Thursday, 1 September 2011

Out and about

Thing 15 is conferences and seminars – attending them, presenting at them, even organising them.
Like many others, my attendance at these kinds of events has dropped considerably in the last year or so due to budget cuts for staff development. I’ve written elsewhere about how valuable I’ve found Twitter in allowing me to follow such events remotely; thanks are especially due to the kind people who post their presentations online after the event. But this is no true substitute for actual attendance.

One positive to come out of these budget restrictions is that I now consider very carefully which conferences to attend. I generally prefer smaller and specialist events. 

My worst conference experience was an annual conference of the then Society of Archivists. Hundreds of people were in attendance and I did not know a soul. I second my colleague’s advice to seek out others standing alone, but do you think I could find anyone?! Attendees seemed to have come en masse from local record offices - I am the sole archivist at my University, whereas our local record office employs ten! This inevitably resulted in a lot of groups talking shop – which is very difficult to break into. The fact that I attended for just a day was also a factor in hampering the possibility for networking, as most were sent for the full event and I imagine had already taken part in icebreakers and so forth on the first day. 

The talks were interesting, though lacked relevance to me, being focused largely on the experiences of public sector archivists. The Society of Archivists, now Archives and Records Association, also encompasses record managers and conservators, and talks related to these professions were equally represented at the conference, which left very little relevant content. Nevertheless I took notes dutifully – Katie’s line: “don’t view it like a day at school where you have to write down as much as possible in your colour-coordinated folders” made me laugh out loud as I definitely fell into this camp! There is considerably more to be got out of discussing the talks with others than writing everything down in your neatest handwriting.

My favourite conference was the one I most recently attended (last October), and it was the first one in which I actively participated. When the call for papers circulated, I had spent 18 months cataloguing a substantial archive collection belonging to the World War I poet Edward Thomas. Being so fully immersed in the man’s life and possessions made me want to find out more about him, and I had been reading several biographies which had been published at intervals throughout the last century. I was struck by the changing way in which Edward was presented by the different biographers, and I suspected that there was a link to the different ways in which the biographers had made use of the archive material, as a result of the rather haphazard process by which it had been acquired. The call for papers was on the subject of literary archives acquisition and its impact upon authorial representation: the prospect of being able to spend some time writing down and sharing the ideas which had interested me for so long overcame my natural shyness, so I submitted a paper.

I didn’t give it much thought until the conference programme came around with my NAME on it. The vast majority of the other speakers turned out to be academics and some were from the States and Canada. Now I panicked. How had I managed to sign myself up to speak at an international academic conference??? It was the best way for it to happen, as it was something I never would have agreed to, but I was committed now so had to go through with it. I had to speak for 30 minutes and I was up first, on the first day.

I wasn’t worried about the content of the paper. I had written and re-written and was finally happy with it. I had read it out over and over – it was the correct length and I could present it fluently with only infrequent glances down. What worried me was breathing! Public speaking has me tend to forget to breathe and become a gasping wreck. I think what saved me was having a nasty chest infection in the week beforehand which resulted in losing my voice almost completely. I fully expected having to cancel, and after all the work I’d put in, I was devastated. When I found myself recovered in time for the conference I found myself with a changed perspective - I was so grateful that I decided nothing as silly as nerves would stop me presenting my work.

The presentation went wonderfully. The conference, Reclamation and Representation: Boundaries of the Literary Archive, was held at Exeter University and it turned out that of the thirty or so attendees, almost all of us were speaking. I arrived early, oversleeping not being an issue, thanks to the insomnia. I put on my brave face and spoke to as many people as possible as the room was being prepared. This is the best tip I can offer for those of us with a nervous disposition. I find that having heard my voice out loud, in the room in which I will speak, and having people I can glance at during the talk, to whom I spoke moments ago, takes the pressure right out of walking up to a lectern and speaking to a room of strangers. There actually wasn’t a lectern, or a microphone, I just stood up and read it out. I forced myself to read slowly, and had marked up my paper in advance with a few hundred *breathe!* notes, which is so silly but it did work! I had lots of lovely compliments afterwards and I think that it was the single-most confidence building thing I have ever done.

The rest of the conference was absolutely brilliant. It was highly specialized and I made some very useful contacts. It had been organized by two PhD students who had every element under control. The result was a very informal, very friendly, and very useful conference, which has been extended long past the event itself thanks to a blog which continues to be maintained by the students. I would really like to see more academic events curated by students - I think they did incredibly well.

1 comment:

  1. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.

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