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Attending Academic Conferences: A Primer

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

If you’ve developed a serious area of research interest within the SCA, you may have started looking into attending academic conferences in your area of interest outside the SCA.  What should you expect from these conferences, and what is expected of you?  And how can you get involved?  As a regular attendee of academic conferences for many years, I hope this article will answer many of the questions that I’m often asked.

  What is an academic conference?

An academic conference is a forum for researchers (not always academics) to share their work.  Generally, the work is presented in the form of short, concise papers lasting about 20 minutes to half an hour. Often there are one or more keynote speakers—often scholars of some renown, presenting a lecture that lasts an hour or so. Panel discussions or roundtables on various issues may also take place. Sometimes workshops are offered, particularly if the conference is related to the performing arts. Depending on the theme of the conference, social or entertainment activities may also be offered; if it’s a large enough conference, academic presses may set up displays offering books at a discount.  At larger conferences, business meetings for learned societies or interest groups might also take place.

The main difference between an academic conference and an SCA teaching venue, such as a university session or collegium, is that conference presentations are not classes. Even when conference papers have a practical side, rarely is the aim to show someone how to make something.  For instance, certainly, a session on “Illuminators and Their Methods” might tell you something about how to do illumination, but you’ll rarely see the presenter break out the brushes and paint and demonstrate.  In addition, conference papers are often very tightly-focused—there’s only so much you can do in 20 minutes.  Often, they center on a particular dilemma or problem encountered by the researcher, and examine the evidence to discover a possible answer to the question.  The exciting thing about conference papers is they can give the cutting edge of research.  There is often a rule that papers presented at conferences be new—not previously presented at another conference or published.

What are the types of academic conference?

Academic conferences fall into three categories:  The themed conference, the comprehensive conference, and the professional conference.

The first is the themed conference.  These are generally small conferences organized around a particular topic. Here are a few sample titles from a recent conference listing: “Letters and Letter-Writing in the Latin Middle Ages,” “Warrior Women: Fact or Fiction,” “The Poetics of Theology in Dante's Paradiso,” and “Courtly Culture Outside the Court.”  Sometimes, a university or college will hold a yearly conference with a different theme each year, and sometimes they will present a regular conference on the same theme.  You’ll also sometimes see a regular conference on a particular theme move around from location to location. These conferences tend to be intimate affairs, attracting a small audience (often in the range of 100 participants) and generally offering a single track of papers. Because of the tight focus, those who attend are often deeply interested in the conference theme.  These conferences can be a wonderful place to meet other researchers, find new sources, and learn new perspectives. They are rarely overly formal affairs.

The comprehensive conference takes a wider focus, with sessions on a wide variety of topics.  These conferences are often organized by regional, national, or international learned societies.  Attendance can range from a couple hundred people to thousands, and the number of sessions can range from two or three dozen to over five hundred.  These also fall into two subcategories:  Conferences presented by learned societies or associations, such as the Medieval Academy or the Medieval Association of the Midwest, which tend to be held in a different location every year, and the large, yearly conferences, such as the International Congress on Medieval Studies, held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, MI.  

At the learned society or association conferences, there are usually between two and six tracks of sessions over the space of two or three days.  An annual meeting or election of officers may take place as well.  The large, yearly conferences can have hundreds of sessions—the most recent International Congress on Medieval Studies had 625 formal sessions over a period of four days, with 2-4 papers on each session. These conferences tend to be more formal than the smaller “theme” conferences, but not overly so.  Those presenting papers tend to dress in business attire, whether it be a suit or “business casual” clothing, while attendees wear anything from business attire to jeans or shorts and t-shirts.  The Leeds and Kalamazoo conferences tend to attract advanced undergraduates, graduate students, independent scholars, and amateur and professional artisans as well as employed academics.

The professional conference is similar to the learned society or association conference in that it usually presents several sessions of papers over the space of two to three days, but what distinguishes these conferences is the large degree of business that takes place during the conference, often including interviewing of candidates for academic positions. Examples of these conferences are the American History Association (AHA) and Modern Language Association (MLA) conferences.  These are held yearly, in a different site each year, and are not focused on any one period.  Often, there are sessions on the state of the profession and its future direction, as well as business meetings.  Very few people go to the AHA or MLA purely to have fun; this is an opportunity for networking and business. Because of the large number of interviews and formal meetings that take place at these conferences, dress is generally more formal than at any other type of conference—since you never know when you might meet up with someone who might get you your next position.

How do I find out about conferences?

One of the best resources listing conferences specifically on the Middle Ages is the Medieval Academy website conference calendar Incidentally, if you join the Medieval Academy, you will get four issues of their review journal (reviewing new books in Medieval Studies), as well as a regular newsletter with an updated list of conferences.  Participating in academic discussion lists may also alert you to upcoming conferences.

