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.