En-Gender! 2021 Conference – My Experience

by Ashley Thompson

When I first saw that En-Gender! was holding a conference this year, I wasted no time in filling out the application form and submitting an abstract. I had published an article with En-Gender! earlier this year, based on a section of my undergraduate dissertation, and my experience had been hugely positive. As it was my first publication I had been quite nervous, but the En-Gender! team supported me, and had very much demonstrated their ethos of opening up academia to younger, less experienced, academics. I felt that any conference organised by this team would be a great learning experience and would also be an inclusive, and respectful one; I was not disappointed!

My paper was based a section of Orderic Vitalis’ Historia Ecclesiastica which detailed Orderic’s reaction to a fashion where men wore their hair long (a story which is also written about in William of Malmesbury’s Historia Novella). I had come across this in my research for my undergraduate dissertation but was unable to fit it in to my thesis. Instead, I shelved the story for another time and this conference seemed like the perfect time to dive in deeper to the complex masculine relationships of the early twelfth century. My abstract was accepted, a bottle of prosecco was poured, and I got started with researching and pulling together my presentation.

It can be quite difficult trying to thoroughly research a topic for an academic audience without access to a university’s resources. At the time of researching and presenting I was unaffiliated with a university and so was unable to physically access a university library. However, I had online access to the University of Glasgow’s library and so was able to use digitised sources there. I had also been comprehensive in my research for my undergraduate dissertation and found that some of the material I needed was in my notes. A good friend of mine who was a student at the University of Glasgow graciously went and took notes from some twelfth century chronicles that I needed (I offered to buy her a drink as payment). Between these different approaches, I was able to get the material I needed, however, throughout this year, not being associated with a university has been a big barrier to my doing research for projects. These projects have been a priority for me this year, as a way of keeping me within the academic sphere in preparation for further study, and so the lack of access became a familiar obstacle to circumnavigate.

I had spoken at another online international conference earlier this year so I had some idea of what to expect when it came to the En-Gender! conference in August, and, more importantly, I had some experience of navigating Microsoft Teams! I found though, that it wouldn’t have mattered if I had no previous experience of presenting at an online conference, as the En-Gender! team gave detailed information on the etiquette they wanted everyone to follow (I was nervous at the idea of making a Microsoft Teams faux pas so this was very helpful!). They also gave us a comprehensive programme and an encouraging welcome presentation on the first day, which made clear that this was an inclusive and casual, yet focussed, event. I was reassured by this, especially as it was made clear that the inevitable intrusion of our lives – in the form of small children, pets or a knock at the door – was more than acceptable; something which I often find lacking in the slightly stuffy halls of academia. The more casual atmosphere suited me as I am disabled and find that when it comes to events like this, I am unable to commit to attending each event offered. I resolved to attend as much as I was able, but to not worry about attending everything, especially as I was working in my full-time job during some of the conference. I think the welcoming and inclusive environment meant that even if you didn’t take part in everything, you still felt like part of the wee community and that was something I very much enjoyed.

When it came to presenting, I was nervous but excited. I was intrigued by the other papers in my panel (‘Gendered Bodies: Within the Binary’), especially as I was the only person presenting on the medieval period. The papers were diverse and each was interesting in its own way, but I especially enjoyed Aradhana Singh’s ‘Feminine and Masculine Ideals in Early India: Tradition and Transgressions’ which made me rethink how to approach the Karma Sutra. The differences between the papers really helped to emphasise how gender identities and relationships can be hugely nuanced, yet strikingly similar issues are – or were – faced by many across the world, as there were common themes throughout each paper, despite them varying from looking at early India to the historiography of Anglo-American eugenics. I felt that I presented well, although as my fiancé (who was silently supporting me from across the room) pointed out afterwards, I could always speak more slowly – he ignored my squeaky protestations that I had improved during my practices. I was asked a few questions in response to my paper – which is always a good sign – and we had an engaging group discussion which was light-hearted but gave each presenter some time to elaborate on a few points (I tried to limit my enthusiasm to only saying a few extra things). I walked away – or scooted away on my office chair – feeling happy with my contribution and pleased to have been part of such an interesting panel.

To anyone reading this who is debating getting involved in a conference, I would say don’t hesitate. This is now the third conference I have presented at, all before I have even started my Master’s degree, and I’m proud to have mustered up enough courage to give them a go. You are only limited by your ambition, and with a supportive and inclusive team like the En-Gender! crew, you can’t go wrong. I am very grateful to them for the opportunities they have opened up to me and others, and I am looking forward to working with them again in the future!

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