Things I wish I’d known about my first academic conference

Last week, one of my academic mentors, Tanya Fitzgerald, sent me a copy of Raewyn Connell’s How to Survive and Thrive at an Academic Conference. I’ve read similar guides, but this one proved particularly insightful, mostly because Connell tells it like it is, no BS. I could have really used the advice in 2015 when I was weighing up whether or not to attend my first academic conference. It turns out I did attend, but for many of the wrong reasons.

For one, it was expensive – return flights from Australia to London, accommodation and food in one of the most expensive cities in the world, conference fees etc. – and it was self-funded. I did not apply for support from my university nor elsewhere mostly because, I did not know how.

I was also woefully ignorant of what I should expect and what was expected of me. Now that I was enrolled in a doctoral program, I simply wanted to do what ‘real’ academics did, and that was present at international conferences. So I did.

Some of the conference attendees

It began brilliantly, with the decision not to bring a USB backup of my presentation because surely ‘all computers will have internet access’. Ten minutes before my presentation and I found myself commandeering a kind, but slightly p***ed off academic’s office in the Institute of Education, London – only the best education school in the world!*

Naturally, I began my presentation utterly harried. That’s right the regular, heart-stopping kind of harried, reserved especially for one’s FIRST ACADEMIC CONFERENCE PRESENTATION was not sufficient.

No wonder the paper was a train wreck. By Connell’s reckoning, it was doomed anyway. Convoluted title, check. Original ideas swamped by odious literature review, check. Findings squeezed into last two minutes, check. Looks of pity from audience, check.

No one spoke to me afterwards: an ominous sign. At the break which followed, a senior scholar remarked in passing; ‘your ideas are important, but dangerous’. It did little to hearten me. My resolve to stand fearlessly alone during breaks quickly dissolved into fleeing at the end of each session.

Visiting Maynard Keynes’ home of Bloomsbury Group fame

Later that day however, things started looking up. There was a small Australian presence at the conference; members of the HERMES group from the University of Newcastle whose work I was familiar with. I was fortunate to meet Robert Parkes, Debra Donnelly and Vicki Parkes, who had endured my presentation and shared encouraging words. We also shared a number of beers together and that’s when things really started to improve.** See, I learnt the first of my own lessons about academic conferences then. A conference is never a waste of time or money, if while there, you make one new friend. I was fortunate enough to make several!

Upon my return to Australia, Robert generously invited me to expand my London presentation at a symposium at the University of Newcastle. I will always be grateful to Robert for giving a young, and untested scholar the opportunity to prepare what was my first, lecture-length presentation, as well as the chance to visit a new city and its university.

The paper I presented was far from perfect – the title probably too long, the theoretical work sketchy, conclusions arrived at hurriedly with little time to spare – but at least I carried several USB back ups, and received no pitying looks!

Importantly, while in Newcastle I met several Swedish scholars who were international guests of the research group. One of these, Daniel Lindmark, is now a colleague and friend at Umeå University in Sweden, and the host of my current Endeavour project. If not for the ill-informed and expensive decision to travel to London in 2015, I would likely not be sitting here now in Umeå, Sweden writing this piece.

So, for all the many dull and awkward, painful and embarrassing conference moments, I will continue attending with hope of making friends like Robert Parkes and Daniel Lindmark. Because despite the occasional ego-maniac, academia really is full of generous and inspiring people.

Now, nearing the end of my doctoral program, I am learning to be more discerning about where to invest my time, energy and intellectual labour. I am realising the importance of belonging to a community of scholars rather than attending random conferences. I am learning collegiality by seeing it in action amongst senior colleagues and trying to emulate it with my peers. I no longer spend every moment of a conference in sessions, instead taking time to speak to people, breathe, take a walk, and see the city.

Making new friends at ISCHE 2018

So, if I had my time over would I still choose to present so early in my doctoral program, overseas, no USB, too-long title and all? Though I don’t necessarily recommend it, the answer is yes. For despite the failures and the expense, the lessons learned and friends made were worth it. But perhaps, if you’re a new doctoral student reading this, try Raewyn Connell’s How to Survive and Thrive at an Academic Conference, before you make any decisions…

*At the time, according to copious marketing on all the buildings.
** Thanks also to Christian Mathis

Where does an article begin?

In mid-August 2017, in a cafe on Schellingstraße opposite Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian University Library, I wrote what became the first of many drafts of my first peer-reviewed article ‘History Education for Transitional Justice? Challenges, Limitations and Possibilities for Settler Colonial Australia’, which has just been published in the International Journal of Transitional Justice.Or did I? Rewind to November 2015, and early in my PhD candidature I was working on the draft of an invited paper for the HERMES research group seminar at Newcastle University. There, Freud’s Nachträglichkeit (belatedness, afterwardsness), which describes the retrospective process of synthesising troubling knowledges back into narratives after the fact, was a major theme. So too, was Walter Benjamin’s allegorical method of rescuing the fragments ‘left-behind’ in the wake of conventional historicist narratives. ‘What time do we live in?’, my August-2017 draft began, taking up those temporal themes once again.

