By Jessie Gamarra and Emily Putnam

To conference, or not to conference: this is the question many graduate students ponder.
Not William Shakespeare

In our humble opinions, conferences are milestones. If you have a careful selection process concerning the ones you attend and present in, they mark a particular point in your academic career. We have drawn from our own experiences in this co-written post to provide you, dear readers, with some insight into how conferences can be beneficial to graduate students.

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Panel Discussion for Narrative Interventions, the fourth annual Carleton Art History Graduate Students’ Society, March 4-5, 2016. Image taken by Sarah Fox.

Jessie Gamarra: My first experience attending a conference was in the second year of my undergraduate degree. I was taking a bunch of medieval history, art, and architecture courses in the same year that Carleton was host to the 33rd Annual Canadian Conference of Medieval Art Historians. This conference isn’t officially attached to any association or university, but is rather informally run by a group of academics who are passionate about supporting their field of research. I managed to slip in as an eager student, stole some snacks, and settled in for a long morning of incredibly detailed analyses. That summer I made plans to attend the University of Toronto as a visiting student to pursue my career as a medievalist at the Centre for Medieval Studies.

Needless to say, like most undergrads, my research interests shifted out of the medieval by the time I made it into fourth year (which would be the next time I’d attend a conference) —but the experience was still invaluable. Though the event may not have given rise to my initial interest in the grandeur of the gothic or even cemented an ever-burning passion for the most intricate workings of those medieval monks in my heart forever more, it revealed something to me about the world of academia. Conferences ultimately function as an environment for informal—as well as formal—intellectual exchange, and people get really excited just to engage with others who are as keen in their field of interest as they are. It’s rather inspiring to be a part of.

Emily Putnam: So, I was much later to the conference game than Jessie, waiting until the first year of my Masters’ program. The first conference I attended I actually presented at (which I’ll get into further into this post), so I’ll share a couple of later experiences. Last year, I attended the Heritage Symposium, organized by Carleton’s Heritage Conservation graduate students. It was a unique conference in that it was held in a public space (Mill St. Brewpub), and its goal was to bring together heritage and public history students with heritage professionals. As someone who, at the time, had an interest in a possible career in the heritage sector, I thought it would be beneficial to attend and learn about the conversations happening in heritage in Canada. It was a well-organized conference with some interesting (and not so interesting) presentations which I am glad I attended, though it made me realize that a career in heritage is likely not for me.

One of the most important elements of attending conferences as a graduate student, though, is that they can actually inspire new avenues for research and get you pumped for your own research. While this was not something I felt during the Heritage Symposium last year, I did feel it during my second experience as a conference attendee. In October 2016, I, along with a few members of my cohort, travelled to Montreal to attend a couple of panels at the UAAC (University Art Association of Canada) conference. It was an energizing experience, particularly the professional development panel we attended on being a feminist killjoy in academia. For me, personally, this was a vital panel to attend and featured several Canadian art historians I have the utmost respect for such as Carla Taunton, Heather Igloliorte, Alice Ming Wai Jim, and Charmaine Nelson. These are the women I want to emulate as a scholar, so listening to them interact with each other on a panel, discussing some of the very issues in academia that I am concerned with, was so important in galvanizing why I want to be an art historian, cementing my ideas of the power of art in society and inspiring me to pursue my PhD sooner rather than later. All of that said, whether you participate in conferences as presenter, organizer, or attendee, you should participate in ones that will benefit you in some way, whether it’s for professional development, networking, or to expand your knowledge in your field.

JG: I feel like a road trip with your cohort must be one of the best ways to get into the conference groove! A group of us in the first-year of the MA program are planning to visit Kingston to attend and present at a graduate conference next month, and thinking about those experiences highlight the importance of getting out into the broader academic world to expose yourself more directly to the people and ideas that are at work in your field.

In the last year of my undergraduate degree, I was able to travel halfway across the country to present my research in a national conference. This was perhaps the most nerve-wracking experience of my life (as of yet), but also the most rewarding. Through the right commitments and course selections, I managed to find a dedicated supervisor and a research topic that captured my interest, so with a little bit of funding from the department, I packed my bags and made my way to Regina.

Like other active academic associations, the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada (SSAC) hosts an annual conference in a different city every year with various panels, events, and socials. In addition to academics, there are often professionals in related fields in attendance, which presents opportunities for varied and insightful feedback. And it’s this—the “feedback” bit—which seems to cause the most anxiety in presenters. But it’s also the most crucial and stimulating part of participating in a conference! This is where you’ll (hopefully) be pushed to think beyond your own partialities and that of your general academic circle, to emerge triumphant with notes, further reading, and new ideas to pursue.

