It’s the Spring conference season, and if your graduate school experience was anything like mine, nobody talked to you about how to pack for the semiannual excursions you’ll have to take to meet up with colleagues from other institutions. This blog post offers a checklist of the questions I ask myself as I prepare for academic travel, and hopefully they can help you too!
First question: where am I going?
There’s a big difference between going to a conference at, say, University of Minnesota, and going to one at University of Miami. The respective climates of these destinations impacts how you should prepare. If you’re going to be in Miami, you’ll likely need linen pants, a bathing suit, and to start doing sit-ups at least six weeks ahead of time. If you’re going to Minnesota, you’ll probably need to bring extra sweaters, more books, and either anti-depressants or Advil for the specific type of Midwestern hangover caused by drinking cheap beer.
Second question: who else is going to attend?
There’s also a big difference between going to a militantly casual hippie love fest in Fairfax or Vancouver and going to a professional meeting of staid veterans in your discipline at a big conference center. When attending the former taking a shower, ironing your clothes, or even preparing intellectually in any significant way will just make you look like a square. When attending the latter, you’ll need to dress as close to the way that the old white men who hold named professorships in your field at the Best Colleges dress (even if you’re a young brown woman. Actually, probably especially if you’re a young brown woman).
Third question: what’s my role at this event?
If you’re going to present your work at the conference, it’s worth thinking about how your dress accompanies or contradicts the thesis of your presentation. If you’re making an argument embracing the chaos and revolutionary potential of the open web, jeans, a ripped tee-shirt, and a baseball hat are probably the best outfit (though, avoid wearing a Yankee hat, since that particular organization is seen by many as the embodiment of corporate hegemony). If you’re making an argument about the role of flora in Emily Dickinson’s pre-Civil War years, then perhaps consider wearing a suit with a bright colored tie or a long floral-print skirt and a subdued blouse.
If you’re not presenting, it’s worth thinking about how your dress accompanies or contradicts your goal in attending the conference. If you’re there to attract the attention of senior scholars in your field, get a haircut and dress boldly so that they notice you in the hotel bar and remember that earlier you were sitting eagerly in the front row as they read their paper out loud for forty-five minutes. If you’re there to try to hook up with another attendee, any other attendee, then you might bring leather pants to change into for evening events. If you’re tenured, your department is picking up your registration fees, and you really just want to hear a few interesting conversations and eat free finger food, then the only reason not to wear sweat pants is that you’ll be remembered at the following year’s conference as the person who wore sweat pants in 2010. If that doesn’t matter to you: go for it!
Fourth question: I’m flying. Should I check my bag, or carry it on?
If you’re used to traveling with children, this is an opportunity to travel light, and your packing skills are probably evolved enough so that you can fit all your things into a carry-on. But be aware: this will place certain limitations on what you can and cannot pack. If you’re bringing a suit, you’ll probably need a garment bag, though those are kind of expensive, break easily, and hold fewer items than other types of luggage. If you’re using traditional carry-on luggage, consider choosing a single color scheme for your outfits for the weekend, which will limit the number of items you have to take. For instance, if you’re wearing a black outfit one day, but a brown one the next, you’d probably need to bring two pairs of shoes and two belts (that is if you are the kind of academic who cares about things like “matching”). Avoid such situations at all costs!
It would also help to think about the various places you might find yourself while on the trip. Might you lounge by the pool? Will you have considerable downtime in your hotel, when you might write, grade papers, or do yoga? Do participants in your discipline favor medieval theme restaurants or strip clubs? Each of these endeavors will require a change of clothes you should anticipate. If you’re a runner, and you can’t possibly function unless you get your miles in, factor this into your overall planning, but think long and hard about whether or not your running shoes might also work for the more casual moments on your trip. Bringing a third pair of shoes which occupy the great distance between formal footwear and dedicated exercise footwear can really put a crimp in your packing efficiency.
Thinking about these questions really helps me get through conference season with minimal packing agita. Even still, sometimes you just can’t prepare for the unexpected: a torrential downpour, the spilled glass of wine or marinara, or the ripped pant leg. But as long as you keep a happy outlook, and keep in mind that this conference experience is only one element of what will determine your success as an academic, you’ll be just fine!
H/t to Tom Woodward for first satirizing The Chronicle.