Yet in writing this post, I mined my notes from as far back as 2014 and found traces of ideas that had made their way into the final piece. In a note entitled ‘Ideas from UK Trip 2015’ I wrote, ‘Why are we having students emulate professional historians? Why only some of them?’ In one from 2016, which I wrote while in attendance at a History Teachers’ Association of Victoria conference, I asked; ‘Why do we teach revolutions as consecutive causal events?’ The note was entitled ‘Revolution as Ultimate Contingency’.

All of these ideas, present an alternate narrative of this article’s genesis. It made me wonder, where does an article begin?

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Finding my supervisor’s (Marnie Hughes-Warrington) book in the bookstore on Schellingstrasse in Munich

Earlier in 2017, I read a great piece by former-La Trobe PhD, now Durham University Post-Doc, James Kirby, about the ‘Challenges and rewards of submitting your paper to an academic journal’. At the time, I recall being immensely frustrated. I was positively overflowing with ideas but was not able to articulate them well, nor direct them to an interested audience. My digital ‘desk’ was littered with unfinished drafts. Enter, the concept: historical justice.

Prompted by a comment from my ever-astute supervisor Marnie, who possesses the uncanny ability of understanding exactly what it is you’re trying to say before you do, I began to apply my thinking on history and education to the field of historical justice. Historical justice describes the widespread expectation to redress past injustices, something which is increasingly seen to be the responsibility of the state even when the alleged wrong occurred in a distant past, under a different regime. In Australia right now, episodes of historical justice are regular news. The recent national apology to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, issued by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in late-October 2018, is just one recent example.

In my reading on historical justice, I uncovered an influential article from 2007, by Elizabeth Cole entitled ‘Transitional Justice and the Reform of History Education.’ It was published in the International Journal of Transitional Justice. This unearthed a specific set of debates addressing the role of education in movements and processes of historical justice. I had found my audience.

Schöneberg, Berlin 2017

Although it will be obvious to established academics, identifying the specific debates you wish to contribute to, including the people and publications involved, is a vital but sometimes difficult step for young researchers. My thinking was transformed overnight from fragmentary ideas, to conversations regarding pressing problems. By deploying my thinking in direct response to specific arguments which were unfolding in the present, my research questions were brought to life. Once I recognised that writing is an entry into a dynamic conversation with others, from there, I was able to very quickly complete a full draft of the article in October 2017. I haven’t the space here to describe the review and rewriting process, but needless to say it was long and rewarding.

Now, I am back in Umeå working with educational historians on the urgent problems of historical justice in Swedish and Australian contexts. In June 2019, at the Historical Justice and History Education symposium that I am organising, I will get to meet many of the scholars with whom I have begun a conversation in print.

As to my question, where does an article begin? I have signalled some of the many possible points of origin, and perhaps it is only with belated insight that I can say in this case, that it began when I realised for whom and why I was writing.

This and That

This past week, I have recaptured something of the genuine joy of doing research. For the first time since I began my honours study, I am enthralled by my research project and the process of researching. I even spent time in the library today browsing the shelves out of interest and not necessity. This is a ritual that I’ve not practiced in nearly three years since the capacity to read for pleasure abruptly deserted me owing to the pressures of academic life.dsc_38221

Much of this feeling can be attested to the experience and excitement of change, as well as the freedom of being abroad on a scholarship with the mental space (and financial support) to engage with new ideas, rekindle dormant thoughts, and challenge familiar ones.

Also, it helps that the city of Umeå is delightful. I have arrived in the Sàmi season of Tjaktjagiesse (autumn-summer) which is marked by ripening woodlands and darkening nights. The air is fresh and clean, and the streets are designed with real consideration for all kinds of travellers, which is much more than I can say for Sydney’s.

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Umeå University is a large, mid-1960s campus with around 30,000 students, many of whom will be arriving next week with the new semester. It is similar in design to La Trobe University with sturdy brick buildings and large natural spaces, so I feel quite at home here. I have an office in the Institutionen för idé- och samhällsstudier (Department of Ideas and Societal Studies), and share a corridor with scholars from Philosophy, History, History of Ideas and Science, and Religion. The academic culture is rigorous and rich, and so is the enthusiasm for fikapausers (daily coffee and chat breaks at 0930 and 1430).

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There is also a real sense of interest in my project and its principal theme: history education and transitional justice. Together with scholars from the History and Education Research Group, we are organising a symposium on that theme to take place in June 2019. My colleagues tell me there is already a list of keen would-be attendees from the Nordic countries, and a prominent French historian, Professor Annette Becker, all eager to attend before we have even drafted a call for papers. There is a growing scholarly interest in the region concerning the uses of history and history education in process of reconciliation and historical justice. This is not yet reflected in any Swedish political support for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address injustices endured by the Sàmi people, as there is in Norway and Finland. Nonetheless, there is a sense of purpose and urgency concerning these themes, and this will only deepen and expand my own thinking, as well as encourage a high-quality conference and subsequent publications.

