Conferences are a unique time and place–a time to learn, a place to reconnect with old colleagues and to meet new ones. This month I went to my first academic conference, the 54th International Medieval Congress at West Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I was able to meet in person scholars I knew from reading and referencing their works as well as others I knew from social media. It was an amazing experience. I was star struck and so excited to engage with these scholars personally. The conference also proved to be an easy and convenient way to meet up with international colleagues to plan and organize research collaborations and trips.
A big decision when attending a big conference is deciding which sessions to attend. I was shocked by the giant selection of options! The title of a session must capture the reader and the abstract must keep her engaged. Not only that; the session must win out over the dozens of other sessions held during the same time slot! Being a speaker must be quite intimidating for that reason alone. Luckily, I attended the Congress with a group of student peers. We dealt with this dilemma by splitting up to attend different sessions and then meeting up to share what we had learned. That way we could learn from as many sessions as possible. The conference was intense; you’re absorbing so much new information and ideas and hanging out with interesting people you would otherwise never get to meet.
As I reflect on it, I see ways I could have better prepared. For example, I could have asked my professor for advice on how to scrutinize sessions better. Still, I learned a lot about the historical fields I want to pursue in my future MA studies. I learned a lot about history; about museum curation and badges; about how to look at and bring together multiple streams of scholarship; and how to be brave and admit you are wrong or simply don’t know. I learned about the instability of political images, and how badges were a perfect medium for those unstable political images because they were so easy to manufacture, being made of cheap tin-lead alloy, commonly referred to as pewter, and quick to melt down and set (if you want to see a video clip of the manufacturing process, click here). A medieval political badge, or any pewter badge, could be taken, melted down and poured into another mold in less than half an hour! Art historian Sonja Drimmer demonstrated that this is exactly what happened. Badges showed and made communities, but these communities were able to change symbols and allegiances at their own or other people’s whims. It is interesting what you learn at conferences. Sonja Drimmer used evidence drawn from medieval English chronicles and literature to prove her points instead of simply analysing the actual objects.
I learned a lot about my field of museum studies, but also much about other related and unrelated fields and all of it is useful. My biggest take-away is that good presentation skills really matter. If the speaker ran out of time and talked too fast or had too much written information on their power points slides, or rambled, their presentation was harder to understand, and the audience got distracted. One the other hand, giant beautiful photos and some well-timed jokes helped me pay attention.
All in all, academic conferences are well worth the time, effort, and money to attend!