Some things I learned at my first academic conference

Earlier this week, I went to Royal Holloway, University of London to attend my first ever academic conference. EATAW 2017 took place over three days, and on the second day I presented my own paper. Really, I still find it very strange that I got to do this (in a positive sense). It was an exciting, nerve-racking, satisfying, and – most of all – new experience. Here’s how it happened.

The director of the writing centre I work at alerted me and my fellow tutors to the fact that the conference was happening, and encouraged us to submit abstracts. I was doing my year abroad at Cambridge at the time, so I didn’t find out about this until about three days before the deadline. But since the conference was going to be so close to Cambridge (well, a three-hour train ride), I decided it would be a shame to pass up the opportunity and threw together a proposal from articles I’d read before and some things about differences between Tübingen and Cambridge I’d already been thinking about. To be honest, I didn’t think the conference committee were going to accept a paper from an undergrad. But they did!

When my proposal, entitled “Competing Traditions of Undergraduate Writing: (Re-)Learning the Essay across the Channel” got accepted – I’d have come up with a cooler title if I’d had more time – I was very pleased, then very scared. Now, I actually had to write the paper that only existed as a virtual text in some would-be world promised by my hasty 250-word abstract. Even more terrifying was the prospect of having to present in front of academics who are established experts in the field, some of whose university careers started before I was even born.

After about three months of worrying, and doing research whenever I had time between my uni work at Cambridge, I made my way down to Egham (which sounds much less impressive than London). I’d practiced my presentation probably half a dozen times, until I was pretty comfortable giving it without looking at my printed-out paper too much. I’d decided to write it all out, partly to give myself some peace of mind and partly to trick myself into thinking I was just writing another coursework essay (I even formatted it in the same way). But I knew the paper well enough to improvise if needed, or to alter things on the spot to make it a bit more rhetorically interesting.

Walking into the auditorium for the opening keynote, knowing I’d later have to present on that very stage, was a bit intimidating.

The conference itself was big: teachers of academic writers, writing centre directors, rhetoricians, publishing people, and many others from all over the world (there were surprisingly many Americans for a Europe-centred conference). There were over 400 delegates there in total, so I initially felt quite intimidated. I probably also looked the part, wearing colourful shorts and a t-shirt, compared to most other people’s suits, so I felt slightly self-conscious. I debated wearing trousers and a shirt, but it was unbearably hot, and I also kind of resented the peer pressure of dressing a certain way (though I did change into black trousers for my talk on the second day). Luckily another tutor from Tübingen’s writing centre, Anna, was also attending the conference, so there was at least one person I knew. We hung out for a lot of the three days, which made it all a bit less terrifying.

Some (perhaps obvious) things I learned during the first conference day:

  • Academics get nervous too. It was reassuring to see that others weren’t immune to awkwardness when presenting their papers.
  • Not all presentations at conferences are ‘good’. Some of the contributions, for instance, seemed more like repurposed earlier work that had been equipped with a few buzzwords to fit the conference theme.
  • Apropos – BUZZWORDS! There were some very erudite-sounding words that simply lost all their meaning because people used them so much. Not saying I’m not guilty sometimes, but this conference experience has raised my awareness of it so much. Note to self: go easy on the latinates; use words that actually mean something when you say them. It is spoken language, after all, and the audience can’t re-read it immediately, or pause at a difficult sentence.
  • It’s definitely ‘allowed’ to be informal, and even funny, in your paper. I was worried that everybody would just be extremely serious and ‘professional’, and I was happy to find out this wasn’t the case. An occasional joke or an anecdote does so much for the talk; it simply makes it more human.
  • Networking is just a fancy word for socialising. The former makes me think of LinkedIn; the latter, of hanging out. When you just start having a conversation – about whatever, really – the ‘work’ aspect will eventually make its way in naturally. Voilà, you networked! I also realised that older academics can be just as shy about striking up conversations with strangers as I was.

All of this made me feel a bit less scared about my own talk on the second day. I practiced it one more time the night before, and was pretty confident I’d do alright. I was scheduled to speak just after lunch in the big auditorium where all the plenaries and keynotes were held, which was strange and fun at the same time. It wasn’t like the room was packed – in the end there were maybe 20-25 people in the audience – but it was a great experience to be standing in front of a lecture theatre, with my powerpoint behind me on a projection screen about three times my own height.

Giving my paper on the second conference day.

