Tuesday 18 October 2011

The Association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH) and musings on networking

This weekend just passed saw the annual conference of the aforementioned BrANCH at Madingley Hall, just outside Cambridge, and also saw my first substantial jaunt into the world of academic assemblage. I won’t say I felt like a five-year-old approaching the school gates for the first time...because I was driving. But it certainly felt like entering a new world, at least a little bit, as I trundled up the tree-lined avenue of the charming country grounds at Madingley. As the busy car park informed me, the turnout was very healthy indeed. Scholars had travelled from a whole variety of institutions, from Oxbridge to Vanderbilt, and Paris-Diderot to Chengchi (in Taiwan). (And, of course, our very own University of Leicester was well-represented, by Drs. Clapp and Campbell, if not myself!)

The topics of research at this year’s meeting were, as ever, a diverse bunch, ranging from the impact of animals on the wagon trails emigrating West, to White Southern attitudes towards the literacy of slaves, sexual negotiation in Texas prisons, political identity in the Civil War North, and federal disaster relief. Whilst one often finds oneself sitting in a stuffy room, listening to papers not of immediate interest, trying desperately not to drift off to sleep, it is always good to see that historians are still doing what they do best – asking new and unheard of questions, uncovering new sources, and pushing the boundaries of research.

But then conferences were never simply about the papers presented. The aspect I enjoyed most about this weekend, to be truthful, was the opportunity afforded by the generous number of coffee and food breaks. What a surprise, you might think! But, like the prospect of hugging a tiger, the chance to network has never really appealed to me. Call it shyness, an inferiority complex, (a general aversion to being eaten alive), or whatever, but I have always harboured a dread of this aspect of academic life. Such a fear was never, and still isn’t, helped by those people who ask interesting questions of you, and then spend the next few minutes looking over your shoulder, or smiling inanely, clearly not listening. But then perhaps it is I that needs to be more engaging!

I was saved by a very early realisation that, at conferences, everyone is largely in the same boat. Even established academics need places to share their ideas and gain insights from others, and whilst their experience separates them, somewhat, from post-grads such as myself, they still seem to take great pleasure from the simple question of what it is they are researching. Remarkably similar to asking an old tramp how he is doing, or asking a cab driver what he thinks about the government’s latest plans, nothing seems to enamour oneself to an academic more than making such an enquiry!

In the past, my networking style usually consisted of finding someone standing on their lonesome, and making small-talk with them until it was time to enter the next session. I never really understood the true definition of the term ‘mingle’. How could I muscle my way into other people’s conversations? Such rudeness! But one soon realises that this is how it happens – although perhaps not always with the muscling. Networking usually consists of little triangles or squares, with one or more of the apexes shifting at regular intervals. New contacts are made, fresh conversations are developed, and innovative insights garnered. My only regret was that I was not able to make full use of these occasions. Because Madingley was relatively close to home, I chose to drive in every day rather than lodge. But, whilst saving a bit of cash, I missed the morning and evening social sessions. And I couldn’t drink! If only that had occurred to me at the time! So my advice would be to lodge, if at all possible. For the networking opportunities, of course, rather than the booze...

P.S. Highlight of the weekend - beating UCL in my first ever game of croquet!