This is a guest post written by Julia Molinari. Julia teaches English for Academic Purposes at The University of Nottingham. Her PhD examines what is ‘academic’ about academic writing. Julia tweets as @serenissimaj and blogs as Academic Emergence
What follows are some structured reflections on choosing conferences during the doctoral research process. The aim is to make my own decision-making visible in the hope that it may resonate with and inform you.
Some background framing
Everybody has their own reasons for choosing and then attending conferences, and mine include attending conferences in order to present. This is partly because it is the only way I can get funding, but is also because I enjoy playing the game, not just watching it.
Secondly, my PhD is interdisciplinary, and draws on the fields of Higher Education (Social Science) and Philosophy (Humanities). This means that whatever conference I present at, I always have a huge amount of explaining to do because my audiences – so far – are unlikely to have read half of my literatures.
Thirdly, I have over 20 years teaching and interpreting experience to draw on: I think this needs saying because having the confidence to communicate at conferences does not ‘just happen’, it is a cumulative discursive stage-fright-avoiding practice.
The affordances of conferences
Conferences afford opportunities that books, peers, and supervisors do not. Before starting the PhD, my reasons for wanting to present at conferences were altruistic, and were aimed at community-building: I presented snapshots of my action and practitioner research either alone or jointly, with a view to sharing ‘teaching practice’. Now, however, although my research is born of this teaching context, it is gradually evolving into a highly theoretical web of discourses, which means that I have to constantly rethink who I present to and, above all, WHY. Currently, my motivations are very selfish: I present in order to gauge reactions, and to be given suggestions on what else I could be reading.
Conferences also afford the chance to ‘hear’ the texts. Seeing, hearing, and trying to talk to the authors you are reading is invaluable because authors often say things in their conference presentations and interactions that they don’t say in their books: they also reveal personal insights and traits that can either turn you on or off them, which, either way, could be significant to the way you are reading them!
Choosing the right conference
The way I currently do this is by sourcing conferences that include plenary speakers who are key to my literature review. Since my PhD deals with two disciplines, no single presenter could ever address everything that would be relevant to me, so I try to be clear about what I hope to hear from them, and then contextualise this within my research design. This means that whatever is said in a presentation and whatever Q&As ensue, including my own, I need to be mindful of what is and isn’t relevant for me.
The conference programme – with details of all speakers – is clearly also crucial when it comes to choosing a conference, but plenary speakers are usually announced before the full programme is confirmed. This means that you can already get a sense of who else is likely to want to be at that conference which in turn allows you to book in advance and to benefit from early bird registration fees, travel, and accommodation.
Sourcing the right conference
When I first started my PhD, knowing what was going on where and when was hard. Previously, I had always relied on my professional ‘grapevine’ to get wind of what was happening on the conference scene. But then each of my supervisors gave me links to forums in Education and Philosophy, and I discovered social media, in the specific form of Twitter and Blogging.
I started following and interacting with relevant authors, university departments, people in my current field and people whose field I would like to be part of, and one ‘follow’ led to another until I had created my own tailor-made flows of information. This information includes having discovered LISTSERVES and Google Groups which you can join by email, allowing you to you receive information that has already been sharpened to your needs.
Having said all of this, I still always feel like an outsider at conferences. This is partly because I am never sure how much I should be giving and how much I should be taking. It is also because when I go to conferences, I am neither a ‘pure’ educationalist or a ‘pure’ philosopher.
To cope with this disciplinary duality, I find myself drawing increasingly on my dual nationality: all my life I have been asked whether I feel more ‘British’ or more ‘Italian’, and my answer has always been that my unity is in being “both”. Similarly, what unifies and justifies my conference presence is that I am there because ‘I’ need to find things out, regardless of what others may be thinking. I suspect, however, that as I near the end of my PhD, more might be at stake, but by then, I hope to have built a solid enough platform on which to stand.