How I tackled the RGS Conference

Originally I thought this might be a good place to learn about maps and mapping. I wasn’t entirely correct. In this post I discuss how I managed to make sense of it all. The Annual Conference of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) is a huge affair, with almost 400 sessions. The conference was spread through the Society headquarters, as well as several buildings on the nearby campus of Imperial College London. This is all next to the Royal Albert Hall, across the street from his memorial in Hyde Park and down the street from the V&A. I didn’t get to see any of that though, as I was far too busy!

Part of what I’d like to accomplish with this blog is to let you follow along with my process. This year is a new undertaking for me. Although I am an academic, I do not hail from the research side of things. I didn’t even apply for a sabbatical until now, where as colleagues who were hired around the same time I was are on their second sabbatical! Also, sabbaticals are becoming popular in the business world as well. Designer Stefan Sagmeister closes his office every so often to recharge.

When the RGS first released the pdf of conference sessions several weeks before the conference, I was overwhelmed. I must have looked at it six times before I managed to put a program together. There were approximately 30 sessions for each of four time slots throughout the day, over 3 days. Each session had about four or five presenters. The sessions had names like “The City-Hinterland Nexus in Global Context: The dynamics of rural-urban connections in different global contexts” or “Finance and Market Ideology: Interrogating the Financialization/Neoliberalism Nexus in Economic Geography and beyond”. Whoa – this is not my profession. What’s a nexus?

I slogged through the abstracts and found a few that might be interesting: “Beyond interdisciplinarity: Situating practice in the art-geography nexus: material and visual encounters in the art-geography nexus” and “Creative Practice and Improvisation within Methods: What happens when we get artistic with our research?” I circled all of the choices for each session, then over the next several days whittled it down to a more manageable amount. At this point I still had two or three choices for most time slots.

Use the Comment tools to circle sessions that interest you.


How am I going to narrow this down?

Luck would have it that I met a presenter several weeks before the conference. I was sitting in the local Camberwell Library and I saw a flyer for a kids workshop about mapping memories. I contacted the organizer and asked if I could observe the workshop and she said “Sure!” I met Flora Parrott, who told me she was an artist in residence with the Royal Geographical Society. I agreed to go to her panel – at least I’ll see a friendly face.

Later, I received an email with the subject “Four weeks to go to the Annual International Conference!” It had a link to “Art and Exhibitions“. It turned out there were several artists represented. Now it’s getting interesting. Titles of “Globe” and “Chasing Cuckoos” seemed more accessible. I signed up for a workshop with TAGSCAPE and a walking tour about deaf spaces in London. My program was shaping up. I downloaded the conference app and put these sessions into it.

Nifty conference app!

But what do I have to say to these people if anyone actually talks to me? I made a point to get this blog up and running and made nifty business cards to hand out and leave on tables around the conference. I of course was going to hand out my FIT business card too. Telling people you are on sabbatical is a pretty good place to start – that’s been working for me for about a year. People are very interested in how and why you are doing a sabbatical. Come prepared with your own icebreakers.

Printed on a color printer, trimmed to size.

I went to the evening plenary and even spoke to people during the cocktail hour! This is all part of my sabbatical proposal bullet point “get out of my comfort zone”. I mustered up courage and spoke briefly with the plenary speaker. Then I saw the woman who sat in my row at the plenary. I confessed that I was not a geographer and it turns out she is an anthropologist. We struck up a conversation. She was presenting on “the home.” I had actually circled her session on my pdf the week prior. We had a great time and now I had a compatriot to look for during breaks and cocktails.

It seemed that everyone at the conference was there to present, except me. Many were working at UK universities, but were from another country. Most were in the process of PhD work or were working on a large research project for their departments.

Over the next couple of days I learned a lot and met many more people. I made a point to speak to at least one presenter after each talk. I tweeted about this and that and actually gained a few twitter followers. I handed out my card to everyone I spoke with. I continued to narrow down the sessions to attend based on their suggestions. The sessions were so varied. I tried to mix it up and step into areas I had no background in.


I attended a session about co-working spaces and how they are affected by the economy. I attended a session presented mostly by librarians about the new role of libraries in the community. At least five local libraries in Lambeth (south London) have been shut in the last year. Many libraries in London are staffed by volunteers. But they are making new connections – by digitizing collections and responding to the needs of the community. Libraries are reinventing themselves as community spaces. Geographers are interested in this kind of change.

I learned that “smart city” is more of a marketing term than a fact. Glasgow was awarded over £20 million to become a “smart city”. Work was frantic in 2014, but they haven’t kept up to date with all of their achievements. One very interesting speaker cataloged content from various works of fiction about the “future” as a way to predict what might happen if our cities were truly “smart”. Being “smart” attracts funding to cities, but it may not make them as futuristic as planned.

Even though this was an academic conference, I was able to keep up. I didn’t feel like the material was over my head. I was quite comfortable speaking with accomplished artists and PhD candidates. I also know now that “geography” isn’t just learning about state capitals and mountain ranges.

Overall, I think I learned the most about the process of creating a research project and how to present it. I learned from watching everyone present. Occasionally there would be a speaker that just read their paper. One guy literally rested his chin on his fist as he read off the computer screen. For the most part everyone gave an interesting talk.

I’m always on the lookout on how to be a better presenter. One tip is to try to tie your presentation to popular culture to make it easier to digest (especially if you are presenting in session three on the third day…) In the session on smart cities, a presenter likened smart cities to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as they are fragmented and uncoordinated, and, they kill their creator in the end. Wow. There were sessions about things I’m already interested in and topics that are new to me. There are topics I want to investigate further, such as “reading landscape” and I’d really like to get to Blackpool to see the illuminations.

About my tweets – before the conference, I checked out the conference twitter feed. There was a link to a listacle “6 Tips For Getting More out of Conferences” about preparing for a conference. Number 5 was “Use Twitter”. The RGS conference app encouraged this also. So I did. I had no idea what I was doing, but I did it anyway. I even got some “likes” and a few people are following me. Unbeknownst to them, those could be the last tweets they see from me! I’d like to add number 7 to the list: Don’t wear a long necklace, as you’ll no doubt be wearing a lanyard and badge that will cover it.

Check out #RGSIBG2016 on Twitter.

If you are planning a sabbatical or a large research project, I would suggest finding a conference with content separate, yet related to your topic and go. Be bold, talk to people, tweet, ask questions. (People will be very nice.) Hand out business cards, collect business cards and arrange to meet after the conference if you can. You’ll see your topic from a different viewpoint and you’ll learn something new along the way.

Read about the conference.

Beware, I will be contacting you!