Each year, the Australian Society for French Studies, or ASFS, hosts a national conference for Australian academics in French to come together and share their research around a common theme. In 2014, the conference was held at Melbourne’s RMIT university on the theme of “conflict”. Many of the University of Melbourne’s academics attended, staff and postgraduate students alike. In this post we hear from University of Melbourne PhD candidate Anna Varghese, who provides a postgraduate perspective on the conference and accompanying postgraduate workshop.
More than twenty postgraduate students from universities around Australia and New Zealand came together the day before the official opening of the conference for a journée d’études dedicated to the needs of étudiants de troisième cycle, organized by Associate Professor Jacqueline Dutton at the University of Melbourne. The workshop was held in the beautiful Gryphon Gallery in the 1888 building where we were reminded of the centenary of WWI with the room’s stained-glass figures and honor boards, apt for this conference on the theme of conflict. Over the course of the morning we were given the opportunity to talk about our theses with our peers, make new connections with other projects and gain a stronger sense of our postgraduate community. We were struck by the richness and diversity of the research, a reflection on the incredible opportunity offered by French studies, bringing together as it does multiple disciplines such as history, musicology, literature, translation and politics.
Three academics from different stages in their careers were invited by Jackie Dutton to engage with our group, sharing their myriad experiences and precious advice. Firstly we heard from Dr Alex Kurmann, a Melbourne University graduate who completed her PhD in 2013 and is now employed as Associate Lecturer at Macquarie University. Reflecting on the PhD process, Alex gave us some key tips: commit to deadlines; follow supervisors’ advice to the letter (sometimes we don’t understand why until the end); be meticulous; don’t put off daunting tasks and concepts; and share the experience with fellow PhD students as an antidote to isolation. She spoke of the satisfaction and challenges of her new job, noting the usefulness of previous teaching experience and the importance of strong administrative and communication skills. Following this, Professor Véronique Duché explained to the group the workings of the French university system, both the opportunities it offers and the difficulties in entering it. Her expertise was particularly useful for the French nationals in the group. Advocating the importance of good mentors, Jackie generously shared her own, inviting Emeritus Professor Colin Nettelbeck to reflect on his path and impart some advice. Despite his skepticism about the notion of an academic career and his dismay at cuts in tertiary education in Australia, Professor Nettelbeck’s eyes glimmered as he spoke of the importance of passion and drive. If facing a problem or losing direction, he recommended always going back to our core passion for the field. He encouraged us to stay open to opportunities and to not be afraid of cultivating diverse interests. Jackie concurred, adding that as graduates we need to be innovative, to create our own opportunities.
The afternoon workshop was honoured by a visit from Lionel Jospin who listened attentively to all the postgraduate 3-minute speed conference papers, asking questions and adding his comments. Despite our nerves at presenting in front of a former French Prime Minister, the process made us more confident when presenting our full papers at the conference. The speed papers were followed by a lively Q&A session led by Jackie Dutton, in which Jospin responded to questions about his book, his research and his motivations. We were impressed by his eloquence and engagement despite his jetlag. This was an incredible opportunity for students and I admired the quality of the interaction between my peers and Jospin. Overall, the ASFS Conference was a motivating and enriching experience. I was impressed by openness of dialogue and the supportiveness of the attendees. We were able to make valuable connections and the conference as a whole gave us a sense of a postgraduate cohort, a wider intellectual community and the great potential of the field.
By Anna Varghese.