Perks of Being a Wallflower? Not at a Conference.

As an undergraduate student, I read David Lodge’s Small World, about English professors attending an academic conference. I hadn’t read Changing Places (to which it is a sequel), but loved the book nonetheless. It made academia so frivolous – ! – and made such light of the Ivory Tower concept while still being an incredibly academic text in many ways. I laughed at the literary references and realised that I was, in essence, laughing at myself due to the very specific academic nature of the references to early and medieval literature.

The further I get in my progression through academia, the more often I stop and think, ‘Wow, I need to re-read that book’. More often than not, I have this thought on my way home from a conference. Lodge’s depiction is satirical and downright silly at times, but it does help to facilitate reflection on the concept that there is a human behind every academic (no matter how renowned and/or brilliant!), and conferences are a great way for students to meet and interact with those humans.

Last weekend I attended the Quadrivium VIII (#quadviii) Ph.D. training symposium at the Humanities Research Institute in the University of Sheffield. This year’s theme was ‘Getting Digital’, so of course I was very excited to attend. The really neat thing about the Quadrivium symposia is that they are geared towards Ph.D. students and have some sessions that provide helpful information about pursuing an academic (or #alt-ac, as one session noted!) career. Also, thanks to JISC they could offer travel and accommodation bursaries which, as any student knows, are the Golden Eggs of conference attendance.

Sessions ranged from ‘Careers Within and Beyond Academia’ (Mark Faulkner, Sheffield, and Andrew Prescott, King’s College London) to ‘Working with Manuscripts and Facsimiles’ (Estelle Stubbs, Sheffield) to ‘Rethinking Manuscript Editing in the Digital Age’ (Wendy Scase, Birmingham). Each presentation had its benefits and prompted some interesting discussion – for me, it was particularly interesting to hear presentations dealing directly with MS study from a non-musicological point of view, since the majority of participants were from an English lit background. So I hearkened back to my days at Iowa reading about the Green Knight, and considered how the tools and concepts being presented could be applicable to music MSS as well.

While I consider my experience a positive one overall (I’ll definitely be attending next year’s symposium!), I do have my usual sense of post-conference regret. And, as always, the regret pertains to the social aspect of the conference: I wish I had spoken with more people. Not to say I spent the whole time alone – I had some lovely conversations with Ph.D. students whose research was incredibly interesting, and also received quite a few questions from students who were curious about my research (it was a bit of a perk, being the only musicologist!) – but I certainly could have started sooner, rather than waiting until the end of the first day (of a 2-day symposium…) to warm up to my surroundings. I’m sure I am the target audience for the traditional conference Wine Reception – academics who take slightly longer to come out of their shells and speak to everyone else.

Which leads to the point of this blog post. Small World, hilarious as it is, rings true in that all of the attendees are human, they all have their own anxieties, and for the most part just want to hear about new ideas, network, and discuss research. As far as I can tell, most of these weekends don’t usually turn into Lodge-ian sex romps until after the conference dinner. I recommend the book to students for the fact that, if nothing else, it should serve to calm the nerves of first-time conference attendees, or even those who, like me, retain perpetual conference anxiety. Conferences are like summer camp – the sooner you get over your nerves the sooner you’ll be splashing around in the lake with your new friends. Except in this case it’s a lake of ideas or something. Hm, I really have to work on seeing my analogies through to the end.

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