Piotr Górecki, 10 August 2017
“Power and Identity: The Reading of History in High Medieval Europe” Aberystwyth University 28–30 June 2017
I cannot praise this conference strongly enough. Arranged, recruited, and moderated by a group of Aberystwyth University graduate students, this was among the top-level conferences I have participated in—simply the best, with very few at the same level of quality. This is my view both about the conference as an event—its organization, structure, and specific arrangements—and about the substantive quality of the material presented: the individual colleagues and their presentations, the arrangement of the panels, the placement of the keynote lectures, and the thematic coherence of it all—in particular the clarification of what, in 2017, we as historians mean by identity.
The conference was superbly organized. Right from the initial invitation, and throughout thereafter, the timing of the information solicited from me (the subject and title of my keynote lecture, and specifics relating to travel arrangements, food requirements, lodging, and the like) was a model of clarity, responsiveness, and promptness. My correspondence with Ryan Kemp regarding these matters was one of the most pleasant and informative such contacts I’ve ever had. Consistently with those communications, the organizers made an excellent choice in my hotel accommodations; I couldn’t imagine a better place to relax, think, and touch up my own lecture. The course of each day of the conference was well paced and designed—substantial, challenging, and full, but definitely not overpacked. (One reason was the organizers’ success in persuading the participants to stick to the time allotted!) Social moments—coffee breaks, lunch, dinner—were also well timed, and worked to create additional contact and community, exactly as such moments should. In sum, a model of efficient, smart, and successful organization.
But I need to add something. An emphasis on organization, efficiency, clarity, and the like, understates the importance of personal qualities; of having, in the leadership of an event such as this one people who are very pleasant personally, very good as scholars, and, therefore, very good colleagues. Good people tend to attract good people, and to bring out good qualities of the group events they organize (quite apart of the efficiency of that organization), and this is exactly what happened here. Both the invited and the selected cohorts of participants worked as one friendly, constructive big working group—implicitly sharing as its collective goal the conceptual contributions of the conference. This slightly intangible but crucial aspect was possible specifically because of the personal and professional qualities of the graduate student organizers. So in that, highly personal sense, too, they were the key to the conference’s success.
The substantive side of the conference was correspondingly outstanding. With even the most promising “framing” subjects (such as the conjunction of power and identity), conferences risk loss of thematic coherence. However, not in this case. I was struck by the mix of, on the one hand, the variety of the presenters’ subjects and approaches, with, on the other, the convergence of the underlying major themes—a convergence sustained and developed in the course of the conference. Although (and this is a good thing), the conference was in no sense organized “around” the four keynotes—thus avoiding an implied hierarchy between the participants—the placement of the keynotes worked well to set general signposts for the whole event. The organizers did an excellent job in selecting participants who were likely to reach these outcomes. They purposefully mixed graduate students with faculty, and the outcome was a textbook illustration of the benefits of that approach: a remarkable consistency of quality, across difference in “rank” or seniority, at a very high level. In sum, over a span of three days, this excellent group of graduate students brought into being an excellent professional community. I most enthusiastically support them in their plans to organize similar conferences at Aberystwyth University in the future.