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

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.

The surprising benefits of a read-aloud reading group

Matilda Keynes is a PhD candidate in in the department of History and Archaeology at La Trobe, and lecturer-in-charge at the Australian Catholic University, where she coordinates the subject ‘Education in History’. Her doctoral research explores the educational implications of retrospective politics since the 1980s, focusing on history education in Australia. 

In 2018, Matilda is an Endeavour Postgraduate Research Scholar hosted at Umeå University in Sweden where she is undertaking a comparative study of Swedish-Australian uses of history in processes of transitional justice. She tweets @matildakeynes.

Nikita Vanderbyl is a PhD candidate in the department of History and Archaeology at La Trobe. Her research in Aboriginal Australian history and art history focuses on Wurundjeri artist William Barak and the trans-imperial circulation of Aboriginal material culture during the nineteenth century.

Nikita’s work has been published in Aboriginal History and The Conversation. She tweets @nikitavanderbyl.

This post is co-published today with La Trobe University’s RED Alert blog

This article first appeared on The Research Whisperer on 24 April 2018 and is reproduced with kind permission of The Research Whisperer.


Recently, Erin Bartram’s piece ‘The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind’ made waves on Twitter for its honest and frankly, painful assessment of the experience of leaving academia, after the author failed to secure a tenured position.

As Australian PhD students, we discover early in our candidature that our 3.5-year program likely won’t be competitive in the global market.

For many of us, our further study is born out of a genuine passion for learning, and accompanied by naive aspirations towards an academic career. In most cases, 3.5 years of modest funding isn’t adequate to write a thesis; publish a monograph with a leading academic publisher plus multiple peer-reviewed, tier-one journal articles; present at international conferences; attract research funding; and coordinate and design undergraduate subjects. Let’s not even mention the expectations of attaining a myriad of impressive awards and bursaries.

Given the heavily-skewed ‘jobs available vs. PhD graduates’ ratio in history, it is no surprise really that the few available positions often go to those who earned their doctorates from leading R1 institutions (or equivalent) internationally. All this is happening in the context of an increasingly casualised academic workforce. About 65% of Australian university staff are now employed casually, and the vast majority of the research labour listed above must be done without job security.

This, Bartram’s piece, and the many other varieties of ‘quit lit’ that grace our Twitter feeds daily, as well as the experience of departmental restructures, and the loss of supervisors to illness, redundancy and retirement, can make for fairly low morale among doctoral students. At more than one point, it can feel overwhelming. We won’t pretend we’ve found a way to halt this compounding sense of futility. Even if we did, it would likely vary for everyone as the PhD journey is such a personal one.

What we have found, though, is the surprising morale-boosting benefits of the humble reading group.

For the past three years a group of historians and historiographers in-training here at La Trobe University have met weekly for a two-hour reading group. The official rationale is to expand our understanding of the history and structure of our discipline. The unofficial positive outcomes, however, have been countless.

In general, the typical academic reading group can be stale, awkward and often pretentious.

The usual format is for a chair to set a reading in advance, and for group members to come prepared to discuss its salient points during the meeting. Often this can lead to a certain rigidity of thought and interaction, whereby group members stick to their pre-formulated points. At worst, it can descend into the kind of posturing that we all know too well, whereby genuine thinking-together is derailed by the worst kind of adversarial, sparring matches concerning obscure points of interest to no-one.

What’s productive about our group is the method we employ. We use a read-aloud, think-aloud methodology where we take turns to read the text aloud, and pause regularly to discuss and clarify crucial points. Usually one person will have read the piece in advance in order to help mediate the discussion, but everyone else will be encountering it for the first time. This makes for a genuine intellectual and personal experience whereby thinking happens in the moment and with others. This approach has proven to be remarkably well-suited to different kinds of learners, and swiftly eradicates any of the aforementioned posturing.

There is a degree of vulnerability and a slowness that comes with reading out loud, both for the audience and for the individual reader, but also in the tentative character of thought that is produced when working through complex ideas together. This is a welcome relief from the break-necked pace of PhD life where we are expected to read and understand vast amounts of material as quickly as possible. It is also conducive to creating lasting friendships and genuine collegiality among PhD researchers who so often occupy a liminal space within academic departments, and where competition and precarity can create tense working environments.

Our group of participants grew organically from among the History department. Informal discussions over lunch led to a general consensus that our shared interest was worth exploring. The read-aloud method was inspired by a philosophy group at Melbourne University whose convenors read key segments aloud. This aligned with Matilda’s own research interests in theories of learning and university pedagogy.** The founding group members agreed upon the first readings and later, readings were decided upon among the wider group. We would recommend having at least one person whose knowledge of the field, whatever it may be, can lead the initial reading selection. Once underway however, everyone involved brought knowledge and expertise to the process of selection and interpretation.

From there, when new members showed interest in joining, we were very transparent about our approach and its benefits. We tried first and foremost to cultivate a shared investment in the methodology, which in retrospect is the core of our identity and mandate as a group, rather than the subject matter, though they are mutually conducive.

Although the method of the group is perhaps more important than the subject matter, focusing on the structures of our discipline has increased our confidence as historians and historiographers, and broadened our knowledge beyond a narrow field of inquiry. This is vital in an absurdly competitive job market, where specialised research expertise, as well as breadth, are key demands.

Most importantly, though, the reading group has become a vital and sustaining source of camaraderie during the many ‘tough times’ a PhD can throw up (sometimes referred to as the Valley of Shit on the Thesis Whisperer blog).

By creating a recurring space of collaboration beyond a visit to the cafe or pub, we’ve been able to forge an enduring sense of disciplinary and collegial identity via the thrill of engaging genuinely and collaboratively with a piece of writing.

This has been a highlight of our degrees so far and one we would recommend to fellow graduate research students.

** Indicative references for these include:

  • Women’s Ways of Knowing. Belenky et al.
  • The Power of Mindful Learning. EJ Langer
  • Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts. WG Perry
  • Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years. WG Perry
  • New Students New Learning Styles. C Shroeder
  • Pedagogy of the Distressed. J Tompkins
  • Clinchy BM, ‘Issues of gender in teaching and learning’, Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, Vol. 1, 1990, pp. 52-67.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to all the members of the Theory and Philosophy of History Reading Group at La Trobe University.