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MLA for beginners: in which I attend the Modern Language Association’s annual convention for the first time and all you guys get is this post

16 Jan

So because it’s a snow day today (!!!) and we already had the day off (which is low on the list of reasons we should all be thanking the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., and all of those who worked towards his dreams), I decided it was finally time to tell you all the epic story of my time attending and presenting at the MLA Annual Convention.

Every year, the Modern Language Association — which is the governing organization for all Modern Language professionals and which does so much more than determine how you should cite sources in your English classes — holds a convention during which hundreds of people give talks on hundreds of panels, hundreds of job interviews are held, and one major metropol is pretty much taken over by nerds. It’s kind of a big deal. And by “big deal” I mean “extraordinarily overwhelming, expensive, and exhausting event wherein every few minutes your emotions will ricochet from boredom to terror to insight to fascination to pure delight.”

This year, the convention was held in Seattle and, by a stroke of dumb luck that I still haven’t quite sorted out (sidebar: almost published this with the phrase “dumb lick” instead of “dumb luck,” which I think would imply an altogether different sort of convention), I got a talk accepted to a panel and thus was off to the MLA to try not to embarrass myself too much. So here’s my recounting of how it went, what it was like, and what you might expect if you go to or present at the MLA convention or another major academic convention.

What presenting at and attending the MLA Annual Convention was like:

1. I arrived in Seattle the evening of the conference’s first day because I was slated to present in the morning off the second day. This means I missed a whole day of presentations; I am totally okay with that. It takes a lot out of this body to sit all day, in a suit, listening to people talk, especially after a 6 hour train ride. I also left a day early because I needed to get back home in time for the term to start, so I missed about half of the convention. I think that was a good thing.

2. The build up to my presentation, to my surprise, was not as laden with panic as I had expected it to be. I attribute this to two things: the first is that I worked damn hard on that talk and was pretty damn pleased with what I was saying and how I was saying it. I thought about the ideas for about 10 months. I spent three weeks writing the presentation. I rehearsed it on my own and with a friend. It felt good. But the second reason I wasn’t too panicked is because I watched a panel present before me. Now, here’s probably the most unkind thing I’ve ever said on this blog: some people are not very interesting, and one of those people was a presenter on the panel before mine. This isn’t to say that she wasn’t smart or that her work wasn’t worthwhile, it’s just that she wasn’t a good performer. Academia is all about thinking thoughts and writing them down, so not a lot of people get trained to perform those thoughts the way you have to in a presentation setting (see more on this below, in my advice section). Because I spent my youth in the theater, I have tons of training as a performer and so I knew that, no matter how good or bad my ideas were, I would be able to perform those ideas well. This was, needless to say, a huge relief.

3. The MLA panel presentation itself was a blast. Seriously, it was so much fun! A panel usually consists of 3-4 speaks, possibly with a respondent who will begin the Q&A style conversation after the panelists have delivered their papers. My panel was made up of just three of us, organized by the loose topic of Pacific Northwest Folklore. The first two papers had to do with car cultures in the NW; my paper was a literary exploration of two fictive representations of the Pacific Northwest in a postapocalyptic setting. So I knew that my paper was going to be a little more… flashy than the other two. Oh well. But since I was last on the list, I got to just sit and listen while the first two papers were given — and I learned a whole bunch of cool new things! Then, I got to present. The other two members of my panel had delivered their papers from the table, but I like to stand and move, so I got up and went to the podium. Then, just as I had rehearsed it, I gave my talk. Afterwards, I sat down and answered the questions sent my way. It was a blast. I think what made the experience the most rewarding for me was that I treated the Q&A like an interesting conversation, not like a chance to show everyone how much smarter than them I am (because, you know, I’m not). So my Q&A was like a friendly chat, except that I’m an expert on this stuff and no one else there was. Fun!

