Earlier this week I had the distinct pleasure of assisting the staff of the Association for Jewish Studies with conference registration. Running a conference is labor intensive, and the conference organizer asked graduate students if they were willing to help staff various tables on the first and second day, when most registrants arrive. I wish I could say I volunteered out of a sense of altruism and dedication to the Jewish Studies community, but they offered to reimburse my conference registration fee in exchange for my labor. The experience ended up being much more than just remuneratively valuable, though, because I was assigned tasks where I could meet many of the academics in my field.
The first day, I worked at the registration table printing new badges for attendees. As scholars shuffled up one by one to apologize for losing or misplacing their badges, I put faces to names of authors whose works I read for my doctoral exams or for my research. On the second day, I handed out tote bags and badge holders to newly arrived registrants. I had the pleasure of meeting a historian whose article on Oscar Janowsky--the scholar who directed the Jewish Welfare Board's 1947-48 study of Jewish Centers and thus shaped the postwar agenda for JCC programming and growth--helped me understand the politics at play in the Janowsky Survey. I also met two of my "academic crushes," historians whose work lead me towards the big questions that animate my research.
I also met many of the staff members of the AJS, who run many academic programs and workshops in addition to the annual conference. They were all so lovely to me and provided words of support when I got nervous before my presentation. They ran such a tight ship, and I was impressed by their foresight. I enjoy event planning and organization, and it was helpful to see how the sausage gets made, per se, when you host an event of this size. Additionally, it was a great opportunity to meet the other graduate student volunteers. We chatted throughout our shifts and it was an easy way to make new colleague-friends.
I would highly recommend that other graduate students take advantage of volunteer opportunities at conferences. I'm sure that the experience varies across conferences and disciplines, but volunteering is an easy, fun way to network. The registration table was an invaluable place to introduce myself to scholars. The informality of the setting made the interaction less intimidating and more social. Volunteering also fostered a sense of involvement with the wider organization--you feel that you are actively creating a communal atmosphere and facilitating scholarly engagement. Finally, it's the best kind of productive procrastination. Volunteering at a conference is a great opportunity to feel like you're working on your career and your research even though you're not staring at the screen of your laptop!