Small World – The academic conference trek



It seemed like a good idea at the time. Somewhere, among the photocopied notes, the paperwork, the books, the rewrites and the endless forwarding to different university departments the same invoices and receipts in the endless quest for elusive conference funding, it still does. In fact, until reality set in, attending an overseas conference (or three) and presenting a paper seemed a very good idea in the lead up to handing in my doctorate.

When I started to plot my abstract submissions, I felt like Persse McGarrigle, David Lodge’s fresh faced academic let loose from the University of Rummidge out on the conference adventure circuit. But it hasn’t at all been like something from his campus novels, Changing Places and Small World: An Academic Romance – shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I admit David Lodge – whose writing I adore, has ruined me utterly for life in the academic lane of the 21st century. Damn you, Lodge! Yet even he admits the times have changed. Sadly.

These days, I do the juggle of paid work, causal lecturing and the push to complete the PhD like everyone else. With the desperate “publish or perish” thrown in. I think Persse had it easy at Rummidge, even though both he and the university were fictional. Now it’s “welcome to the stress of trying to do it all.”

I am now at that time of the doctorate (equivalent to being 8 months pregnant) when your friends are all sick and tired of hearing you complain how difficult it is. When the fear of the end (labour, or actually handing in the doctorate) looks like a blessing compared to the misery of being so uncomfortable.

Swap swollen ankles for bloated expectations; nagging obstetricians complaining about weight gain for supervisors harping about the standard of your abstracts; and elaborate (and unrealistic) birth plans for equally unrealistic plans to present at not one but three overseas conferences.

Surely I can’t be the only one deciding to present at three overseas conferences just 8 months out of handing in my doctorate? Please tell me there are others as driven, ambitious and mad as me? All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The reality – like waddling around in the height of summer massively pregnant wishing you’d timed it for winter – is something else again. But just as exhausting. In order to complete the conference papers on top of my other work and family commitments, I have put in many, many all nighters – 10 hours at a stretch, (after coming home from work) for weeks on end. And it’s taking it’s toll.

Just two weeks to go before I hop on a plane and everyone is saying “wow, you must be excited – three whole weeks to yourself, no kids, just doing the conference thing.” Alas, if I am exhausted now, drained and beyond feeling like I can ever possibly get my papers done to the exacting standard my supervisor demands, what will I be like when I finally manage to shuffle myself onto the plane and head to Utrecht? Will I be able to stand proud in front of my peers and my academic superiors?

I am sure there is a term for this pre-conference malaise, though I don’t recall Persse McGarrigle suffering from it. Perhaps David Lodge, like the wise old women who neglect to tell you about the real pain of childbirth and the sleepless nights that follow, is omitting the worst bits not just to be kind, but to keep the faith.

When it comes to overseas conferences, it’s not just doing the actual papers that cause the stress, but the ”administration”. Somehow organising the airfare, registration and accommodation, and then wrangling the money for it. I count myself very fortunate that I have had the support from my university and international conference funding, which will make the difference between being able to afford the trip or not.

I am grateful – because from the experience of local conferences I have attended the past few years, I have discovered that David Lodge wasn’t lying when he wrote Small World and Changing Places – they are terrific ways to form networks, friendships, made valuable contacts, exchange ideas, and generally grow in confidence and understanding about your subject area.

After two conferences in NSW and Queensland last year (again, thanks to my university for supplying some funding for me to attend and present papers), I made terrific contacts and now as a direct result, I spend one night a month discussing animal studies topics in a reading group with a professor I not only admire, but also have high up on my reading list. She has said she’d like to speak to me about my research next semester – from someone so in demand and busy, I am terribly flattered.

So, later this month, I am off to Utrecht for the international Minding Animals conference and then off to the dreaming spires of Oxford University, where I will present papers on monsters and cyberspace in science fiction with Inter-Disciplinary.Net.

But I am sitting here wondering if chasing the dream of Changing Places is worth it. Exhaustion factor is the main reason. However, old hands tell me that once I am on that plane, the laptop at my feet full of the much sweated over but completed conference papers, I will be able to zone out on inflight movies, red wine and sleep.

I certainly hope so. Meanwhile, I think it’s time to start re-reading my David Lodge collection. He may have a few tips on how to make the most of the conferences once I actually get there. And for those of you who have read his campus trilogy – I mean more productive things than what young Persse McGarrigle got up to…