The International Congress on Medieval Studies maintains a permanent website giving information on the upcoming session as it becomes available, including the complete list of sessions, registration materials, calls for papers, etc.

How do I attend?

Signing up is normally quite simple—fill out a form and mail or fax it in. You will often have the option of staying in university housing while at the conference (normally very inexpensive compared to hotel rooms, but quite basic—these are dorm rooms) or a discounted rate at a conference hotel or hotels.  Many conferences send out their programs ahead of time, so your registration materials may come with your conference book or pamphlet, which you can request from the conference organizers. (For the larger yearly conferences, once you’ve attended, you’ll be automatically placed on a mailing list for next year’s mailings; some even offer the ability to change your address with them online if you move).

When you arrive, you will generally check in at a central desk and receive your room assignment, if applicable, as well as your conference badge.  (Incidentally—the registration forms often ask for academic affiliation.  If you do not have one, you can leave it blank or use “independent scholar.”) 

Then, it’s just a matter of attending the sessions that interest you.  Sessions at these conferences rarely have any kind of advanced sign-up, but it’s always good to arrive early, since sometimes sessions turn out to be far more popular than those scheduling rooms had counted on.  Feel free to bring note-taking supplies or a PDA or laptop, but don’t count on the availability of a desk or electrical outlet. Generally, each session will have a facilitator who will tell the audience how the session will run, when the presenters will take questions, and so on.  Papers are normally read straight through, so do not interrupt the presenter with questions. If you wish to record the session, it is considered polite to ask the presenter for permission to do so first.  Presenters are often open to providing copies of their papers to those interested; you may approach them at the end of the session and make the request.

How do I present a paper?

I would advise anyone interested in presenting a paper to, if possible, attend at least one conference before deciding to propose a paper.  Ideally, this will be a conference of the same type in which you wish to participate. This will give you a good sense of how long papers should be, how much depth is expected, what types of questions to expect, and the general “feel” of the conference.  Once you feel you are ready, you can start perusing calls for papers. These are generally found in the same places conference listings are found; in addition, the hosts of upcoming conferences will often leave literature around at the larger conferences calling for papers.  You will probably be proposing your paper as far as a year in advance of a conference. You will usually be asked to provide not the completed paper itself, but an abstract or short description of what you plan to discuss.  This may include the major sources you will use, your methodology, and your preliminary conclusions.  This abstract is then sent to the session or conference organizer, who will make the final decision as to whether or not to accept it.  Note that the larger conferences often have sessions with pre-determined subjects (often sponsored by various groups) as well as “general sessions”, where organizers accept papers that do not fit in well to any of the pre-determined sessions.  Smaller conferences may not even list specific sessions; these are determined once the organizers know what papers are available for their conference.

Once your paper is accepted, you must write it.  A conference paper is not the same as an article, although papers often go on to become articles, and sometimes papers are excerpted from forthcoming articles, book or dissertation chapters, and the like. Some presenters write up their papers fully footnoted with a bibliography, like an article; others do not. Most conferences limit the length of papers to 20 or 30 minutes, unless it’s a keynote address. This means you will need to rehearse your presentation to make sure it falls under the time limit.  You may also want to consider audio-visual aids—slides, overheads, handouts, actual items, or PowerPoint presentations—and if you plan to use them, you will need to make sure that the conference can provide you with the needed technology.  You will also need to rehearse your paper with your audio-visual aids, to make sure you have the timing and order down correctly.  You will probably be asked to provide your completed paper to the session organizer before the conference, as well as biographical information so that you can be properly introduced.

At this point, you’re ready to present. Be sure to talk slowly and clearly, and anticipate possible questions.  It’s quite acceptable, by the way, to admit you do not know the answer to a question; people may ask the most bizarre questions sometimes, and often the answer is “That’s not something I have looked at (yet).” Sometimes someone else in the audience may chime in with their research, which is one of the reasons these sessions can be so interesting.

A final note: How is the Society viewed at these conferences?

There’s no one answer to this, because there’s no unified option regarding the Society among academics. Because of this, I generally do not mention the SCA, unless I know I am in friendly waters.  I never bring up my Society membership as any kind of “proof” for my research findings, just as someone who went to Harvard would not use this as proof that their findings were correct.  The SCA is not academia; nor, do I think, is it one of our goals to become like academia.  We have excellent researchers under the “big umbrella” that is the SCA, but we also have plenty of people who have other priorities.  If we’re honest about that, and do not make the Society to be something it is not, I believe in the long run the academic world will grow to understand us—and at the very least, learn to judge each Society member individually.

Copyright 2003, Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.