Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Leeds, academically.

I am being good and post about more Leeds things today, as promised, even if I just laughed so hard I had to wipe off tears afterwards and am sorely tempted to blog that link instead. (Gratuitous links one of the next days.)

So... things that I learned (again) about attending a conference:
If you are going to a conference in another country that caters mostly to another field of studies and where you don't know anybody, give a paper. Really. It will help a lot in getting people to find out that they are interested in you academically, and it will set you up with a core of people (who are hopefully doing things that will mesh well with yours) that are speaking in, attending, or moderating your panel. If there are panel clumps (small thematic streaks with more than one panel), you might end up in something like a small conference inside the big conference, which is nice since you get the good bits of a small conference (know a bunch of people fast) and a big one (being able to venture off to hear about something completely different and meet new people doing things that are exciting in a completely different field).
These things are especially true if you are not coming with colleagues from your university or institution, but by yourself.

I technically know all that, but I didn't give a paper. That may have been stupid or not - but I decided to come to Leeds way, way later than the Call-for-Papers deadline (which is almost a year before the conference), and I had not counted on most attendees giving a paper. I quickly found out, though, that not giving a paper was certainly sort of not-normal-for-Leeds, since most people I've talked to asked me about when and on what topic my paper was/would be. Someone told me later that almost everybody coming to Leeds would give a paper.

This also explains the huge number of panels and papers at the conference. I had taken a look at the programme on the website before I booked, and I was absolutely clear on the fact that it would be a classical medievalists' conference, with only little archaeology papers in it. I have been to classic medievalist conferences before, so I knew more or less what I was getting into.
There were, however, quite a few papers with keywords (to me) like cloth, clothing, textile and so on in that programme. To my slight disappointment, I found out during the conference that these keywords did not necessarily mean the paper would really mention these things. I am not going to go into detail about single papers, but quite a few left me slightly to seriously disappointed. Which leads me to my personal evaluation of Leeds, academically.

A conference that is really really large is not a guarantee that everything you hear will be really really good. That's nothing new - that was also clear to me beforehand. (I'd even say that a large conference is the guarantee that there will be at least one paper where you get the feeling that you could have spent your time elsewhere and not regret that.)

For me, conferences are a means to several ends: To present your research, methods, results, new questions or whatever it is that you think is necessary to get out to your colleagues; to hear about what others think important to tell you; and to meet new people and get new contacts. (They might also be a means to get gorged on delicious free food, drunk on free wine and beer and totally overcaffeinated with tea and coffee, but that is usually not the main reason why you go to a conference.)
Meeting new people is made easier by the papers, since their other reason of existence is to tell the audience who to meet and keep in contact with. The sessions or panels, if you want to put it in the extreme, are the bits between the coffee breaks (where the really interesting stuff takes place) to tell you who you should stalk in the next coffee break. That means that the coffee breaks have to be long enough and that having enough social time and space is crucial to a good conference - because you sort of hold up a "find me" flag by giving your paper which is not worth so much if you then can't be found and talked to. Leeds did very well on that, with a break of 45 minutes after each session of 90 minutes, leaving enough time to change venues (a short bus ride or short walk) in addition to having tea and a short chat. Or more tea and a longer chat if you didn't have to change. Most sessions that I attended were also ending very much on time, some even a tad shorter than the time allotted to them, so the coffee breaks were available in full length.

As to the papers themselves, I came to Leeds with high hopes of getting lots of solid good and maybe a few brilliant papers - partly because I had heard so much about Leeds as the really large conference in Europe, partly because I was really lucky with the last few conferences that I attended, and that had raised my expectations. NESAT had three full days of papers, and there was not a single one below at least really interesting to me, and a few absolutely brilliant papers. That does make a benchmark that is just hard to reach.

Going to a conference is always a sort of gamble, and even more so if you don't know the names or it's out of your field (which often coincides, and was the case for me in Leeds). You might end up in papers that are not what you expected.
Now, that in itself is not bad. I have had unexpected-but-really-brilliant papers in the past, and I have heard things about stuff way out of my area of interest that I wouldn't have wanted to miss for anything. Going out of your own field, or out of your normal area of interest, is also very good to broaden the horizon and find out what others are up to. In Leeds, however, I ended up in quite a lot of sessions that were partly or completely not so thrilling to me.

