Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Conference Talk

Durham: occupied by Reformation historians for 3 days...
Photo by Glen Bowman

If political parties in the UK have their conference season in October, academics (at least in the Humanities) enjoy their own conference season right now, in the weeks before the formal academic year begins. I’ve just come back from 5 days in Durham, at the Reformation Studies Colloquium; went straight into a Global Middle Ages workshop at Oxford, and will next week drop into a big Oxford conference on early modern letters.

A lot of talking goes on at history conferences – the formal kind of talking (20 minute presentations by speakers, & 1-hour keynote lectures by the invited big names), and a much less formal kind, in the long coffee breaks which are schedule precisely to enable chatting, and at the end of a conference dinner, after the mass consumption of wine.

What no-one ever seems to talk about, however, is what conferences are for – that is left entirely implicit, and it’s interesting that it’s not publicly articulated, not least in light of the huge effort required, by organisers and attendees alike, to assemble, feed and shelter 20-100 historians from all over the world on one site for 2-3 days. So, for what it’s worth, it seems to me that the purpose of conferences is as follows….

  1. To get a sense of the direction in which your field is moving, by seeing what the people at the top are working on, and also learning what topics the new, rising generation of doctoral students have chosen to spend 3 years of their lives on.
  1. To try out your own latest ideas on a gathering of specialists, and see whether they warmly clap, visibly wince, or smile in polite incomprehension.
  1. To provide a stimulating mental space to think about your subject, from new perspectives.
  1. If you’re looking for a job, it’s a place to network and try to impress your elders.
  1. Socially, it’s an opportunity to see ex-colleagues and friends who might work in far-flung parts of the UK, or in North America, and to gossip.
  1. Maybe it’s recreational – an attractive annual city-break, a chance to escape domestic life and enjoy nice dinners with intelligent people.
  1.  In anthropological terms, behind all the camaraderie and tea and biscuits, I wonder if it’s all an elaborate performance of hierarchy, letting people work out where they stand in the pecking order in their field.
At one of the conferences I’ve just attended, an eminent historian of China said to me, “This is what it is all about. Just talking.” Published pieces, he said, were like individual voices in the wind; research and understanding were ultimately only advanced by an active, face-to-face exchange of views. As someone who much prefers writing about my research to talking about it, I’m resistant to the idea that the conference is the ultimate intellectual consummation of the historical profession. But I concede that it is much more convivial, and perhaps comes more easily to humans, than sitting alone in front of a computer screen all day.


  1. In my various fields, the fact that the conferences are for such purposes is rather explicit and discussed in text and conversation very often indeed.

    Our list is mostly the same (almost identical, actually, though there is some variation between conferences), though I don't think that most of the people at the proverbial "top" are necessarily doing better work than the solid soldiers. In fact, I consider it highly desirable for some conference series I have attended to recycle their plenary speakers much less and have even massively reduced my attendance frequency at some of these as a result of this.

    We don't have a season, though.

  2. One other thing to add: I've never witnessed this happen to anybody else, but I once was actually booed (reasonably loudly) by several people during one of my talks at a big mathematics conference (with people who were going to interview me for a faculty job in the audience).

  3. Wow, I've never heard of booing - that sounds rather grim. What did they object to in your talk?

    History conferences I've been to are very courteous, even elaborately so. If someone gives a weak paper, it will be taken apart by people asking subtle but deadly questions, phrased in exquisitely polite terms... it's sometimes so subtle, that the speaker doesn't realise it's happening, and that can make it hard to watch.

  4. Apparently, it's not ok to say anything even remotely not 100% positive about the organizers.

    I really needed to show an animation to convey something properly and I did all the usual procedures months ahead of time to ask for a room with a video projector. [At the time --- 2005 --- that conference didn't have projectors in all rooms, though literally every other conference series I have attended since something like 2001 has had a video projector in literally every room. So they were really behind the times.]

    However, my request was denied and I was placed in a session/room without one, even though there were numerous other relevant session/room combinations throughout the conference where I could have been speaking. So I made a slightly snarky comment in the spot where I would have shown a particular animation to quickly and efficiently (in my 15- or 20-min talk) to convey something crucial for understanding the main piece of physical background for what I was studying. I had to show a still instead, and the resolution of printers didn't help make it optimal to read either. I said something along the lines of the organizers not letting me be in a room with a video projector (I had protested for one when they first didn't give it to me) so that we had to settle for this, and that is what got me booed.

    But at least it was an accomplishment.