March 14, 2010

The Graduate Student Conference and You

I’m back.

First and foremost: an apology. I have been neglectful of you, dear blog. I have left you abandoned for upwards of a week when I promised I would be faithful to my bi-weekly updating. Between midterms, conferences, a show at work and interjections of my personal life, I have been negligent of this promise, but hope to find myself back on track in the coming weeks.

This past weekend, I attended the University of Montreal’s EGSS conference. The conference’s theme was Performance and Performativity and it was more than interesting to meet my Canadian Colleagues and hear what they had to say on the topic at hand. My paper was again well-received (Act I Scene I: Performativity and Theatricality in The Canterbury Tales) and I left the conference with a fount of new ideas. Intellectual stimulation at its prime; a wonderful way to spend any weekend.

It occurred to me as I sat in the University how very many things I had seen in the past few weeks that I wished someone had prepared me for. Indeed, before my first encounter with the conference circuit I had looked for some sort of FAQ or “guide to conferences for the inquisitive Graduate Student” and come up surprisingly short. I had so many questions, so many things I wanted to know, but due to my lack of information was forced to enter the endeavor blinded. Though my experience thus far has been limited (and very pleasant considering how lost I felt upon initial introduction to the experience itself), I am determined that another Graduate Student need not be plunged into the murky depths of conferencery without a guide. So, I present to you a bullet-pointed list of “things I wish someone had told me about Graduate Student Conferences before I left home”, or “How to Succeed in Conferencery Without Even Trying”, or “Everything you Ever Wanted to Know about Conferences but were Afraid to Ask”.

*Dress code at these things is business casual. I have seen many a conference-goer in jeans and a sweater vest/oxford shirt number. I myself have worn a suit, but I was definitely one of the few who put such effort and polish into my appearance. You will not be out of place in slacks and a nice shirt. But please, for everyone’s sake, wear nice shoes and not sneakers. You will look better and won’t give prim-and-proper-fogies like me headaches.

*They will feed you. Breakfast and lunch usually, dinner is on you. Breakfast will be bagels/donuts/pastries and coffee, and lunch will usually be some kind of sandwich platter and fruit salad. There will be abundant amounts of bottled water, so don’t worry about bringing your own.

*Everyone wears a nametag. Therefore, don’t worry too much about remembering names because you can just glance at it and have your answer. Instead, try to ask questions about your colleagues’ programs, areas of interest and primary research concerns. Remember that this is networking and not social hour, though having personality and things to connect about is a good thing. What would be better is connecting over intellectual concepts rather than computer games.

*Conferences. Are. Boring. I cannot emphasize this enough. People sit and read their papers. If you are lucky, they will be good at reading aloud and will have practiced their paper a time or two beforehand. If you are extraordinarily lucky, they will have pretty slides to look at. If you want to stand out in a crowd, be one of those people with pretty slides. If you are a kinesthetic learner like me, abandon all hope ye who enter here. I take copious notes at these things just to keep myself following the arguments. My notes also tend to prove amusing reads after the fact (the gem of this weekend being “phenomenologon… do do do do do” no doubt intended to be sung to the popular muppet ditty).

*If you are one of those awesome presenters who give a break from the tedium of reading academic mumbo-jumbo, ensure to have your presentation on both a laptop and a thumb drive. I have yet to be somewhere where I did not need both.

*Also have copious notes about the longer version of your paper readily available. It will come in handy when you are asked questions.

*Practice your presentation and time it. Come in at least one minute under requested time limit, more like five if you need to leave room for questions and such time isn’t worked into the panel for you.

*Academics run on caffeine, determination and fifty-cent words; not sleep. If you are like me and require eight hours to function, do not intend to go out after day one of the conference.

*Being at these conferences requires much more energy than you would think. You will be wiped afterwards. Go back to your hotel, grab a glass of wine, and decompress. Sleep well, you will need it.

*Don’t pay to get into a graduate conference. It’s not worth the money and there are plenty which will let you in for free. All-level conferences are different, you will be batting with the big boys there and should expect to pay for the privilege (yes, even if you’re presenting). This can get costly. One way to alleviate conference costs is to make friends in places where you think you may return; do not be above couch-surfing (especially if you have a couch in order to repay the favor in kind).

*Know, at least in the most basic terms, who Foucault, Derrida, Barthes and Bakhtin are before you attend. It will save you from intellectual humiliation and give you something to joke about with the other snobs. Also know who the big names in your field are and the basics of their work, it will help you follow papers being given.

*You are at this conference to witness the exchange of ideas amongst your peers and take the temperature of your work in comparison with and in front of same peers. Use that opportunity to its fullest extent. It’s not often that people let you look over their shoulders at their research.

*If there are panels you are not interested in, don’t go see them. The panelists would rather have an alert, awake audience than people snoring in the back row. Give yourself a break, grab a cup of coffee, or even leave early if you want to. There’s nothing wrong with this. Do not feel obligated to attend panels because the presenters will not feel obligated to attend yours.

