PhD candidate Rachel Reid shares her experience at Kzoo and suggests a few tips for other first-timers.
In May of this year I made the medievalists’ pilgrimage to Kalamazoo, Michigan for the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University. Instead of providing a commentary on my trip this post is instead intended as a sort of ‘survival guide’, based on my experience. This was my first presentation at an international conference, or indeed a conference of this size, and some forward-planning was absolutely necessary.
First: are you travelling from outside the United States? Check visa requirements. You may need to apply for an ESTA prior to your trip. You will find useful information here
I elected to stay in the on-campus dorms, deciding the low cost and proximity to the venues weighed in favour against the ‘horror stories’ of Spartan, prison-like rooms. To be honest, I wished I had shelled out for a hotel. The corridor leading to my room was the equivalent of a health-and-safety obstacle course. The rooms themselves were as expected, though very grubby. The bathroom was grimy and damp. A midnight trip to Walmart for toilet bleach and wipes was not on my original itinerary! I do like my luxuries, but I’m not a terribly squeamish person and can put up with a few nights with only the basics. These are truly the basics. You may want to pack some wet wipes and I’d recommend bringing a spare blanket as it can get a little chilly. Consider flip-flops for the bathroom. To be honest, if you value hygiene and comfort, look elsewhere. If you want to spend the minimum, I can’t fault the dorms for their location and price. There is a handy shuttle service to take you round all the venues and you’re permitted to bring in food and order takeout. The university is in the process of building several new dormitory halls, but I can’t answer if these will be finished or open to delegates by next year.
The conference itself was very well organised. Approximately 50 sessions running parallel in any given time slot provided a variety of choices. Remember to pack your programme! I spent some time during the flight with a pen and some coloured sticky notes deciding which sessions to attend. You will likely have to make difficult decisions as there is an etiquette on leaving/arriving at sessions midway. Many rooms have the speaker positioned with the doors behind them meaning you definitely can’t pop in/out without disrupting the session. Take notes and feel free to ask appropriate questions when the chair opens the session to the floor. Some speakers may invite further questions after the session is finished if you wish to ask something more informally.
On presentations: I shouldn’t have to say this but, if you are presenting, time your paper in advance! If the chair indicates your time is coming to an end, heed them. Depending on your panel, your audience may consist of half a dozen to upwards of 40 attendees. Don’t take it to heart if there are fewer in the audience than you expected – those who are there have come because they are interested in what you have to say and smaller groups for the Q&A can result in very useful in-depth discussion.
Another tip is to make sure you leave enough to time to get from one session to the next. Conference venues are spread over campus so give yourself time to walk or catch a shuttle if necessary. Comfortable shoes are a must!
Many organisations, publishers, and research centres will host evening wine receptions. Some of these have a cash bar and some offer complimentary beverages. Have a look in the programme and decide which events might have the most relevant networking opportunities for your interests.
You can purchase meal plans in advance for conference dining. I opted not to do this as I didn’t want to be restricted to the meal times. Instead, myself and some colleagues drove to the nearby Target supermarket and stocked up on pastries, fruit, and bottled drinks to keep us going.
There are several options on campus to grab some food, including a Subway. Restaurants in Kalamazoo (such as the infamous Bilbo’s Pizza) will be packed with delegates and not all will allow you to make reservations in advance. A special mention must be given to #medievaldonuts. It is conference tradition to gorge oneself on these sugary creations from the nearby Sweetwater’s Donut Mill.
Keep some funds and some luggage space for your book haul! Chat to the booksellers and publishers and enjoy some well-deserved retail therapy between sessions. Conference speakers with recently-published books will likely be doing signings so keep an eye out for posters and on social media. A lot of the sellers will reduce their prices on the last day to clear out stock before they leave and you can pick up some fantastic bargains. Be warned though, if you have your eye on something popular it may sell out long before this point.
As a first-timer at Kzoo I will admit to being somewhat overwhelmed and a little nervous. I was lucky enough to be in the company of several colleagues from Queen’s, but if you’re travelling alone it will be even more worthwhile to visit the receptions and meet similar-minded folk. You may also notice the same faces at sessions if you’re following a thematic strand. Enjoy the experience of being in the same place as thousands of people who have the same passion and enthusiasm for the field as you. And remember: what happens at the Saturday Night Dance… may end up on Twitter!