This does not mean that the papers were not pleasing to attending colleagues - in fact, I have heard people praise some that I was not so very enthusiastic about. One of the possible reasons for this different evaluation is that I have a very crafts-oriented, hands-on look at things. When I see an object, I automatically try to assess the worth of materials, the time and the amount of craft skill necessary to create it. I love to see details, I like to hear about chemical analysis of materials, I dig the natural sciences approaches to stuff, and I like to learn how those things function. The strong craft focus also has formed my way of viewing historical processes and the world of the past. This does not necessarily mean that I am right in my views and assessment - it does, however, mean that there are things stated in other person's papers that are paperworthy to the colleagues attending the session with me, while I go "oh thank you Captain Obvious" in my mind. Maybe I should be happy about this because it means that non-archaeological medieval studies are looking at craft themes now as well, or looking at picture and text sources in a way similar to how I have been looking at them for a good while from my different background, but it just is not so thrilling for me personally to sit in a Thank-You-Captain-Obvious paper. (That will abbreviate to TYCO paper. That's kind of fun.)

One thing that added to my disappointment was also that quite a few of the textile-theme titled papers were of the sort that held nothing new, or nothing particularly interesting, for me. And that some of the papers with a textile keyword in the title had nothing whatsoever to do with textiles - which seemed kind of odd to me. And since I had decided to come to Leeds partly because of the relatively large amount of papers on textiles, this taken all together was a major letdown.

All that moaning and rambling, though, does not mean that there were no papers that thrilled me. I went to a few really exciting ones, like the one where a medieval city map of Antwerpen (with data of house names and who worked in which profession where in the city) was reconstructed... from medieval ledgers documenting property transfer. A whole city! That was absolutely stunning.
There was a nice keynote lecture, too - about scavenging for scrap metals in after-Roman Britain as a sign for the poverty that was not mentioned in the texts, and one about the different effects on their rights that the aftermath of the Black Death brought to peasants and craftspeople.
A really interesting paper about the social value of embroiderers - which must have been quite high, according to the grants of land given to them as payment; there was a wonderful (and very object-centred) panel titled "Pimp my Belt" that I thoroughly enjoyed; I heard stuff about food, craftspeople, riding equipment, material and immaterial treasure in the early middle ages, and women's rights in Carolingian society. And I got into contact with the people who had given those papers, chats were had, cards and adresses were exchanged, and I hope that good communication and future networking will come from this.

Taken all together, I can look back and say that Leeds academically was not quite what I had hoped. But it offered enough nice and interesting papers and persons to make me happy enough - I don't regret going there at all - even if it was not the wonderful three-day-long mindboggle that I had hoped to get. And my own very high expectations are probably partly at fault for this feeling, plus the fact that historians and philologists just tend to think a bit differently and approach things differently than archaeologists do, and some of the chains of reasoning and ways to look at things or interpret them just don't click with me. That said, I think it is good to see and experience these differences once in a while, too - and that was also something I definitely got to do at Leeds.


Chris Laning said...

I certainly hope you met Gale Owen-Crocker and the other folks from DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation & Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics & Fashion). They are my "mini-conference" when I go to the equivalent International Medival Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan (USA). Hope to be able to go again next spring after several years away.

a stitch in time said...

Yes, I did meet them - well, at least some of them, since I got sidetracked by talking embroidery with one of the presenters halfway through Monday : )

Jonathan Jarrett said...

There are always painfully few archæologists at Leeds and I don't know why. It bothers me, and I try and go to at least one archæological panel if I can just to show that some people are willing to listen. This year it was a numismatics one, but that was because there were even fewer objects papers than usual unless those objects were treasure. Rich and poor – but without the poor, as so often.

This does not necessarily mean that I am right in my views and assessment - it does, however, mean that there are things stated in other person's papers that are paperworthy to the colleagues attending the session with me, while I go "oh thank you Captain Obvious" in my mind.

I actually found myself at several of those papers too, so it wasn't just a question of history vs. material culture. Quite a few people seemed to have come from what they felt was a specialist field and decided, rather than to present research, to give a "here is my field" paper. Since the people who come to such papers are almost always already interested in the topic – I hope many people do go to things they have never heard about before, but these won't be the majority in any given session I guess – this seems as if it must always be either lazy or miscalculated. Either way it patronises the audience, and blows no minds. And it is, as Robert Anton Wilson said, an ill wind that blows no minds.

I guess what I'm saying is I don't think this was the best Leeds. I haven't heard from anyone who went to any amazing papers; I went to one that was amazing for me on Pictland but that's only because I have ideas about that and it sharpened them. Oh well. The socialising was very good this year though!