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Marina Hannus reflects on several different conference experiences and offers her advice on how to make the most of the social side of academic conferences.
In terms of social engagement and networking, I’m lucky. A lot of academics are introverted and feel unsettled about going to conferences, presenting their research, and having to ‘network’. I am lucky because I have always enjoyed meeting new people. Especially if I know that we have something in common which gives me a natural reason to start conversations. Therefore I often take pleasure in being in a context where I am surrounded by strangers.
At the same time, even I need to be intentional about turning on ‘conference mode’ if I want to make the most of academic conferences. In my everyday life I don’t initiate conversations with strangers very often, unless it is at a specific event or I have a legitimate reason. This in combination with the many hours of independent research makes me less used to interacting with strangers.
In spite of this, though, I find it more exciting than scary to go to conferences. This is why I booked three conferences in one month this spring…
I came into my PhD study as a qualified secondary school teacher with a good few years’ experience of teaching Religious Studies, Philosophy, and Ethics to children of varying levels of inclination and ability. In some ways this has been both a blessing and curse when it came to teaching in Higher Education. A blessing in that I knew how to manage a small group of students and I knew that I could teach. I will never forget the fear I faced the very first time I stood in front of a group of year 9s to teach ten minutes on the Holocaust with no idea whether what would come out of my mouth would be any good or not!
But it hasn’t necessarily been an easy transition. Teaching small groups of students for just a few weeks at a time is hard. Learning names is difficult in a short space of time and the kind of control I had in a secondary school classroom would be inappropriate in the university setting. Post-graduate teaching itself is not without its problem. Students are paying a considerable sum of money for their degree experience – can we justify allowing post-grads to teach when students are paying for ‘professionals’? Post-graduate students are often not unionised and without representation in larger discussions of teaching in the University. These bigger questions remain part of the reconstruction of the University in the 21st century.
I have to conclude, though, that teaching alongside studying for a PhD is an invaluable experience and one I would recommend for all PhD students.
Just over a year ago, I set off with my backpack to a village in the Ondonga region of Northern Namibia, not far from the Angolan border. My research centres on investigating the identities and belief systems of a village community in that area, to be researched through a programme of contextual Bible studies. In other words, I aimed to facilitate groups in the community to discuss their interpretations of a series of New Testament texts. This was with a view to understanding how the influences of both traditional culture and worldviews, and Christianity inform the community members’ understandings of the text and their wider identities and beliefs.