DPhil Diaries Seven: At Conference

Over the last few weeks since the end of the academic year, I have been fortunate to travel to lots of places and speak at a number of academic conferences. I have just arrived at Amport in Hampshire for the last of this season, at my annual favourite: the conference of the International Network for the Study of War and Religion.

I've arrived at the beautiful Tri-Forces Chaplaincy Centre perhaps the least-prepared I have ever been for a conference, with my paper still not quite finished and as yet without my powerpoint presentation. This morning I was quite stressed by it, but as I drove into the lovely, and now familiar, lanes of Hampshire and stopped off for a run in the warm sunshine, I soon felt a lot less worried by it (evidently so, as I have found the time to write this short blog post).

I first came to this conference four years ago, having just completed my undergraduate degree at Manchester. I had been invited after making contact with the Museum of Army Chaplaincy's curator, the brilliant David Blake, during the research for my dissertation. At the time, I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do in history. I was about to start my MA in History of Warfare at Birmingham, keen to learn more about the First World War, but I didn't know if I wanted to pursue history as a career. At that point I don't even think I had ever spoken with anyone who was studying a PhD: that just felt something very unknown.

As soon as I came to that conference in 2016 (I didn't give a paper then, but just came to listen to others), I was hooked on wanting not only to pursue history, but to delve further into the history of religion and war. I had done my undergrad dissertation on First World War Christianity primarily as a vehicle through which to look at soldiers' experience, but it soon came to be something I wanted to know more about and to understand in more depth.

When I returned to the conference the following year, I knew far more about both history and history as a career and gave my first conference paper, which was a draft version of my MA dissertation. I don't remember being nervous coming to it, but was excited to be able to share what I was working on. It felt a great privilege to be able to talk about my work with others and to be able to contribute to the conference's discussions. This talk was also the first time I shared my research into the YMCA and through conversations with others at the Amport conference, I soon knew that I wanted to delve further into the history of which I was only scratching the surface.

Having been able to have such a welcoming and comfortable initial opportunity to present at a conference, I felt able to apply for others and so I ended up speaking at the British Commission of Military History's annual conference, and another on social history at the Geffrye Museum of the Home, even before I applied for my PhD. I think this gave me such a valuable step up into being able to talk about my research and to share my ideas that really benefitted me when it came to applying for and starting the PhD.

It also meant that I was comfortable enough to try out new ideas in the conference space, as I did in 2018 when I spoke at the Amport Conference on the rather broad topic of 'The YMCA and the World in the First World War'. This was a topic I could, of course, only scratch the surface of, yet it enabled me to identify so many jumping off points for further research. Looking back on that paper given the research I have done in the last year, I realise quite how much was missing from it, yet it was a great way through which I was able to talk about many of the broad themes of the YMCA's work and to get feedback on what other people thought was significant for me to look into further.

Then this summer, now a year into my PhD and almost three into researching the YMCA, I have spoken at three more conferences. The first was at the University of Leeds on the theme of 'Preparing for Battle' and the other at the First World War Network in Edinburgh. At both, despite having a confidence in my work and my ability to speak in front of an audience, I have also felt a new nervousness when preparing my papers. No longer am I necessarily the youngest in the room and by now I'm supposed to know what I'm talking about. And for the large part I do, yet there's a new pressure I feel when writing, of trying to make it as good as can be and worrying if it is good enough.

And maybe that's why I've not yet finished my conference paper for Amport? Or maybe I've just been enjoying summer too much? Either way, returning back to the familiarity and the comfort of Amport House soon made that pressure feel less significant and reminded me what a wonderful conference this is. I really do feel very fortunate that my area of research has such a close-knit and welcoming annual conference, through which we are able to share ideas and have discussions. I am also reminded of how far I have come, even at this very early stage of my career. Who knows where I'll be in another four years? At this point, I daren't even think about it.

Hopefully next week I'll be able to share on my blog some elements of this week's conference paper. I'll be talking on the post-war work of the YMCA in the aftermath of the First World War, taking a little step away from what much of my research has been on thus far to look towards the YMCA's impact and legacy.

Until then!

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