This Academic Life
  Conferencing with kids
Just got back from my annual Major Professional Conference, which was in Hawai'i this year (sure beats Chicago or Montreal for weather conditions in late February!). For the first time I was accompanied by my wife and kids, which produced some interesting modifications to the conferencing rhythm I have developed over the years (about nine now, if you count debate meets and model UN sessions in high school and college, and that one "literature and language" conference I attended as a college senior, as preparatory work instead of as the real thing). "Interesting" in the properly ambiguous sense: not wholly worse or wholly better in comparison to my established way of doing these things, but different in significant ways.

I am still trying to sort out how much of the difference with this conference was due to the Hawai'ian setting as opposed to the presence of my kids. Obviously it's configurational, and in that way it makes little sense to try to distinguish the independent impact of either of those factors in anything except a purely analytical sense. But having some sort of ideal-typical specification might be helpful for planning purposes, and this won't be the last conference where my family comes along; hence the exercise seems worthwhile.

Having kids along seems to have altered my conferencing practices in the following ways:

1) lack of sleep. Okay, so my usual conferencing style involves a minimum of sleep anyway, but that's because I am running on intellectual adrenaline and bouncing from stimulating conversation to stimulating conversation (some of which happen during panels, and some of which even happen during panels I am attending -- but most of which don't). Plus, there is some "down time" during the day when I skip a panel session to sit and read or check e-mail or work on discussion comments or whatever. And I generally make up for that lack of sleep, especially for a conference a plane-ride away from my house, on the flight home, but that didn't work this time (see below). Having kids around at a conference is different because non-conferencing time is not down time, but deal-with-the-kids time -- even though my wife certainly handled the lion's share of that task. Dealing with young kids is exhausting, and after a day of panels and meetings, a couple of hours of going to dinner and then putting them to bed is even more draining.

Now, this would not have been anywhere near as big a deal if we'd been able to get a good night's sleep a couple of times to compensate. No such luck: between the time change (-5 hours to Hawai'i, which is a coming-home-from-Europe-quality jet lag) and my son's general proclivity not to sleep well at night (which is made worse in a hotel room where mommy and daddy have a bed just a few feet away…hey, I'm awake, why don't they wake up and take care of me?), I don't think that we got a single uninterrupted night of sleep during the whole week. This will probably improve as the kids get older, and things might have been better if both kids hadn't been sick the whole time. Speaking of which:

2) illness. Both kids had horrible head colds most of the week; my son's turned into a nasty ear infection about mid-conference, necessitating a trip to the local clinic and a regimen of antibiotics. Taking kids out to dinner is always an experience; taking sick, cranky kids is even less fun. But my two least favorite things about having sick kids on a quasi-vacation are a) the fact that sick kids don't want to do anything except stay indoors and watch TV while drinking juice, which made things great fun for my wife and also caused me to feel somewhat guilty when going off to conference knowing that they would just be stuck in the hotel room all day, and b) the fact that sick kids tend to pass their diseases on to others in their immediate vicinity, especially when those persons have stressed systems from jet lag and lack of sleep and the like…so what I first thought was food poisoning when I contracted it during the conference now appears to be (since it has persisted right up to the present) a form of the stomach bug that my son had last week.

Let me just say for the record that playing discussant after a night of stomach and intestinal ailments is not fun. Long plane flights with such issues are equally not fun -- and they certainly aren't made any easier by an energetic daughter too wound up to sleep much. Earlier in the week we did manage to do some things with the kids, and I took my daughter for a hike up Diamond Head one morning (my son wasn't feeling up to it, and I could put my daughter in the backpack kid carrier and just go, which was the only way she could have done the hike). But hopefully they won't be sick at future conferences.

3) pick-up dinners. One of the conferencing dynamics I am quite used to is the pick-up dinner: people finish the last panel, head to the bar, and then a group decides to go out for dinner together and departs -- and usually ends up back in the bar more or less intact several hours later. [Good conference hotels are defined, IMHO, by a centrally located bar with decent drinks and service. If you can get pub food there, so much the better: one-stop shopping for evenings when leaving the hotel is not in the cards.] Tossing kids into the mix changes this dynamic, especially with picky eaters who don't want to eat Indian or Thai or much that is more exotic than, say, hot dogs or pizza or chicken. Plus, kids at dinner is usually somewhat challenging under the best of circumstances -- and these were not the best of circumstances, given illness and the like.

I don't think that this will present much of a problem when they get a little older, although it will require a little more coordination (not sure that the kids hanging out in the bar before dinner is always the best of options, so maybe linking up with them on the way to dinner would be better) -- no problem since the invention of the cel phone, as long as we all remember to keep them charged…

Looking back over these points I am struck by their negative tone. Wouldn't I rather just not bring the family along, and conference the way I always did before? Well, for one thing, I'm not sure how we could have possibly been able to afford a trip to Hawai'i had it not been a work-related expense that can be partially paid for out of my university travel funds. And having the family there meant that I could go and do things with them, such as the aforementioned hike up Diamond Head (perhaps the best non-conference-related thing I did in Hawai'i) and several hours over several days spent on the beach. It also meant that none of us had to feel as frustrated or guilty about going off and doing fun things while the other person was working as sometimes happens when I go to a conference by myself and leave the family at home.

It was also nice to have my wife meet my colleagues at other institutions, people whom I generally only see at conferences but who constitute my primary intellectual community, for reasons that regular readers of this blog can probably suss out for themselves; putting faces with the names is always good, and above and beyond that, occasions for my wife and I to simultaneously be involved in adult conversations with people other than each other have become much rarer since we first had kids. For all of the difficulties involved in juggling kids at dinner and while hanging out between or after panels (the Tapa Bar was open to the outside, so it didn't become overly smoky or crowded -- hence congregating there with kids didn't present as much of a problem as it might have at other conferences), the payoff was probably worth it -- and those difficulties are likely to diminish as the kids get older.

Hopefully they won't be ill next time, either.

More reflections on the conference as the week progresses; got to go deal with the 300+ new e-mail messages now. Sigh.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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