EP: I have presented at two conferences and have a third upcoming in mid-March. All have been graduate student organized conferences, but all have been different experiences. My first presentation was last March (2016) for York University’s Art History Graduate Student Association’s conference Navigating the Metamodern. This was an interesting conference for me because it was not only my first, but was structured around investigating a new theoretical framework to emerge in art history in the past ten years, metamodernism, that is under-explored in academia. Think Shia LaBeouf and Luke Turner’s collaborative performance pieces. I was doing a lot of research on Walking with Our Sisters during my first year and I wanted an opportunity to get some feedback on it, particularly because of my positionality as a settler. So, I tailored research I had already done on collaborative activism as a means of opening dialogue, building community, and healing, into the framework of metamodernism. It was an intimate conference and my presentation received some very thoughtful questions that helped me ground my research further. I’ve also made connections with a couple of scholars in different areas of artistic research that I feel I have greatly benefited from knowing (and what they share on social media!). This conference also led to me publishing an adapted version of my presentation for a small, experimental art magazine.

In November (2016), I attended a three-day conference in Toronto again, but this time it was the OISE/CIARS (of University of Toronto) collaborative Decolonizing the Spirit conference, on the theme of “Race, Anti-Racism, and Decolonial Resistance.” This conference was a packed multi-sessional, multi-keynote conference which largely consisted of presentations by PhD students and independent scholars. It was much more North American-focused, which could be in part because of the draw of its keynotes: Joyce King, Walter Mignolo, and Taiaiake Alfred (who was later replaced by Eve Tuck). I have to say, this conference felt radical to me: not only was it was a massive conference, but it was determined to undertake the work of decolonizing the institution through a variety of different fields. It was also a conference that I did not have a paper already prepared for, but instead was an area of research I was interested in exploring. I’m not going to say you shouldn’t submit to a conference without an already prepared paper, but I will say you need to be careful and really think about your schedule before doing so. I am so glad I attended this conference and presented at it, but it was difficult to find the time to write a paper and prepare a presentation on top of an already full schedule.

JG: Yeah, participating in conferences does take a surprising amount of energy, time, and money. These are realities—and you must prepare for them in advance. Last year I was invited to present my research in a public talk for Heritage Ottawa, a local organization that promotes history through events and lectures, in the middle of my first semester of grad school. This kind of event presented an exciting opportunity for feedback from a general audience, which can even prove to be an invigorating and impacting push towards continuing research, but it took a surprising amount of work to get myself prepared because it involved adopting an existing paper for a different audience. Needless to say, a good support system is pretty crucial when preparing for a conference. They can provide support not just through attendance (and, perhaps, some applause), but also through critical feedback and encouragement that should only serve to make your presentation clearer and more compelling.

Being involved in the organization of the Art History Graduate Society and Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture’s co-hosted conference, Off the Record, has also given me insight into the way conferences work—albeit in a rather different way. The actual implementation of a conference requires a multitude of extremely organized and dedicated minds working in co-operation. While this seems a nearly impossible task, with the right people and attitudes, conference planning can be fun if not seamless.

EP: I am so glad to hear that the collaborative AHGSS/ICSLAC conference planning appears seamless, Jessie! My experience organizing/volunteering for conferences largely consists of the upcoming Off the Record conference currently in its late planning stages, as a co-chair of the conference. Without the dedication of my other AHGSS co-chair, Sarah Fox, our ICSLAC co-chair, Victoria Nolte, and all of the enthusiasm and help we have received from both camps, I would likely be a melted ball of tears and nerves right about now. Organizing conferences, as I have learned very quickly, is not all sunshine and kittens: there are inevitably challenges that arise, such as time constraints, financial resources, keynote availability, and trying to assemble everyone’s interests into a cohesive theme that is also accessible, dynamic, and, in our case, interdisciplinary. My responsibilities as co-chair for Off the Record, have mostly been working on the language of the Call for Papers, acting as email point of contact for submissions and accepted presenters, and organizing our blind jury process (a completely new concept for me!). It, at times, feels overwhelming, but as Jessie mentioned, it is so integral to be part of a team that is passionate, organized, and dedicated to keep things moving forward.

Editor’s Note: Off the Record takes place on March 24 – 25, 2017 in Dunton Tower rm. 2017, Carleton University, more details forthcoming. You can learn more about this conference here. (

About the Authors:

Jessie Gamarra is a first year MA candidate in the Art History program. Her current research focuses on material culture, the built environment, and the postwar era. Jessie is a social media coordinator for the Art History Graduate Students Society and serves as the society’s GSA Councillor.

Emily Putnam is a second year MA student with a concentration in Art Exhibition and Curatorial Practices. She is working on a project looking at the ways in which contemporary Japanese Canadian art can illuminate ongoing issues of identity, memory, and trauma related to the Japanese Canadian Internment (1942-1949) through the work of Norman Takeuchi and Emma Nishimura.

You can read more about Jessie and Emily here. (