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On conference papers

Last week was a little busy to say the least. I delivered 3 conference papers in 3 days. Partly due to bad organisation, and my lack of faith that any abstract will be accepted the end of my week involved a lot of talking and a fair few nerves. All three were so different in content, environment they were delivered and the impact they had on how I thought of my research it was worth reflecting on them here. And maybe my experiences can help others in a what to do, or more importantly what not to.

Paper 1

This paper was delivered internally at our department research seminars. Therefore I'd delivered it previously, but it was the one I was most nervous for. It's one thing to have a not-so-good paper elsewhere (see Paper 2) but to deliver to your supervisors and colleagues is quite another thing. It's the moment you really expose yourself.

I was more nervous as this paper didn't grow out of my PhD itself but more a "pet project" of mine. The title ‘This is your universe Frankenstein’ the re-appropriation of the monstrous in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein.' grew out of a personal interest in the play. It did have links to teaching (I'd used it in relation to Iain Bank's 'The Wasp Factory' and co-written an article about that) and to my PhD in the wider sense (My interest in the National Theatre and the use of their archives) but there was the added worry that I was somehow wasting my time with this. There's also the worry about what you'll be asked about. With my confidence at rock bottom after some hellish PhD meetings, and actually the assumption that my supervisors are questioning my ability to do anything, the thought of presenting this my 'pet project' in front of them and others was not something I looked forward to. Luckily the feedback I got was positive, the questions constructive and I felt that those there to listen supported my 'extra curricular' exercise. I also felt my confidence boosted slightly by showing there was more to the approach I'm taking in my PhD than just the one analysis, that it's a valid approach applied elsewhere. 

Paper 2
So feeling buoyed by my good experience at 'home' I trotted off to the next. I'll be honest, this was the paper I cared least about, and thank goodness! Glancing over the programme sent the night before my stomach sank and I quickly began to dread the next day. The rest of the conference seemed so far removed from my own work as possible while still being technically in the same field. I immediately felt the organisers had misunderstood my work. Partly my fault perhaps but theirs also for completely misunderstanding. On closer inspection I did see parallels with my work...but in other panels not my own. I shrugged off my sinking feeling and replaced it with one of not caring. My work and the paper was what it was, it was well written and informed by my research and I could do no more. 

The panel was, interesting to say the least. I spoke between a nurse, a dentist and a physiotherapist. It sounds like the opening to a joke, and it was. They looked at me blankly, I carried on valiantly trying to make jokes (they don't do jokes apparently  tried to make them see the similarities (there are some but admittedly I was clutching at straws) and then I mentioned Andrew Lloyd Webber, and did Jazz Hands. In true scientist fashion they measured my 15 minutes from the moment I got up and was being introduced  so my immaculately timed paper didn't even get halfway through. Still I summarised, I answered questions, I took the free lunch and ran away as fast as I could. Note to conference organisers, just because a paper mentions something medical, doesn't meant that's what it is. A quick glance at the programme showed me a group of music ethnographers in the next room would have been having a discussion I  (and my jazz hands) would have fitted perfectly. 

I could have been upset about this, instead I chose to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation. What I delivered was fine, and totally in line with the call for papers and my abstract that was accepted. I can't take blame for poor orchestration! Doesn't mean what I produced didn't have value and that I didn't benefit from putting it together. That and it's still going on the CV! 

Paper 3 

This paper was another pet project, one particualrly close to my heart on the only other subject I'd possibly consider a PhD in (actually there's probably one other too) Sherlock Holmes, specifically titled 'A Study in Bute Street or Baker Street? Literary tourism and Sherlock' a title, as I mentioned in the opening of my paper, I'd been dying to use for some time. 

What to say about this other than it was the best conference experience and best paper I've delivered to date. The conference itself was a great expereince, I felt immediatly like I was on the same page as these people. The topics were enjoyable and engaging and I was getting a lot from them. On a more reflective note this gave me a chance to think about my direction/place as an academic and that actually I'm a better fit, both in terms of interests, approach and personality with the film/tv/media/cultural researchers here than I am in English/Drama. 

My paper had the last slot of the day, something I thought would be difficult. Luckily the organisers here had put together a good panel of papers that complimented and fed into one another. When I got up to speak I felt like the audience had been engaged by the previous speakers and therefore was still awake, which was a plus. That the paper before me spoke on Sherlock also, the literal flip side of my own talking about the role of London as a city in Canonical Holmes and Sherlock. 

From the moment I began to speak things just felt right. The audience responded to what I said and we had a few laughs along the way. Incidentally another thing I noticed with the conference as a whole I'd not seen before-a willingness to laugh and have fun. It's not that what we're saying isn't valuable analysis but also an awareness that if you are delivering a paper on 'Ripper Street' or similar, it's not exactly serious material, it's not about politics or changing the world and we can indeed have fun. 

From this paper I learned when it goes right, it feels like flying. I loved every second my paper. Others I've quite enjoyed giving, but here feeling like I both knew what I was talking about and was being appreciated for it, and was finally talking about something I truly loved was the best feeling in the world. 

I got great feedback after the paper, and encouragement that there was a lot more 'life' in the research and that I should pursue it. To get the kind of compliments I got from a couple of academics who I'd admired both in their work before and at the conference itself was the best kind of validation, particularly for my 'pet project' and something that I love. 

So my week of three conference papers ended on a high. I learned a lot across the week. If I had any advice I'd say always pick papers on things you're passionate about, conference papers are a distraction from the 'main' work so pick soemthing that either compliments or provides constructive distraction. Make sure you are prepared and confident in your work, because even if it goes wrong on the day you know you did the best possible preparation. And if it does go wrong, remember it's only about 20 minutes of your life and when it's done, you can leave brush yourself off and move onto the next. 


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