Welcome to the Cauldron, @burns_writer and @GillenPinamnr !
In My Head: I wonder if they really DID find all those long-lost Doctor Who episodes from the first two seasons in Ethiopia; and if so, when we are going to get to see them?
In the Cup: Trader Joe’s dark roast coffee
Currently Playing: Adagio in G Minor for violin, organ, and strings continuo
Daily Run: 3.53 miles, 36:33.
On the Desk: Problem paper core analysis for Thursday; presentation notes for class tomorrow night; lyrics for a musical collaboration
On the DVR: Glee and Grey’s Anatomy from last week; Dr. Who, new series season 6; Downton Abbey season 4, episode 1.
On the Nightstand: Guy Gavriel Kay, The Summer Tree; Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Papers Graded: 21 midterms of 36
BPal of the Day: probably Gypsy. It seems like a Gypsy kind of a day today — wild and unpredictable weather, wild and unpredictable attitude!
The Week’s Reading: Piers Plowman, Passus 12-15; Anne Middleton, “Kynde Name”; Jill Mann, “Eating and Drinking in Piers Plowman”; John Alford, “The Role of Quotations in Piers Plowman”; Charlotte Smith, “The Emigrants”; Thomas Middleton, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside; Shannon Miller, “Consuming Mothers/ Consuming Merchants: The Carnivalesque Economy of Jacobean City Comedy”; Karen Newman, “‘Goldsmith’s ware’: Equivalence in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside”; Gail Kern Paster, “Leaky Vessels: The Incontinent Women of City Comedy.”
Good morning, Blogland! I know it’s been awhile since my last update, but that is owing to the excellent reason that I had to rewrite my paper for the Southeastern Medieval Association conference three times before I was remotely happy with it; and between that, the endless stacks of grading, and the reading, something had to give and that something was blogging. However, now safely past the conference, I want to take a few moments to write about how graduate students might think about approaching the conferencing experience, whether this is a first or a twentieth conference they’re attending.
There are three, major reasons for attending conferences in your field: first, to present your work to a community of scholars and receive their feedback on it prior to revising, expanding upon, and sending it out for publication; second, to meet and get to know the scholars in your area and hear their current thinking; and third, to get a general idea of the current state of your area of study, which a quick glance through the program can apprise you of — for example, at SEMA this year there was not much Langland or Gower, but almost a dozen papers on Malory and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so it looks as though, at least here in the southeastern US, romance studies are alive and well.
There are also other very good reasons for attending conferences, like checking out the book hall, where you can often find good and important works in your area for substantially less than they cost at a bookstore (and where, if you get to know Tom from Scholar’s Choice, you can get a further discount off of those already-lowered prices!) Or, especially if it’s early stages of the graduate school experience, sitting in on sessions outside your particular area in order to learn more broadly about your area of study period and the scholarship being done on it in other disciplines (I have been attending conferences for about five years now, and I still always try to take in at least one History and one Religion session, in which I inevitably learn things I need to know in order to be a better literary scholar.) I also highly recommend the Art History panels. They have great images.) And I could go on, and on, and on, but I’ll just add one more for now — sometimes, it’s great to just get out of town and be somewhere completely different, doing completely different work from your usual routine study-read-write-teach-grade-repeat cycle of existence. There is a recharging effect to conferences that can’t be underestimated. I never fail to return from a conference full of ideas and raring to go again, no matter how mired in work and utterly stressed out I was prior to going.
However, many graduate students don’t take full advantage of the conference experience. They may be shy and uncertain, so they hang out only with their fellow graduate students from their own institution (if any others have come to the conference), or with their professor, or in their hotel room until their session, or in the back of the room hoping no one notices them. They may be just there for a tick on the CV and feel that the rest of the conference has nothing to do with them, they’re just there to present their paper, thanks very much. They may think they are graduate students and their job is to learn, not to speak. They may think Roy Liuzza or Jeffrey Jerome Cohen does not want to talk to graduate students, and therefore avoid meeting the big names in their field unless someone else is there to introduce them. They may feel tired and stressed out and be finishing their paper at the last minute and just not socialize, preferring to hole up in their hotel room and grab a Pay-Per-View. It’s not that any or all of these are not legitimate concerns or choices to make; it’s just that they render your conference experience a less-than-stellar one, and further, they’re not worth the price of registration.
Instead, think of conference-going as an intensified training session. For three days, or however long your conference lasts, you have access to people you otherwise would not have access to, and they in turn are free of their usual duties and more available to you than they will ever be under normal circumstances. They are at the conference to see and be seen, to present their work, to hear the work of others, and to interact with the people in their field. In other words — they are there for the same reasons that you are there. Check out the program ahead of time and choose a few that you really want to meet, whose work really matters to what you are doing. Go to their session or scope them out during the wine hour and meet them. Tell them how their work has influenced you. Ask them what they are working on now. Ask them any questions you have had about their work. Interact! This is what scholars do at a conference. You’re in training to be a scholar. At some point you, too, will be a professor, if all goes well — why wait until then to get to know the people in your area of study? Join the club now. You have no idea when the next opportunity is going to come along. I have gotten offers to give papers at other events, and even publication offers, out of the chance meetings that occur between sessions and at wine hours during conferences.
