A (Non-Traumatic) Conference Experience

Karen O’Donnell

When I traumalogobegan my PhD I was excited to start going to conferences and even more excited to give a paper at my first conference. I eased myself in gently with a couple of small postgraduate conferences, giving papers on material I was very familiar with, before moving on to some of the big society conferences. I found myself leaving a fair few conferences feeling quite disappointed. Some were dreadful, some were just ok, all were exhausting. So it was with great trepidation that I set off to an Inter-Disciplinary.net conference entitled “Trauma: Theory and Practice” in Lisbon at the end of March. I was not disappointed and I want to highlight three ways in which this conference rose above the rest.

1. Inter-disciplinary

The conference was strongly inter-disciplinary. I was the only theologian there amongst historians, literary theorists, physicians, therapists, social workers, performance scholars, media and journalism scholars, and linguists. Each paper given offered a new perspective on trauma. The question sessions weren’t thinly disguised self-promotion but genuine enquiry into context, method, results, and future work. Conference socialising wasn’t about getting introduced to the big name in the field, but real dialogue and discovery.

2. The little things matter too

As anyone who has ever planned a wedding can tell you, the little things can be the most important. The same is true in conferences. The conference organisers made little tweaks that had a huge impact on the conference. For example, name badges had only first name, surnames, and affiliations on them. In order to know how “important” someone was, you had to talk to them! With the exception of one small session, all the papers were given in the same room. This might seem unimportant but what it made for was an accumulation of context within the attendees. There was much referring back to other papers, building of consensus, challenging of ideas simply because we all heard the same papers. The conference organisers had also made it clear that no one could simply attend for their own paper – I’ve been to so many conferences were keynotes turn up just for their hour slot and then leave. They’re simply not part of the conversation. These little tweaks added up to a conference that was egalitarian and genuinely productive – which leads me to my third point.

3. Creative and Invigorating

The nature of the conference led to a number of discussions both as a whole group of attendees but more often across the dinner table, around the coffee stand, after panels, about future collaborative work. The conference organisers encouraged people to think about future edited collections that might arise from our few days in Lisbon. Large blank sheets of white papers went up around the room for people to write ideas for future projects on along with contact details. A quick snap of the ones you were interested in on your phone camera and the beginnings of collaborative relationships were built. I left the conference feeling inspired, full of energy, and excited about my future work in this field.
After such a positive conference experience I’m led to re-evaluate the purpose of conferences. For postgraduate researchers like myself one of the main reasons for attending is for the good of the CV – one needs to give papers and meet people. Although quite often both of these aspects are disappointing. Multiple parallel panels mean that I have given papers to audiences of 5 or 6, simply because of the number of other papers on offer at the same time. And the flocking towards the “big names” is embarrassing, as is the eye flick over your name badge, the registering of your PhD student status, before people decide you’re not worth talking to! I want conferences that move my work forward – ones that do my career, as well as my CV, good. Little adjustments would serve to make the experience far less traumatic!