Ideally, my opening gambit on the many-headed monster would have been drawn from the research I have been doing over the summer. But as my first foray into blogging has coincided with conference season and the start of a new academic year, I have decided to offer a meditation on the former, though stay tuned for a series of posts on my summer ‘found art’ in the not too distant future.
As I entered the sixth hour of a train journey back from the European Reformation Research Group annual conference and the biannual Reformation Studies Colloquium in Durham last week, I found myself considering the phenomenon that is the academic conference. My relationship with ‘conferencing’ is probably similar to many others – sometimes they are a hassle, but they undoubtedly enrich my intellectual landscape and an early career academic certainly cannot afford to ignore them. Although expensive, time consuming, occasionally archaic, and sometimes disappointing, our discipline would be vastly impoverished without them – and in fairness, usually something can be salvaged from even the most disastrous event. And when they work well, they can really fly: assisting in the development of individual projects, establishing creative bonds between researchers, or providing the jumping off point for important proceedings and collections.
The little name badge, the undrinkable tea and coffee, the gruelling programme, the bored looking chap on the book stall and the delegate snoring softly at the back of the room – these are all indispensable elements of the conference, but what is it that allows us to deem them a success? Here’s what I would hope for:
All the world’s a stage
The primary purpose of the conference is of course to showcase current research. The conference is the place to get my face and work known, as well as to find out about current trends in my research area, and to contact scholars working in similar areas. They are designed to encourage the exchange of ideas, and if you are lucky the responses, questions and comments on your paper will help you to develop your research in unexpected or unlooked for ways.
The overall effect of a conference can be rather like attending thirty back to back mini-lectures, so it is inevitable that I learn a lot along the way. As my career has progressed, this aspect has become much more important – when I was a postgraduate I probably could follow about fifty percent of papers, but as my own knowledge has expanded I find that I am rarely completely lost these days.
A munro is a peak standing over 3,000ft (914m) above sea level, and you ‘bag’ a munro by climbing one. Some of my colleagues and I consider meeting and talking to eminent historians an academic equivalent to this, and we like to swap notes on how many renowned profs we have ‘bagged’ at the end of a conference. My broader point is, keynotes and plenary sessions give me the opportunity to see big name historians in action, as well as the chance to actually intellectually freestyle with them. Meeting your heroes can of course be a nerve wracking business (what if she’s a Tory? what if he’s got egg in his beard? etc), and I often find yourself trying to sneak a look at someone’s name badge so that I don’t find myself asking Professor Big-Wig what year of her PhD she is in. But sitting down to breakfast to find your entire bibliography sat at the table is (a) cool and (b) a wonderful opportunity to make an impression or pick someone’s brain.
Linked to the previous section, this is undoubtedly the aspect of conferences that I most enjoy – the social side. Conferences are places to meet people, and to catch up with colleagues and friends (particularly at the bar in the evening, when many a morning session has been ruined). But from a professional point of view, the contacts I make and renew at a conference are an important part of my career development – just like at the early modern court, patronage and networks make academia tick. If you play your cards right you can identify seminar speakers, potential collaborators, external examiners, edited collection contributors or future colleagues. What’s more – we are all in it together. There is nothing like a two, three, or even four day conference to create an esprit de corps that will endure long after final talk is over.
So that’s what I think makes for a stimulating, intellectually (if not physically) invigorating meetings of minds. I’d be interested to know if people agree.
You barely mentioned what seems to be a staple of conferences for me – maybe early modernists are different from americanists (but I doubt it) – the drinking. The best part of a conference, and the one where the informal research relationships are formed, is in the bar, at the end of the day. The unwritten rule is that whoever is more senior pays for the drinks (ie a phd student never buys a drink for anyone with a job, a junior lecturer never buys a drink for a prof). Then it seems that people give up and go to bed in that order as well – phd students, then lecturers, and then the eminent ‘munros’ you speak of are falling out of clubs at 4am. I remember a fellow phd being flabbergasted that the most eminent professors in our field (one of whom was his HoD) were hitting the Manchester clubbing scene in the middle of the conference, still going strong at dawn (I didn’t witness this, as I had already given up around midnight, but he was brave enough to try to keep up.) He looked like death the following day, the munro was fine. This is an important academic skill – not only can the munro drink the phd student under the table, but s/he can also be up at 9am to ask the most piercing questions to the poor phd student who got stuck with that slot and who therefore went to bed early after only a shandy. But the collegiality formed in these sessions is priceless. (And we’re not all alcoholics, I promise).
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