Surprising Oneself

I’m coming up on the one-year anniversary of moving into my current place (this Sunday it will be exactly one year) and that’s made me rather contemplative.

That and, in the midst of the extreme pressure of high speed German-learning (a full contact sport which should have some Olympic equivalent), I’m trying to grasp at any small thing that will help me remember that I’m not a total mess-up and I can do some pretty astounding things.

With that in mind, this weekend I began to assemble a list of crazy-insane-amazing-wonderful things that I have done this year that, prior to this year, I would never in a bagillion eons have thought that I would wind up doing.  I’m fairly proud of what I came up with and, so dear readers, have a gander at the glamorous life of an academic….

1)    As a way to procrastinate learning my German for the day, I translated an article from Diderot’s encyclopedia for the encyclopedia project.  Between 1751 and 1772, Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert published what they called Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de

the man, the myth, the legend: M. Diderot

lettres, mis en ordre par M. Diderot de l’Académie des Sciences et Belles-Lettres de Prusse, et quant à la partie mathématique, par M. d’Alembert de l’Académie royale des Sciences de Paris, de celle de Prusse et de la Société royale de Londres. (Encyclopedia, or a systematic dictionary of science, art, and crafts, by men of letters, arranged by M. Diderot and the academy of science and belles-lettres of Prussia, and the mathematical portion by M. d’Alembert of the royal academy of science at Paris, to the Academy of Prussia  and the royal society of London).  The encyclopedia was the first of its kind, contained 71,818 entries, was published in 28 volumes, and has never been comprehensively translated into English.  The Encyclopedia Project is a free online resource through which individuals of differing levels of French-speaking have come together to translate it piecemeal.  I’ve volunteered my time to lend a hand with a few articles because I think it’s a neat project, I want to practice my French, and it lends me the ability to fancy myself a professional translator (SO far from the truth).

Reasons why this incident surprised me: I’m learning to read German?  I have enough French that I can reasonably translate an article from an eighteenth-century manuscript?  I am involved enough in the project to have assigned articles to translate?  How does this even happen?

2)    Sat up with my work until 11 or midnight for up to five nights straight and not had a bad thing to say about it.  Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do.  Often times, this means complaining.  Other times, you’re so enthralled with whatever it is that you’re working on that you don’t even think to complain.  If I don’t like something, I don’t lose sleep over it.  Period.

Reasons why this incident surprised me: I’m that kind of person?  I have work that’s important (and interesting) enough to be done when otherwise I should be relaxing or attending to other necessary life functions?

3)    Cold-contacted organizations to request information, interviews, or tours of places related to my research/work… and actually got them!  This year, thanks to the courtesy of directors, actors, designers, curators, park rangers, and ever-toiling librarians, I was able to accomplish a great deal of original first-hand research.  I was allowed to tour historical sites not open to the public, handle and photograph original scene designs, chat with actors/directors about their work and document it, handle documents older than this country, and get the inside scoop on a great many items of interest otherwise left obscured to the general public.  So many many thanks to all the folks who lent their time to my crazy research escapades.  Valuable lesson learned from all these experiences: you’d be downright amazed what folks would be willing to do if only you asked them.

Reasons why this incident surprised me: Telephones frighten me.  Despite my swash-buckling bravado via textual interface, I’m actually rather shy.  In addition, acquiring this information means that outside forces took me seriously as a scholar and were willing to lend a hand to help me out!

The Tufts crew at CDC 2012 with Ms. Vogel. SHE WAS SO AMAZINGLY WONDERFUL! …I wanted to keep her.

4)    Was paid to present my work at two major conferences in a one-month period and traveled across the country to do so.  Oh, and at one of them I had jello shots with esteemed playwright Paula Vogel.  I love to travel, and the fact that I got to do so much of it this year makes me extremely happy.  Next year, I have a definite trip to Nashville, TN (the first time I’ve ventured to Tennessee), and I’ll likely have at least one more trip lined up before the dust settles.  Stay tuned!

