Conference Report: War Through Other Stuff, Leeds City Museum, 30.09.2017

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.

My top tip for new University students

Freshers’ Week is all wrapped up and lectures and seminars start this week. I had some really lovely encounters with students last week: so many excited to be starting their new courses, keen for Induction Week to be over and done with and for the course to be underway (students after my own heart!), some perhaps a bit nervous, bewildered by their new surroundings and exactly how to work out the new department. I was particularly struck by postgraduate students who confessed how strange it was to be starting again – to make friends, find their way around a new campus, work out a new library system; they had forgotten how they did those things the first time around. Freshers’ Week is such a mix of experiences, but now it’s finished and the academic business of University begins.

There are some great guides on how to navigate the first few weeks of term. But, because I am a super-nerd, I’m going to talk about something a bit different, which is directly influenced by a question from a student last week, who wanted to know what I thought the best way to organise lecture and seminar notes is. This is something which has much improved my working habits over my years as a University student at all levels, and which has made writing and researching much, much easier now.

Taking notes on a laptop.

In almost every case, I think it is better to create your materials in digital, rather than paper, form – and I believe this for both taught and research courses. This means taking lecture and seminar notes on your laptop, plus taking notes from your reading on a laptop. Doing this has many advantages. If you, like me, type faster than you write, then taking notes on a laptop means that you will catch more of what is being said. Yes, the notes you take during a lecture or seminar will be messy and probably full of typos, but it is quicker to tidy them up after class than it is to type up your notes from scratch. Notes taken on a laptop are searchable (very handy when you just can’t remember where you read that really important quotation!) and a laptop (even a heavy one) weighs less than two or three A4 files full of paper. And think of the environmental benefits – all that paper saved by keeping notes digitally rather than on paper!

My own software of preference for this is Microsoft OneNote – it’s designed for work exactly like this, and is much more flexible than Word. Once you have opened up OneNote, all your class notes or reading notes are just a click away, without having to navigate to a new document or wait for a document to open. It’s really easy to organise your notes by class, but also to set up links between documents if you have topics which tie together. Plus, it autosaves as you go. (This is not a sponsored post, by the way – I just really like this programme, and very few people seem to find it without being told about it!)

Something that will hugely improve any experience of taking notes on a laptop is learning to touch-type. When I started university, I was a two-finger typist. I thought I was fast enough, but I knew that I could be better, and was also aware that I would be doing a *lot* of typing. I used this BBC Kids course – it’s incredibly cheesy, but so, so worth it!

There are some caveats to all this. When redrafting written work, there is a lot to be said for doing some of it longhand, on paper – something I will talk about in another post. And remember that, for most students, exams are taken on paper by hand – so don’t forget how to write! In fact, spending a bit of time each day writing by hand to improve handwriting wouldn’t be a bad idea at all – you don’t want to be called in to type up or read out your exam if the marker can’t read it! If your lecturer has provided you with a handout, then that is a really good backbone to your notes, and you might be better off annotating that handout rather than reinventing the wheel by creating your own notes ex nihilo. And if you just really like taking notes by hand, then do that! Personal preference is very important – but do try out different ways of working; sometimes other people’s methods might be really good.

I’m very aware that not all students have a laptop; they can be a very expensive piece of kit. Investigate to see if your University has a rental scheme; this can be cheaper than buying one. It’s also worth checking out refurbished laptops, which are a lot cheaper than buying new, and will be perfectly serviceable for Uni needs – the laptop I finished my PhD on (and which I am writing this on) is third-hand, and has been brilliant!

Another caveat is that your lecturer or seminar tutor might not love presenting to a room of down-cast eyes tapping away. It’s also very noisy to be in a lecture theatre of keyboards! And, for goodness sake, make sure you have the volume muted, and are fully charged before coming into the class. Don’t disrupt things by having to get up and find a socket half-way through, or by suddenly emitting music or sounds!

And finally, if you commit to digital note-taking, back up, back up, back up! Do I need to say it again? BACK UP, BACK UP, BACK UP!!!