My post is a little later than usual this week, as I’ve been attending the Memory Studies Association (MSA) Conference in Copenhagen. I attended the same conference in Amsterdam last year, so it’s a good opportunity to compare what it’s like to attend a conference in the first and second year of a PhD. When I attended last year, I embraced my status as a brand new PhD student. I asked lots of (probably stupid) questions, brazenly asked leading experts in the field for advice, and didn’t have the pressure of presenting.
I was really nervous …
Oh how much has changed. I’ll be honest, I’ve been struggling with overwhelm and Imposter Syndrome. For some reason, I no longer feel as comfortable asking questions, feeling like I should know by now exactly how my PhD fits into the multitude of conceptual frameworks out there. That’s not to say that I don’t have some answers to those questions, but much depends on the information I collect during my main fieldwork next year.
This year I had a paper accepted. Although it was short, I felt the pressure of speaking across disciplines. My project is heavily informed by Tourism and Heritage Studies, much of which is not well-known within the Memory Studies academic community. I presented on the last day and during the first days of the conference I spent session after session worrying that my work didn’t fit within the emerging consensus at the conference. Most papers explored ‘national’ memory and ‘monuments’ or ‘sites’. Many were heavily political, and dealt with well-known events such as the Holocaust as well as violent pasts and mass displacement of people. In contrast, my research seeks to emphasise every day and local memory. My project focuses on the Scottish ancestral diaspora which could easily appear trivial next to the deeply traumatic and politically-charged case studies explored by many Memory Studies scholars. My anxiety about presenting and my accompanying Imposter Syndrome made it difficult to speak to the experts who, last year, I would happily waltz up and chat to.
… but everything was fine
This has all the makings of a terrible conference experience, right? Actually, it turned out very well (as it usually does, which is difficult to remember when dealing with crippling anxiety!). The first pleasant surprise was at the end of the first session when I was approached by someone who greeted me with ‘oh, you’re the SGSAH blogger!’. This was immediately followed by a comment from the person I’d been sitting next to, who said ‘Oh are you? Were you at the SGSAH Summer School?’ (I had been, and we’d met before).
Ironically, given the fact that my presentation also discussed digital connectivity, this wasn’t the only time that my online presence led to discussions with other conference participants. For example, I attended one paper by an established academic and scribbled notes furiously throughout. Later at dinner, she leaned across and said ‘Oh I follow you on Twitter!’ It turns out that she works with a researcher who has been a huge influence on my PhD. I had similar interactions throughout the conference. These digital connections made it much easier to speak to people, as we weren’t quite starting from scratch. Given that the conference is 6 times bigger than last year, these prior connections were very useful and reassuring.
Despite my anxiety over presenting, in the end it was so worthwhile. I was nervous, and it certainly wasn’t the most relaxed or dynamic presentation I’ve ever given. To make it more nerve-wracking, the world expert on tourism and memory, who was cited in my presentation, walked in just moments before I started speaking! The first question from the audience was directed to me, and was thankfully something I could I answer with confidence and in detail. Afterwards, I had some really interesting conversations with audience members, and the academic I’d cited approached me to ask some questions and ask for my email address. I’d spent the whole conference trying (and failing) to gain the confidence to approach her, so this was a real highlight!
The main thing I took away from this conference was that although there may be more pressure at conferences as you get further into your PhD, there is also potential for more deeply rewarding opportunities. I don’t have all the answers about my PhD yet, but I didn’t give myself credit for how much I have learned over the past year. As for ‘networking’, my anxiety made it more difficult than usual to approach people, but the combination of my prior Twitter activity and the opportunity to present to an interested audience meant I quite naturally met other attendees with similar interests.
It was a real joy to meet other members of the SGSAH community in Copenhagen, especially when I wasn’t feeling my most sociable self. We spent a lot of time comparing PhD highlights and difficulties, and the group felt very supportive and reassuring despite only knowing each other for a short time. In fact, I had a brainwave (at 3am whilst worrying about my presentation!) – why not tag @SGSAH_Blog or @SGSAH_ when you are next attending a conference and link up with other members of the SGSAH community in advance? In my experience, having at least one prior contact at a conference can make a world of difference.
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