On conferencing: Some views from MALLE student, Sheryl Medlicott
Presenting at an academic conference as an MA student
Part of the appeal of an MA for me was the chance to experience academic life as fully as I could for a couple of years, seeing myself as a kind of trainee academic. I definitely wanted to attend a conference or two and imagined myself going along to such events. I knew about the upcoming Landscaping Change conference at Bath Spa for instance and planned to go to that, and did, and you can read my blog about it here. What I didn’t expect, however, was to give a paper at a conference myself.
I had seen a call for papers for a conference being organised by the Utopian Studies Society of Europe and decided it would be good experience to have a go at putting together an abstract. It was the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia and the USS were asking for papers exploring More’s intellectual legacy of utopian theory and practice. I’m interested in how in a time of environmental crisis the utopian imagination could help us reimagine our relationship with nature and proposed to talk about that. My MA tutor, Dr Samantha Walton, looked over what I had written and gave me some feedback, then I submitted it. Job done.
Except it got accepted. I was, obviously, pleased. But now I had a whole heap more stuff to do that I had no idea how to do. I had to write a paper. I had to get myself to Lisbon for the conference. I had to pay a conference fee and book accommodation. It was going to cost a fair amount of money. And eventually I was going to have to stand up in front of actual academics and give my paper and face their questions.
It turned out, though, that none of this was insurmountable. I had support from MA course leader, Dr Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi, to write my paper and attended a Presentation Skills workshop run by the Writing and Learning Centre. Kyriaki also found some funding from Santander I could apply for. While I missed out on that award, the panel liked my application enough to offer me a bursary under another scheme. Before long it was a hot Tuesday evening in July and I was at the welcome desk of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa picking up my conference pack and heading down to the welcome drinks reception.
The conference itself was like a very niche festival. I looked at the programme, picked out my must sees, got frustrated at inevitable clashes, took a punt on some more interesting looking panels (contemporary Finnish ecodystopias being a particular highlight). There were two panels on Utopia and the Environment, one of which I was speaking on. My paper, entitled ‘How to Be an Ecological Utopian’, aimed to bring together ecocritical thinking I had encountered through my modules on the MA in Literature, Landscape and Environment at Bath Spa University with ideas from Utopian studies, an area of personal interest, in order to explore the ecological potential of the utopian form. This is a line of research I intend to pursue further in my MA dissertation.
When it came to my paper, yes I was nervous. The person speaking before me had featured on the plenary roundtable on the first day of the conference so I was intimidated about who I had to follow. At least I could always fall back on being ‘only’ an MA student… but in the end I didn’t have to. He was nervous about the IT and I was able to sort it out and that incidence of competence on my part calmed my nerves. The papers on our panel complemented each other nicely and we swapped copies of our papers and slides at the end of the session. The questions afterwards weren’t a grilling but an enjoyable debate.
I remember my time at the conference extremely fondly. Aside from giving my paper, the conference was akin to a trimester’s worth of seminars on a specific area of interest in three days. It was exhausting but I learnt a lot. I met other academics with similar interests and the social side of the conference included a conference dinner, at the end of which we were treated to traditional fado music while outside Lisbon erupted as Portugal beat Wales in the European Championship semi-final.
Since the USS conference, I have gone on to present my research at other conferences including the Mediating Climate Change conference at the University of Leeds. It’s an experience I would recommend to all MA students who get the opportunity.