By Gary D. Hutchison |

Having started my PhD in September, it often seemed as if all of my contemporaries were getting to have all the fun, attending numerous conferences pertinent to their subject areas.  I, meanwhile, was wondering when exactly an event would pop up which would enable me to dip my toe in the water and see for myself what all of the fuss was about.  Conferences would seem to be like buses; no sooner was I thinking this than calls for papers popped up for no fewer than three of them!

Apart from having attended numerous in-house seminars, I had little to no idea what to expect when I travelled to King’s College in London for the Four Nations History network conference on 20th February.  Having journeyed to London a few days earlier to get my bearings (and to inspect some manuscripts in the British Library), I pitched up early for registration and was directed to the appropriate room by someone who I subsequently discovered was one of the main speakers.  This friendly gesture was indicative of the atmosphere of the day in general, people from different academic institutions, career stages, and subject areas intermingling.

At the Four Nations history conference, the diversity of the crowd was particularly acute, and indeed the national origin of the speakers was no guarantee of their subject area.  English scholars studying Ireland, Welsh scholars interested in Scottish history, and international scholars focusing on one or more of the four nations were all in evidence. It became increasingly obvious as the day wore on that the conference answered a need; the very nature of Four Nations history means that those who practice it are scattered geographically from the southern tip of England, to the west coast of Ireland, throughout Wales, and the Highlands of Scotland – and internationally even further afield.  Getting everyone in the same room together paid dividends, as I had to opportunity to meet (and to ask questions of) a range of people whose work I had consulted.  More than that, I met several whose work I will now look at (or at least add it to my ever-growing and seemingly endless reading list).  Indeed, the social side of conferences would appear to be as important as the academic sessions.

Outside of the social parts, the panel discussions were both interesting and lively and gave me much food for thought in terms of how to approach the writing of my own thesis.  Moreover, the sensitive mix of speakers – PhD students, early career scholars, and established academics enabled a full range of viewpoints and topics to be explored.  My only regret was that it was physically impossible to attend more than one panel at any one time!  This necessitated making some tough choices, and spending much of the coffee breaktime asking about what was discussed in the other rooms.  The conference ended with a speech by the Irish ambassador to the UK, and then a wine reception, at which point we were all able to relax, and to absorb and discuss what we had experienced that day.  All in all, a fitting end to what had been an illuminating and enjoyable day.

The 21st century has brought a great many advantages, ranging from digitised records to Skype, which enable us to carry out research and maintain academic networks seemingly unhindered by the constraints of physical distance.  Yet just as the materiality of a source can have a decisive impact on its value, there really is no substitute for human interaction.  I must admit to having felt a certain degree of nervousness, as I attended not knowing anyone else – but I learned several important things about conferences:

1. No matter how obscure and specialised you think your subject may be, at conferences there will inevitably be at least a few others who have some (or often detailed) knowledge of your area, which can be an excellent ice-breaker.

2. Similarly, if you have some knowledge of their area of research there is a good chance that conversation and ideas will flow freely.

3. Although you might think that you don’t know anyone, in fact it is likely you’ll have mutual acquaintances with many other attendees – the academic community for most subject areas tends not to be too sizable, after all.

4. Much like me, many of those speaking at conferences, while very excited about getting their ideas out there, will be slightly less excited about actually speaking.

5. Points 1-3 reinforce themselves as you carry on – when attending subsequent conferences, you’ll find yourself meeting colleagues you’ve met at previous events, and have more and more awareness of their various sub-disciplines as your research progresses.

Having been to my first conference, I can honestly say that I understand more fully their paramount importance in fostering academic debate and critical innovation.  Now very much in favour of conferences, I look forward to attending my next conference later this month – though as it will be my first time speaking, I may not be so much in favour of them afterwards!


(Photo: Four Nations History Network)