A Tale of Three Conferences

The winning photo from the Social History Society Conference photo competition

I do love a conference.

What I particularly love is that they are a type of event that is not restricted by topic or audience. They could easily just be elitist events for historians to get together and show off how amazing their research is, and this can happen, but even the big conferences are not just for or about the history elite. Most give time and space for students and new researchers to present their work, others are dedicated solely to the work of students and my favourite type of conference are the ones open to everyone, the type that actively welcome those outside academia.

Over the space of four weeks in March/April 2014 I managed to attend three conferences. Two were hosted by esteemed academic history journals and the third was a small one day event specifically aimed at graduates. All aimed at an academic audience, (the ‘public history’ style of conference I mentioned above occur less often but I hope to attend Unofficial Histories again this year, my blog about last year is here And if you know of any others do let me know).

After attending these conferences I wanted to use this blog to think about and share my experiences of the different events, particularly in the context of being a PhD student, in the hope that they might be useful to others.

I’ve learnt many new things and met many interesting people at conferences but they can also be exhausting and expensive occasions, so sending in a paper proposal or attending can be a big decision. As a PhD student I’m normally lucky enough to get a reduced rate to attend and some societies offer funding. Though I do worry about how much this cost will go up once I’m no longer a student, but the financial burdens for early career researchers and historians (or ECRs) is for another time.

The three conferences were the Economic History Society Conference (EHSC) held at Warwick University, the Social History Society Conference (SHSC) held at Northumbria University and the London Nineteenth Century Studies Seminar Graduate Conference held at Senate House, London. I was presenting a paper at the latter two, and had decided to attend the EHSC with the idea that I might submit a paper to it next year.

Paper Proposals

Now, submitting papers is an interesting process and can vary between each conference. For the EHSC you need to submit something by the September before the conference, which is normally in March. Being organised is key, especially as they also tend to want the full paper by December. There was no way that was going to happen at the end of 2013 for me, (but I’m hoping to submit something this year). Having said that I did submit my paper proposal to the SHSC in October. I knew I would have more time to write the paper in the new year, but I also felt that the topic was much better suited to the SHSC than EHSC.

The themes and aims of the conference are important, there is definitely not a one size fits all approach to paper proposals and considering both of these conferences are quite large annual events I wanted to feel confident in my research. In contrast the London 19th Century Studies Graduate conference was advertised as a friendly student focused event, so my paper proposal for this leaned towards ‘work in progress’. I wanted to use the pressure of the event to make me focus back on the areas of current work for my PhD but also try out a few ideas and see if the other students had any thoughts on this.

Presenting Papers

Regarding presenting papers the EHSC and SHSC take different approaches. For EHSC the new researchers start the conference which  is useful as it (hopefully) produces a friendly (and sympathetic?) environment for new researchers together, and also gives the judges a chance to see and assess the new researchers prize at an allotted time. The SHSC integrate established and new researchers together which is slightly scary but also gives you a great opportunity to meet established historian in a similar field if you’re presenting together. I also think it gives a bit more credence to the student’s work and potentially gets you a bigger audience. Saying that the new researcher sessions I went to at EHSC did appear to be attended by established historians who had decided to go to sessions to see what the new blood was doing. The EHSC also print your paper in the huge conference booklet so even if people don’t manage to attend the new researchers papers they can still read them.

Both EHSC and SHSC wanted twenty minute papers, but the 19th Century Studies Graduate conference was just ten minutes. I’m still quite new to writing and giving papers, and fitting what you want to say in 20 minutes is hard, so I found the 10 minutes a real challenge. I also didn’t put together a PowerPoint presentation as discussing slides in my 20 minute paper had pushed me over the time limit. Though the advantage of the 10 minutes is that it really makes you focus and simplify. It’s always important to think about your audience and assuming they know nothing about your topic I found helped me filter what was important.

I was impressed how many people talked to their PowerPoint and didn’t read from a script at the EHSC conference, that is something I’d like to eventually do. Some presenters also did this at the SHSC conference, but I think most of us read from a script, which also happened at the graduate conference. Seeing so many great presentations also brought home how much I need to work on my style and nerves, I had a tension headache after my 10 minute paper, but hopefully confidence will come with the more papers I give.

The Social Side

A part from the scholarship one of the most important aspects to these events is the socialising. Meeting people and chatting, discussing research as well as academic life and any other topics is not only useful for ‘networking’ but also for learning more about life as a historian.It can often feel that everyone knows everyone else at these events, but the only way you get to know others is by talking to them. I’m still awful at going up to strangers and talking to them, but constantly amazed at how receptive most people are.

The graduate conference was just for the day and due to the headache I wasn’t able to stay for the wine, but thankfully the day had been well designed with lots of breaks for sorely needed coffee and biscuits. The other two were over the course of a few days and there were evening events organised with, of course, a conference dinner. At both I just went to the conference dinner, but I think attending all the events would be useful for meeting people and was often a bit jealous when people discussed the other social events. Cost is obviously an implication but you could tell both conferences made a point of trying to put on cheap or free events and twitter is a fabulous tool for organising a #tweetup and the like. I’ve found twitter increasingly useful at these types of events, there is normally a hashtag to follow and increasingly I’ve started conversations with complete strangers with ‘Do I follow you on twitter?’. (Thankfully I have been right and not just sounded weird.) Twitter is also a useful way to keep in contact with other conference delegates you’ve met but don’t really have a reason to email.

What have I learnt

So what do I take from this? With so many types of conferences going on there is bound to be something that will fit your topic, but consideration is needed concerning the audience and demands of the conference. Breaks and social occasions are just as important and the schedule for papers. If students and new researchers are going to be kept separate ensure the students’ papers are well advertised and at a good time. Finally social media is a great tool to meet those at the conference as well as those who couldn’t attend.

I’ve tried to summarise some thoughts here and hope other students, historians & non-historians find it useful, but please share any other thoughts or comments you have about attending conferences and history related events.

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