Sam Caslin was awarded her PhD from the University of Manchester in 2013. She now works at the University of Liverpool where she teaches about the history of crime and deviance and British society and the First World War. You can follow her on Twitter: @drcaslin
I’ve missed the first day, and my plan to arrive bright and early on Day 2, ready to launch myself into combined meet-and-greet/intellectual analysis mode, is already thwarted. I arrive late. A terrible night’s sleep in a budget hotel has sapped much of my energy.
The registration table is unattended when I enter the building – everyone is elsewhere, enjoying the last few minutes of the morning’s papers. There are still some other name badges left to be collected; I am relieved to discover that I have not broken some unspoken rule of etiquette by turning up late on day two. Quickly, I spot my name, although it is with some reluctance that I clip the small plastic rectangle to my clothing – when I registered for the conference many months ago I was at that early career stage of academic employment euphemistically termed “being an independent researcher.” Though I am now in a job, I had not thought to update my details with the conference organisers (of course not, why would they be interested? And it may seem like bragging). Therefore, the space for my institutional affiliation on my badge simply has the letters “N/A” written in what I worry is a rather large font. I am the intellectual equivalent of a stray cat.
I am on a foreign campus, but I find my way to the social space that has been set aside as a “holding pen” between talks. It is a room that is longer than it is wide, with computers and seating at one end and refreshment tables pushed together at the other. Within minutes of my loitering, the room starts to fill as the morning’s papers draw to a close. Each person that enters through the double doors is in deep conversation with the next. They all sound excited, energised and…awake. I immediately conclude that none of them spent last night in the same hotel as me!
I notice that they are all wearing their conference badges, surely a sign that they are happy to be identified and approached. But, as I surreptitiously and awkwardly try to read each of the tags, the people start to morph from friendly faces into “Names,” capital “N”. Some I recognise as belonging to the erudite and pithy band of “twitterstorians” that I have recently begun to follow online. Others I recognise from the covers of vital and inspirational books I read as an undergraduate. The room is chock-full of modern British history’s Beckhams and Kardashians! How do you interrupt and introduce yourself to such intellectual celebrity? Well, you don’t! I scan around for anyone I know and, at last, I find two colleagues from the same institution as me. They are friendly, warm and their chat helps me to settle. Their welcome is a little breeze of academic kindness that helps me to settle down somewhat.
Before long it is time to scuttle off to the large lecture theatre to hear one of the plenary speakers. Which brings me to another deeply contested and much politicised area of academic conference terrain: choosing your seat for the plenary. Do you sit at the back, comfortably tucked out of the way, pensive and enigmatic? Or is this too nonchalant for an early career researcher? Perhaps a seat at the front would be best, eager and receptive? But then you notice that NONE of the other audience members sit in the first two, three or even four rows. I wonder if I have missed a memo about the social geography of the lecture hall. I play it cool with a seat near the middle of the room. The lecture is engaging, fun and challenging. The audience applaud generously as the session concludes and though I can’t yet claim to be relaxed I am starting to enjoy proceedings. I don’t quite have the cojones to throw myself back into the holding pen during the break, though.
A pit-stop for a burst of caffeine in one of those ethically questionable, though completely ubiquitous and frustratingly addictive coffee shops helps. I’m in a part of the campus unconnected with the conference. I collect my thoughts and, as the coffee works its magic, I prepare to attend the next panel. I am particularly excited about this one. The topic is new (to me), innovative and encourages wider engagement with history. One of the speakers is a former tutor of mine, a huge influence on my research and an inspiration to take up the challenge of historical inquiry, though I have been shamefully terrible at keeping in touch him. I don’t dare to presume that this tutor will have time to say hello or chat, but he is just as welcoming and as encouraging as ever. It is another academic act of kindness that sees me relax a little more.
After the panel, which is every bit as fantastic as I hoped it would be, I meet a few other friendly people. This time, I am in the holding pen/social space. It starts to seem less daunting than it did a few hours ago. The other people I meet over the course of the afternoon and early evening, my co-panellist, my panel’s chair, and researchers from the UK and abroad, offer great conversation, encouragement, feedback and, above all, support.
My second day at the conference could have been every bit as daunting as the first; in fact it should have been as that was the day I was presenting my own paper! But, thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Of course it was nerve-wracking but, by that point, I had realised two things: 1) that most people feel the same sense of trepidation at entering an event of this size and 2) that this was an event that sought to be inclusive. There was a lot of chatter about the importance of communication between postgraduates, early career researchers and established academics. Solidarity was mentioned a lot at #mbs2015. To me, solidarity is an ongoing process rather than an absolute state. It requires constant dialogue between those at the centre and those in more marginalised roles. The organisers of #mbs2015 aimed to start the conversation; it’s our job to keep it going.