By Alyssa Tremblay
With spring comes flowers, milder weather and the start of academic conference season.
Fueled by a tremendous amount of volunteer labour, graduate student conferences in particular are invaluable spaces where early career scholars can learn about the latest ideas in their field and share their own work with peers from institutions across Canada and beyond.
Within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, March through May saw successful iterations of a number of virtual student-run graduate conferences, including the Carleton English Graduate Student Society Grad Conference, the Carleton Cog Sci Graduate Conference 2022, the 2nd Annual SICS Research Symposium, and the 2022 Underhill Graduate Student Colloquium.
Founded over twenty years ago, the Underhill is one of the oldest graduate history conferences in Canada and is made possible each year by the generous annual contribution of the Frank H. Underhill fund.
The 2022 edition, titled “(Re)thinking History,” aspired to adapt the Underhill to our current times by highlighting “work going beyond the traditional bounds of academia including the sources being studied, the way we work, how we approach archives, how we share our work, the themes we consider, and the communities involved.”
To achieve this, the conference emphasized practical keynotes from public historians Cheryl Foggo, Krista McCracken and Skylee Storm Hogan-Stacey who challenge the status quo of history; offered a range of submission options for presenters including workshops, panels, and classic presentations; and eschewed the traditional conference poster in favour of focusing on broad social media outreach and inter-university communications.
The Underhill also hired graphic recorder Sam Hester to illustrate the closing keynote – click here to learn more about graphic recording as a pedagogical tool – to combat academia’s default preference for text-only historical accounts, despite many people being visual learners and thinkers who learn through connections and storytelling.
The 2022 Underhill Graduate Student Colloquium was organized by Amie Wright (PhD Student in History, Concentration in Public History), Jaime Simons (MA Student in Public History and Digital Humanities) and Meranda Gallupe-Paton (MA Student in Public History and Digital Humanities), with support from faculty advisor Prof. John Walsh.
We spoke to Amie and Jaime post-conference, once the dust and sleep debts were mostly settled, to reflect on the challenge of rethinking history itself.
First off, as graduate students, could you tell us a bit about your respective research?
Jaime: My research focuses on using sound to engage with the history of steamboat colonialism on the Ottawa River.
Amie: My research focuses on censorship, education, and the postwar ‘moral panic’ over kids comic book reading. Other research interests include the teaching of history, digital humanities, visual & popular culture, archives & critical librarianship, public health, and the history of education.
Organizing a graduate conference is a big undertaking. Why did you both decide to volunteer for the task?
Amie: As a new PhD student and new to Carleton, I was excited to have an opportunity to get more involved, especially with meeting other graduate students with this (mostly) digital year. I also have previous experience organizing conference panels and programming for the American Library Association and with Comic Con, but this was my first history graduate conference.
Jaime: I didn’t have much conference or event planning experience, so I wanted to give it a shot and see if it was something I enjoyed. Plus, it was a great chance to meet more people both inside and outside of the department!
What was your biggest challenge in organizing this year’s colloquium?
Amie: Time! Time, and balancing graduate commitments and deadlines, for both of us! Somehow – I don’t know how and I am still in awe of this – Jaime managed to finish their MRE (Major Research Essay) just a few weeks after the Underhill!
Jaime: The fact that the conference was virtual was both a challenge and a benefit. It made it much more accessible, which was amazing, but it was hard to envision a two-day long virtual conference that was enticing enough for people to spend two whole days on Zoom. Amie had the brilliant idea of making it one day, which I think really helped! Getting the word out, when we haven't seen people in two-ish years, was also a challenge, which was where Meranda’s communications knowledge came in clutch – she made the social media outreach so much better than it would have been otherwise!
In being a space where burgeoning ideas from new and unpublished research are discussed, academic conferences are often full of “aha!” moments, in which a presenter shares something brilliant that completely changes how you think about or approach your field of study. Did either of you experience any “aha!” moments at this year’s Underhill?
Amie: As an Alberta resident, Cheryl Foggo’s keynote revealed stories I was not aware of in Western Canadian history – i.e. the story of Charles Daniels, a Canadian Pacific Railway porter who was racially discriminated against in the Grand Theatre in Calgary in 1914 and took his case to court. This was over 30 years before Viola Desmond fought against racial discrimination in Nova Scotia. Cheryl, like Krista and Skylee-Storm, exposed so many subjective gaps in how we construct historical narratives with archives and ‘known’ histories.
Jaime: I loved Krista and Skylee-Storm’s discussion of the need for soft spaces for when people are working through emotional archival material. So many museums and archives are harsh and imposing, and make you purposefully feel small or like you need to jump through hoops to access them. Having soft and welcoming spaces is a great way of changing that. Beyond that, all of the panels, workshops, and presentations were so interesting – there’s a lot of great work being done in the department!
In your opinion, what should the future of academic conferences look like? What practices should be left in the past and what should become normalized going forward?
Jaime: I love the accessibility of online conferences – being able to join from wherever I am, automatic closed captions and transcriptions. Those are both great for me personally and I hope those options stick around. They make attendance more equitable (i.e. you don’t have to look for childcare for multiple days, or pay for a flight and a hotel), and give a chance for people to attend who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to.
Having keynotes Zoom in is also great, because it makes it so much easier for them versus having to fly somewhere for an hour-long talk. Facilitating the Q&A via written-in questions also stops a lot of the grandstanding ‘I have more of a statement’ kind of questions, which leaves more room for actual questions.
Amie: All of the things Jaime said! Conferences are so cost and time prohibitive for so many people, and funding is limited. In my previous career as a librarian, I saw firsthand how conferences can become self-reinforcing spaces based on who can and cannot attend. As a library manager, I had access to conference funding; most frontline library workers, library students, new librarians, and casual workers did not. Similarly in academia, a lot of conference funding is earmarked for tenured professors, not sessional instructors or graduate students. To better diversify our professions and conference spaces, we need to create more opportunities either through funding or accessible venues – like online platforms – to actually create more equitable spaces.
Also, I would love to see more mentoring opportunities built into conference practice, especially with panels. Having more experienced speakers and scholars giving opportunities to new and emerging scholars and aiding them on that journey is needed and is the type of generous professional practice we could probably all benefit from more of.
The Underhill Graduate Student Colloquium would like to thank their partners and keynote co-sponsors (Film Studies, Migration and Diaspora Studies, and the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies), as well as everyone who attended, presented, or helped make this year’s Underhill possible!
Image credit: Underhill logo in banner by Sam Hester.
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