I’ve attended the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada’s annual conference countless times since I was a Masters student at the University of Victoria fifteen years ago (that number is disgusting to look at, but it’s true). Something about the smaller size of the conference and its intellectually generous and supportive participants always brings me back. Now, the CFP is available for VSAWC’s 2015 conference on the topic of “Victorian Bodies,” and I think anyone who reads this should seriously consider submitting a proposal and attending the conference. Here’s why:

I love going to the larger Victorian studies conferences. I’ve been to NAVSA and BAVS regularly in the last five years or so. They offer the best and the smartest of current research in our field. This year’s NAVSA conference in London ON, Canada is going to be fantastic, and I’m excited to present some of my newest work. Such conferences, though, are also massive in size and incredibly competitive. My panel at NAVSA’s conference last year in Pasadena, for example, had only two people in the audience, not including the moderator and the other two panelists. While my introverted nature is never completely disappointed by such a small group of listeners, I can’t help thinking that there’s something wrong with a conference model that allows this to happen. With size comes a slow movement of bodies that results in a kind of intellectual inertia premised on big names and big ideas who draw participants to them by their bulky promises. There’s a payoff in such bulk, but not a feeling of collaboration and exchange.

This simply doesn’t happen at VSAWC, or at least I’ve never seen it happen. With only two panels running concurrently, VSAWC always allows for a vibrant exchange of ideas amongst an eager and sizeable group of participants. The conference is especially supportive of graduate students, as evidenced by its workshops for students and junior scholars on academic publishing. As a student, I never felt out of place or discouraged to present papers at VSAWC, ask questions during panels, or share conversations with established scholars. Those of you who know me probably have wondered why I’m often off by myself during coffee breaks between panels. Chalk this up to an introverted soul overwhelmed by the rush of enthusiasm and conversation rather than an awkward body in a room. Imagine how I feel at the larger conferences. VSAWC is just right, especially for the introverts among us.

There’s also something to be said about seeing the same faces in attendance year in and year out. Sure, this has the potential to become stale (it never does become stale), but I genuinely appreciate the chance to see my colleagues in Western Canada and elsewhere grow and change with their scholarship from year to year. VSAWC always offers a provocative mix of regular attendees and new faces from the States, Britain, Australia, and even various parts of Asia from time to time. Regular attendees always seem so genuinely excited to host participants who have traveled extensive distances to be with VSAWC for a weekend.

Finally, the VSAWC conference each year is amazing because of its venues, which are always in some of the most beautiful cities or regions in North America. In recent years, VSAWC has been in Vancouver  BC, yearly ranked as one of the world’s most beautiful (albeit unaffordable) cities; Victoria BC, a smaller and incredibly charming seaside city full of tourists; and Banff AB, a world-class ski resort with some of the most sublime mountains in the world. For 2015, VSAWC arrives in Kelowna, in the stunning winery region of BC’s Okanagan Valley.

Okay, yes, I’m totally biased here because I’m from Western Canada and have spent significant time as a child and adult in all of these venues. Just trust me on this one: you will not regret submitting a proposal for VSAWC’s conference. If you do decide to attend, I guarantee that you will meet some very smart and sophisticated participants who will listen to your presentation with genuine enthusiasm. If you’re introverted like me, at the very least you’ll have a chance to take a few tours of some of Canada’s best wineries, and you’ll probably meet some of your colleagues – new or old – on those tours.

6 thoughts on “In Defence of Smaller Conferences: VSAWC 2015 in Kelowna BC, Canada.

  1. Great post, Daniel — you make a persuasive case for small conferences. It’s especially important to make that case when many scholars have to be choosy about what they attend, for whatever reason. It can be tempting only to attend the large ones, but as you rightly point out, very often the better investment is often in small- to medium-sized conferences. Another advantage of these conferences is that it’s less likely that your potential audience will have their schedules crammed with meetings for projects, advisory boards, job interviews, publications, and such, which tends to happen at MLA and other large conferences.

    But my favorite aspect of small conferences like VSAWC, where you have usually no more than two concurrent sessions, is that threads of conversation can emerge among panels, and can unfold over a few days. For this to happen it takes just the right configuration of space, time, and available attention. Often a keynote speaker will introduce an idea or debate that gets picked up by later presenters, and developed in subsequent discussion periods, such that panels become linked in ways the organizers couldn’t have predicted or engineered. I recall attending a small conference where the final presenter on the final panel (an unenviable spot on any program!) reworked his paper to touch upon a surprising number of the earlier papers. Many of those presenters were there, and it was clear that the connections he cited were genuine; these weren’t merely shout-outs. He didn’t do this entirely on the fly, either, and had obviously rewritten his paper to respond to what he’d heard on previous days. It was an act of intellectual generosity that I don’t think would happen easily at a large conference.

    One question I have, however, is how Twitter and related social media can both help and hinder the emergent properties of small conferences that I’m describing. (Full disclosure: I’m asking this as a committed non-user of Twitter, but also as one with respect for those who’ve integrated it well into their professional lives.) Any thoughts?

  2. Great post Daniel! I attended and really enjoyed my first VSAWC last year, and definitely plan on being in Kelowna for this upcoming conference, especially now that I’m in Western Canada too! In addition to the advantages you mention, I also like that the keynotes tend to be a little different from the usual suspects at a small or medium-sized conference. After attending NAVSA with some frequency for the past ten years, I’ve noticed that many of the keynotes tend to repeat, and I appreciate the opportunity to hear someone new.

    There was a strong Twitter presence that I thought was great at last year’s VSAWC–I find it helps me make connections with people, and I personally always appreciate being able to follow conferences that I cannot attend–it feels very democratic. I recently enjoyed the BAVS tweets, for example.

  3. What a great post (I should disclose my bias: not only I am located in Kelowna, but also VSAWC has played a large part in my own intellectual development). I too would love to hear what folks think about twitter at small conferences. Twitter in common at DH conferences–where it is almost considered rude *not* to tweet–and helps keep the conversation going across panels. Like Karen, I am often glad to read through the tweets of conferences I’ve had to miss (does anyone know this year’s NAVSA hashtag?), but do other readers want to be able to browse the back channel when there are only two concurrent panels?

  4. I like reading tweets from a conference as it progresses, but I must confess that I don’t feel comfortable being on Twitter while in a panel presentation. Too many thoughts go through my head during a good presentation, and I find it more frustrating than liberating to be forced to reduce the ideas at the intersection of my own thoughts and a presenter’s thoughts to 140 characters.

    One thing I really like is that Twitter timeline function. It’s a really cool way to retrospectively chart the connections of ideas from a number of points over the course of a weekend.

  5. Alan, you should get on Twitter. Avoid Facebook, sure, but I really do think that Twitter has some significant value as a scholarly tool.

  6. I wasn’t able to attend VSAWC this year (much to my dismay), but I loved being able to follow the panels on Twitter (even if it made me jealous), and it introduced me to some valuable scholarship I was otherwise unaware of. As the VSAWC webmaster, I also compiled a storify of all the tweets, makings sure I represented the comments made about each panel. Such archiving has the potential not only to act as a record of the scholarship and conversations produced at VSAWC, but if you ever need to cite a panel or paper, it could act as a potential resource. Of course, like Connie, I am biased.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s