us, and we had a healthy breakfast every day, and fruit snacks throughout the day. Conference people stopped me to ask where I got my apple, so starved were they for non-cookie nourishment. Even though I dislike shopping at expensive grocery stores for basic items, by buying Gala apples on sale for $1.99/lb (not my usual ethnic grocery store price of $0.79, but certainly better than the $2.99 they were asking for Fujis, my favorite apple) and bananas and $4.39 for four flax/apple muffins, I didn't spend too much for four breakfasts and four days of snacks for two people, and it was much cheaper than buying marked up muffins and coffee at a Starbucks. Because I don't eat much, I actually was able to avoid paying for anything more than dinner, so long as I supplemented all of this with a big glass of milk in the form of a latte. So I basically only spent $20 a day on food, max, what with a $3.50 latte, the aforementioned muffin and fruit, nuts and crackers, and a not expensive dinner.

3. Eat as much free food as possible.

We filled up at the receptions and drank the free coffee and took home the cocoa packets they had on the table. That also helped us work the room, saying hi to recognizable academics in our field, old professors, and new contacts, as we migrated from the sliders table to the salad bar to the pasta bar to the meat bar. Follow your stomach, and you too might make friends and influence future hiring chairs.

4. Get a law professor to take you out to dinner.

I am actually really loathe to let anyone pay for my dinner because I just feel awful about it, but real professors do get comped and so maybe I am not a terrible person. And I didn't order anything bigger than a $3 mac and cheese side (I had filled up too much on free food and my cheap muffins and apples), so I guess I shouldn't feel too bad, especially if the law prof in question is a friend and the nicest person in academia. And it lets you get to spend more time with academics and make friends and talk about your research, before you move onto more important things like talking about which HBO series is best.

5. Don't drink.

I am always glad that in academia, no one ever questions why you are not drinking and there's no peer pressure to drink and keep up. I just don't like drinking enough to begin with, and it's needlessly expensive. And since we were at high altitude, everything just affected me more--dehydration, caffeine, alcohol. I had maybe two drinks out of politeness and sociability, and I didn't finish either of them. Good thing they were cheap drinks.

Lessons learned the hard way:

1. Submit your drafts early, and consider workshopping the same paper at a smaller colloquium.

Most people don't submit until the last minute (ahem), so the feedback is of limited quality and utility, but I guess the point of the LSA is to meet and greet in the halls and receptions, and everyone generally acknowledges that the panels suck. There are too many of them, and so panelists often outnumber audience, and even if there is an audience, there is at most 10 minutes after the discussant/chair goes through the papers for there to be any commentary from your fellow panelists or the audience. I asked a couple of decent questions, but in general the panels I attended had limited participation, which is a bit frustrating compared to my very good experiences at smaller colloquia.

2. Belle is much more popular than The Real Life Alter Ego.

I should always introduce myself as Belle Lettre. I am much more popular than my RLAE. I introduced myself as _______ at the Prawfs/Co-Op happy hour, and got a polite nod and a few questions about myself. I re-introduced myself as Belle Lettre, and immediately got enthusiastic "I love your blogging!" and "when are you going on the market?" and "you should consider this fellowship!" responses, and much sustained chit chatting about law, life, and everything. Because I was not drinking, I was sharp and personable and perky and if I may say, charming. Some people need alcohol to be more charming. While I certainly laugh more and so you become more charming if I drink, I myself am slower and slurry speeched after drinking. I suggest staying sober, talking about the panels and about your own research, and asking the people there about any advice they might give you.

3. Be prepared for altitude sickness.

I didn't get it, but in general, you should remember to drink lots of water when you're a mile above sea level. I was constantly thirsty though, so I very fortunately did bring lots of water. They had free water, of course, but I made it even easier by saving my free water bottle and re-filling it so that I could bring water from panel to panel.

4. You could get a ruptured ear drum or ear infection.

My left ear has been feeling blocked, and my hearing has felt muffled and decreased, since last Wednesday. It may have to do with the change in pressure and elevation I've been experiencing because of flying and being in Mile High City. It hasn't improved, and TD says I could go deaf and whatever. So I am going to call the health center tomorrow. Sigh.

5. Get out and see the city.

It is so exhausting going to all the panels and running around with only 15 minutes in between each session. I took off a couple of the afternoon sessions to walk around and get a feel for the city. We took the entire Saturday afternoon off to go to the Denver Aquarium. We actually had fun at the LSA and were much more relaxed than we usually are at conferences. I strongly suggest doing this. I also suggest meeting up with a cool local blogger for dinner, which is such a welcome relief from the exhausting schmoozefest of the receptions. Blogging has certainly made my conference going more enjoyable, because I never lack for a dinner companion and local guide!

So that's it from me. I will say that it's good to be back, even though I had just one day with TD before he went off to a conference of his own. Conferences in general are a huge time and energy and money suck, and it's a lot of time away from family, but all things considered, this was one of my more enjoyable conference experiences. I wasn't stressed all the time, I had fun, I made friends and contacts, and I got to see the city. I wasn't nearly puking from nervousness or overwhelmed with loneliness in a motel room at 2 am like I was at my first conference. Part of that is experience, of course, but it's also because through blogging I've come to "know" more people, whether at the conference or just in the city, and that's made it a lot better. I've also learned how to be more "normal" when traveling, e.g. by buying groceries and eating healthier. I've forced myself to be more social and set up dinner dates and go to receptions. I've made it a point to try to keep walking or stay active during these jaunts too, which makes me feel better and hopefully counteracted some of the mac and cheese and buffalo meatloaf I ate. All in all, a good conference experience, which is as much as you can ask for!