Why I Love International Conferences

Merle Massie at ESEH Munich, 2013

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This is the 1st  in a series of posts written by recipients of a NiCHE New Scholar Travel Grant to attend the World Congress of Environmental History in Guimarães, Portugal.

As we gear down, getting ready for the trip to Portugal for the 2014 World Congress in Environmental History, the excitement in my office is palpable. That’s my one-person home office. Think of me, in the basement of my house in small-town Saskatchewan. I have five bookshelves, overflowing, a massive filing cabinet, and a closet. Two desks, neither of which you can see the top of, due to a paper-and-book-explosion that seems to go off in continuing mini-explosions every time I sit down. There is a Lego dinosaur, a three-headed dog made out of clay, and pictures. My flight, room, roommate, and excursions are planned for Portugal. There is a file somewhere with that information in it, underneath a book. On my desk. I know it.

I bought a new hat! So, I’m ready for some heat.

My paper is…really good. Inside my head. But it’ll be ready, too.

International conferences get me excited in ways that no other conference can. Since my return to academia, I’ve visited Plymouth, Antwerp, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Umeä, Munich and (in less than two weeks) Portugal. If there’s a European conference and someone is willing to spot me some cash to go, my husband resigns himself to ten days of single parenting.

Maybe it’s the contrast. I am, after all, a local agricultural environmental historian. I study Saskatchewan. I study where I live, and I live my studies. I get tremendous joy from what I do, and I can’t see me changing anything soon. I have two books out, and am in a media blitz. I have no less than five books lined up to write. Two are spilling onto digital paper every day; a few more are inside my head and hiding in archives. But they’re clear to me. I know what they look like, and sooner or later you will too.

I think my joy in attending international conferences comes from three sources. One, I get accepted to go. Being accepted, welcomed, lifts my heart in ways that other major North American conferences never have. (Some of those conferences, I will note, are set in seeding season. Not good planning, for a farmer-academic married to a farmer-agronomist-whose-two-full-time-jobs-converge-in-spring. So I don’t go. Nor do I apply. It would make me sad to know what I was missing).

The second joy comes from travel. When I married my farmer-husband, I told him that travel was a requirement. Non-negotiable. He agreed. (I think he tolerates the academic thing because I get to travel and someone else helps to pay for it. Farmers are frugal people.)

But the third joy is the most important. I love international conferences because they are unpredictable. I never know who I might meet, what we might decide to do, or what their responses might be to something that I’ve said. Eating a late night supper on the banks of a canal in Copenhagen. Going swimming in the Baltic on a drippingly hot day. Meeting a Twitter friend in person, and discovering that you really, truly, like them. Appointed to committees that you hadn’t heard of, but are really cool.

But my best conference story is about tears. I was in Antwerp, at the Local History in a Globalizing World conference. We were in the refurbished city archives, in a beautiful large room with bright wooden beams and a lot of windows. I had just finished giving my paper – on my hometown region of rural Saskatchewan, at the edge of the boreal forest – when I noticed a young woman in the back of the room, crying. I was totally confused. No one died in my paper. No blood, no tragic loss of limb or friendship or house. What was there to cry about? So I went up to her, and sat down.

With a voice still trembling, she said, “Your paper made me cry.” “I can see that. But I don’t understand why. Can you tell me?”

Lifting her head, she said, “I didn’t know that you could write about your own home town. I thought historians had to write about important places.” I waited, because it was clear she had more to say. “My work in China is about big cities, which is why I’m here. I like it, but your paper showed me that I can write about my home. It’s very small, and not very important, just like the place you described. But what you’re doing is important. It’s familiar to me, even though I’m from China and you’re from Canada. That’s what I see. It’s the same, even though it’s different. I can be a historian and write about what I love. Thank you.” So the two of us went for lunch, and discussed how small, or how big, a place needs to be before a historian can write about it. She had great feedback, and I learned so much.

The incident stayed with me, because it was a gift. She had never been to Saskatchewan, and I’ve never been to China. And it didn’t matter. What she heard during my presentation, and how it echoed in her and how it echoed back through me, was profound. I proved to her that you can do local history, even of the smallest of places. She proved to me that small local history matters.

And that profound connection, that new understanding, happened at an international conference. Both of us were thousands of miles from home, speaking across language and cultural barriers and jet lag. And hearing a familiar voice. A voice advocating for home.

Here’s to Portugal.

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Merle Massie

Adjunct Professor at University of Saskatchewan
A writer, editor, historian, and farmer in west central Saskatchewan. Avid social media fan, cloud watcher, snow shovel wielder, reader.

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