Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Postcards from Melbourne (Part 1)

Thank you all so very much for your lovely comments on the last post and for the good wishes I received during last week. It meant a hell of a lot. This post is the first of three about my trip. I appreciate your reading and commenting very much. 

I’m not sure it’s possible for me to speak about my trip yet with any sort of perspective, but I’m going to try and talk about what it meant and how it felt. I took a very few photos the last two days with a disposable camera purchased hastily in a local supermarket, but I haven’t had them developed yet, and as photography isn’t one my skills I don’t expect much from them. It also feels a little inappropriate to use photos as evidence of my trip given that the conference I attended was based around presentations which rely on paintings, drawings, clothing, written texts and music as evidence – photos have no place in the work of an early modern or medieval specialist. I also noticed the absence of an official photographer or even just students and friends clowning around; there was no one snapping selfies at the lunch table or in the grounds. Even out and about I noticed very few people taking pictures at all, despite being asked for directions (hilariously) by other tourists several times. I liked the idea of not being overly eager to photograph everything, I was more interested in creating memories based on how things smelled or felt. It’s the experience that matters to me, not the evidence of it. Although what I saw was a big part of what this trip meant to me, it was not the most important thing. This wasn’t just a sightseeing trip (not that there’s anything wrong with those, of course), this was something much more vital.

If it’s possible to be shaking with nerves almost the entire time and yet feel like you completely belong, then that is what the week was like. The social side of it was terribly difficult, although I did get a little braver after my presentation was done and dusted. I managed to meet all four of the people I was most excited about, and one of them I ended up befriending  while I built a strong rapport with another. I saw some magnificent presentations, while others left me cold – I was gratified to discover I was correct in thinking that a conference presentation is not a mini lecture but an opportunity to present research. (What I mean by that is that we had a lot of talks that were all exposition and little analysis.) I certainly did experience what I always suspected these conferences make you feel at the best of times, an attachment to a broader academic and intellectual community, and although I occasionally despaired of ever doing work as good as some of the others presenting and speaking, I also know that my instincts and skills are much more on target than many others I met, including some much more senior researchers.

The postgrad students were a mixed bag. I did meet a couple of lovely people on the second last day of the conference, but by that stage it was a bit late. Everyone from UWA and University of Queensland knew each other, as well as most of the students from English universities, while the two big groups from the Victorian universities had been doing peer review on each other’s work for several weeks. So the only people at as much of a loss as me were from New Zealand or Canada. I tried pretty hard to try and make an effort socially, but frankly I had a lot more luck with the senior scholars than with the people in their twenties. I was hoping the comparison to school wouldn’t hold water, but the truth is that there were some serious cliques, and trying to break into those was too much for me. It didn’t help that the students presenting were overwhelmingly from medieval studies. Certainly I was one of the few students to attend many of the sessions I frequented, this may have made the social stuff harder than necessary. In addition, a friend from a complementary discipline told me several weeks before the conference that the early career researchers took these things more seriously than the more senior scholars, as a rule – I felt exonerated in discovering this was not the case. A lot of the early career researchers seemed much more nonchalant about the experience, and were mostly there for the social side of things.

Melbourne reminded me a little of the Emerald City, with its jewel toned buildings, reasonably clear lay out and comparative cleanliness. It felt like a place that had all the answers for me, and I delighted in not getting lost more than two and a half times and feeling like I mattered there. I did feel guilty about not getting out more, and very silly for not eating out rather than getting Subway for dinner twice while I was there, but it WAS a working trip, and there’s always next time. I felt like I did enough, that I made enough of an effort to be proud of myself and to look forward, to believe once again that I have a future in this line of work. As to my presentation, I think I did OK. I’m especially hard on myself about this as I was once a very successful public speaker and debater, and although I was out of practice I expected more of myself. My mentor assures me that I did a lot better than OK, and, as I usually trust his judgement, perhaps I should believe in his use of superlatives when talking about my performance. Having him there was wonderful, and although I had to be honest with him about how bad this summer has really been, he is still eager to take me on for postgrad. I feel very lucky right now, I want to be worthy of that help.

There’s no way this trip was going to be perfect. But part of me was hoping my presentation would be, and of course it wasn’t. But it was solid, and the energetic and enthusiastic question time after my talk tells me that my research hit its mark, whatever else happened. I spent a lot of time these last few days interrupting people who said 'but it was your first time, I bet it was good for your first time!'. I wanted it to be excellent irrespective of that, and I've been assured that was the case. Everyone at the session was shocked when they found out later, as the undergrads were introduced at an afternoon session, and I do count it as a win that almost every single person at the session sought me out in the remaining day and a half of the conference. I must have got some things right. 

Emma commented on my last post and her description of how Melbourne makes her feel was better than anything I could come up with: ‘If you find Melbourne anything like I find it, it will fill you with calm, a sense of adventure, a feeling of being at home, and everything will be right with the world.’ Anxiety aside, I felt like I was running towards myself on this trip, that I might have started to become who I want to be. For most of the week, being me wasn’t so bad, and I can only hope a little of that feeling came home with me. I need it quite desperately.

When I remember this trip I’ll remember the nutty, chocolate-y coffee I drank every day, I’ll remember the clang of the trams that came after the quiet and stillness as they came to a stop, and looking up in wonder at the cobweb of tram cables only a few feet above my head. I’ll close my eyes and try and summon the memory of the warmth that filled the room in an amazing session full of great people presenting interesting research and an audience wanting to listen. I’ll try to forget my shallow breathing and shaking as I spoke on Friday morning, but try and remember that people laughed when they were meant to, and the look of pride on my mentor’s face when he asked a question afterwards (I was too scared to look at him during my talk). I’ll certainly remember everything he told me afterwards, and the few words out of many I caught him whispering to his friend, describing my work, while I was meant to be talking to someone else. I will bask in the memories of happy meetings with good friends who were generous enough to share their time and love for their hometown with me. I’ll hang onto the fact that people were mostly kind and interested and that I did OK.

I did OK.  


  1. Glad you had a good time in Melbs xox

  2. I trust your mentor and I'm sure you were better than OK. I'm happy you had a wonderful experience, despite the nerves. xx

  3. I'm glad you found Melbourne enjoyable and invigorating. In a strange turn of events I found myself there last week too, hence my delayed comment. It sounds like your presentation went beautifully. Well done.

  4. I LOVE OK! So happy to read this. xo


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