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Lessons Learned at my First Academic Conference

Hello, Dear Readers! Welcome back to An Eddying Flight. This week I'm going to reflect on my attendance at the AHRC Cambridge International Conference back in September, and on what I learned from delivering my first ever conference paper, especially as a non-trad, mature student.

Going in, I was anxious about this conference. Very anxious. In fact, it didn't make all that much sense to be so tense and worried about it: In my old job as a children's and young adult author, I was a veteran of public speaking. I've run well over a hundred creative writing and literacy focussed workshops in schools and libraries, and have spoken to crowds of hundreds of teachers, fellow writers, editors and agents, not to mention readers, at various book festivals, signings and conferences.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic, especially coinciding, as it did, with my personal handbrake turn into academia and MA/PhD studies, wiped out most of these opportunities from 2020 onwards. And while I've been I've been to a handful of online conferences since I began my PhD in 2021 - some organised internally by my university, like our semi-regular Gender and Otherness (GOTH) Symposiums, and some by external organisations like the NAWE Conference - I'd not attended any academic conferences in real life... ever.

So I put my nerves leading into the Cambridge Conference down to being out of practice, and to the fact that this was my first presentation of a conference paper (you can read a post on the process I went through to write it here). To try and calm down about it, I reminded myself that this was a doctoral conference, meaning that all the other speakers - except the keynote ones - would be fellow PhD students in the midst of their studies. But, remembering that they came from universities as prestigious and diverse as MIT, the Australian National University, a.r.t.e.s Graduate School of Cologne, and Stockholm University, as well as Oxbridge, this didn't help all that much.

Then came the first day of the conference. A day when I was not due to present anything. A day when all I had to do was say hello to friendly colleagues from my cohort at the Open University, speak fairly sensibly to other students, listen to presentations (including an absolutely wonderful keynote from Professor Samantha Bennett from the Australian National University, who comes from a UK working class background and was a mature student, like me) and attend a free tour of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Despite this lack of pressure, I felt so uncomfortable, tense and out of place that I had two hot flushes. I enjoyed the presentations, but it was a struggle to relax at all.

This was all compounded by the fact that I had put my phone on Do Not Disturb with a single exception: my mother's home phone number. I am her carer, and I had told her that she would be able to get hold of me in an emergency. Sure enough, at the final panel of the day, in the midst of a fascinating presentation, my phone out rang loud and clear. Apologising profusely, but also fearing the worst, I rushed from the room to take the call... and found that the emergency was that my mother's internet had died.

I crept back into the presentation room with the sense that my mortification was complete. Convinced that I must have been nearly incoherent for 75% of the time that I was forced to speak or interact with others, as well as being remembered as That Stupid Woman With the Phone, I was so depressed that at the little restaurant where I dragged myself to eat dinner later on, the waitress, unprompted, brought me free icecream. She said she felt sorry for me.

Why am I so bad at this, I asked myself over and over. I didn't even have to DO anything today, except come across as a vaguely normal human! Surely now my presentation tomorrow will be a disaster!

However, the next day, after dressing and packing up my hotel room, I found that I was in a much calmer frame of mind. I had a few very normal jitters, but I didn't find myself experiencing any hot flushes or stuttering over my words, and when the time came to deliver my conference paper, I was able to do so with a reasonable sense of confidence, as well as participating happily in the Q&A and the discussion that followed. I even felt a bit cheated when I had to rush off to catch the train, instead of being able to continue talking with the other panelists and attendees.

As I made my way home (a journey of five hours or so - plenty of time to think) it occurred to me that the difference between day one and two of the conference, the thing that had tripped me up, was that on day two I had a job to do.

A fairly familiar job, in fact. I was able to focus on doing that in a professional way, and enjoying it as I usually do.

On day one, though? I was really there to be social and network. And as a woman who is just starting the process of getting an official diagnosis of autism, that was always going to be hard for me.

At author events I would turn up, usually right before my event was due to start, don my author personna - a much brighter, more vivacious and confident version of myself - and get to work. If I embarrassed myself in some way, I would overreact in order to make a joke of it, and everyone would think that it was hilarious. The most hardened agents and editors expect writers to be a little eccentric and flakey, but children's authors, who are mainly supposed to be entertaining to young people, can be downright wacky and no one bats an eyelid. The only no-no is being perceived to be unfriendly or standoffish. If you can make people laugh, then most gaffes will be forgiven.

