Demystifying the Academic Conference or Seminar
One of the most notable aspects of the evolution from taught postgraduate into PhD research is the growing expectation to present your work at academic conferences and seminars. Students often discuss how daunting a prospect this can be, which in my experience, has tended to revolve around an imagined situation in which a fresh-faced PhD researcher is put to the sword by a more experienced academic, or various elements of the talk go awry. Many other specific fears are bound up with the thought of giving an academic paper, and having spoken to colleagues, it seems that the embarrassment of an unexpected technical failure also ranks highly on that list. In the midst of all this anxiety, it is often forgotten that partaking in these events can be an extremely rewarding experience, especially for a young researcher. In this latest blog post for the Scottish Centre for Global History, I intend to restate some of the many advantages to postgraduate students of participating in academic conferences and seminars through my own particular experiences since starting my PhD almost two years ago.
(Image: Sky News, http://news.sky.com/story/theresa-mays-nightmare-speech-focuses-on-british-dream-11066636)
In March 2017, I travelled to Milton Keynes and the International Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice, as part of their seminar series, to give a paper about my ongoing doctoral research. I was given this opportunity to present my work following contacts I had made when giving a different paper at a previous conference, the British Crime Historians Symposium, in October last year. Networking may appear to be another intimidating feature of the conference or seminar experience, but its importance to a young academic cannot not be overstated. I initially found networking, and still do to a certain degree, to be one of the most challenging aspects of completing a PhD. Like most people I should imagine, I was particularly worried about making a poor first impression to experienced scholars I will hopefully be working with for the rest of my academic career. However, I soon realised that it was vital that I put my inhibitions to one side, as it is from engaging with your specific academic community that many of your future opportunities may arise. It was only by doing so that I was afforded the opportunity to give my paper in Milton Keynes.
The seminar itself was a full day event and I was joined by two other speakers, Donald Fyson (Laval University) and Maryse Tennant (Canterbury Christ Church), who delivered excellent presentations concerning their ongoing research into various aspects of the criminal justice system in Canada, and rural Cheshire respectively. Alongside a smattering of PhD students like myself, the seminar was attended by some of the leading academics in the field of criminal justice history. It is arguably the very presence of such people that acts as a trigger point for many new PhD student’s fears about the academic conference or seminar. During my PhD however, I have gradually learned that it is important to conceptualise these situations for what they are in reality; an excellent opportunity. Besides, most of the academics I have encountered during my PhD have been generally very understanding and encouraging towards the work of young researchers.
The paper I presented was entitled, The origins of black community resistance to policing in London, 1945-1959, and emanates out of my wider research into the experiences and political struggles of post-WWII migrants from the British Empire with the Metropolitan Police (Met) in London. More specifically, my paper related to research I had conducted into written reports by senior Met officers during the early 1950s regarding the issue of black settlement in London. I argued that these reports provide a critical insight into the attitudes of the Metropolitan Police towards black people in London and, to such people’s experiences with, and responses to encounters with law enforcement during the 1950s. The paper concluded that until the late 1950s, black people in London had mounted regular challenges to the Metropolitan Police during individual encounters with the police on the streets of the capital. However, and following two key events, the Notting Hill Race Riots (1958) and the racist murder of Antiguan carpenter, Kelso Cochrane (1959), black people’s resistance to policing in the imperial metropolis became increasingly politically organised.
In all, I spoke for forty minutes, which was the first time I had ever done so, given that the normal length of time for most academic presentations is between fifteen and twenty. Again, while this seemed a daunting prospect at first, once I began to prepare for my talk I felt liberated by the extended time limit. This allowed me to showcase many more aspects of my research than would have been possible if I had been confined to a much shorter paper. Moreover, when giving presentations I have historically tended to restrict myself rigidly to a pre-written script so as to avoid making any unnecessary mistakes. This time however, I chose to use the additional time in order to move away from my strict adherence to a typed script. At certain points during my talk, where I was comfortable in my level of knowledge, I spoke directly and freely to the audience about particular theme’s emerging from my paper. One of my long-term goals in academia is to be confident enough to talk about my work without feeling the need to refer constantly to a transcript. By taking the opportunity to trial this during my seminar paper in Milton Keynes, I feel that I made an important step forward in my academic development.
After I had delivered my paper, there were around twenty minutes left for what is often viewed as the much dreaded Q&A session. This is the point at which many researchers (both young and established) fear they are going to be found out as the fraud they mistakenly believe themselves to be. Overall, I would conclude that the response to my paper was positive. I was questioned by the audience on a variety of issues including my definition of ‘black’ in the paper, the influence of the colonial policing experience and, the intersection between ‘race’ and gender within the context of my research. Rather than representing my downfall, these questions were incredibly useful in encouraging me to reengage in a new light with issues I had previously considered, but also to think in new ways about my research trajectory. The discussion over the importance of applying a gendered analysis to my work was particularly important in highlighting an aspect of my research which I had largely neglected to that point. I was also directed to various articles and books which I had previously been unaware of, which will certainly improve my own understanding of this topic in the future. While it is easy to interpret the Q&A portion of a conference or seminar as the most distressing part of the event, it is important to remember that this is likely to be the most beneficial aspect of the entire process.
In addition to individual questioning, time had also been set aside by the organisers for a round table discussion about the theoretical and comparative issues which had been raised by the three papers. Within this, Donald, Marysee and myself, were asked to comment on the importance we attached to the wider global historical context in our work. Admittedly, upon hearing of this development I was initially filled with apprehension. How would I cope amongst a panel of distinguished academics, as I was initially unable to reassure myself that I was being questioned on a topic that I knew I had spent the most time researching? I managed to hold my own and in the end, I found it to be quite a valuable experience. It afforded me the space to highlight my own view that situating historical research within a globalised context is crucial for historians in order to emphasise the broader significance of our research. Moreover, for scholars interested in issues of ‘race’, it is very difficult to ignore the major global developments of the post-WWII period. In my own research on ‘race’ and policing, I pay close attention to the impact of worldwide developments such as the process of decolonisation and the racial situation in the U.S., which had a strong influence upon events in Britain in the post-war period. At no other point during my PhD research had I been asked to take part in such a broad round table discussion at the close of any academic conference or seminar. What this experience proved to me however, was that I almost certainly know more than I think I do, and I don’t imagine that it would unreasonable to assume that this is the case for most people in academia.
It is important to realise that giving conference and seminar papers outside of your institution is an unavoidable, yet integral part of the PhD process. Such events can help you to build networks and gain experiences which will be vital upon entering the competitive world of early career academia. However, as I have sought to highlight in this blog entry, it need not be the traumatic experience you imagine or have heard that it can be. My top tips would be to afford yourself plenty of time to write the paper and crucially, practice your delivery! This may seem like a rudimentary point, but personally, I find that if I can master these basics correctly then I am able to focus less on my nervousness about public speaking, and more on taking advantage of the many opportunities that come from the conference or seminar. My time in Milton Keynes boosted my own confidence and has given me plenty of encouragement that I am on track as I enter the final year of my PhD. Most importantly however, it opened up my mind to thinking about my research in ways that I hadn’t considered previously which I have since been able to incorporate into my writing during the summer academic recess.
Christopher Fevre is an AHRC-funded history PhD student at the University of Dundee working on research which looks at the issues of ‘race’ and policing in post-war London. Christopher is also currently a Doctoral Fellow at the Scottish Centre for Global History.