Each new year and theme makes every BARS postgraduate and early-career researcher conference a unique academic experience, and this tradition continued into 2020. Of course, this year, thanks to worldwide lockdowns and bans on large group gatherings, this conference was unique in more ways than one. A herculean effort by organisers (Colette Davies, Amanda Davies, and Paul Stephens) and 37 accepted speakers managed to move mountains (or, in this case, papers) onto an online platform. With such a plethora of academic delights to choose from, some 200 delegates took part in the conference across the weekend, with just shy of a hundred in most of the live workshops and keynote sessions. Indeed, freed from the physical and geographical constraints of a typical conference venue (although delegates are still hoping to make it to Keats House, Hampstead in future), scholars from right across the globe were able to come together in the cloud, and many of us left the conference with minds abuzz with the possibilities of future digital elements in academic conferencing.
It was not merely the geographical and physical from which we were freed in this strange new world, but also the constraints of a schedule of events in which papers, keynotes, workshops, and readings must all take place in a carefully timed sequence with little room for manoeuvre. Split into two streams, synchronous and asynchronous, this conference offered a different way of doing things, which delegates tweeting the events decreed #CFH (conferencing from home). Thus, while workshops and keynotes were held via Zoom (with remarkably few technical hiccoughs) at particular times across the two days, the 37 papers were available continuously from 10am on the Friday right through the weekend. Speakers rose to the challenge of physical distance in a variety of ways; there were papers in text format, audio recordings, video-recordings, and narrated PowerPoints (much of which, I confess, is well beyond my own technical capabilities!). The discussion boards under each panel, the designated substitute for live questioning of speakers, livened up across the weekend, and, importantly, presented speakers with an opportunity to offer much more considered responses to the questions about their work – something we hope was very useful to all!
The three Friday workshops, aptly chosen to address key concerns of PGRs and ECRs alike, drew large audiences and provided a much needed sense of community – at the end of talks, delegates were encouraged to turn on their videos so that we could see the faces of our online community. After opening remarks from the organisers inviting us to think about what Romantic Futurities might mean in the current climate, Dr Emily Paterson-Morgan kicked off the day with a rousing workshop designed to prepare us for the non-academic job market, and reminding us all that a PhD develops innumerable skills well beyond the ability to write on niche research interests. A practical and interactive session, those attending left with workable templates and schematics to give them the best chance of success in future job applications. Dr Charlotte May and Fiona Lewin followed (after a quick break for lunch – we admit we missed the social chatter over triangle sandwiches) with an interesting and useful examination of working in the heritage sector. An industry on whose experience, expertise, and kindness we researchers often rely, this workshop was a valuable insight into what working in the sector might look like, as well as the emerging and changing trends resulting from lockdown restrictions.
The final workshop of the day, brought to us by Dr Andrew McInnes, focussed on the elusive beast known as the academic interview. With many an amusing anecdote from his own life, Dr McInnes conveyed much practical advice for interview preparation, as well as tips and insights on the impenetrable schema used in shortlisting processes – a.k.a. how to simultaneously embody many conflicting ideas, desires, and traits. For those of you who were unable to join us for these live workshops, you’ll find some handy tweet-threads of the live sections on the BARS PGR twitter, complete with Q&As.
It fell, then, to Professor Michael Gamer to close the first day of the conference with his keynote lecture entitled ‘The South Seas on Stage’ – especially relevant in a time of pandemic where each of us is confined to our own homes and left to imagine future travels to foreign lands and coming into close proximity with the peoples and cultures of these places. Social distancing and lockdown often forces us to consider what is at stake when distances between cultures, countries, and people are dissolved. With this in mind, Professor Gamer gave a fascinating reading of the transactions of culture between European explorers such as Charles Darwin and James Cook and the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific regions, taking his listeners on their own imaginary voyage. A frequently contentious cultural interaction that seemingly threatened European superiority gave birth to pantomimes such as Omai (1785). Professor Gamer reflected on how and why, in the play, Omai is remade as a royal prince destined to marry Londina, the daughter of Britannia, as well as the ways in which theatre supplied the visual and sonic language for this cultural reimagining of people from the South Pacific regions on the stage.
The second day’s keynote was equally intriguing – Dr Emily Rohrbach’s talk ‘Open Books’ invited us to reconsider the role of books and the political power and choice inherent in a decision to open and/or close them. Focusing on Romantic poetry, Dr Rohrbach explored the interplay between time, form, and the act of reading itself – a chance both to remove oneself from the bustle of industrial life, as well as an opportunity for radical self-alteration. Saturday evening then brought a real treat in the form of a poetry reading from Keats House poet Deanna Rodger. Sharing some new material with conference attendees, Rodger’s poetry struck a powerful and emotional chord with many, while the subsequent discussion ranged widely from the worldwide #BlackLivesMatter protests, brought into sharp focus in Rodger’s home town of Bristol with the toppling of the Edward Colston statue, to the continuing resonance of poems written for a past moment.
This conference will, in all likelihood, remain unique in a way that no other academic conference ever could. Whatever digital elements find their way into future conferencing plans – and there are huge benefits to many of them – it was truly a privilege to have been involved in this one, which we’re calling a bit of a trailblazer.
– Alastair Dawson and Vinita Singh
PGRs at the Universities of Southampton and Leeds