I love going to conferences. I was bitten by the conferencing bug very early in my historical career, since as an undergraduate I spent a couple of summers working for the International Medieval Congress (for anyone who has been, you know the folks desperately trying to get the yellow feedback sheet off the moderator at the end of the session? That was me! And I still get a sense of achievement thinking of the thousands – yes, thousands – of delegate information packs I helped to put together). Whether giving a paper or not, I find conferences so stimulating. They always help remind me why I love doing history, I like getting away from the university for a bit, it’s brilliant to meet new people, and I’ve had some of my best ideas at conferences – usually during papers not on my specialism in any way (out of period, different geographical context, or sometimes a completely different topic altogether!). It’s good to get out of your comfort zone; you never know what thoughts it might spark off.
Two weekends ago, I attended the ‘War Through Other Stuff’ workshop in Leeds. ‘War Through Other Stuff’ is a new society for researchers studying the history of warfare in unusual and exciting ways. Set up by three enterprising postgraduate researchers, Catherine Bateson (Edinburgh), Laura Harrison (Edinburgh), and Lucie Whitmore (Glasgow), WTOS is not a forum for traditional military history (strategies, logistics, and such) but instead showcases research on the cultural aspects of war through and in society, art, or literature; as the WTOS website succinctly puts it: ‘alternative histories of conflict’. I’m not going to summarise the presentations here, though I would encourage you to read the first-rate Storify put together by the workshop organisers, which brings together the live reactions of delegates on the day. Instead, being the frequent conference flier that I am, I’m going to talk a bit about the composition of the workshop.
Firstly, a moment to appreciate the infrastructure. The workshop was held at Leeds City Museum, thanks to collaboration between the organisers and Leeds City Museum curator, Lucy Moore. This would maybe not be the most obvious place to hold an academic event, but it was an inspired idea. For one thing, it wasn’t anybody’s ‘turf’; when a conference is held at your university, it’s too tempting to slink away at breaks or lunch to check emails, pop to the library, or just do those couple of jobs you intended to do during the week (I work at the home of the IMC; I know this to be true because I’ve done it myself!). Full advantage of the museum setting was taken after lunch (which was really excellent – up there in my top three conference lunches) with a WTOS-themed tour of the museum galleries (this was just one of two activities on offer; delegates could also choose to take part in a story-telling workshop). What a great way to combat the post-lunch slump!
The structure of the workshop programme was innovative: the organisers did away with the traditional 20-minute papers, and instead had two sessions of ‘lightning talks’ – 8 minutes maximum – and two longer keynotes. I really enjoyed this format. The quickfire presentation helped me to make connections between the papers that I might not have spotted otherwise. Presenting an 8-minute paper does require a different approach from the speaker and having done shorter papers myself, it’s certainly a challenge, but as a member of the audience I loved it.
I found the ‘lightning talk’ format especially appealing because most of the papers presented were way out of my range of expertise. This is one of the reasons I attended the conference; it was a brilliant opportunity to benefit from exposure to different methodologies and perspectives, which I do find hugely valuable. But, in this regard, the fact that the workshop was in my home territory (even if not at the university itself) was a major factor in my attendance; I may not have been inclined to travel far for an event where the content was, on the whole, so out of period, even though I do extol the benefits of getting out of the comfort zone. But the WTOS presentations were so inspirational that I am resolved that I should be more outgoing again in the future, and take some risks n my conferencing.
Huge thanks to the WTOS organisers for putting together such a fabulous day. There are exciting times ahead for the (alternative) history of conflict.