Conference Cultures

This year I had the odd fortune to have all three of my major academic conference commitments occur right in a row. I went directly from the Society for the History of Technology in Copenhagen, to the Turing in Context II Conference in Brussels, to the Midwest Conference on British Studies in Toronto.

Although this was a bit grueling, it gave me perspective that I don’t think I’d have gotten if not for the close juxtaposition of conferences. I began to notice things about the conferences’ cultures that made each intellectual environment unique, and I think it can be neatly summed up by characterizing them, in order, as being
1) convivial
2) questioning
3) collaborative
(Say it out loud to appreciate the alliteration.)

1) Society for the History of Technology (SHOT)–> Convivial

Although the name of the conference might sound like we’re stuck in the past, doing hopelessly dry technical histories, that’s thankfully not the case at all. SHOT is a big tent in the best sense of the word, and it welcomes people who work on technology either as their main interest or as a part of their larger constellation of intellectual concerns. The definition of “technology” is as wide as one wishes to make it: last year the paper that got the prize for best new scholarship was on the technology of ballet pointe shoes and dancers’ bodies. The year before it was on British imperial geographic surveying tools. A few years before that, the prize went to a paper on the language surrounding abortion techniques.

Skyline of Copenhagen

Which brings me to another point I only just realized while writing this: women are very well-represented at SHOT. More than you might imagine given the name of the conference. Of the three prize papers mentioned above, all of the presenters were women, and I believe this year’s prize went to a woman as well. The main book prize this year also went to a lady: Eden Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries, which won the computing subgroup’s smaller book prize as well. Perhaps even more importantly (to me, at least) is that there is not one rigid, right way to perform gender at SHOT: I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I can be myself there more than at other conferences I’ve attended, and still have lots of similar people to talk to.

Overall, this 250-450 person conference generally feels much smaller than it is because there is a huge emphasis on conviviality and on welcoming new members who have a wide range of interests. SHOT was the most welcoming and friendly crowd I encountered early in my career, and it encouraged me to stick around and pay it forward. SHOT strives to expand the scope and perspectives at work in the history of technology as a field, which paradoxically means welcoming folks who don’t necessarily see that as their main field. I think that’s all to the better.

2) Turing in Context II–> Questioning

The outside of the conference venue, the Royal Flemish Academy of Arts and Sciences

This conference was one of several European conferences set up to celebrate the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth, by looking at aspects of his work and life. Aside from meeting folks from a variety of fields, from robotics to history, one of the highlights of the conference was the screening of a new docudrama about Turing’s work and, perhaps more importantly, how his work impacted his life. It will be have a few limited screenings in the US: Codebreaker.

Perhaps to be expected for an interdisciplinary conference with a high proportion of philosophers and scientists, the mood of this conference was interrogative. Not in a bad way at all, but there was much more critical engagement with and amongst the presenters and the participants. It certainly kept one on one’s toes!

3) Midwest Conference on British Studies–> Collaborative

A subconference of the larger North American Conference on British Studies, the MWBCS gives midwestern scholars of Britain an additional chance to meet and present their work. This was my first time going to the conference, and I enjoyed it greatly.

Snatching a view of Toronto from the airport ferry was about all I could muster at this point

I was struck by the culture of paper-delivery was at the MWBCS. The emphasis was firmly on reading very eloquent prose that had been committed to paper well in advance (by contrast, a more conversational/explanatory mode of paper delivery reigned at both SHOT and Turing in Context). At times, this paper-reading could get to be a bit much: some presenters, short on time, sped up the reading of their papers to an almost comical pace. But, I shouldn’t complain: by the time my 9am Sunday presentation slot rolled around, it was all I could do to just read my paper!

The most interesting thing about my interactions at MWBCS was how collaborative they were: everyone to whom I spoke went out of their way to connect their work to mine, either in theme or in topic. It made for a conference that was both friendly and also extremely useful–I came home with a list of articles and authors to follow up on. My only complaint is that I wish there had been more folks committing their thoughts to twitter: at SHOT, one of the ways I often meet like-minded scholars is through seeing their tweets, responding, and then meeting them in person before the conference closes. At MWBCS, the more formal, paper-note-taking culture of interaction made this unlikely, and in fact, I sometimes wondered if tweeting in a session might come off as rude, whereas at SHOT it is common and expected.

Whew, well, that’s about it. I’d be interested to hear more about your experiences at these conferences, if you went. Check out these two other posts on SHOT 2012 for more perspective:

Laine Nooney

Alex Bochannek

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