Reasons why this incident surprised me: Someone believes in my work enough to send me places to share it?  And it’s valuable enough that when I do share it, people ask me intelligent questions about it?  Smart people like my work?  THEY LIKE MY WORK!

5)    Uttered the words “I can’t, I have a research trip.”

Reasons why this incident surprised me: Because who has a RESEARCH TRIP?  HOW COOL!?

I’m sure I could go on at length, but these are the big ones.  The basic theme that keeps cropping up is this: despite the long hours, hard work, small paycheque… despite the uncertainty of the job market, the funding, or really anything about my life year-to-year… they haven’t quashed me yet.  I’m still enthralled with what I do, I’m still excited about next year, and I’m extremely proud of myself for the things that I have done this past 365 days.

Here’s hoping that, at this time next year, this list is at least twice its current length.  And if not, I haven’t done my job right.

Notes from the Road

Hello again, my friends and readers!

I am writing to you from the JetBlue terminal at JFK in the midst of my most hectic week of the 2011/2012 academic year.  I am currently en route home from a week in California and will return to Boston tonight only to be greeted by a desk full of projects and only two days in which to accomplish them before a full week’s course-load crammed into three days (one day of which involves a major project due).  On day three directly after class I leave for the Comparative Drama Conference where I will be giving a paper (which, by the way, is not quite ready to present yet) and, in the next four weeks, I have to give three class-related presentations in addition to my usual course reading and the three seminar papers whose due-dates loom ever-nearer as the semester winds down.

Suffice to say I’m going to be a little tired and harried.

I did, however, want to take a moment to check in after the National Gothic Fiction Conference.  Obligatory weather comment: I managed to be in San Diego for the three days out of the year when it wasn’t sunny in San Diego.  It rained off and on and the entire trip was covered in ominous clouds perhaps as a result of the conference itself.  I have to say, the setting was rather… well… Gothic.

My paper was extremely well-received and I met some very interesting people (and got to spend time with a dear old friend).  I do have a few observations that I would like to share for you graduate students who do conference, have conference, or will conference.

Every time I’m at a conference, I notice some things that I firmly believe the entire profession of academia would be a better place without.  As the next generation of tweedy professors, it’s our job to change these things.  Just like on the New York City Subway; if you see something, say something.

So here’s a list of things that no matter what happens, no matter how much the conference gods beg, no matter how much easier this would make your presentation/flight/life, just don’t do them.  Seriously.

1)      Wear jeans.  No joke.  If you are conferencing, that means that you have an eye towards professional development, which

means that you would like to get a job in the near future, which means that as many people as possible should take you

please excuse the decor, but do you know how hard it is to find a full-length mirror in a hotel with enough landing strip to actually get a full-length photo? Anyway, this is my default conference wear.

seriously.  Jeans may be okay in some people’s professions, but they’re not okay in ours.  It doesn’t take that much effort to put on a pair of slacks and some nice shoes.  Wearing jeans to a conference is like wearing sweats to class; it shows that you just didn’t bother to take yourself seriously enough to get dressed that morning.  This rule also goes for Hawaiian shirts, tee-shirts, miniskirts, and see-through shirts.  Present.  Yourself.  Professionally.  It makes me so angry when I see my colleagues not taking conferencing seriously enough to look their best because they are, in turn, making me look bad.  Graduate Students unite and show the big boys that we mean business.  Do yourself a favor and stop giving me headaches; it’s a two-for-one!

2)      Not have business cards.  Even if you don’t have official university cards (I don’t), get yourself a little slip of cardboard with your name, e-mail, affiliation, etc. on it.  They are not expensive, and they add ages to your credibility.  Also, they’re a great way to quickly give someone your contact information (which happens a lot at conferences).  I don’t have time to write something down, my pen isn’t accessible, etc., but I can definitely take your card and stick it in my pocket.

