Saturday, July 3, 2010

Fifth Annual Limina Conference

Limina is a peer-reviewed online journal of historical and cultural studies run by postgraduate students at the University of Western Australia, and yesterday the collective hosted its fifth conference together with the Institute of Advanced Studies. I was a member of the collective for a couple of years, so I was duty-bound to attend. Also, I like Limina conferences.

Our day-care drop-off took a bit longer than expected (and in fairness, I remembered the conference start time wrong...), so I missed the first session, Sally Carlton's "Transportation and transmission: Consideration of symbolic practices which disseminate memory of war". I like Sally's work on French commemoration, so that was a shame. I also missed the first part of Fausto Buttá's "The Milanese anarchist movement at the beginning of the 20th century", so I wasn't really oriented into things until Phil Keirle's "Suppressing Laughter to Build Character," which explored 19th century American behavious manuals and their rather amusing (ha!) attitudes towards humour and laughter: a wicked and unnecessary pastime, and a slippery slope to all other vice. Not surprisingly this was a topic that elicited plenty of character-compromising giggles.

My leftover macarons were eaten up during morning tea, and I received an appropriate level of praise for my Stepfordiness. If only they knew...

Vivienne Glance's "Fine lines and rough ideas – The delicate balance of bringing science into performance" and Hila Shachar's "The marginal Wuthering Heights: Cultural, national and historical demystification in Jacques Rivette’s Hurlevent" worked well together, as both had some aspect of accuracy and appropriateness of adaptation at their core. Had the questions been held together at the end of the panel it could have been possible to explore such connections a little further.

Similarly Fémi Ádédìna's "Nigerian writers and language: Of masses, messages and mystifying language" and Annie Morgan's "Symbolic geographies, Europe East and West: Paris and Siberia as literary motifs in the work of Andreï Makine" involved discussion about authors' choice of language. Nigerian literary authors are often faced with a choice between writing in an indigenous language or English, and in either case their ability to influence society for the better remains limited, due to low literacy levels particularly in indigenous languages on the one hand and the colonial baggage of using one's "master's voice" on the other. Makine in turn began writing exclusively in French after leaving the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, and the books do make occasional reference to the ways in which languages differ in their ability to express certain things. From memory Samurai's grandmother in Once Upon the River Love scoffs at English as a "bastardisation of French"...* 

I was a bit of a naughty conference-goer in that I skipped the keynote, Tiffany Shellam's "Encountering expectations: Reading Phillip Parker King's meetings with Indigenous People in the early 19th century". So I can't say much about that. I do know her baby is due on the sixth of October this year, and mine was born on the fifth of October last year. Birthday buddies! ...sort of.

The anticipated highlight of the conference was the Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher Panel session called "The Thesis, The Work, The Job". Panellists were Michael Azariadis, Andrew Broertjes, Tanya Dalziell and Tiffany Shellam. Some of the information was frightening (90-hour work weeks? Writing two unrelated theses in the time it takes most people to cobble together one? Yeesh), but the vibe was overall positive, and it was good to have the acknowledgement that most people with PhDs will not be academics: Michael mentioned that around a third (?) of graduates get employed at university, and most of those in an admin capacity - which he pointed out was not a bad gig at all, as the pressure isn't at the same level as in academic appointments, but the pay is...

We ran out of time to really talk about the post-thesis limbo, which is a bit disappointing, because I don't think I've ever heard anyone be frank and realistic about how to keep up research output, publications, grant applications, when in all likelihood you might get some casual tutoring if you are lucky, and not the minimum two-year 0.5 fractional appointment that you need to be able to apply for funding. If you get a position that pays at all. Is there anything out there for the poor fools who end up unaffiliated with a university at the start of their ECR-dom?

The final panel was a bit of a showcase for the Medieval and Early Modern Studies- group at UWA.Carol Hoggart's "Sex, snot, and sacrifice: Interpreting Ibn Faḍlān’s ‘Vikings" clearly had the jazziest title of  the conference, but the paper itself did make me a little uncomfortable at times. It reminded me of David Mitchell's Soapbox about "raping and pillaging", and how even horrific things come to be seen as amusing when committed a long time ago by people we assume wore funny headgear. I couldn't help but think back to some of Phil's exquisite quotes from those laughter-suppression manuals from the nineteenth century...

James L. Smith's "Making space for thought: The fusion of topography and epistemology in the High Medieval imagination" featured delightful maps and diagrams, and it's always nice to see a presenter enthusiastic for his topic, but rather embarrassingly I didn't follow it very well. Lesley Silvester's "New methods for old records: New insights into historical research of the family" astonished me: she used what seemed to be a fairly standard genealogical software package to sort and analyse data for a family reconstitution study in fifteenth century (?) Norwich. What was so stunning was that the use of the database seemed to be somehow contentious and affected her choice of examiners even. Is there such a culture gap between genealogists and "proper" historians that the standard tools of one group are poison to another? Am I missing something? From my limited knowledge of both historical and genealogical research their methods seem the same: studying a range of archival sources, following people from one document to another. The motivation is clearly different, and certain different rules apply to each group, but while I have read some really shoddy genealogical texts, the two approaches to archival research surely aren't that hierarchical by nature? Enlighten me, please.

I had to scoot out before the launch of Limina Volume 16 got under way, so I missed out on some wine, cheese and other lovely nibblies, but had I not gotten home to think about some things Siberian Ginseng would never have come to be...

*Andrei Makine's Once Upon the River Love is sort of responsible for the blog's title. I'll explain later.