INCS 2015: an exercise in professionalism

SO, I first starting writing this post over a month ago. This blog thing is really working out…not. I’m terrible at posting! This summer, one of my goals is to post at least weekly on the blog. In fact, I plan on writing another post TODAY outlining my summer goals. For now, though, here are my thoughts on the last academic conference I attended.

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Conferencing is a strange, anxiety-producing, intellectually-stimulating beast. Especially when you want to impress people, and feel particularly unimpressive. This weekend, I have been in Atlanta staying with my family while I attend the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth Century Studies Conference hosted by Georgia Tech, my alma mater. The conference organizers are my old professors and advisors from Tech, and they haven’t seen my work since I was an undergraduate. I had this fantasy that I would swoop in with my prospectus under my belt and a chapter or two finished and blow everyone away with how quickly and smartly I work – I would win the graduate student essay prize by a landslide, confidently speak about the profession and my dissertation project, and ask gracious and thought-provoking questions in every panel I attended.

Well. As rich and complex as my fantasy life often is, it is rarely commensurate with reality. I have been completely unconvinced by anything I have written lately, for this conference or otherwise, and knew I had no real chance at winning any prizes. So, needless to say, my confidence did not keep me from sitting in a cold sweat for most of the first day of the conference.

INCS is also a particularly rigorous and smart conference; other conferences I have been to have tended to be, well, less so. The papers never seem to make a point, and the conversations that ensue never seem to go anywhere either (at my very first conference, the first question after the panelists had presented their papers was directed at me: “Have you ever been to India?” started  a woman with a BEEF IS WHAT’S FOR DINNER badge pinned on her denim shirt. “No, I haven’t, though I would love to someday.” “You should make sure you do that.” Conversation end). But, every panel I attended at INCS was genuinely interesting; though I learned more, appreciated the talks, and felt inspired by the intellectual conversation, these things did absolutely nothing for my steadily diminishing self-esteem.

At the end of the first day, I met up with my old mentor for an actual drink – it does feel strangely gratifying to be able to have cocktails with a professor. She was so encouraging and gracious and caring that, aided by the fish-bowl sized gin and tonic garnished with flower petals, I felt good about myself for first time since I arrived. Though conference atmosphere can be painfully frantic, the benefits can actually outweigh the anxiety. Maintaining supportive connections, feeling excited about ideas and new concepts, learning about all of the books I need/want to read (a list of which will follow). I also feel like I’ve learned a little more about what others in the profession are doing, how established scholars present themselves and their work, and what the future of the field might look like. Here are some things I’ve seen:

– Historicism is still the biggest thing in 19th century literature. It makes sense, considering it is an historical discipline. But it’s also interesting considering the longevity of this trend – New Historicism came on the scene in 80s, and it seems like most projects (at least at this conference) are situated within authorial/social/political contexts.

– Even seasoned scholars, who have written multiple books and are tenured faculty members, can be a little bumbly in panels. There was one panel in particular where everyone was a superstar – I’ve read books by at least 3 of the participants, and articles by all of them – and the conversation was sort of lackluster. They all had interesting projects but the questions and answers didn’t seem to cohere. This makes me personally feel more confident, but also a little disheartened. I am a bumbly, awkward person, so maybe I could make something of myself in this profession. But, at the same time, the job market is so competitive that if the people who hold these coveted positions of success still don’t know how to talk about their projects, what does that mean? It sort of makes me feel like the market isn’t based on merit, but other things…who you know, what’s super popular right now, if your project sounds “sexy” or “provocative.”

– Your undergraduate professors will pretty much be proud of you regardless of what you present. Two of my old profs sat in on my panel and took pictures and were generally the most supportive people ever. Our conversations were great – I feel like I learned a lot about where to take my project and was happy with how it went, despite how nervous I was about presenting in front of my professors who I want to impress more than anything.

– Everyone is still trying to figure out what the hell the Digital Humanities entails and what it means for the profession/how to incorporate “it” into pedagogy and scholarship.

Dr. Narin Hassan, ME, and Dr. Nihad Farooq, two of my biggest supporters since the beginning
Dr. Narin Hassan, ME, and Dr. Nihad Farooq; two of my biggest supporters since the beginning

Books, websites, collectives I want.need to check out:

The Orphaned Imagination: Melancholy and Commodity Culture in English Romanticism, Guinn Batten

–  The Collective Biographies of Women, Allison Booth http://womensbios.lib.virginia.edu/

– “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” Alan Liu http://liu.english.ucsb.edu/where-is-cultural-criticism-in-the-digital-humanities/

How We Became Posthuman, N. Kathryn Hales

– BRANCH Collective, http://www.branchcollective.org/

Family Likeness, Mary Jean Corbett

Cities of the Dead, Joseph Roach

All in all, it was a good weekend. I know I still need to learn a whole lot about academia, but I also need to recognize how much I already know, and see the contributions I could make as valuable ones.

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