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Yet, at the same time as all of this, I am a more than a little melancholy. This is largely because of what I have left behind – thriving scholarly communities in Sydney and Melbourne, a large network of friends and family, loved ones, places, and things, and the familiarity and comfort of one’s own language. As an aspiring academic in the era of the precariat, I know I will face many more short-term, overseas dislocations, and the sudden isolation that can result. Still, I was not wholly prepared for the cold, and sometimes gloomy nature of extended silence despite having so often wished for in my busy Australian life.

So, this post, and my experiences here so far, teach me that as researchers and people we are so often this and that (as Shawna Tang recently showed me). I am both elated and despondent, liberated and yet painfully isolated, all at once. For this, I am grateful. It is only when we are prepared to acknowledge that we can be both uncomfortable, ignorant or down, and capable, happy or informed, that we open ourselves up most to the capacity for real learning and growth as scholars and humans.

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On Institutional Belonging

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about institutional belonging.

You see, in January I moved from Melbourne to Sydney (my partner got a new job). I wouldn’t have so readily left Melbourne had it not been for the upcoming move to Sweden for my Endeavour project. I figured seven months in Sydney could be a good excuse to write a lot and avoid the multitude of distractions that inevitably come with being embedded anywhere for long enough.

It turns out that holing yourself up in a foreign city can drastically improve productivity! But while eliminating familiar distractions has proven to be beneficial for my writing, I couldn’t have anticipated the sense of loss that has accompanied it.

See, I have spent the better part of my adult life at La Trobe University. I started in 2010, arriving from Perth at barely nineteen years old. In the seven years that I lived in Melbourne, through all the rental properties and share houses (seven in total), the career changes (just one), the casual and part-time jobs (many), and the countless friendships, heartaches, tragedies and adventures, the La Trobe campus at Bundoora has been the most constant fixture in my life.

It might just be nostalgia, but I find myself thinking often of the humble brown brick structures, surrounded by bush, where watching the local wildlife (turtles, swamp hens) thrive and grow with the seasons is a favoured daily past-time. I miss the greasy flavourless comfort of Ping’s Chinese, and the freezing winter dash from Carpark Three to the David Myers Building when no amount of jackets is quite enough. I think of the undergraduate lectures that I, and my mother many years before, attended in the iconic East Lecture Theatres, as well as the joy and terror of giving my first lecture there in 2016.

It was timely indeed when a few weeks ago I attended a seminar about Institutional Histories as part of the ‘History Now!’ seminar series at the Australian Centre for Public History, University of Technology Sydney (UTS). There, Tamson Pietsch recalled a Griffith Review piece from 2016 where she described universities as institutions that “…hold us in time and [they] connect us to each other”. In her spoken paper, she described the ‘classroom, library and laboratory’ as public spaces where we encounter difference, and where civic relations are formed which hold us in time and space.

Though her point was more about the enduring power of public institutions in the era of individualism, I couldn’t help thinking of my own life (ironic, I know), and how influential La Trobe University has been in my becoming so far. Although many ideas were already germinating when I arrived, my time at La Trobe – which is known for its radical tradition – has only strengthened my commitment to a more just and equal society; my solidarity with leftist politics and labour movements; and my belief in publics including the idea of the public good, public spaces and institutions, and public knowledge.

But before I get too misty-eyed about La Trobe, we know all too well that universities, and institutions generally, have uniquely painful ways of letting us down. We have all experienced the myriad of ways that they can disappoint, frustrate, belittle, embarrass, anger, and sadden us, particularly lately.

On this, Pietsch quotes Hugh Heclo’s On Thinking Institutionally (Oxford University Press, 2011); “[i]n a backhanded way, our capacity to feel betrayed speaks to a residual trust in institutional values.” She adds; “Getting angry at the way institutions fail us is not a sign we want to do away with them, it is an indication that we want them to be better.”

As I get closer to departing for Sweden and forming new institutional relationships at Umeå University, I am drawn to reflect upon the sudden loss of collegiality and belonging that I’ve experienced since leaving my home institution. In Sydney, I’ve been incredibly privileged to work at the Australian Catholic University, and to have spent time both at UTS, and the University of Sydney, each with proud traditions and unique institutional cultures.

And yet, I wonder about the many thousands of PhD students whose institutions held them together, and who worked ceaselessly towards submission only to abruptly discover the sense of loss that surely must follow. To La Trobe University, I am grateful for those well-treaded grooves across time and space bounded by the experience and borders of the institution, that I now, and we all inevitably, must make anew.