Trish Dowsett is post-graduate student in English and Cultural Studies. Her PhD thesis examines the relationship between the teaching of English at the tertiary and secondary levels in Western Australia since 1912. She presented a paper at the Australian and New Zealand History of Education Society (ANZHES) conference held at RMIT Melbourne in November 2012 and is grateful to a PSA travel award for making the trip possible.
My first presentation of a conference paper will be remembered for two main reasons: how scared I felt prior to presenting it (but I survived!) and the amount of support and encouragement I came to receive from the members of my audience.
The conference was entitled ‘Buildings, Books and Blackboards: intersecting narratives’ and it was a theme fitting perfectly with my research. It was the combined conference of the ANZHES, Mechanics’ Institutes World Wide and the 10th Australian Library History Forum, and was part of Melbourne Knowledge Week 2012.
I have been a member of ANZHES for only a short period of time and hadn’t attended one of their conferences before nor met any other members. When the programme was finalised I was happy to read the names and topics of the other presenters. The sessions looked interesting and varied and I was delighted that one of the presenters was Bill Green, Professor of Education at Charles Sturt University and co-editor of Teaching the English Subjects: Essays on English Curriculum History and Australian Schooling, a book that I have relied upon religiously throughout my research thus far. It meant that not only could I listen to him and learn from him but I could meet up with him to discuss my thesis project which I wanted to do at some stage anyway.
The conference also allowed me to share some of my research. It was a 20 minute presentation on Walter Murdoch. As the titles of most conference papers include an obligatory colon I conformed and devised, ‘Professor of all things in general: Walter Murdoch and his contribution to Education and Literature in Western Australia.’ There was an on-going joke at the conference about which paper had the longest title and surprisingly I wasn’t even in the top ten!
The ten minutes of questions that followed my presentation were valuable to my work because I was asked a few questions that I couldn’t answer in much detail so I need to learn more about Murdoch’s Scottish writing persona, for example, and about regionality in Murdoch’s work. I didn’t feel that the audience members were out to ‘get me’ or ‘trap me’ which meant that I’m much more likely to present again at a conference, particularly an ANZHES one.
One of my favourite parts of the conference was the informal chatting. Because I felt so nervous leading up to my presentation I felt relieved that my presentation was scheduled for the first day so it meant that I could relax somewhat on the days that followed. During this time, many people asked me more questions about Murdoch, Literature and Western Australia. Murdoch’s influence at UWA in the first half of last century also meant that people were interested in how and what he taught, in his newspaper columns and in his place as a Public Intellectual. And some were just interested in his connection to Rupert.
So presenting my first conference paper made me realise that I need to present more often so my confidence improves and I feel less anxious leading up to them. I was pleased that I’d been ruthless in sticking to the paper’s word limit and I had practised a lot as this meant I wasn’t worried about timing which was a pressure that many other presenters experienced. I felt reassured by the people I met and the support from my supervisor and colleagues reminded me that while presenting is a part of academic life it is not necessarily one that people find easy. In this way it is a challenging but affirming process.