4. After I presented, I just got to attend all the panels I wanted to hear. I chose based solely on how interesting the papers sounded, not on how many hoity-toities I thought would be in attendance with me. I think this was a good idea. Moreover, I decided that, while I would have business cards at the ready and would contribute to the conversations if I had something meaningful, I would not jockey for position or insert myself into conversations simply to promote myself. Not only am I early enough in my career than it’s not really all that useful or necessary for me to sell myself in that way, but I also think that it can do more harm than good to seem like you’re desperate for status. Maybe this means that I get slightly less notice than others, but I think it means that the notice I get is all positive.

5. In the evening, I went out with friends for drinks and dinner. It was a great idea.

My takeaway impressions and slivers of advice for MLA Annual Convention attendees and presenters:

1. Don’t worry about it. Yep, everyone there is smart. Yep, someone there is way smarter and way more famous or influential than you. But everyone who is there deserves to be there just exactly as much as you do, so relax a little. It’s just one big homecoming dance for a lot of folks, so if you relax and just have a good time, then you’ll come off a lot more interesting and impressive than the other people who seem like they’re constantly intriguing to be the Homecoming Queen or whatever.

2. If you’re presenting, for the love of comfortable shoes, MAKE EYE CONTACT occasionally. There were a number of panels that I sat through where my notes mostly consisted of doodles and the following note, written in my swirliest handwriting: “is it just me, or is this the worst?” There are brilliant people saying brilliant things on pretty much every panel. But no matter how brilliant, if the process of listening to those things is akin to watching to CSPAN while the Senate’s in recess, then no one is going to be interested in or attentive to those brilliant things. Delivering a paper at a conference is NOT the same as writing a paper for publication, because listening to a paper at a conference is not the same as reading one. As sad as it may be to admit this, papers delivered by lively, engaging speakers who look at the audience, throw in a joke or two, appear confident, and treat the process like the start of a really good conversation will be more successful and useful than even the most astute, most astounding paper delivered in a monotone, while the speakers stares down at his or her notes, without emotion.

3. If you’re presenting, stay within the time limit! Not only is it, you know, common courtesy, but it’s also, I think, indicative of a real intelligence. The best and most impressive speakers I saw were those who appeared to actually treat their presentation as a chance to think through their work in a new and specific way. If I know that I have only fifteen minutes to present this whole slew of ideas, then I’m going to be selective and careful and creative in how I fit it all together, which is not only more interesting to listen to, but shows that I really understand my project in a profound way. This is how you want to impress people.

4. If you’re asking questions, make them real questions and not just opportunities to tell everyone else how smart you are and how amazing you would have been if you had spoken on that panel. The Q&A should be a chance to interrogate the claims made by the panelists, present a counter-point, suggest a new area for this work to go in, add a wrinkle or complication to the claims, get clear on something you didn’t follow. The Q&A should not be some guy in the back waxing rhapsodic about his latest research paper and why its material totally relates to the panel’s topic and should have been taken into account by all the speakers before they began. That guy is really annoying.

5. If you’re on a panel, be a good listener while your other panel-members speak.
There is nothing I find more rude than people who read over their own speech while another paper is being delivered. Don’t make notes on your talk, don’t check your cell-phone for the time, be discrete if you zone out or need to check your watch, and don’t distract the audience with jittering or wiggling. It’s just so rude.

6. If you’re on a panel, treat the Q&A like a conversation, not like another chance to take the floor. And be sure to share the space and the time with your fellow panelists. This doesn’t mean that you should be deferential — I mean, you are an expert in this stuff and you should own that power — but it does mean that you should be a collaborator and not try to be the star of the show.

7. If you’re on a panel, try not to seem nervous. I know that this is really hard for a lot of folks. I really feel for those of you who were not born with the willingness to always throw yourself into the public gaze, even if it means making an ass of yourself (I was born with this gene), because I think that it helps my career that I comfortable speaking in public. But I don’t think that you have to be a natural exhibitionist, like me, to become a great speaker. Here’s what you do: take deep breaths. Wiggle your toes and feel yourself solidly planted on the floor. Think before you speak. Keep your hands off your face and don’t giggle. Practice giving your talk and answering potential questions while doing all of these things in the mirror at home, with a friend, and then with an advisor. When your time is approaching, start taking measured steps to prepare yourself against worst case scenarios. Try to get a good night’s sleep and eat something before you present. Set extra alarms, give yourself extra time, and let a friend carry a copy of your talk in case your purse gets eaten by bears. Be kind to yourself if you are scared and create a buffer zone around yourself so that you don’t make things worse. Above all else, remember that you deserve to be there, that you know what you are talking about, and that you are a confident scholar whose work matters.

