I've just come back from a closed conference on one of my subject areas. It was a wonderful experience--very useful, interesting, productive, collegial, fun--I can't say enough about it. Works-in-Progress conferences are as useful as research conferences (see my post on Con Law Camp) for idea development and refinement. It's always a good time to get feedback, but I believe there are two crucial periods: at the very beginning, when the paper's argument and structure are being refined (thus, suggestions for idea improvement/further resources would be highly useful), and at the end, when you really need critical feedback on how to make your paper better.
My paper was at the beginning, and is basically my literature review for my dissertation applied to a different area of the law--since I can't do my field work until I get IRB approval anyway, and I can't write much more than a lit review without survey data to analyze. It's a more conceptual piece, theory piece, and I got really good feedback at the conference on how to make it different from what's been said before--and then lead into part two of the project, a way of operationalizing the argument into either a qualitative or quantitative study. I say operationalize a lot now, by the way, ever since I started graduate work in the social sciences and think of everything as variables.
So, instead of wondering how I can get this project off the ground as an "in-between" project during my dissertation years, I got great advice: split up the paper. Write a relatively short conceptual piece on what is wrong with the law in light of recent social science research and how the law should be changed in the future (e.g., standards of compliance) based on what I think are the ways in which compliance/efficacy can be measured (again, based on social science research). Part two would be a follow up article, probably a longer project (again, due to IRB approval and data collection/analysis) on how I would myself study different compliance structures and evaluate their efficacy, incorporating research from other disciplines. This, I realize, is perhaps one way of avoiding paper paralysis: the great paper idea you can't get off the ground because you don't know how to make the project manageable, doable, finishable. Also, splitting up a long-term project into two parts will help me get those much needed 2-3 publications before I go on the market in a few years. And, with the feedback I got from the conference, I know how to better refine my idea and argument to make it novel and interesting.
Thanks to everyone at the conference for their feedback. I found the environment incredibly helpful, collegial, and warm. I got to meet some true giants in the field, including my own Best Professor Ever of my Favorite Law School Course. It is very strange presenting at the same conference as your former professor from law school. It is very much like being in the Karate Kid. I wax on, and wax off, grasshopper that I am. But there will always only be one true master. It was very weird calling him by his first name, for example. I am comfortable with calling most professors I meet by their first name, if that is indeed how they introduce themselves (most do), because it's not like I'm a 1L anymore. I have the J.D., the post-graduate degrees, and am soon enough going to be a professor myself. It's not so weird, for example, calling Hipster Law Prof by his first name, even if he is a giant in his field. But then again, he never taught me, and neither have most professors I've met through the blog. It is very different to make that jump from "Professor" to "first name" when you feel like you owe your mental capital and career to someone.
This year's presentation went just as well as last year's. The difference about this year from last year (see this neurotic report for last year's conference) is that I was just plain calmer. Not more confident per se, just assured that things were going to work out, and be what they would be. A lot of people came to my panel, some saying they wanted to see my presentation in particular. Exalted Female Scholar actually said this to me, along with a congratulations. This is incredibly satisfying to hear, considering that last year I hardly slept or ate out of nerves, and felt terrible. This year, I felt normal, and as if I could actually one day be a gainfully employed, working academic with good (interesting, useful, novel) ideas and perhaps even convincing. The difference isn't so much the time as it is the experience--the more I go to these things, the better I am at communicating my ideas. The more I read and write, the better I am at both. It's simple as that. Working and workshopping. There's no easy way of getting around it. You have to put in the work and effort, and with time, you improve.
I'm not much better at networking, but I have found that blog-meet ups have helped me learn to talk to strangers. Also, blogging has made it so that I am not completely isolated and unknown--every time I go to one of these things, I have more friends. Either I meet them from the blog (which is very cool) or I travel more frequently in the same academic circles--and familiarity breeds friendship. I credit this blog with making my second time around better though--a few profs figured out who I am, and some contacted me right before the conference to say hi. This was awesome, and turned the dynamic from stilted, awkward job-talkiness to more casual (but helpful) conversation about academia and the job market.
In short, a great experience.
For a slightly fuller report, go to my blog.