3)      Have one too many at the bar after hours.  This is especially true of the night before your panel.  There is nothing more disrespectful than being late or hung over while giving a talk.  Remember: the industry of academia is reliant upon time and brainpower.  If a roomful of people have shown up to hear you speak, they are foregoing other important things to do so.  You owe it to them to be as polished and on point as you can.  Also, think about impressions.  You may be drinking with people who will be deciding the fate of your career in the future.  These aren’t your friends from home, they’re your colleagues.  They’re important and vital connections for you to have as you go forward in your career, and they’re what you’re here to do (network, that is).  Getting a bit sloppy means you run the risk of offending them or embarrassing yourself, or a whole host of other ailments which come with drink.  This is not to say that you can’t relax, but treat schmooze time like an interview (albeit an informal one).

4)      Read your paper directly off the page without any connection to your audience or mind for presenting.  I really don’t understand why people do this.  If I wanted to read someone’s paper, I would have had him e-mail it to me.  Remember that a panel consists of three to four papers and generally lasts 45 minutes to 1.5 hours.  The last thing I want to do is listen to someone drone on tonelessly about a work I may or may not have read while using vocabulary that is simply beyond my aural comprehension for that long.  It’s boring, it’s superfluous, and it’s a sure-fire way to lose your audience.  Don’t you want them to listen to you?  Don’t you want your ideas to be heard?  Give it some zing!  Spice it up a bit!  Make it interesting!  Chances are if you are boring yourself, your audience won’t want to sit through it either.  The best papers I’ve seen involve visual stimulation (via powerpoint usually), an engaged speaker who knows what she’s saying and isn’t afraid to speak from notes, and an attention to the feel of the room.  If you’re going first thing in the morning or directly after lunch, this is especially important.

5)      Dominate someone else’s panel from the audience.  The audience is there to ask questions of the panelists, not random audience members.  You need to be a gracious and attentive listener when you come to hear a paper.  Even if you know something that the panelist doesn’t seem to, make a note of it, and quietly go speak with the panelist after the Q&A concludes.  The panelist has done a lot of research on her presentation topic and, should a question arise that she simply can’t answer, it’s her job to find a way to talk around it.  This is great practice for teaching undergrad.  Also, unless you really know your who’s-who of academia, you may be inadvertently stepping on the toes of someone who is influential in your field.  Do you really want your name black-listed from top universities because you were rude at a panel that one time in Graduate School?  Remember that you’re wearing a nametag… it’s not that hard to track you down.

6)      Go over your allotted time.  This comes with rehearsing and being prepared.  When you practice your talk, make sure it’s at least two minutes shorter than the panel calls for.  That way you know that you will be fine for time even if you have to divulge into a tangent or two, which does happen.  Going over is rude to your fellow panelists and your audience and is highly unprofessional.  Just don’t do it.

7)      Come unprepared.  Bring a pen, bring a notebook, bring a time piece, bring business cards, bring a bottle of water, bring a snack.  These are all vital bits of my “conference survival” bag (I also usually include some ibuprofen, lip-gloss, mints, a compact mirror, an extra hair tie, a folder, a jump drive, hand lotion without an overpowering smell, my netbook, and my iPad… all of these are items which I have previously needed during a conference).  Also, bring a smile.  Seriously.  It helps.

Now that that’s out of my system, I think I’ll go work on my CDC talk.  If you’re in Baltimore next weekend, be sure to say hi!  I’ll be speaking on session seven which, while still depressingly early in the morning, is at least not the first panel this time so you have no excuse as to why you’re not dressed yet.  Hope to see you there!

Leaving on a Jet Plane

My bags are packed, I’m ready to go.
The speech is written, it’s an appropriate length.
I’d hate to forget something important…

Well folks, in approximately an hour and a half I will be off to my first conference of 2012, the Studies in Gothic Fiction conference in San Diego, California.  I will be giving my paper on The Scottish Play (entitled “The Scottish Play”) and enjoying some spring break sunshine while valiantly attempting to forget all the things waiting for me on my desk when I come home.

By now, I’ve developed something of a system for conferences.  There are a few very important items that you simply cannot forget while prepping for them and, since it’ll serve as a sort of checklist for me (though at this juncture if I’ve forgotten anything, I’m kind of screwed anyway), I’d like to share this system with you.