8. Bring a pen and a pad of paper. This is a great way to look like an active, engaged listener whether you’re taking notes furiously out of enthusiasm or doodling to keep from falling asleep out of boredom. Having a tic-tac also helps for the latter problem.

This kitty is taking notes and so should you.

9. Finally, just have fun. Walk around and talk to people. Bring a book or some grading for when you take a break. Have a granola bar in your briefcase and don’t be ashamed to sit down and eat it if you’re famished.

Fashion advice for those attending an academic convention:

1. Dress like an adult professional. I saw way too many bad outfits: overly tight pants and skirts, low cut blouses, stilettos that make my feet shudder in sympathy, sister-wife dresses, shoulder pads, bow ties, toupees (!), kindergarten teacher separates, death metal tee-shirts. Look, I think and talk and write a lot about fashion; I think, as I believe you all know, that the self-expression we experience through our clothing is extremely important to our presentations of self. And I proudly rock my tattoo and my bold jewelry and scarf collection. But come on, the largest and most prestigious convention in your professional field is NOT the best time to wear the latest trends or your comfiest drawstring pants. You’re a professional, so act like one; it shows professionalism, class, and respect. This doesn’t mean that you dress like someone else, just that you figure out the best way to mix professional pieces with your individual style. I personally wore a fabulous black suit with a blue button-up blouse underneath, but I added my favorite strand of chunky pink beads to the look. It was me, but more polished. And don’t wear jeans or leggings — this is just not the time or place!

She looks fabulous in this suit and so should you.

2. I don’t think you should look stodgy or too formal, but a simple, classic suit is never a bad thing to invest in. Plus, when layered with the blazer from your suit,  a whole bunch of other items — skirts, dresses, cardigans! — become totally appropriate. Accessorize with something individual and unique, but leave the major fashion statements for another time. You want to get attention for your ideas, not your outfit. This doesn’t, by the way, have to cost a fortune; everything I wore to the convention was second-hand, because I stalk my local consignment store for professorial separates and then — say it with me, friends! — I have those pieces tailored to perfection. If the pants were $5 and the tailor $10, then it’s still a bonkers deal.

3. Try out your look ahead of time; you don’t want to suddenly realize that this hairstyle needs more pins or those pants give you a wedgie or that shirt won’t stay tucked in. If you’re presenting, keep your hands off your hair, face, and outfit while you’re at the podium; it’s distracting and makes you look juvenile. And make sure everything fits and is properly tailored! It’s embarrassing to see people stepping all over their hems or unable to raise their arms because their blazer is too tight in the shoulders.

4. Sweet holy thesaurus, wear comfortable shoes and an outfit that you can breathe in. No one looks less professional that the people hobbling around in spike heels or bursting out of their trousers.

5. Convention centers can be hot or cold, often depending on which room you’re in and in utter disregard for how hot or cold it might be outside, so bring light layers that don’t weigh you down if you have to take them off and carry them. I recommend bringing a briefcase so that you can divest yourself of that cardigan you’re sweating through or so that you can carry in a wrap for when the A/C kicks on. Also, convention centers are dry, weird environments. The air is constantly being filtered and recirculated, so if you’re like me, you’ll need to bring lip balm and hand lotion; plus, you’ll be washing your hands constantly, and that soap might be really harsh.

6. If you’re going to have an interview, ladies, wear pants: I’ve been told that these interviews happen in hotel rooms or hotel bars with regularity, so you don’t want to suddenly find that you have to perch at the edge of an overstuffed chair or — gulp — hotel bed just so that you don’t flash your underpants at a hiring committee.

