What is an academic conference? What are they for, what do they look like, and why do those who attend like them so much? I often like to explain these topics to my friends, and especially mates from school or undergraduate days who no longer operate in the academic sector. For most outsiders, the idea of spending four days in a room discussing nothing but medieval history with nobody else but medievalists can seem a little bizarre, perhaps even pointless. The most common question is, ‘is that where you go around dressing up like knights being all geeky?’
Happily, while some do dress up and go the whole hog, most really don’t. Every year, over 3,000 academics with medieval specialisms (including historians, archaeologists, literary scholars, linguists, manuscript specialists, and more) descend on the campus of the University of Western Michigan in Kalamazoo (Kalamazoo IMC website). The first medieval congress, hosted by the WMU Medieval Institute was held in 1962, and while its beginnings were small, the event has flourished into the single biggest annual gathering of medievalists anywhere in the world. Delegates range from veteran Professors through to final-year undergraduates, and include everybody in between. Having attended the congress for the last three years, I have decided to put together this short guide for those who are travelling to ‘the zoo’ for the first time in 2012, and also for the interest of those who are not, but wish to know more about what academic conferences involve.
Travel and Accommodation
Although the city of Kalamazoo is not huge, the WMU campus is reasonably far from the centre, and you’ll certainly need a taxi or bus from the station. Staying off-campus is only advisable if you can pay for lots of taxis, and if you already have friends at the congress (most of the socialising goes on during evenings and mealtimes so you don’t want to miss out).
Rooms in the Valley buildings (where most delegates stay) are Spartan. You get towels and bedding but only one pillow, and there’s also this annoying plastic mattress. Light sleepers beware! You also share a bathroom with a stranger, so be polite if you hear that somebody else is already in there! Having said this, the conference is so busy that you probably spend little time in the rooms anyway.
The food is functional, and sometimes really nice. The desserts at all mealtimes are fantastic, and especially the ice cream machine! It’s a good idea to make friends and eat out downtown in the evenings, as the campus can get slightly claustrophobic over the four-day conference.
At any one time, there are around fifty sessions to attend across the whole campus. Pick the one that sounds the most applicable to your work, the most interesting, or the one which features a paper by a key figure in your field. Try to make a good impression with a cool question, although if you don’t have anything new to say, then don’t risk negative reactions. Although the conference exists in order to learn lots of new things, don’t be afraid to take a session off if there’s nothing interesting on offer. Attending three sessions per day for four days straight is very tiring!
If you are presenting
The most important thing to remember is not to go over time. Around three thousand words read slowly is about right for a twenty-minute paper. Be short and snappy, as everyone is going to be hearing plenty of papers over the week, and you need to make a good impression, so being under time is not as bad as it may seem. Don’t be alarmed if you have a small audience, or if people come in and out during sessions or even papers, as this is normal. If you don’t know the answer to a question after your paper, then just admit it: this works ten times better than attempting to cobble something together on which you have no authority.
Opportunities and Etiquette
Conferences offer invaluable opportunities to network. Early-career researchers will find Kalamazoo a great way to meet other people struggling to make their way in the world of medieval studies, so be sure to sit and engage with others at meal times and so on. However, there are rules! Don’t bombard people with evidence of how great your world-changing MA thesis is (because it probably isn’t, and even if you think it is now, you probably won’t after you’ve written your PhD). If you’re seeking to talk to a potential doctoral supervisor, someone who could give you a job, or a possible publisher for your new book, be humble, be direct, and be memorable. Like you, these people will be meeting hundreds of people over the week, so you have to make the right impression without being too aggressive. If you’re looking for a good grad school, pick up leaflets, go to the evening wine receptions advertised in the programme, and most of all, talk to people at them! That said, if the hosting institution makes no effort to engage you, then this is a good hint that they’re not really interesting in helping you-shame on them, not on you!
Most people love the Kalamazoo bookshops, as they offer one of the best chances to look through new books, and snap up out-of-print gems. Leave space and set aside weight in your luggage! You can also pick up a whole range of items as presents, ranging from musical instruments to chain-mail clothing. It is also possible to buy lots of really cool WMU-branded clothing and accessories from the bookstore in the Bernhard Centre, although beware that this is closed on Saturday and Sunday.
The Kalamazoo dance is infamous. Most delegates go at least for a little while, and many find it a great way to kick back at (nearly) the end of a busy and hopefully successful week. Some house rules are to avoid getting too drunk (obviously), don’t be over-flirty with the professor/publisher/employer you are looking to impress, and bring plenty of cash, as it can be pricy. People turn up wearing all sorts of kit, from jeans and t-shirt to full-on tuxedo, so anything goes. Being hung-over for the Sunday sessions is fine, but don’t ruin what could be a really useful session.
While I’ve come up with lots of hopefully useful ideas for how to enjoy the Kalamazoo and other general conferences, I couldn’t provide an exhaustive guide without being too specific or boring. However, I hope everyone who reads this might pick up at least one small gem, and I’d be happy to receive comments and further observations on the topic. The key thing to remember is to enjoy yourself, and take on every challenge and opportunity that you find!