From March 21-23 I attended the 50th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in Denver, Colorado. Scholars of literature (including English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish), art historians, musicologists, historians, and more exchanged ideas about the long eighteenth century.1 With a total of 198 panels and literally hundreds of participants, the event felt far different from previous conferences I have attended. On the whole, getting out of my “comfort zone” was a very valuable experience.
Of course, there were certain challenges involved in attending this kind of event. The sheer size was daunting, compared to the intimate atmosphere at smaller conferences. Every day was packed, with panels and other events starting at 8a.m. and lasting into the evening. As a historian, I also noticed the event was dominated by literary scholars, who tended to present research based on close textual readings, often heavily theorized. The smaller number of experts in maritime Britain meant that networking opportunities and feedback specific to my field were somewhat limited; and conversely my feedback to others was likewise general.2
However, the benefits of attending this type of conference are huge. Hearing the wide variety of approaches to eighteenth-century was intensely intellectually stimulating. I gained valuable insight into topics related to my research from Gabriela Villanueva Noriega on “The Black Legend”, Hannah Doherty Hudson on eighteenth-century magazines, and James E. Dobson who has been working on an interesting application of digital programs to ECCO. Then again, some of my favorite papers had no application my own work—sometimes it is nice just to learn something new! A large interdisciplinary conference like ASECS offers the opportunity to network broadly and start to build relationships with scholars of other disciplines. This can be valuable for future collaborations, for institutional connections, and on a personal level as all of us try to navigate a changing academia.
The large size of the hosting organization often means there are funding or prize opportunities. For instance, ASECS offers many travel grants to help cover the costs of attendance—including grants specifically for graduate students and a brand-new Non-Tenure Track Faculty Fund. Among many prizes offered by the organization there are awards for excellence in mentorship, best overall graduate student paper, and best graduate student essay on race and empire.3 The organizers also arranged a free concert of harpsichord music, group rates on a local theater performance, and discounted admission to the Denver Art museum.
Based on my experience at ASECS, I would like to leave you with a few tips and ideas for participating in a large general conference.
—Take advantage of professional development opportunities. ASECS offered sessions on publishing, mentoring, salary negotiation, and many more. If you are trying to choose between concurrent sessions, my advice is to go to the professional development one. ASECS also had an open “The Doctor is In” session where people at any stage of their career could stop in for individual advice—bring your CV and some questions!
—Take note of your audience. While you are preparing your presentation, remember that your listeners will have different levels of familiarity with your topic. The best presentations were able to draw in the general crowd while also offering sophisticated new interpretations of interest to specialists. During your presentation, don’t forget to look at your audience, and if time permits, don’t be afraid to go off script… like Voltaire said, perfect is the enemy of good.
—Take care of yourself. With the long, packed days of a conference like ASECS, make the most of it but be judicious. Attend as many panels and events as possible, but try to make some little breaks for yourself. This might be a phone call home to loved ones, 15 minutes outside on your own, or a quick nap or relaxing shower if you are staying near the conference venue. Whatever it is that rejuvenates you, make time for it, so that you will be at your best.
—Take stock of what you gained. After the conference, a little reflection/follow-up time is crucial. This might be related to your scholarship: How can the ideas you heard and the feedback on your presentation improve your research? Can your presentation be developed into an article or another output? Or it could be more skill focused: What made effective presentations? Can you incorporate those attributes in the future? You may have also gained contacts and connections. Follow these up where possible through email.
Special thanks to ASECS and the University of Portsmouth for their support. If you have further tips or observations about how we maritime historians can make the most of conferences, please share them in the comments below!