As the OU Classical Studies team gears up for the Classical Association annual conference (#CA2017), which we’re hosting jointly with the University of Kent from 26th-29th April 2017, this week we’re following up our earlier blogpost offering advice for conference speakers with some more of our top tips on how to get the most out of attending the UK’s biggest classically-themed academic conference.
At a large conference like this, where there are usually several panel sessions taking place in parallel at any one time, it can be tricky to decide which ones to go to, so it’s a good idea to work out beforehand which papers you’d most like to hear. Eleanor Betts advises attendees to “read the programme and abstracts in advance, and decide which you’d most like to go to; look up the people whose papers you’re interested in to see more about their research interests and publications, and make an attempt to talk to them at the conference.” A large-scale conference like this is a good opportunity to find out what’s going on across the whole field of Classics, so don’t feel that you should only go to the papers which relate closely to your own areas of research; dip in to other topics which look fun or interesting. That said, the CA conference is set up in such a way that there are some key conference themes which will be the focus of several panel sessions; you may find it beneficial to follow one of these strands throughout the conference. Sessions might not always take place in the same building on campus, so it’s also worth familiarising yourself with the campus map and factoring in the time it’ll take to get from one venue to another.
Even (or perhaps especially) if you’re not presenting a paper of your own, a conference like this not only offers a chance to learn a lot about other people’s research, but it’s also a good place to observe others’ presentation techniques; this can help a great deal when it comes to delivering your own research talks in future. Elton Barker recommends that, when listening to papers, delegates should “pay attention not only to what’s said but also how it’s said. (This is particularly true for papers that are not on your subject.) Try to identify elements that work or, alternatively, that don’t work. What would you have done differently, and why? What impressed you the most?” Jessica Hughes elaborates further: “When you go to panels, don’t just focus on the content of the papers – be alert to the different styles of delivery, and the varied ways in which colleagues ask and answer questions. For me, this has been the most important cumulative learning experience of past conference-attendance. Which papers were the most engaging, and why? How did the speaker interact with the audience, and how far did they capture and retain attention? When it gets to the post-paper questions, see if you can pick up some tips about how to respond elegantly to difficult questions without seeming too defensive. And see who manages to ask intelligent questions of a speaker without seeming aggressive or overly self-important. It’s a fine art.”
Aside from the papers, I’d always advise making some time to browse the book stalls. This is a great way to find out a little more about some of the latest publications in your areas of interest (and to figure out whether it’s really worth splashing out on/persuading your university library to buy that book whose title sounds ideal but which might not be exactly what you thought it was). There are also sometimes good deals to be had, as publishers often offer discounts for conference delegates; Jo Paul suggests, “Make sure there’s room in your bag for the book(s) you’ll undoubtedly end up buying!”
Networking (and not)
Elton writes, “Networking is important at these things, but don’t do it for the sake of it. If, on the other hand, you’re genuinely interested in a particular topic/issue, then do try to collar the person who was talking about it. In my experience speakers welcome conversations after the event, when the glare of public scrutiny is off and it’s less of a performance. At the same time, you should feel free to ask questions in the space given after each presentation, if you’re confident enough. Just don’t feel bad that you don’t…” If you do take the opportunity to chat to other academics, Eleanor offers a reminder that it’s a good idea to think beforehand about how you want to introduce your own work if asked: “be prepared to have a snappy oneliner/one minute summary of your research interests.”
If you’re feeling nervous about not knowing many people at the conference, then Jo has some good advice. She notes that “even seasoned academics can feel cold stabs of terror at the thought of heading into a meal or a tea break when they don’t know anyone, and plucking up the courage to talk to new people doesn’t necessarily get easier. But it’s invariably worth it, and people will often be glad that you made the effort – they may be feeling nervous themselves.” To assuage some of your worries Jo suggests: “Make use of networks before you get to the conference. Twitter’s not for everyone (and livetweeting of papers can sometimes be as much of a hindrance to your focus on the paper as a help, so don’t feel obliged to get stuck into this kind of thing), but it can be a great way of ‘getting to know’ people before you meet in the flesh. Or ask around in your department: Are other PhDs going? Does your supervisor or colleague know of other people who’ll be in attendance who might be worth meeting? If your supervisor’s going to the conference, they can be a great way of getting introductions to people you might want to meet, so don’t feel afraid to ask if they can introduce you to professor x.” If you do use Twitter then check out the conversations happening under the hashtag #CA2017; and if you are keen to get involved in livetweeting then before you do I’d recommend taking a look at the advice given in this crowdsourced ‘livetweeting protocol’ put together by Dr. Liz Gloyn of Royal Holloway.
All that said, as Jessica notes, “Attending a big, busy conference like the CA can be exhausting. Everyone has different stamina levels, and you may find that you want to spend every single minute listening to papers, chatting with colleagues over drinks, lunches and dinners, and browsing book stalls. But if you find yourself flagging, do take some time out to be on your own, have a quiet cup of tea in your room, and gather your thoughts. Hopefully you’ll feel refreshed and ready for Round 2 of networking!”
Several members of the OU Classical Studies team will be at the conference next week – we’re looking forward to seeing you there!