No Panaceas

Wednesday, August 27, 2003
What to do at APSA: I have a request to post something about what new graduate students should do when they visit the American Political Science Assocation (APSA) convention for the first time. (It starts today in Philadelphia.) It's a good question. After more than a decade of attending these things, I still wonder what I should be doing at them. But let's see what I can come up with here.

The first warning I should give about APSA is that it is big. It's by far the biggest political science convention in the world and, frankly, there's just something a little frightening about being in an area filled with thousands of political scientists. How do I put this without provoking trouble -- political scientists aren't the most socially well-adjusted group of people around. (This applies to neither you nor me.) If this is your first convention and you find it just too crowded and hectic, take note that there are lots of smaller conventions out there. But APSA is the one place where virtually all the nooks and crannies of the discipline have a place. Plus, unlike most conventions held in the U.S., this one attracts a large international audience. (Though I fear the current visa chaos will make this year less so.)

The details are laid out in the program but here are the basic formal activities that go on at APSA:

Paper Panels -- these are the backbone of the convention. Usually what happens here is about three or four papers are (hopefully) briefly summarized. One or two discussants then critique the various papers. If time permits the audience might ask questions or the panelists might discuss/argue among themselves. All the papers will belong to a broad category, e.g., Foundations of Political Theory, and they are supposed to share more specific topical or theoretical characteristics, e.g., the work of John Rawls. Sometimes these links can be a bit tenuous. Papers are available online through APSA.

Roundtable Panels: Roundtables feature a group of scholars who discuss a particular topic. This might be a research topic, a discussion of the discipline, the perils of graduate schools, etc. This year I am on a roundtable celebrating the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Kenneth Shepsle's Giant Jigsaw Puzzle.

Poster Sessions: Here authors present their papers in poster form, i.e., salient points are posted on a corkboard. Rather than formally present their paper, as with the paper panels, authors accompany their posters and field questions from interested passersby.

Caucus Meetings/Business Meetings: There are many sub-organizations within APSA and many of these hold a meeting during APSA. For example, one group I belong to is the Legislative Studies Section. They always have a business meeting -- mainly giving out awards.

Receptions: Many many university departments, book publishers, and other organizations hold receptions. These tend to be of the veggie platter/cash bar variety.

President's Address: Thursday night features the APSA president's address. This year's will be followed by the APSA's Centennial Celebration reception.

Book Room: Dozens of publishers set up their wares.

Okay, so what you should do if it's your first time at APSA? My best advice is to: just try to soak stuff up. Don't feel like you have to meet everybody, go to everything, etc. Definitely go to panels but don't try to go to a panel during every time slot for every day you are there. You'll burn yourself out.
Paper panels can teach you a lot about what you will be doing in your future career. Just going and watching will help demystify the entire process. it will teach you how to and how not to deliver a conference paper (you'll recognize the difference readily enough). It will give you a good feel for how discussants do their job. It's an excellent place to learn what the "cutting-edge" questions are in the discipline. WARNING: Panels can be deadly dull. But some can be quite interesting if you care about the questions asked. If you go to a bunch of panels that you thought were interesting and come away utterly dismayed at how uninteresting it all seems, this might be a lesson. It might be a sign that political science is not for you, or it might be a sign that you are not interested in the topic you thought you were interested in. APSA is so big and diverse that you might stumble onto something you didn't know existed (and find fascinating). All in all I can't think of a better place to find out what you want to do in political science or even if you want to do political science.

Posters sessions are still good for more informal one-on-one interaction with authors. It's a better way to meet people than just attending a panel. Roundtables are more freewheeling than paper panels and often the most interesting sessions held at APSA.

Virtually all receptions are open to everybody so go to a few. They are a great place to meet people. If you are a starving graduate student you might piece together a free meal. (Hope you like broccoli.) usually the cash bars are way overpriced.

You can't get much better than Theda Skocpol for a presidential address, and I've heard -- though I don't believe it's true -- that the Centennial Celebration has an open bar. (The Holy Grail for most graduate students.)

Business meetings are deadly boring, but they are a good place to put famous names to faces. Finally, definitely set an hour or so for the book room. You can learn a lot about what books are out there, and you can get plenty of ideas about building future syllabi. You might even get a free book and tote bag or two.

Don't feel like you have to be Joe-Networker at your first conference. However, you also shouldn't feel like you have to be an unseen, unheard from peon just because you are a graduate student. Feel absolutely free to ask questions when the chair solicits them during panels. Don't monopolize a person's time, but don't hesitate to introduce yourself at receptions to people you've heard of (or read). Most political scientists, even the famous ones -- famous within our little sandbox, that is -- are nice people. Some are not, but if some social retard treats you rudely you'll at least have a good story to tell about that person for years to come.

It kind of reminds me of what happened to Jennifer Jason-Leigh's character in The Hitcher: Regardless of how you feel about William Pryor's fitness for the circuit court, it's hard not to feel sorry for him right now. Unless, of course, it's true that he's doing this to help out his judge candidacy (something I don't really believe). See here and here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003
Off again: Sorry for the sporadic posts. I've been traveling a lot. It's off again, this time to a conference in Philadelphia. Yee haw.