Tales from the Conference World

By Christina Morin

I’m just back from the conference I mentioned in my recommendations for this month and am full of ideas to pursue, books to read, and potential articles to write. In fact, the past month and a half has proven an incredibly exciting time for my research, largely thanks to the stimulating conferences I’ve attended. I may habitually complain about the time conferences consume when travel, paper-writing, and attendance is factored in, but, the fact is, a good conference can be worth weeks of dedicated library time in terms of advancing research goals, introducing new perspectives, and tweaking arguments. It’s not just the act of pulling together a coherent 20-minute paper – as we all know, a pretty spectacular feat in itself – but also the sometimes uncomfortable necessity of introducing yourself to peers from other universities, of making a point of meeting scholars whose work you appreciate, and of generally putting yourself out there as an interested individual engaged in (one hopes!) interesting, related research. In a word – networking.

If I’m attending a well-established conference for the first time, I more often than not find myself suddenly and uncharacteristically shy and socially awkward. This is when the great social lubricant – wine – can come in very handy, and I think the practice of hosting a wine reception on the first evening of a conference a very good idea. Kudos to the person who thought that up! Although it’s a good idea to proceed with caution, especially when you’re a lightweight like me, these receptions afford the perfect opportunity to meet and greet, as, of course, do the many coffee breaks, dinners, social events, and impromptu drinks. Many a fruitful collaboration has been forged in these more informal and therefore, more comfortable, spaces.

That’s not to say, however, that the formal activity of conferences – paper presentations and the discussion that follows – is not also extremely productive.  So valuable can such participation be, in fact, that I can think of nothing worse than presenting at a conference to an empty room, or to an audience comprised of one or two stragglers who, it turns out, have mistakenly wandered in while searching for another session altogether. Of course, it’s pretty standard to meet someone’s apology for not attending your paper with a self-deprecating statement such as, ‘Well, you didn’t miss much’, but I’d venture to say that, when it comes down to it, most of us would vastly prefer a packed room or even a less well-attended room full of interested and attentive readers, than nobody at all.

We all have stories of sessions where that scholar hijacked the discussion for his/her own self-aggrandizing agenda, but, in general, the conversations that follow your own presentation and those you’ve attended, can be both rewarding and instructive. Certainly, I’ve walked away from both of the presentations I’ve given at recent conferences with a new understanding of my research, the potential for fine-tuning it, and what’s more, a newfound confidence in its academic worth. At the end of the day, we attend and present at conferences because we need the input and validation of our peers. This is why we so often work ourselves into a mass of angst-riddled nerves in the days and hours preceding our presentations; this is why we worry endlessly about whether anyone will attend our sessions or not; this is why the socially-awkward teenager suddenly becomes our prevalent mode when speaking to more senior colleagues. Whether our peers agree or disagree with our arguments or conclusions is, in the end, largely irrelevant; what matters more is that they see our work as making a valuable contribution to the existing body of scholarship. (Maybe I should be using a personal rather than a collective pronoun here?!) To a certain extent, of course, this unceasing search for external validation is built into the academic profession and its peer review process, its external funding bids, and its performance evaluations, but conferences allow us a generally friendly space for testing ideas before putting them to the test, so to speak. So, while I’m glad the conference ‘season’ is almost over, I’m already thinking about the next conference papers to give.

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7 Responses to “Tales from the Conference World”

  1. kathleenmcil Says:

    I’ve nearly finished my MA in Historical Research and have enjoyed the opportunity my year of academic study has given me in going to conferences. I’ve found them essential in broadening my historical knowledge and fields of reference (as well as my reading list). I haven’t quite mastered the art of networking, but I really do agree that conferences provide an invaluable arena for theories and ideas to flourish and academic relationships to develop. I look forward to attending more in the future! (Great post btw!)

  2. David Toms Says:

    They’re a wicked business, the auld conferences. I fully understand what you mean about the variety of spaces that occur in them too, the most formal to most informal – my personal strength seems to lie in the more informal aspect, but there you go! I’ve given a paper to very few people (not cos I’m awful but because that’s how it goes sometimes!) and it was a bit disheartening and then you get ones where there’s almost too many people there! Perhaps you’re more sensible than I, but I think an exploration of giving the early morning paper at a conference following a heavy drinking session would be well worth a mention!

  3. Marie Coleman Says:

    Everyone should read David Lodge’s ‘Small world’

  4. Juliana Says:

    @Marie: must seek that out. I was thinking of Don DeLillo’s White Noise where the professor for ‘Hitler Studies’ who doesn’t speak German is obsessing over his opening speech to the international conference of ‘Hitler Studies’ that he is convening…

    Thanks for the musings, Tina. I have been avoiding conferences in order to finish some writing, but you are making me glad that I’ve signed up for a few this autumn.

    Juliana

  5. scarndt Says:

    While I just finished posting my own little musings on the conference season http://printontheperiphery.wordpress.com/, I very much enjoyed hearing your perspective. I can really relate to the issues of the empty room, and the socially trying situations.
    Personally I would encourage any scholars to put themselves out there and start attending conferences. Despite the down-sides they are a fantastic learning experience (even when things don’t go so well).
    Sarah

  6. Frank Says:

    One thing that grates when attending conferences are the academics in the audience that insist on giving mini speeches before asking questions of the speaker. The allotted time after papers is often short and the questions should be also to maximise the number of responses from the floor.

  7. puesoccurrences Says:

    Agreed, Frank, though I often find myself launching into long-winded questions simply because I haven’t had enough time to process things fully and, hence, can’t deliver a nice, succinct query. I should probably just refrain from asking questions in the panel then, but sometimes I’m so interested and intrigued I can’t resist, despite the inevitable incoherence and babbling. I imagine this happens to other people as well (I hope!) – Tina

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