Double-date Conference

A few weeks ago I attended a conference that marked a couple of firsts for me. It was the first combined conference I’d been to (that is 2 different groups co-hosting) and the first time I’d been to either association’s get-together. I came away thinking that this sort of thing really needs to happen more often. Both the John Gower and Early Books Societies are smaller organizations, which makes sense given the specificity in focus of their interests. It also makes sense for two smaller organizations to combine resources. What made the conference a really good experience was 2 related factors: first, its size, and second, the collegiality.

There was one question that was almost sure to come up when first meeting someone: are you a Gower person or an early books person? Frequently the answer was something like “I’m really more of X, but I’m presenting here on Y.” People would often open their talk with some kind of apology for not being as expert in their topic as the audience, but the great thing here is that people were trying new things, not just sticking to the areas they were comfortable in. It also meant that the audience was already primed to get into discussion during and after the sessions. Most academic conferences are parodied for containing “questions” like “You make an interesting point about X. I work in Y (and spend a lot of time detailing my own work here). Have you considered that?” There were noticeably fewer speeches framed as questions here, and more actual discussion both with panelists and among the audience members.

The size was another great benefit. Because this was a smaller conference, there weren’t 20 potential sessions to choose from at any given time; at most, you had 3 choices. This means that every session had a fair number of audience members. For the record, I define ‘decent audience’ as more people in the audience than the panel. A smaller conference also means you have a better chance of meeting and getting to know people you didn’t before you arrived. During the remarks at the opening reception, one of the conference planners mentioned that a lot of the student helpers (all 5 or so of them) were excited about meeting their footnotes, and could everyone please be nice about it if approached for that reason. The thing is that it wasn’t just the undergrad helpers who were meeting their footnotes; it was some of the graduate student and junior professors (attendees) who got to do that too. There’s also finding out that you and your former professor now know some of the same people independently. It feels a little like growing up again.

The professional networking possibilities at a smaller conference are actually really good, something that surprised me a little bit. There’s also just the random ending up together at a table moments, such as when I ended up having lunch with a post-doctoral fellow from Oxford, and a late career graduate students from the University of Victoria. When you have an American, a Brit, and a Canadian together, the conversation gets pretty interesting when the subject turns to institutional structures. The university systems in the 3 represented countries are really different, which I hadn’t realized before. I’ve done some reading on British universities, but I hadn’t realized the Canadian systems was as different from either the UK or US as it is.

One of the nice things about a lot of academic conferences that I’ve been to that are non-generalist is that they include time for exploring the area and sightseeing. In this case that meant tours of Durham Castle and Cathedral (both of which have medieval components) and the associated libraries. It was during these tours that I found out that some iconic bits in the early Harry Potter movies were filmed in these locations. There’s a hallway in the cathedral cloisters that was used as a part of Hogwarts, and in the Cathedral library nearby, they had Professor McGonagall’s inkwell. Apparently a producer noticed it, and asked if they could borrow it. Supposedly it’s clearly visible in the first movie when Harry and friends are in her office about to be scolded for hijinks. I may need to re-watch those movies to look for this stuff. We (meaning myself and a few fellow conference-goers) also considered the possibility that the Great Hall in the Castle might also have been used as the Great Hall of Hogwarts. We never could decide for sure, and none of us felt like trying to look it up (I did that later when I got home, and it’s just the similarity between medieval great halls; Hogwarts was modeled more directly on Christ Church college at Oxford, which makes sense because part of the Bodleian (Oxford’s library) was the used for the Hogwarts library). The second option for exploration was a bus trip to Alnwick Castle, also used in Harry Potter filming, most notably the flying lessons and Quidditch playfield. The outside of the castle and the gardens were more interesting to me than the interior which didn’t have a lot of medievalness to it. There was also a large used bookstore nearby, although I didn’t find anything I needed to have.

The tours weren’t all just fun though; the Palace Green library had some unexpectedly cool stuff to show the tour group, including a holograph of Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint and Dialogue with a Friend. It was a pretty basic looking codex, but it had some pretty gold initials, and it was actually, physically written by a fairly well-known medieval literary figure. It was also pretty cool to get to visit not only St Cuthbert who I knew had a connection to the area (his tomb is in the Cathedral), but also Bede. I hadn’t realized his tomb was in the Durham Cathedral, or rather in a side chapel.

This trip turned into something of a Harry Potter pilgrimage without my actually intending it to. I flew into Edinburgh, Scotland and did do some of the requisite Harry Potter visits, including the Elephant House café (where interestingly, the most visibly Harry Potter connection is in the ladies restroom), and the graveyard at Greyfriars Kirk (where you can count on at least one or two groups trying to find the relevant headstones). I just hadn’t realized the Harry Potter connections to Durham. I was a big fan of the books, although I only got into them right as the third novel came out, so the trip wasn’t all work and no play.

