I was staring at the Alps through the window of the plane, waiting to touch down in Italy for my very first academic conference. Interning with Josie McLellan on her Women, Work, and Value research network, I had been granted a peek into the shadowy abyss of academia by the way of a two day conference on the subject in Florence, Italy. Ostensibly, the aim was to gather content for a series of public workshops on ‘Women and Work’, which was the purpose of my internship. In practice, while trying to get my friends as excited as me about the said workshops, I could never help dropping in my four day, Italian ‘business trip’. ‘You’re so lucky to be jetting off for a minibreak!’ said my envious friends. ‘No, it’s for work’, I replied, sounding about as convinced as they did.
When I pictured an academic conference, I couldn’t help but imagine a sea of geriatric men in tweed suits (with elbow patches, obviously), in a wood panelled, draughty library, ferociously debating the finer points of an argument made by a world-famous historian I had never heard of. This was despite the conference being organised by Josie, about as far from a crusty elderly man as its possible to be, and the name of the conference making it obvious this conference was going to be a little more gender inclusive than my imaginings.
Firstly, even the location made this conference a far cry from what I had envisioned. Cold and draught, Tuscany in October is not. The research network was lucky enough to be hosted by the EUI campus in Florence, in a stunning building once the seat of the Spanish ambassador, set in rolling hills under a perfectly blue sky (as I write this, looking out at a bleak sky from the Hawthorns, it seems like a distant dream). Several academics stressed to me I should not expect this from every conference! Aesthetics aside, it was really interesting to see another university so different from my own- the university was postgraduate only, and truly international with students all over Europe and supervisors being required to speak at least two European languages. And as for the canteen, let’s just say that their freshly made gnocchi trumped the Refectory’s jacket potatoes.
Yet another shock was the academics themselves. Yes, maybe with ‘Women, work and Value’ in the title, it was possible this conference might have some female representation. But 31 female academics out of 33? It was actually a completely inspiring setting to be in- only 20% of academics are female nationally¸ so it was nice not to be in the minority for once, and to see so many intelligent female academics with interesting research- many of them in their twenties and thirties. Delegates also came from an astonishing range of countries, from Finland to the USA to Lithuania to Croatia. Those who didn’t speak English as a first language probably still speak more eloquent English than I do.
And I was definitely wrong about the content of the lecture being crusty scholars I had never heard of. Most of the content was unfamiliar to me, but I hugely enjoyed how current, relevant, and varied the work in question was- from housewives and factory workers to drummers and reality TV stars. I know gender history is a relatively recent development of historical study, and it was so refreshing to see a wide range of interesting research focussing on women’s contributions.
All these academics researched along a vaguely similar theme, and I was anxious during coffee breaks and lunch not to interfere with any ground-breaking developments that could be sparked with face to face interaction. Here I was wrong again. Yes, a lot of the conversations centred around the talks we heard throughout the days. But a lot of the time, these high level academics were simply chatting about the weather, university, and other relative frivolities- a lot like students really, right down to the frequenting of a nearby bar in the evening. Not to mention a use of social media- it seemed every academic at the conference was frenetically tweeting interesting aspects of the conference (complete with official conference hashtag, of course). Meanwhile I, supposedly of the social media generation, slid aside my old-school notebook and glumly realised they all have far more followers than I do.
So what did I learn from my first conference? That conferences are actually vibrant places where academics learn from each other’s research, But only after they’ve caught up on all the other news that happened while they were in the library doing that research, and followed each other on Twitter. Oh and of course, all conferences take place in beautiful old houses in the Mediterranean. Right?
By Sarah Brodie, Women, Work and Value Public Engagement Intern.