When I was in elementary school I attended Girl Scout camp one summer and completely hated it. I was an introverted homebody as a kid and not designed for the instant kumbaya-style friendships that Hayley Mills movies train camp-goers to expect. The end of the summer found me not crying and swapping homemade lanyards with my cabin-mate but instead with my bags packed and ready to go, eager to scrub an entire repertoire of earworm camp songs about canoes and cleaning the latrine out of my brain.
I can still sing every single one of those songs. And yet I can’t remember the plots to most Dickens novels.
My parents sent me to camp with excellent intentions, so I feel a little guilty about just how aggressively I hated it. When, weeks before I boarded the bus, the camp’s packing list arrived in the mail, my mom and I went shopping for throw-away clothes to go “bogging” in.* Dutifully, mom purchased me a faded pair of pants and an old Esprit graphic tee-shirt, because it was the early 90s.
Neither mom nor I knew precisely what “bogging” meant — to my more mature ears it has a distinct “this is a dirty word for the Brits” ring to it — but apparently in the Girl Scout camp context it means slogging through a swamp for fun. (As one does.) But I suppose I’ll never understand the appeal of bogging, because I didn’t go. Miserable and homesick, I stayed in my cabin, and a few hours later I watched as the girls returned in their own throw-away clothes, provided by their own parents. They were loud and laughing and completely coated in mud. In my memory, their arms are thrown chummily around one another’s necks, as if they were posing for a photo that would appear on next year’s Thin Mints box, but I think that’s my brain’s embellishment.
The memory is likely inaccurate but it echoes. Me opting out — too shy or nervous or convinced I’m on the outside to join in. When I made the decision to remain cabin-bound, I’m sure I was hoping someone would insist just hard enough that I should come along, and then I felt deeply and irrationally wounded when it didn’t happen. I’m still well acquainted with the self-satisfied self-pity that accompanies such refusals to be a joiner, and it’s always followed by a sad stomach-plunge, a recognition that I probably made the wrong call. That I should have run to catch up. That sometimes, when no one has the forethought to invite you along, you have to invite yourself.
Sometimes that week of Girl Scout camp feels like it established some sort of emotional foundation for my life.
For example: I thought about my bogging opt-out this week, when I was a panelist for our English Graduate Student Association’s roundtable on all the elements of conference professionalization outside delivering your paper — primarily socializing and networking. To me, one of the most harrowing moments of any conference can be lunchtime, when (especially to a newcomer) it seems like all of the conference attendees who have been happily dispersed across a series of frigid hotel ballrooms suddenly organize into impenetrable foursomes with reservations at a local restaurant, planned a week ago. The hotel lobby after that pre-lunch panel can feel like a sadistic hybrid of the cafeteria on the first day of middle school, when you smilingly clutch your tray on the periphery and hope your cool new sneakers entice someone to invite you to join their table, and gym class on dodgeball day, when you stand in a slowly shrinking queue of the unathletics as cross-armed team captains choose their crew.
I assume that many academics, although not all, were in the ranks of the unathletic middle schoolers.
In the past — both far and very recent — when I’ve been one of those uncomfortable people without friends and a reservation, I’ve grabbed a sandwich and retreated to my hotel room, simultaneously cursing the foursomes and yearning for their friendship. I’ve done the same during opening receptions, cocktail hours, and coffee breaks. With no enthusiastic invitation forthcoming, I’ve relived my no-bogging days. At the end of lunch hour, I’ve watched those academic kumbaya friends meander back into conference rooms, their arms chummily around one another’s necks (mostly metaphorically).
These days I usually have lunch buddies, which I offer as a testament to the fact that even for the most stubborn opters-out attending a conference a few years in a row is one of the surest remedies to the Horrible Lunch Moment. But I also recognize that attending a conference a few years in a row is often impossible, due to family responsibilities or professional pressures or financial limitations. And while I also believe that ensuring conferences are inclusive spaces is the responsibility of senior members of the organization, I recognize that for those senior members conferences are rare opportunities to reconnect with faraway friends and colleagues. While some of these senior people are Genuine Jerkfaces, most are just forgetful in the rush of familiar faces to reach out to the cafeteria-tray-clutchers. (I say this without letting myself off the hook, as someone who has scurried off with friends, neglecting those who need company.)
So last week, when talking with graduate students about conference lunches, I was thinking about ways that those without lunch plans can feel less uncomfortable as the clock approaches noon. And these are practices that I will likely turn to myself, because every now and then I venture outside of children’s literature studies and, once again, feel like I need cool sneakers to attract friends. Here’s what I’m thinking.
If the conference you’re attending does not host themed group lunches, or opportunities for conference-goers to easily connect with other lone lunchers, ask them to. Email the organizers. This takes planning, of course, but other lone lunchers will thank you.
If group lunches are unavailable, harness academics’ insatiable appetite for social media to assemble a group. Use the conference’s hashtag to identify others who want company, or to create your own ad hoc themed lunch. (“Hello, #ChLA people! I’m new to this conference and would love to grab a bite with others. Anyone up for tacos?” might work. Or: “Anyone at #INCS interested in talking about article publishing over cheesesteaks?”)
If you, unlike me, have a modicum of shame and do not feel excellent about proclaiming your lone lunch status on social media, find ways to invite yourself along with others in a manner that works with your social style. I am embarrassed to admit that I often practice such hornings-in before a conference. Out loud. In the car and in the shower and to my cat. What could I say if I’m sitting next to a nice person at a panel and want to tag along, if possible, for a meal? “It’s been really nice to meet you. Do you have plans for lunch? Do you mind if I join you?” To me, this is extremely hard to do, and that’s coming from someone who has grown from a person who didn’t think twice about opting out of bogging and then regretting it to a pretty obnoxious hanger-on. And sometimes the answer to your self-invitation is no. That’s how the conference lunch cookie crumbles.
As a colleague pointed out during our conference roundtable: keep in mind that you should be networking in all directions, not just with those more senior than you are. Conferences are great places to meet mentors, but they’re also great places to meet peers. Find the other early grad students, ABD dissertators, job seekers, and junior faculty. They’re also often looking for lunchmates.
And I should end with what I hope is obvious but, like most things in academia’s shadow curriculum, probably isn’t: don’t feel guilty if you don’t want to go to lunch with anyone. Conferences are exhausting when you’re having a good time and punishing when you’re not, and you should pass on moments of unstructured socialization if you want to. I have enjoyed many a quiet meal alone at the deli next door.
Or a Starbucks muffin while reviewing my notes.
Or entire pizza in my hotel room while watching reruns of Mad About You.
* As an adult, I’m struck by the audacity of “throw-away clothes,” evidence of what a luxury summer camp is, and with what abandon some camps assume the kind of financial stability that sustains the idea of clothes purchased to destroy and discard.