I've been to a lot of conferences in the past, but it's been quite a while since I've been to an academic conference. Back when I was doing my graduate work at Durham, I regularly attended archaeology conferences, presented papers, participated in panels, acted as conference organizer, and even edited the conference proceedings.
Archaeology conferences are fairly laid-back affairs. Honestly, the lot of us often looked like a bunch of hobos or like we had just climbed out of our trenches. And there are a lot of beards and woolly hats.
I was pretty sure that this wasn't going to be the case with a museums conference, and so packing my suitcase the night before was a bit of fraught affair that involved me texting my two male co-workers for fashion advice. I decided to go the midway route -- polished but a tad quirky with a pair of plum jeans and black converse as one of my choices.
Archaeology conferences are also full of eccentrics. There was a particular archaeology conference attendee who showed up at almost every conference, despite not having a clear academic or university association. None of us knew his real name, but all you had to do was describe his strong regional accent from Bolton and everyone knew exactly who you were talking about.
He would sit through every paper and fall asleep at least midway through. He'd then snore loudly throughout the rest of the paper, rouse himself for the questions, and always -- ALWAYS -- have the strangest and often only tangentially related question for the speaker at the end. Presenters would desperately try to avoid meeting his eye and acknowledging his raised hand, looking around desperately for anyone -- ANYONE -- else to call upon instead. Finally, with a look of defeat, the speaker would let him stand and ask his question and then valiantly try to find a way to answer what can only be described as a question both surreal and challenging.
I had the misfortune of facing this querying firing squad at one conference. My Ph.D. research was on the representation of women in Roman ideology and art, and so inevitably there were quite a few paintings and sculptures of naked Roman women (i.e. usually goddesses) in my slides. And so at the end of my presentation, our friend stopped snoring and stood up during the Q&A. He then proceeded to tell me that was one of the best talks he'd ever seen (I'm guessing because of the naked ladies...), and that it all made sense to him since Roma spelled backwards was Amor. Needless to say, this was not the praise I was looking for, nor did I have an adequate response to the linguistic connections he was making. Even 15 years later, I still have friends who were at that conference that make fun of me and my conference admirer.
But I digress...thankfully, I did not have to present a paper at the conference this week, nor did I run into any strange questioning nuts while there. (Though someone did mistake me for one of the presenters and told me how much they enjoyed my talk. I do wish I knew what talk I was meant to have given!)
Nevertheless, being at this conference all felt a little bit off-kilter for me. While my work at English Heritage was largely academic and I've obviously engaged in academic research and writing at the museum, I have not been a part of this side of academia for a while. And I think it might take a little bit of getting used to.
I'm an introvert at heart and so the shmoozing that is a natural part of these gatherings takes a bit of inner courage, but it's also a case of getting my head back into the world of "academic speak," which is a heady mix of theoretical and practical.
But it's wonderful to be amongst like-minded people, most of whom are facing the same work challenges that I do every day and can offer insight, inspiration and expertise to help make those challenges a little bit easier.
Another bonus to this conference was that we were right beside the World's Fair Park, site of the famous Sunsphere. I have happy memories of visiting the Sunsphere as a child at the 1982 World's Fair, and so revisiting it was quite a thrill. Plus, there was wine. Again, silver lining. In a gold sphere.
Photo 1: Dave, Thomas and I on our way to Knoxville. We were taking it extremely seriously. (Thomas Richardson)
Photo 2: The Sunsphere in all its glory. (Scot Basford; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Sunsphere_and_Convention_Center_in_Downtown_Knoxville,_Tennessee.JPG)