It was a beautiful building. Right in the middle of the town. On that fine Saturday morning the sun streamed through the art nouveau stained glass windows. There was a buzz about the place as there often is on the opening hours of these conferences. The smell of coffee was tempting and they were serving pastries as well. Why do these occasions always make you hungry? I helped myself to an almond croissant and an Americano, and then got chatting to one of the other early arrivals.
It was an unusual conference combining English Literature and Creative Writing and was for lay writers as well as academics. A genuine town and gown event. There was quite a lot of excitement about this. My colleague Eva Jenkins had persuaded me to take part; we were both working on historical fiction that you might also call fictional biography.
I spotted her on the other side of the foyer.
"We almost overslept," she said. "We just had to stop at Tebay on the way up for coffee and cake, which meant we were late arriving last night. It took us ages to find somewhere that had room for us for dinner so we had a very late meal."
"But you're here now. And it's looking good."
She nodded in agreement.
The first plenary began shortly afterwards and it ought to have been interesting. However, it’s quite hard to relax when you're waiting for your session. As is common in academic conferences, we would each present for twenty minutes and there would be half an hour of questions at the end. We had our presentations on USB drives and we presumed our as yet unknown fellow-presenter would have the same.
The organisers suggested getting these transferred on to the laptops set up in each room, so that our presentations could quickly be made visible by the data projectors.
This meant we had to miss the coffee break. A good job we'd indulged earlier.
"This looks like the place," Eva said, checking the sessions displayed near the door.
"Come in ladies," said a friendly technician. "You're wanting to set up?"
"Yes," we both said at the same time. We took out our memory sticks.
"Ah good. Those should do splendidly."
"Just blank the screen when you're done, close your file and it will return to the desktop." He pointed to a button on the console. He turned to Eva. "And then you'll just be able to open yours."
She nodded and handed him her drive.
"Yes, that's the one." She pointed to the file on the screen. "Perfect," she said after it was loaded.
We both opened our files and made sure they showed properly on the screen. All was well.
"Now, we just need that other lady to get here," said Eva.
"Not to worry," said the technician. "It won't take long to put the third presentation on."
People were beginning to arrive, though.
"Do you think we'll have to stretch to thirty minutes each?" said Eva.
"Or take an early lunch break maybe?" I suggested. "Perhaps even find the coffee we're missing now."
Just five minutes before the session was due to start a tall dark-haired lady rushed in. "I'm so sorry I'm late," she said. "My train was delayed and then I couldn't get a taxi."
"Not to worry," said the technician. "I can get your presentation transferred in a couple of minutes."
"I have it on my laptop, if that helps," she said.
"Okay. I can take it directly from there." He attached a lead to the two computers. In a few seconds her file showed on the lap top. "Okay, just try it now."
She tried to open the file and the whole laptop crashed. In fact everything seemed to crash.
"Not again," said the technician. "There just seems to be some bits of software this system doesn't like."
"Will you be able to reboot?" Eva asked.
"I'm afraid it will take at least twenty minutes."
"Oh." The three of us looked at each other. And at least twenty people were looking at us as even more came through the door.
We just had to get on with it. Our audience was going to have to miss some of the lovely illustrations we'd wanted to show. Our fellow-presenter was able to hold her laptop up a little and show some of her pictures. It was a Mac and Eva and I had used Microsoft so there wasn't much point in plugging our memory sticks into her laptop. And anyway, the audience couldn't really see the pictures all that well.
So there was a lot of "at this point I would have shown you a picture of x".
Eva talked about researching aspects of Tudor life and turning them into fiction. I talked about a selection of letters written in an exercise book by German girls 1943-1944 and how this gave some insight into what life was like for young women brought up during the Nazi regime. I mentioned how I used repeated experience and something akin to method acting to fill in the gaps in knowledge because of what we weren't told in the letters. Our companion talked about how she'd researched the work of an early female trade unionist and was producing a piece of fiction based on her studies.
Our timing was spot on and we were relieved that there were plenty of questions.
"I'm so sorry but the technology has rather let us down," Eva who was first up, had explained. "So you'll just have to do without our pretty pictures and listen to us talk. But we can email you our presentations if you'd like to see them."
There were a few groans, sympathetic ones, raised eyebrows, tuts and chuckles.
The key was to carry on being as professional as possible.
It seems we needn't have worried. We had so many questions at the end that we had to let people know they could still approach us over lunchtime - and they did!
It was a very pleasant afternoon. We were able to relax and enjoy the sessions we'd chosen, even though it was a little irritating that the technology was now working again.
Then we had a really big surprise in the final plenary: everyone had been asked to award each presentation marks based on a set of criteria. Our session had come second overall. We had only been beaten with a margin of a very few votes by one of the plenary sessions - where of course, anyway, there were more people. Naturally we were delighted.
"Well,” said Eva. “Who’d have thought it? I wonder what they liked so much."
"Interesting material? That we didn't flap? Perhaps even that we weren't using technology? Maybe people are getting a bit fed up of it? "
"Didn't flap? I've never felt so nervous in my life." Well it hadn't shown. She was ever the professional.
I had plenty of time to reflect as I drove home from Glasgow to Manchester. Part of the time, yes indeed, about some of the inspiring sessions I'd attended but I couldn't help but give a little thought as well to when the technology had gone wrong.
And I remembered also when I did my PGCE over twenty years before. A couple of the English staff used to do a double act.
"Always get in early," one said.
"Then you can get your hardware sorted out," added the other.
It was hilarious; they couldn't get the overhead projector to work. That was the state of the art technology then. It turned out it wasn't switched on at the wall socket. Had that been a set up? Maybe the mantra should have been "Be prepared to use the technology as much as possible but also be prepared for it not to work."
I also remember more recently a talk to our department by a colleague who had won a teaching award. We were all expecting some sort of snazzy Power Point presentation. He merely sat on one of the ledges in front of the first row of seats in the lecture room and spoke to us intimately with plenty of eye-contact.
Then I recalled a time in another existence when I'd been a high-school teacher. I'd felt quite unwell one day and it turned out I was going down with chicken pox. I gave one of the best lessons ever because my ego totally got out of the way.
I tried to make sense of what had just happened by considering all of these experiences. And there have been occasions when the technology has worked superbly. Sometimes the class has as well and sometimes not so much.
Being prepared is obviously important. We had had our notes to hand and we knew our own material well. And we were passionate about it. It then became important to get our information across clearly. That meant responding to the audience as much as they were responding to us. Being willing to communicate, whatever that took.
Is it in the end mainly about putting the audience first?
It seems I had learnt as much about teaching as I had about writing that day. Thanks to the technology going wrong.
About the author
Gill James is published by The Red Telephone, Butterfly and Chapeltown. She edits CafeLit and writes for the online community news magazine: Talking About My Generation. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative and Critical Writing.
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