I heard on NPR a while back a discussion of Jane Austen’s opening line to Pride and Prejudice, and how it’s often repurposed without retaining the original snark and social commentary; there’s something to that. It’s like the difference between “It is a truth universally acknowledged that the conference book seller room will tempting” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged that professors don’t go on vacation; they go to conferences”. The first statement is true and probably mean sincerely without irony. The second statement is also true, but could be interpreted in a lot of different ways, including the point that a conference may be travel to somewhere interesting, but it’s also work. And then there’s the expectation of doing research (ie- work) at the relevant historical sites and libraries that might happen to be in the general area. I bring this up because this particular conference did indeed mean some expected research in either the Edinburgh or London libraries (the 2 nearest international airports to Durham), and nearly everyone I met was indeed planning on researching after the conference was done. I myself had some research to do at the University of Edinburgh library, and I discovered some interesting potential resources at the conference. As it happens, the Durham Palace Green library is in the process of digitizing its manuscript collection which may prove useful in the future for research or classroom applications, or both. I do find it a little funny that in both libraries we were warned not to touch anything, even though the group of us were professionals trained to do just that.

Advertisements

Challenges of Research and Teaching It

July means 2 things for me: conference presentations and starting to think about fall syllabus prep.

Prepping a conference paper is its own unique academic exercise. It’s a research paper but at the same time, it’s not. Often, one leads to other, sometimes both. There are challenges every step of the way, which isn’t surprising, but what is interesting to me is that many of the issues are very similar to what students run into, just at different levels. My thinking is that by considering the same difficulties and challenges that professional academic scholars face and how we solve or address them, maybe that’s where more useful or promising possibilities for helping students can come from.

The first step is generally the same, whether you’re drafting a researched paper or article, and a conference paper. The research reading and drafting comes first. Two common issues here are getting hands on sources, be they digital or paper. It’s not just getting sources you know you need though; this is also when finding all the sources that you should look at. This is as much a process as the developing of ideas and writing. You have to maintain and build a list of titles and authors to find, so that you cover previous scholarship as thoroughly as possible.

Bibliographies and annotations are a step in this direction, but I’m still working on finding a method that gets students to actively research what fits their topic or thesis best, not just what they find first and seems to work.

Near the end of this part, comes the usual struggle with introductions and-or conclusions. It’s not only coming up with the concise and precise statements of argument and intention that can be difficult here; it’s also about making sure that the ideas match without repeating. These issues are a struggle for introductory composition students on up, and they don’t seem to go away.

The standard advice seems to be to work out a good strong thesis, and build the introduction around that. Generally, this seems to work. The conclusion though is another story, and the question becomes how to review your key ideas without copying and pasting your introduction with a few minor vocabulary changes, as seems to be a favorite technique. I’m planning to try the following prompt: what did you learn in the process of creating your argument and why might it be useful or valuable to know? We’ll see how this goes.

With conference presentations, or presentations in general, there’s the usual time and visual restrictions to consider, but also the audience. When teaching composition using rhetoric as a major factor, audience analysis is something students need to do, but the question is how to get them to really consider their target audience. This is more a problem in a composition class than a conference though, because you already know what kind of person will likely be at the conference. I was recently at the combined meeting of the John Gower Society and the Early Books Society, and someone joked how nice it was to be at a conference where you didn’t need to summarize the Confessio Amantis as a part of your presentation. Another benefit of this level of presentation is that arguments need not be fully developed or even complete, as many scholars use these gatherings as places to get feedback and advice on how to proceed or improve.

Since a presentation based paper from a student needs to be fully developed and polished at the time of presentation, and doing dress rehearsals or peer review of presentations can get boring for students who then get stuck seeing the same or very similar talks given twice, I’m thinking I might do small group presentations with mandatory Q & A as peer review, and then have the final version be turned in as a standard essay. This idea needs more work, so we’ll see what ends up happening.

Even at the professional level, feedback can get tricky. It seems like, on a standard panel of 3-4 papers, 1 or 2 almost always get more questions and attention than the rest. It’s also often the case that certain people ask the questions almost every time. These are factors I’m going to try and circumvent with presentation peer review, but again, to be continued…

With professional conferences and even with advanced student project/presentations, the final challenge comes when you’re faced with adapting a 5-8 page essay into a full scale research project, or vice versa. The challenge of re-finding sources and citations, or choosing what to keep and take out as the case may be, is more one of time than anything else, and time management is a tricky thing to teach well. Even I sometimes forget to cite as I go, and I almost always regret it later; but no matter how much I remind students and tell them my own horror stories, it doesn’t seem to get through. Finding new sources to include is also a reality, though one more for the advanced student or scholar than an introductory type composition course.

Extending the time frame for a major research assignment, and breaking it down into a series of smaller steps seems to be the best option, but keeping students interested and challenged as they go becomes harder.

Coming at the challenges facing introductory composition from the perspective of a writer and researcher seems promising, but for now as there are more questions than answers, I’ll leave things with one final to becontinued….