*Don’t be shy; nobody knows anybody. Especially if you are visiting from far away, the locals are happy to have you and would love to tell you about the university and surrounding environs.

*Have fun. Seriously. If you’re not having fun, how do you expect to spend the rest of your life doing this?

….I am certain I am missing a thing or two. Further questions can be directed at this post and will be answered post-haste (please insert rim-shot sound effect here).

Goodnight, everyone.

March 3, 2010

so.... how did it go?

I am certain that you are all wondering how the Virginia Tech EGSO conference went.

This being my first academic conference, I went in slightly nervous. It would have been extremely nervous except for the lack of sleep I was experiencing due to a mammoth snowstorm delaying my exit from New Jersey the day before the conference and the nine hour drive it took to get to Virginia.

It was a graduate conference, so it was probably more laid back thank these things usually are. I had pictured in my head a bunch of older scholars touting glasses, sweater-vests and tomes to rival the OED with which they beat their thesis until it cried for its mother. This was far from the case. It was a small conference of probably about forty graduate students in attendance (eighteen of whom were presenters). Most of the attendees were from Virginia Tech. I believe I was one of the three individuals who braved a long trip to get there, and I was certainly the only representative from the Northeast. Dress code was business casual and people were friendly, if slightly shy. We were all there for the work, but we were also interested in each others’ programs, future plans, it’s nice to be in a room full of people going through what you are going through but in an entirely different way.

My panel was second up so I had the opportunity to listen to a few papers before giving mine. I had prepped a slide show and a full-out presentation because really, listening to an academic read a paper off a page is perhaps one of the most boring things I could think of. Academics are not performers. And most of these budding academics were not even comfortable socially. Their eyes rested on the page, almost never flickering back up to us in the audience. They leaned on the text, clinging to it for dear life rather than releasing it to the room. While the subject matter of their paper was usually very interesting, it was difficult to digest the vast amounts of information they were spitting at us.

I am not an auditory learner. My auditory learning skills are extremely weak and as a result information merely spoken at me simply goes in one ear and out the other. Moreover, it tends to put me to sleep. Conferences, thereby, are going to be difficult for me. These papers are frequently dry and one-note with big words and citations from scholars whose work I have never heard of before. These papers are difficult to read, much less listen to.

For this reason, I knew that I wanted to appeal to more than one of my audience’s senses in my own presentation. Even observing the other presenters, I found slideshows to be extremely helpful. Being able to read along with the speaker helped me digest the paper and it demanded my full attention in order to keep up with her. Moreover, pictures and other visual aids stimulated my synapses in ways that the spoken word could not. Being able to see the paper helped me to follow it.

My paper (Act I Scene I: Theatricality and Performativity in the Canterbury Tales) was well received. One of the audience members was a teacher of Medieval Literature at VT. She had plenty of questions, comments, and feedback for me which was wonderful. There is nothing that is as soul killing as indifference and the rest of the room seemed to offer plenty of that. I mostly blame the way my panel was structured- there was no real theme to be seen. I spoke alongside a scholar presenting a piece on the history of animal imagery, and a scholar presenting a piece of creative writing. We were essentially the “catch-all” panel- panelists who did not fit into any of the conference’s categories so they glomped us together. While flattering to have written an original paper, I feel such a situation almost guarantees a lukewarm audience. With no true theme to express, we were bound to get a roomful of stragglers and wanderers who either did not want to see the other panel occurring at that time, or were mildly interested in one of our topics. This does not make for the best intellectual stimulation.

I got to see a panel later that afternoon about “the rhetoric of gaming”. There panel consisted of two papers on Dungeons and Dragons and one on Video Game Manuals. This, to me, was probably the most exciting panel of the day. It proved that academia could stretch and bend beyond what it would have ten or twenty years ago. Yes, we can keep up with the times. The academy can become its constituents, be those constituents gamer geeks or thespians. It gave me hope for my own work- especially after hearing that one of the presenters just wrote a book on communal narrative in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. If that book (which I find amazingly interesting) can reach the presses, then there’s room for anything else there. And certainly anything I’d be interested in working on.

I left the conference much more confident in my ability to tackle the academy. One of the wonderful things about these conferences is you get to hear what your peers are working on and producing. This is an extremely valuable experience. It allows you to take the temperature of the your work, better understand how it measures up to the output of those around you. If this is my competition for publication, I can say now that I feel I am ready for the challenge.

Of course, that could change… I do have several more conferences lined up for the spring. The first is another Graduate Conference, but then I start playing with the big boys. I am also presenting at two all-level conferences; one at the University of Hatfield and one with the New Jersey Writers’ Alliance. I can’t say I feel entirely prepared for the dive into the greater scholarly community, but I can say that I am excited for it. Hopefully that excitement will last and not become dread. Though I can also say with absolute certainty that the scholarly world has no idea what it is getting itself into by inviting me in.