Happily, my talk went well. I didn’t run over time, nor very much under: about nineteen and a half minutes, which is what I was shooting for; timing myself while rehearsing definitely helped. I also tried my best not to come across like I was reading too much, which I think worked out pretty well. I occasionally added some discourse markers (‘sort of’, ‘um’, etc., which sounds silly, but adds a sense of sincerity, in my opinion). I had a little lectern I was able to put my notes on, as well as a clip-on microphone through which I spoke, which somehow gave it all a proper feeling.

As I was giving my talk, I realised that public speaking is a lot of fun when it’s going well. In a way, the experience was the reverse of the feeling I had when my proposal got accepted: terrifying in the beginning, then exhilarating. The knowledge I was doing it, and doing it quite well, was thrilling. I didn’t have impostor syndrome very much, either, as I made sure to emphasise I wasn’t speaking as a teacher or lecturer, but as an undergraduate who was relaying personal experience backed by research. I think people responded well to this; my hope is that it provided a refreshing, direct perspective.

The best part, I have to say, were the ten minutes of questions after I gave my paper. The feedback was very positive, and a number of people thanked me for my presentation, beyond the obligatory “Thanks, that was interesting; here’s my question/contradiction/comment”. This felt really good, a big relief, and validation of all the work I’d put in (one person even said they hoped I’d publish the paper). The very first person to pose a question asked me to explain a concept I’d cited (‘monoglossic’—ha! Latinate!); luckily I was able to give a decent answer, explaining who coined the term and what it meant in my given context. It was certainly a small confidence booster, and, I have to admit, made me feel a bit scholarly [adjusts tweed jacket].

But the biggest takeaway for me was that the people who attended and responded to my paper were warm, generous, and welcoming. It completely changed my outlook on the vague, often anonymous, thing that is an academic community. Feeling that somebody – even if just one person – was able to make use of my talk made me appreciate that my work wasn’t just for my own benefit, but for that of others. This, of course, is the premise of academic discourse, but in an environment where a kind of dead-end cynicism is so prevalent (often, unfortunately, for good reason), it’s not the easiest thing to understand for a newcomer. Giving my paper was a moment of happiness and hope.

“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth (2000)

Human Stain

Yet another contemporary literary giant by whom I hadn’t read anything. What I knew before is that Philip Roth writes about America. What I know after is that The Human Stain won’t be the last novel of his I read.

There is so much in this book – more than I expected out of 360 pages (sometimes I felt like, ‘Oh yeah, that happened as well!’). It is full of detailed psychological portraiture of (at least) four intricate characters, an extremely well-crafted plot, the USA commentary I was promised on the blurb (the story is set in 1998, i.e. Clinton-Lewinsky aftermath o’clock), and, definitely not least, beautiful, eloquent prose.

Ian McEwan said in a Guardian interview that he sometimes wonders whether “first person narration doesn’t let you off the hook of the demands of good prose. You can say, ‘Well, you know, if my character talks in clichés, what can I do about it…'”. But The Human Stain evades this danger with ease, as the narrator is himself a writer (and quite a good one at that). As one learns late in the novel, The Human Stain is actually a meta-title, since what one is reading is the book that the narrator is writing. I really love this subjective view that you have to accept as the reader; that there is no word of God. At times, I even found myself doubting the narrator’s trustability and mental stability.

I also always enjoy reading about the politics of academia, because it is something that can be so personal, childish even, but is always veiled in intellectual eminence. The Massachusetts town in which the book is set is called Athena, and Athena College’s scholarly Highnesses without fail manage to engage in petty fights of epic scope just as the Greek gods of old did. I wish I had more knowledge of ancient literature than just the most minimal survival kit, so that I would have gotten the allusions beyond the basic conceit of Athens, Greece/Athena, Mass. I loved and hated Delphine Roux, but she is certainly a fantastic character (her “betrayal of Kundera” is my favourite despicably pretentious but still just a tiny bit understandable sentiment). As, of course, is Coleman Silk, the classics professor who is the novel’s protagonist and whose story fundamentally surprised me several times throughout the plot. I sometimes had to stop and remind myself that I was reading pure fiction, not biography – although the story is inspired by real life events –, so lifelike are the personalities and the way things are in Roth’s world.

So, in conclusion I find that The Human Stain absolutely deserves the ambitious label American novel – if I’m not mistaken there are two other books in this series, both also possible to read as standalones, that, together with this one, make up the American Trilogy –, and for someone like me, for whom the US have always had a sense of almost perverse mythical fascination, the novel was a happy choice. Apparently there is also a 2003 film adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, so I think I’ll be giving that a try sometime. What I’ll take with me for now is a book that I felt was worth my time all the time, and I think that that, whenever it happens, really says something.