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.

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