“Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.”
Jonathan Swift, Letter to a Young Clergyman
Full and lethargic from Christmas overindulgence, I am preparing to go back to work tomorrow. Specifically, I am preparing to get a 5.30 train to go to Oxford to deliver a paper to the British Society of Eighteenth Century Studies annual conference. I’m very excited! This is my first BSECS event, and also my first time in Oxford, and I’m looking forward to doing some networking, some sightseeing, and – this may come as a surprise – presenting my paper.
I am that rare introvert who enjoys public speaking. Well, I do when I’ve something useful to say, and the paper I’m presenting this week is rather a good one if I do say so myself. I love conferences because they give me the chance to offer my research up to a (broadly) supportive audience. I’ve only really had one bad conference experience, in which a particularly smug attendee pointed out that many of the problems I had raised in my paper were addressed in a certain book; why hadn’t I consulted it? On later investigation I discovered that not only was the book not yet published, but that he was a colleague of the author who had covered it in a prominent academic publications review. I’m not sure why he went out of his way to undermine my research by informing me that he had access to a resource that, at that time, I had not, but it’s clear that I am not alone in experiencing the conference troll. Well, confidence-shaking Q&A sessions aside, I love getting the opportunity to leave my comfort zone by testing my research in front of an interested audience with varied and vigorously expressed perspectives. Sometimes I get the pleasant ego boost of someone saying they agree with me and think my research is sound and well-expressed. Sometimes I’m introduced to a new avenue which I’d never considered before. Sometimes – even more usefully – I figure out that I’m absolutely wrong about something.
One of the things I’ve been working on while writing my PhD at Ulster University is installing a Work In Progress programme, in which researchers of all levels can present a draft of whatever they’re working on – a conference paper, a thesis chapter, an article, whatever – for informal feedback from their peers. (This is by no means an original idea on my part; I was first introduced to it during the final year of my undergraduate degree at the University of Glasgow) It’s nice to present first of all to people who you know well and who will be able to offer a cross-disciplinary perspective. In fact, I find it more nerve-racking than experts in my field who I don’t know. I can pre-empt the reactions of literary critics pretty well, but my colleagues in history or media studies or music and so on are the ones who ask the most obvious questions that I can’t see, who identify my blind-spots for faults I had never considered. Their outsider perspectives make me better at delivering research to people who have a more specialised knowledge in my field.
All this is to say that the key to enjoying conferences as an early career researcher is to treat it like an opportunity rather than a test. People are there because they are interested in what you have to say and if they’re only there to troll the Q&A section, well, there was no impressing them anyway. Try, fail, fail better, and above all, go easy on the free wine. That’s advice I can attest to.