This is Part Three in a series on being presenting at conferences as a first-year PhD student. You can read the other sections, Part One on finding a conference (and finding a topic) and Part Two with an extract from one of my papers, here. In Part Three, I discuss the experience of actually attending and speaking at a conference.
Given my research interests in travel and in literary responses to border crossings (this blog is called travelling histories, after all) it may seem odd that my first conference presentation happened in Cambridge, not a mile from my own front door. Yet again, perhaps it wasn’t so odd, after all. I was lucky enough to be selected as a speaker at a conference on ‘Thinking with Things’, put on as part of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). In keeping with CRASSH’s aims, the conference was avowedly interdisciplinary. The keynote speaker talked about the hidden depths of art history and what an appreciation of materials, of things, can bring to the understanding of works of art. Other presentations ranged across subjects from seventeenth-century didactic geographical board games, to the historical significance of Irish episcopal palaces and the histories of collecting cultures. My work’s own interdisciplinary approach, moving across the boundaries of geography, history and literature, meant that I felt quite at home in this apparent academic hodge-podge.
Even the walk from my flat to the conference venue, a journey of about 15 or 20 minutes, depending on how rushed I am, involved the (legal) transgression of a variety of geographical and social borders. For instance, the fastest way across the river Cam to the Sidgewick site, home of the Alison Richards Building and of CRASSH, is through the grounds of King’s College. As a member of the university I have the right to walk up to the imposing, be-gowned porters standing outside the college’s famous main gate, on King’s Parade, wave my card and pass through to the relative calm of the front court on the gate’s other side. Yet, as a member of Emmanuel College, not King’s, there’s always a slight chance that that privilege could be revoked. So, my walk past the throngs of indignant tourists (“why can he go in?!”) to the gates is often (as it was on this day) tinged with a small sense of excitement. Of course, on that day, as on most days in term time, I was allowed through.
But today’s post shouldn’t really begin with the morning of my first academic conference itself. As I’m sure is the case for many people, when I came to read my paper to the room of expectant faces that afternoon, it was not for the first time. Over the course of the previous four or five days I had read and re-read my paper, out-loud to myself and to others, around ten times. This was the real bridge between the draft text with which I ended Part Two of this series, and the paper I read out at CRASSH. Reading my words aloud was key to the redrafting process. It enabled me to actually hear where certain words would cause me to stumble, or where certain sentences ran on for far too long. Given that I will, if left to my own devices, write in a more personal and confessional style (much like the tone of this blog), I have to work hard in academic writing to polish up my prose to a less bloggy, more professional standard. I still strive to maintain a sense of myself in what I write. I am a firm believer that the reader must know it is me writing those sentences, reading those words, framing those ideas. They did not arrive, fully formed on their own. They do not stand for some abstract, academic truth. Sadly, achieving the balance between these two outliers is not always easy and I often fall back on my tried-and-tested, undergraduate writing style: informative, clear but bland and repetitive. Reading my prose aloud helps me to correct for that, too.
One of the things I enjoy most about giving academic presentations is that, at least in my fields, it is very acceptable to ‘read’ a paper. That is, to prepare a word-for-word text and to read it out across the podium. Good presenters will work, in their text and their delivery, to put a lively and interesting voice to their words and will strive not to simply drone on in monotone for 20, eternal minutes. This practice saved me from the greatest issue I have as a presenter: my habit of forgetting most of what I want to say and the nervous tics, stumbles and ‘ums’ that accompanying this forgetting. By reading a prepared script, I could fully impart every bit of my in-depth arguments while sounding (I hope) confident and clear. Some may argue, as did the woman sitting next to my during the keynote speech, that reading a paper rather than talking extemporaneously, kills any interest the audience has. I would counter, as I did then, that the point of academic conferences is to listen to, and discuss the ideas. If reading from a paper helps the presenter to argue for all their ideas and not to leave half of them, forgotten, on the cutting floor of their mind, I am all for it.
Another great benefit of reading a written paper is that I was able to listen to and enjoy the speakers whose turn it was to speak before mine. In the past, following the ‘speak to a powerpoint, don’t use notes’ format loved by my old teachers, lecturers and bosses, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything other than the looming fear that I would forget something. That was not a problem at CRASSH. One anxiety that still remains is that I might go over time. Thus I am prone, on a first attempt, to cut deeply into my paper and actually go under time. I was a full four minutes under time at CRASSH.
Happily, this meant that I could restore a lot of material and add more things for my paper’s second outing, at Portsmouth University’s Centre for Studies in Literature‘s annual symposium, which this year was on ‘Material Objects in Detective Fiction’. As at CRASSH, having written out my words and having practiced them out-loud again and again, I was free to listen to the other presentations and contribute to the lively discussion. I was very lucky to attend that conference for three reasons. First, it was organised by the wonderful Christopher Pittard, whose work on Strand Magazine readership and the ‘moral community’ they constituted has been of great help to my own thesis. Secondly, I was able to meet the interesting Kate Brombley, who is Chris’s PhD student and whose work on Doyle and Sherlockian fandom nicely overlaps with my own work.
Thirdly, unlike the horror stories PhDs and ERCs hear of senior academics who use conferences as an opportunity to tear young researchers a new one, I was approached after my paper by the keynote speaker, Janice Allan, senior lecturer at Salford and editor of the journal Clues: A Journal of Detection. Janice simply noted that her paper, which I had unfortunately missed that morning, disagreed in parts with my own analysis. She offered to email me a copy and suggested we discuss our disagreements. Janice certainly provided a lesson on how to handle academic disagreement in a way that doesn’t demand a 30-minute ‘question’ in the Q&A session and which doesn’t lead to the humiliation of the inexperienced (and often nervous) speaker.