We came from France and England, Scotland and Italy. We came from South Africa and America, Mexico and Denmark. We came from New Zealand and Australia and Poland and, of course, from Ireland. Gothic scholars from all corners of the globe, relocating themselves for the Locating the Gothic Conference and Festival, October 22-25, in Limerick, Ireland. I debated whether or not to blog about this conference, not because it wasn’t a great event (it was), but because it focused more on contemporary Gothic than Romantic. That being said, the format of the conference expanded beyond simply panels and keynotes, and is worth discussing as a conference experience in itself. So I will spend half of this post giving it a brief review. In the second half, I want to broaden out into the topic of international conferences and the dos and don’ts that will help you survive them, especially considering our next NASSR will be more international for many (not for our Canadian readers, of course!). Much of this advice could apply to any conference to which you would have to do significant travel.
While the conference focused on Gothic locations, the interpretation of this idea spanned the gamut, including national Gothics of all kinds, rural/urban Gothic, cyperspaces, psychological spaces, and spaces transitional and transgressive. These topics themselves refused a restricted location, venturing above and beyond the bounds of literature. Based at the Limerick School of Art and Design, the arts and visual elements took what may have begun in literature to expansive heights, particularly the four keynotes: Monica Germana, who spoke on the Jack the Ripper tours in Whitechapel, accompanied by her own photography; Iain Biggs, who spoke on the need to map and remap our understanding of the Gothic through art; Lorna Piatti-Farnell, who introduced us to a vampiric New Orleans; and Tabish Khair, who located the Gothic in postcolonial Otherness.
There were two days of panels and presentations, in traditional conference style, but these days were interspersed and book-ended with activities, demonstrations, and exhibits that brought the Gothic out of the books and into the city. Between sessions there were art exhibits of deliciously unsettling sculptures and images, a book launch for The Gothic and the Everyday, and an uncanny performance by The Cut Out Dolls, creating a truly interactive exploration of all things Gothic. Evening entertainment was even more extravagant, taking us throughout the city’s streets, some happenings were for conference-goers only—like a ghost bus tour and reception at King John’s Castle—but most sponsored by the city were open to the public and were very well attended, including theater and music performances, a Saturday morning FX workshop and, my personal favorite, a zombie walk, in which the people of Limerick really put the academics to shame. Though I wasn’t able to attend all the events, such a flurry of activity on both university grounds and in the city itself really brought home this thing that we’re always saying: that the Gothic is everywhere, and the Gothic comes to life just as often in the everyday and the popular imagination (if not, more so) than in the archive or classroom.
We don’t have many Gothic conferences in the US, with some exceptions. For this reason, international conferences have become the norm for American Gothicists, and I know there are a few other fields whose most important events lie on the other side of the Atlantic as well. Traveling far to attend a conference may seem intimidating and, let’s face it, not always possible considering limited funding opportunities. Preparations and applying for support can become a time-consuming project, before even attending this one tiny event. But, I strongly recommend the unique opportunities that academia affords us to travel, even if it’s within our home countries. Much of my advice would just as easily apply to conferences within the US, which could also involve long flights, crossing time zones, and culture shock. Here are a few things to keep in mind to make your experience a little easier, so if you must stress, you’re stressing over your presentation and not travel concerns.
Before you go:
Do as much work ahead of time as possible: order foreign currency from your bank, buy travel tickets (or know exactly how to do it when you arrive), and look up maps. Conference websites usually have all the information you need to fully plan your trip. Print whatever you think you’ll need. Don’t assume you’ll have access to your phone or your computer. Batteries die, wifi can be unreliable, and you never know what kind of access you’ll have. Make sure to have the correct adapters/converters so that you can recharge when you get to your lodgings and find out what’s what. If you’re including power point in your presentation, have a version without it, just in case your country’s technology is not compatible with the tech wherever you’re going (I have see this happen!). When you pack, I recommend packing as light as possible, while still being comfortable. If you can, fit everything in your carry-on luggage: this not only cuts down on the anxiety of losing your luggage (and your conference clothes), but it will also make your arrival a lot quicker without having to wait for your luggage to reemerge from the baggage claim abyss. Even if you’re pretty confident that you know what the weather will be like, pack layers and always (always) bring an umbrella. For the flight itself, wear comfortable layers and even more comfortable (preferably weather-friendly) shoes (this seems like common sense… but people-wearing-ridiculous-shoes watching is my favorite airport activity).
When you get there:
Depending on when you get in, try not to go to sleep. You need to get your body used to a new time zone, and you only have a few days in which to do that. Try to make yourself stay up at least until after dinner time. And do eat, even though your stomach may not know where or when it is—this is one thing I always struggle with when I arrive. Bring food with you so that you won’t have an excuse not to put something in your stomach. If you’re on the other side of said time zone, make yourself to go bed early enough that you’re not going to sleep through half the conference the next day. That first night might be your only chance to readjust. After that, you’ll want to attend events, sightsee, and socialize. Make sure you do allow yourself some time to explore, but try to balance your conference attendance with side adventures. If you neglect too much of the conference, particularly if this is your first time amongst this
particular group, you’re less likely to meet people. I have found that one of the most rewarding things about regularly attending conferences in a specific field is the network you start to develop. Here’s your chance to make that network global. Chances are, there are lots of international attendees like you, perhaps with no one else from their universities with them (or even from their countries)—so, make friends! There was a recent article in The Chronicle called “Leave Me Alone,” (for subscribers only, though somehow I accessed it earlier) which talked about the overemphasis on collaboration and networking, etc. in academia. Sure, in some respects, I do believe in the importance of “alone time” for getting work done… but not at a conference. You can decompress and gather your thoughts when you get home. While you’re at the conference, do as much as you can. It’s why you’re there!
When you get home
You’re going to be behind in your work, have an inbox bursting at the seams, and possibly papers waiting for you to grade. Ignore it all… just for a few hours. Take some time to process the experience you’ve just had. Organize any important notes you’ve taken. Put any book recommendations in your Amazon wish list so you’ll remember them. Sign onto Facebook. Social media has become a vital tool for maintaining the spirit of a conference after the conference has ended. This is a personal preference, but I think it’s a good idea to
friend any grad students you’ve met who you’d like to keep in touch with. Email is best for professional correspondence, but Facebook is where you can share and learn about projects people are working on, ask questions (like what texts should I teach in a ghost story class?), and get info on CFPs and other events. Email might be the equivalent to sitting down for coffee with a colleague, but Facebook is like walking down the hall and sticking your head in your colleague’s office for a quick hello: both are important for different reasons. So, use Facebook, use Twitter, use whatever you can to keep in touch and maintain your network. Thank the conference planners if you feel comfortable doing that (conference are SO much work). Lastly, if you write for a blog, blog about your experience! Especially considering the distance you traveled to go to this event, there will be many people in your field who wouldn’t have been able to attend and will be thankful to be kept in the loop. It’s just another way of keeping that conversation and that experience going and to invite as many voices as possible.