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.
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
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.
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
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
registration forms often ask for academic affiliation.
If you do not have one, you can leave it blank or use “independent
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
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
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.