But I haven't got a PhD student personna, or an academic persona. It was just me there, and it's been two years (more!) since just-me interacted in real life with a large group of strangers, a task I've found challenging all my life.

Basically, I realised that the conference was a tiny trial by fire. I'm still getting used to academia, and, like most people, I'm still mentally recovering from two years of lockdown. I'd probably done OK, and beating myself up about anything that didn't go perfectly was pointless.

So, what did I learn from the experience of attending my first IRL academic conference and delivering my first conference paper, other than the fact that passing for normal is exhausting? Well, here goes:

  1. Presentations which don't ostensibly have much connection to your own interests/research will often turn out to be the most fascinating of all. Of course you'll be hunting through your conference programme to find papers which intrigue you and seem relevant to your own work, but if there doesn't seem to be anything in a particular time slot, pick something at random and attend anyway. You may be surprised, enlightened, and delighted. I was.

  2. On the other hand, it's important to make space for Me Time. The Cambridge Conference offered various extra activities, but because of travel time and various other factors, several of them were ruled out for me (like punting in the Cam at the end of the last day, when I was already on a speeding train home). Because of this, I felt guilty and I signed up for a museum tour right in the middle of the first day. At lunch beforehand, one of my fellow OU students said quite bluntly that she wasn't coming because she needed some Me Time. How I wish I'd been sensible enough to follow her example! While the tour was actually fascinating, it was also more of the same socialising and information-absorbing which I'd been doing from roughly 8:30 that morning and needed to continue doing until 18:00 that evening. I should have taken some Me Time instead and spent that hour-long timeslot alone somewhere, sorting through my thoughts and impressions from the morning, and most important of all: not talking!

  3. Turn your phone completely off, if you can. It's just not worth the embarrassment. I realised later on that, if there had been a real emergency, my mother would not have been able to get any useful assistance from me anyway: I was nearly six hours away! This is one of those really tricky aspects of trying to pursue a career or education when you have caring responsibilities, whether those are for children or other relatives. In the future, I will tell my mother she needs to phone my sister if there's an emergency while I'm away.

  4. It might be wise to bring a camera, if you have one. I was too tense to remember to take pictures during this conference during day one, and on day two I firmly turned my phone off anyway. I wish I'd brought my camera so that I could have recorded the occasion of my OU colleagues presenting, and so I could ask them to do the same for me. I'd have had images to use in this post, for one thing! I'm used to the PR and marketing people employed by publishers, or conference organisers, taking photos during events and then tweeting them about and sharing them with me, but this doesn't seem to be a thing at academic conferences. In future I'll remember that if I want images, I'll need to get them myself.

  5. Avoid performing the traditional 'Why Won't My PowerPoint Load??' Dance. At every presentation venue from the large lecture hall where the keynote speakers addressed us to the small yet grand room where I delivered my paper, there were problems with the audiovisual equipment. The chairs, despite being distinguished academics from all over the globe, did not know how to fix these, and there was never an IT person to be found. This, it seems, is the traditional dance of the academic conference, taking up at least 10 minutes at the beginning of every panel. As far as I'm aware (since I didn't attend every single session) the only people to completely avoid performing this dance were those presenting on my panel, and this was because myself and my fellow OU PhD Student Rebekah (hi, Rebekah!) had been at a panel presenting the day before in that same room, and had watched those panelists work out how to get their slides to display in real time (and then, because we didn't need him, an IT person also turned up). I know it's really hard to find the time, and you might feel shy about asking, but try, try, try to investigate the place where you will be presenting and work these issues out beforehand.

  6. Go easy on yourself. You will probably not manage to network as much as you wished, be as erudite and eloquent as you dreamed, or get to every single panel that interested you. You, along with all the other presenters, including the keynote speakers, will flub and fudge during your presentations. If you're like me, you will probably trip over in front of another person or embarrass yourself in some way, small or large, at least once. This is being human. Isn't it wonderful and terrible? I am still working on this myself, but if you need it, here is permission from me: just turn up, be kind and polite to others, do the best you can at your own small job on the day, and let the rest go. No one else will ever judge your performance as harshly as you do. It's fine.

I hope that this has been helpful for reassuring, Dear Readers! As always, if you have questions, comments or suggestions for future blogposts, just drop me a line in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook. I'm always delighted to hear from you.

Good luck with your conferences!

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