Academic conferences – why do we go?

by Joan Redmond

A few weekends ago, I found myself in sunny Bristol, sitting in the back seat of a very gruff taxi-driver’s cab on my way to Trinity College. Why, you ask? I was bound for the Ecclesiastical History Society Postgraduate Colloquium, an annual event that brings together postgraduates working on all aspects of church history.

Academic conferences are an accepted part of what we do as historians, but let me explain why we do this. In Bristol, I was presenting a paper on a section of one of my PhD chapters, specifically about violence against religious books in early modern Ireland. The conference, dealing as it does with all aspects of church and religious history, seemed a good venue to present some of these findings. Shamefully, the conference also served as a spur to complete the work on that section, and to formulate some semi-coherent thoughts on the topic. Nothing is more guaranteed to focus the mind than knowing that 20-30 people, or more, will be listening to what you have to say and, even more terrifyingly, will ask you questions about it.

Trying College, Bristol

For me personally, audience questions are a second good reason to attend conferences. Most people, myself included, quake at the thought of questions, which will (in our adrenaline-fuelled, overtired brains) undoubtedly destroy our entire paper, and indeed our entire PhD project, not to mention our self-worth, all in one go. But in the vast majority of cases, questions can be helpful prompts to examine an angle or source you hadn’t considered before; conferences such as the Colloquium I attended, with papers ranging from the fourth to the twentieth centuries, are good for questions from non-experts in your research, who sometimes pinpoint an area of weakness that hadn’t occurred to you because you are so immersed in the topic and more general field.

In the case of my Bristol paper, questions included whether, for instance, the Scottish Protestants living in Ireland had their religious books attacked, given their close ethnic and linguistic ties with the Irish; this is something that I hadn’t really considered, but if I could find evidence of it, could really add depth to my research about the boundaries between religion and ethnic identity in 1600s Ireland.

Conferences are also good just for general socialising. You get a chance to meet other students and academics, some of whom will work in similar fields to you, and so offer the chance to build your network of historian friendships: they are also just plain good fun, especially the pub sessions after the hard work of the day is done!

So, to conclude, conferences are a chance to receive feedback on your work, to hear about other people’s work, and generally to socialise and network. The remaining question surely is then, why would you not go?!

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