Speaking of joining the club — introverted though you may be, don’t hole up in your hotel room waiting for the sessions to begin. Find a group of people and tag along to a local watering hole. Get someone you know to introduce you to other people and strike up conversations. The time-honored, “are you presenting a paper?”; “What are you working on?”; or “how’s the program at such-and-such university?” will suffice as an ice-breaker, and then you can branch out from there into other topics of conversation. It’s fine just to sit and listen, as well. A great idea is to meet other graduate students, both in and not in your area of study — the people at the same academic stage as you — with whom you can have frank discussion about being a graduate student. Compare notes like workload, what kinds of classes each institution offers, the preparation you are receiving in comparison to theirs. This gives you a good idea of where you stand in the preparation stages and of the institutional differences, which in turn gives you better insight into what you need to do to be successful. Further, it gives you a chance to get to know people you are going to be working with and seeing at conferences for years to come. You’ll also, come job market time, find yourself in need of support and encouragement, and your fellow graduate students (especially if they are not going in for the same jobs as you are) will be invaluable allies as you navigate that particular maze.
As graduate students, we are all strapped for time, and sometimes we don’t quite get that paper done before the conference begins. I would urge you to make that a priority and get the paper done before you check into the hotel. You can’t see and be seen and get your name out there if you spend the first two days of the conference holed up in your hotel room frantically completing your paper. Once you are at the conference site, your top priority needs to be networking, attending sessions, and being an active participant in the scholarly community you have chosen to be part of. Just having your name in the program and giving a very good paper isn’t enough. Only the people who attend your session will hear that paper, and do you remember every name in the program? No, of course not. But you remember the conversations you had, especially if they were amusing, entertaining, or on some topic that mattered to you. If you want people to know who you are (and if you are going on the job market at any point in the future you DO want people to know who you are!) then you have to get out there and become known. This goes for the time you spend at the conference, also — if you have a choice of travel dates, try to stay for the whole conference, rather than leaving right after you present — sometimes that’s unavoidable, but generally the more time you spend there, the more chances you have to meet and speak with people who share your interests and might be able to help you down the road when you’re going on the job market.
Whether we like it or not, part of academia is the social aspect. People want to be around people they enjoy talking to or with, and this extends to hiring committees down the line. Consequently, regardless of how shy or introverted you may be, you need to learn how to talk with others beyond “hi, how are you?” and “Are you enjoying the conference?” This doesn’t mean you have to be Ms. Congeniality — but it does mean you have to make it a point to meet people and introduce yourself and say more than just, “I liked your paper, thanks.” Find a talking point. A friend of mine makes it a point to write down one thing that strikes her as particularly interesting in each paper she hears, and then asks questions or for further clarification on this point after the session is over. I have seen her wrangle an invitation to drinks or dinner on more than one occasion using this tactic. Remember — if you get happy when people take the time to comment on your work, then other people feel that way, too. Wouldn’t you want to have drinks with someone who liked your paper?
Finally, a note on looking the part — while I am not a suit girl and likely will never be a suit girl, neither do I wear jeans to conferences no matter the venue, organization, or size of the event involved. When you are a tenured professor you can wear whatever you like; but as a graduate student, remember that you are being judged on self-presentation. Wear comfortable, professional or semi-professional clothing, and comfortable shoes — you will be walking a lot, and hobbling with a grimace on your face because your feet hurt and the blisters are killing you is not a good look. For men, just a nice pair of pants, khakis or darker, a button-down shirt and a tie or bowtie will do; women can wear the same, or a dress, or a skirt and blouse combination. Ladies — please, double-check that when you sit down, the skirt covers your knees! It’s distracting in all the wrong ways to be able to see a woman’s underwear while she is presenting a paper, and I have seen this happen more than once — if you are not a compulsive leg-crosser, it’s better to just go with a long skirt or pants. Also, when you are giving your paper, if you have long hair tie it back so people can see your face as you read or present.
Try not to be too stylish or trendy in your clothing choices, because you might be seen as “trying too hard” to be cool — remember, these are fellow academics, not models just off the catwalk; they’ll be more impressed with your thinking than with your cool factor, and you want them to be. It is completely fine and even desirable to accessorize with bright colorful and/or memorable items of jewelry, such as scarves, necklaces, earrings, rings and the like — I always wear my jade dragon ring and sometimes my dragon hairstick, which serve as talking-points and which people remember me for from one year to the next. Tattoos are a personal choice — I have one, and I’m not afraid to show it off, but it’s a discreet one on my ankle and hardly anyone ever notices it, whereas if I had a sleeve or body art visible at my neckline, I might consider wearing something that covers it in the interest of not alienating older academics who might or might not consider this acceptable decoration for a scholar. essentially, a good rule of thumb in clothing choices is that you want to attract attention, but not to be a distraction.
And before you attend any conference, go to the campus printing services at your college or university and have business cards made. It will cost you about ten dollars for a hundred of them, and you want to have them on you at all times during the conference and to distribute them to anyone you speak with who seems interested in your work, These should have your name, department, school address, email and phone number on them, and can also include your areas of specialization.
It’s probably obvious from the sheer length of this post, but I have grown to truly love going to scholarly conferences, and I hope some of this advice is helpful to those just starting out in conference attendance.