On Wednesday 13th May, I trundled off to Heathrow airport for my first ever trip to America and my first ever trip to an International Conference, where I would be both presenting and chairing. The International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University is the biggest medieval conference on the annual calendar. It takes place somewhere called Kalamazoo (‘Zoo, for short) which no one but medievalists and my Granny has ever heard of – it apparently features in a Glenn Miller song, (I’ve Got A Gal In) Kalamazoo, which she sang down the phone to me before I left for my travels. 3,000 scholars descend on this small town every year – even the security guards at the airport knew about us – and the congress features over 550 sessions of papers, panel discussions, round tables, workshops, and performances, as well as a really amazing exhibit hall full to the brim with books. For a PhD student with little experience of such a big conference the prospect was more than a little daunting. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on what (not) to do to get the most out of an international conference.
Okay, something of an obvious one to start, but by far the most important lesson I learned from my K’zoo experience was to plan ahead, both socially and academically. All your bibliography gathered in one place is an excellent opportunity to meet your academic heroes. But when you’re at one of the biggest conferences in your field, don’t just assume you’ll be able to get chatting with them and then go for a spontaneous coffee. I found that most people had been booked up by other interested parties weeks, even months in advance. So if there’s someone you really want to speak with then drop them an email before the conference to make sure you can secure some time with them!
Similarly, don’t be that person frantically trying to print off your paper moments before you’re due to deliver it. Even if the conference venue is geared up for these last minute panics, things can still go wrong and the unnecessary stress might overshadow the moment you’ve travelled all that way for: to present your research to people from all over the world, who are interested in the same thing! If you have your paper ready to go before the conference begins then you can spend your time enjoying the talks, rather than skipping that really useful panel in order to make last minute changes or finish writing your conclusion.
Know where you’re going
The Western Michigan campus, where the conference was being held, was absolutely huge – so big that shuttle buses had been organised to take participants between various buildings. I must have got lost at least three times and going to the room where I would be presenting the day before was a small step that made the talk itself less stressful. No one wants to arrive two minutes before, flustered and hot brandishing a memory stick wildly only to find out there isn’t actually a projector in the room.
Everyone talks about ‘networking’ when you go to a big conference. Regardless of one’s opinion on the concept it goes without saying that these events are a great place to meet like-minded people, to find out who is working in a similar area to you and to have a fangirl/boy moment when you run into the professor who has written your favourite academic book. All over the conference postgrad students were launching themselves at more established academics, proffering business cards (I didn’t have any of these, a decision I’m very comfortable with). With this in mind, I decided it was best to only approach people if I had actually read and engaged with their work (not just because they were a ‘big name’) or if I wanted to talk to them about their paper. People could sense who was being genuine and who was just ticking names off a list – taking this approach might mean fewer conversations, but hopefully longer and more meaningful ones!
After a very tedious journey to the conference (including a missed connection and an unexpected night in Chicago) all I wanted to do was curl up in my room and watch Grey’s Anatomy. But some of the best connections I made at the conference were in the cafeteria, at conference dinners, or wine hours. I can’t pretend that I had any intellectual conversations at the infamous K’zoo ‘dance’ but watching a bunch of medievalists doing the YMCA and then getting down to Beyonce’s Single Ladies was not to be missed.
Embrace Social Media
Twitter and Facebook aren’t for everyone, but an international conference is one place where I think they’re genuinely useful. I could avoid a huge phone bill texting people by checking Twitter and Facebook to find out where everyone was meeting/to hear more about the social and academic events going on through live tweeting. On a less serious note it also became a useful outlet for expressing opinions on the dismal, monastic dormitories us students were all staying in, rooms which would not have been out of place in a prison drama. Next time I’m taking a sleeping bag…