I Love the Smell of Ontology in the Morning: A First-Year Graduate Student’s Experience at a Major Conference

By Sean Smeland, M.A. Student, Department of History

As Professor Marla Miller observed in her recent announcement, conference season is here, and with the successful completion of our own GHA 2014 Graduate Conference this past weekend, I thought this would be a good time to share my own recent experience as a first-year graduate student attending a major history conference for the first time. I hope that first-year students and other first-time conference-goers, in particular, will find this tale helpful, and to that end I will feature some key practical lessons at the end.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, the world’s largest annual conference for the history of science — the History of Science Society Annual Meeting — took place in Boston. Thousands of historians and scholars in related fields converged upon the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel and Boston Convention Center for four days of scholarship, discussion, networking, and sleep deprivation. Being so close, the meeting presented a fortuitous opportunity to get a broad and up-to-date look at the field of history of science and meet scholars from other institutions. As a relative newcomer to the field, I sallied forth to see what all the fuss was about.

I arrived in Boston, freshly-printed business cards in hand, with the usual sorts of stomach butterflies that one gets when one is about to step out into a rather larger world than one is used to inhabiting. As a first-year graduate student, I was particularly nervous, not only because the conference was huge (comprising hundreds of panels discussing an immense variety of topics), but also because I could count on two hands the total number of people I knew who might be there (including UMass faculty and students). Meeting new people and building relationships is obviously a vital part of professional development, but it can also be awkward and intimidating. I thus faced the daunting task of sailing solo the next four days, navigating a seemingly limitless intellectual ocean, trying learn as much as possible and using any “free” time to build connections among future colleagues — all while doing my best to not look or feel foolish for being a neophyte.

As it turned out, these misgivings were both validated and allayed. To be sure, the conference remained somewhat overwhelming, and demanded both intellectual and physical endurance. For instance, Friday’s activities began at 9:00am (which actually meant starting at 7:30am, since I was staying with local connections in Cambridge) with a panel on “Historical Ontologies” — a diverse panel featuring talks on: conceptualizations of spatial relationships in non-standard compasses of Tokugawa and Meiji Japan, contingency in categorizations and knowledge of dinosaurs in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America, the changing meanings and structures of mathematical proofs as they moved from a human milieu to a computer milieu in the twentieth century, and understandings of the “real-ness” of visual diagrams in linguistic theories of the 1950s and 60s. The day continued with a dizzying variety of panels, fora, roundtables, receptions, and workshops, straight through until 10:00pm. Of course, by this point I was well and truly knackered, and stumbled back to my lodgings to do it all again the next day.

On the other hand, some concerns were unfounded. Although I only knew a handful of people in attendance, I managed to run into all of them, multiple times, and of course they introduced me to others. More importantly, everyone I met at the meeting was wonderfully friendly and approachable. Graduate students constituted a significant proportion of the participants, which certainly ratcheted down the intimidation factor, and everyone I spoke to (student or faculty) was helpful, pleasant, and generally encouraging. Thus, even though there were necessarily some cold-contact introductions, these were surprisingly easy and (relatively) comfortable. After all, we were there in common cause, everyone seemed genuinely interested in their fellows’ work, and there was no shortage of well-intentioned advice from more senior graduate students and young faculty offered to novices like me. Moreover, far from feeling any sense of exclusion because of my junior status, I actually felt more warmly received for actually attending a conference as a first-year graduate student, because very few do. As a result, attending the HSS Annual Meeting actually offered a genuinely positive networking experience, which will make future networking much easier.

Interestingly, this collegiality extended to the panel discussions as well. Certainly, the presented research was very high-quality to have been accepted for a flagship conference of this sort. Even so, the questions and feedback following the talks were constructive and largely oriented towards genuinely helping each researcher deepen, sharpen, or (occasionally) broaden his or her analysis; very rarely did commenters or questioners seem to push their own agenda, which I understand can be an issue at some events. Even more interestingly, discussion between audience and panel often became very fluid and open, particularly when key scholars were in the audience, and began to resemble a seminar much more than a formal panel; the swirling and vibrant discussion that resulted was exhilarating.

In addition to being productive, rewarding, and exhausting, the History of Science Society 2013 Annual Meeting left me with four key lessons learned that are broadly applicable to first-time conference-goers from any field of history. The first lesson, of course, was Go!, even if one is not presenting. Attending this conference was an immensely valuable experience even without the added benefit of getting formal feedback on my own research (though I received plenty of informal advice and feedback). The exposure to new research in areas both familiar and unfamiliar was extremely illuminating, and it gave me a deeper understanding of the field and a clearer sense of how I might situate myself within it. Second, seek out ways to volunteer and get involved. I discovered (with the guidance of our very own Ann Robinson) that some conferences have opportunities for graduate students to help out, in exchange for waived registration fees. This can also provide opportunities to meet the conference organizers and other graduate students — a built-in networking device. Third, get lodging as close to the venue as possible, even if it costs more. Though rewarding, this conference was a long and grueling affair, and avoiding a two-hour round-trip each day would have helped keep me lucid and healthy (illness struck me and several other UMass attendees immediately after the conference). Additionally, parking at major urban hotels and convention centers can be stupefyingly expensive (as I discovered on Thursday night). Fourth and finally, Network! Networking is helpful in several important ways, and it builds on itself. At the 2014 conference in Chicago, I will know several times more people than I did this year, and by the end of that conference, I will undoubtedly have again expanded my network several times over. Networks, of course, grow geometrically, as does one’s familiarity with the field when stimulated by attendance at events like HSS — and in this case, Malthus is on our side.

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