Meeting unknown gods (or presenting at an international conference for the first time)

Gemma Williams, first year Linguistics PhD student based in the School of Humanities, recently presented at an international conference for the first time — just a few short weeks after delivering her first-ever conference presentation in the UK.

Below, Gemma shares her personal experience (and some beautiful Andalusian photos) of how she approached this exciting and somewhat daunting event in Seville.

Meeting unknown gods

Gemma Williams

The week preceding my trip to Seville was one full of intense angst and apprehension. Gemma of the past had thought it a good idea to submit an abstract to present at the 8th International Symposium on Intercultural, Cognitive and Social Pragmatics (EPICS VIII), if only as a helpful exercise in ordering my ideas as concisely as possible, with little expectation of being accepted. Gemma of the present was freaking out.

I’d had the pleasure of attending my first academic conference — ‘Beyond Meaning’, co-organised by my supervisor Tim Wharton — purely as a consumer of knowledge, in Athens the previous summer so I had some idea of what to expect in terms of conference mechanics, but as the date approached my nerve gradually evaporated as the reality of standing before experts in the field and touting my fledgling ideas loomed increasingly. Something about deciding to put myself among these knowledge-shapers suddenly seemed incredibly ‘bold’, though perhaps, I tried to reassure myself, this thinking was simply a result of good old Imposter Syndrome. In order to quell the fear a little, I gave myself a mind-trick. I would see it all as a symbolic act. My talk would be my offering at the feet of unseen knowledge-keepers, and the room a temple of knowledge. Clearly bonkers, but somehow this felt less frightening than facing a room of potentially hostile, and certainly very clever humans.

I arrived the evening before the conference began, and took myself out for a romantic stroll in large central park, packed with parrots mimicking the traffic crossing signal and a meal of tapas and beer, kept company by my book (note to solo travellers, always have a good book). People were out late, the rain spell rolled elsewhere to allow a warm sunny evening to break through and it was true! Seville does smell of oranges. I was enjoying myself. How did this happen? (Draw your own conclusions as to whether a pre-conference beer is advisable.)

The venue for the conference was the old 18th Century Royal Tobacco Factory in the centre of Seville, now part of the university, and allowed my temple fantasy to run wild. The high, ornate brick building threaded through with open courtyards and fountains provided a most exquisite backdrop to all the coffee-break chats and encounters that really make a conference. I was happy to see some familiar faces from the conference I’d attended last year, and most people I spoke to seemed to know my supervisor in one way or another. I found myself out for dinner the first night with a lovely bunch of individuals from different countries and specialisms, several of whom will be at the next conference I plan to attend too. People were friendly, supportive when they heard I was giving my first talk, and open to conversation. The impression I came away with was one of a network of warm, intelligent and curious people that wasn’t in anyway clique-y.

Gemma presenting
Photo credit: Ryoko Sasamoto

When I came to my talk itself, I can’t say I fully tricked myself out of the nerves. My advice would be, if you too are prone to anxiety, don’t drink the free and delicious conference coffee on the day of your talk. The audience wasn’t huge, but not too small — just the right number really, to allow for a convivial Q & A session post-talk. Unlike in my fearful imaginings, the questions and feedback that came were both insightful and encouraging. I found myself really enjoying the back-and-forth, and being able to enthuse about something I’m passionate about with others with knowledge and experience in the field. One audience member asked some particularly helpful questions which I took in the same relaxed way as the whole questions session had gone, only later realising that she was in fact one of the plenary speakers and someone who’s work I’d read and admired! Unknown gods indeed.

Seville photo gallery

To find our more about Gemma and her work, you can visit her new blog (which includes a recording of Gemma’s presentation) and follow her on Twitter.