Make reservations at the CONFERENCE HOTEL (not a nearby hotel, not a hotel unaffiliated with the conference) early.  The block of rooms reserved by the conference

prepping for my talk at the 2010 University of Montreal Graduate Conference

inevitably goes quickly, especially during prime conference days (i.e. Friday and Saturday).  There will be a discounted rate for these rooms and, since you’ll likely be sharing a room with at least one colleague, you can generally stay fairly cheaply.

Call the hotel at least a day beforehand and find out how to get from the airport to there

sans a vehicle.  There’s no need to have a car while conferencing; it’s expensive, and too much of a temptation to forsake the networking opportunities and stressful situations for the much preferable sightseeing and relaxing aspect of travel.  Call ahead, be prepared, and make sure you know how much it will cost to get from one place to another.

Put your boarding pass somewhere easily accessible.  This seems like a “duh” but trust me, with all the paper I’m carrying onboard the airplane, one thin slip of it can get lost pretty easily amongst my notes and papers.

Your Paper

REHEARSE your paper.  At least four times.  Time yourself.  Come in at least two minutes under your time allotment.  Try to eliminate speech disfluencies from your presentation (like, uh, and, um).  You will come off more polished and more professional if you can manage to give a succinct and timely performance on conference day.

Don’t just read off the page, actually speak to your audience.  Also, keep in mind that a paper being read aloud to someone is a different medium than a paper the individual herself reads.  We process information differently in this different medium.  Allow for this, adjust your paper accordingly.  There is nothing more tedious than sitting through a paper which hasn’t been re-jiggered for reading.  You want your audience to listen to your ideas, not fall asleep on you.

Print at least one hard copy, have a copy on a jump drive, and pre-load the paper (and your notes) onto your laptop/netbook/tablet before you leave your house.  Redundancy is key here.  I’ve had so many anxiety dreams about giving a presentation only to find that someone spilled something on/ate/incinerated my paper and notes.


Say it with me: I will not wear sneakers to the conference.  Even if they are all black and my pants are a little too long.  PRESENT YOURSELF PROFESSIONALLY, people!  Graduate students already sit at the bottom of the barrel, we don’t need to reinforce this by looking like we stole our suits from our parents’ closets.  Get some nice shoes, have some nice conferencing clothes, and for god’s sake put on some makeup and do your hair.  First impressions are everything and for all you know someone you meet on any given day at a conference will want to give you a job.  Don’t give him a reason not to.

Again, redundancy is key.  Have a backup shirt/pants/clean pair of socks in case the unspeakable happens to your primary pair.

Bringing Work

My panel at the 2011 Rutgers Newark MA Consortium

Realistically, you’re not going to get a whole lot done at the conference and that’s okay.  You’re there to network and meet people while getting your ideas out into the academic ether.  Your primary focus is to make yourself available to do this.  Don’t hide in your room with homework; you may as well be at home if you’re going to spend the weekend that way.  Prevent the temptation to over-book yourself by reading way ahead the week before.  I tend to read everything that I need out of a physical book at home, then load up PDFs and articles for the plane ride.  I also take a back-up book off my comps list, you know, in case I get really antsy/ambitious.  This, for me, has been a good balance between “OHGODOHGODIGOTTAGETTHINGSDONE” and “conference time”.

While at the Conference…

Shower frequently.  Brush your teeth often.  Carry mints.  Seriously.  Do you want your personal hygiene to prevent you from getting a job?

Sleep at least eight hours a night.  Conferences are rough and can run you down easily (especially if you, like me, are something of an introvert and need a lot of re-charge time after being ON all day).  Make this concession and don’t spend too much time at the bar with your buddies the night before you give your talk.

Be courteous to EVERYONE.  Unless you’ve memorized the facebook of everyone in academia ever, you have NO IDEA who you may cut off in the coffee line or accidentally bump into while rushing to your panel.  Don’t let your career die a fiery death because you are a jerk.

And on that note, I have to go tie up some loose ends before I’m off.  I may or may not be checking in next week due to traveling, but I will try to return with a few choice anecdotes from the wide world of conferencing.