10 ways to keep your sanity as a Ph.D. / Graduate student (part 1)

15 Jan

As I head into another term as an English Ph.D. student, I’m thinking back on what I’ve learned over the past year and a half as an English Ph.D. student and what keeps me — or what I now know doesn’t keep me — safe, sane, and occasionally exuberantly happy as I take classes, teach classes, try to manage the “more things to do than time available to do them in” dance of academic research, navigate the politics of the university, and try — oh, how I try! — to craft a meaningful career out of academia.

1. Do something completely creative or fulfilling that is NOT related to your graduate work and that is entirely without high stakes at least once a day. Seriously. This is, I think, the hardest thing to really commit yourself to, because it can, in many ways, feel like such a waste of time. But that’s actually the whole point: that you “waste” some time, every day, doing something that brings you joy. I mean, there’s no way you’re not going to waste some time, so wouldn’t it be better if, while wasting this time, you enriched your life? Instead of just looking at silly puppy videos on YouTube (which, okay, I do a lot and which, yes, I think is actually a totally useful way to spend a few minutes), spend that time journaling or going for a walk or taking photos of the sunset or soaking in a bath or volunteering at an animal shelter or, if you’re me, blogging. It’s not that any one of these activities is better or worse than any other “waste of time” activity, but they all give something back to you. And you deserve to be given back to. Moreover, everything we do in grad school feels like life or death. Didn’t get the grant proposal in on time? You lose your funding! Didn’t finish reading that article? You’re going to fail your exams! You get the picture… And while all of these things might not actually be quite so high-stakes, they all feel like it. So pick a hobby that makes you feel good and that isn’t itself just another thing I have to get done before I go to bed.

2. Practice being kind to yourself for at least five minutes everyday. I don’t know what this looks like for you, because I think we all need different sorts of kindness, but for me it means the following: for five minutes while I get dressed in the morning and then five more minutes while I get ready for bed at night, I commit to only saying kind things about myself. While I put on makeup, I say that I am smart and creative instead of putting myself down for the spots on my face or harping on why I feel I need to wear makeup. While I get dressed, I say that I am smart and creative instead of telling myself that I’m fat or wishing my breasts were smaller. While I brush my teeth at night, I tell myself that I am smart and creative instead of reading back to myself the litany of things I could have done better during the day. Why do I repeat this mantra? Why is this advice particular for grad students? Well, we get told all the time, by our instructors and our peers and ourselves, that we should be trying harder, that we aren’t going to make it, that the odds are against us, that we are miles behind, that our best isn’t good enough. And as a woman, I’m sent similar messages about my worth from the media and the hegemonic systems of patriarchal power that we all live within. A little reminder that I am, in fact, smart and creative and worthy is a rare and precious thing.  Therefore, the simple act of not repeating those negative academic and social messages and in fact countering those messages is, I believe, revolutionary and, more importantly, makes me feel a little better, a little more hopeful, a little more human.

3. Don’t forget to enjoy your work. If you love that novel that was assigned for a class, read it and love it and experience the joy of loving it. If you’re excited about your research, gush about it to a friend and fantasize about what it could lead to. Grad school is not all thankless, but enough of it is, so we should make particularly sure that we don’t take the joy out of what we already love.

4. Be proud of your accomplishments. How often do we politely deflect praise, nitpick our performance, or tell ourselves that, no matter what, we could have done that better? If you’re me, the answer would be: a lot. Instead, take the opportunity to be immodest. Crow occasionally. Be satisfied with the work you’ve done. Find something to love about the way you’re spending your time. You not only deserve this kind of treatment, but you need to realize that you’ll only be fulfilled in your work if you like it, regardless of what others are telling you about it.

5. Make lists. Nothing is more stressful than I know I’m forgetting something. So write it down: to do lists for the weekend, to do lists for your chores, to do lists for things you need to tell your students, to do lists for emails you need to write, timelines for your research, timelines for your academic datelines, etc. Not only will you feel better knowing that you can rely on the list instead of your (stress- or lack of sleep- or occasionally booze-addled) mind. Plus, studies show that simply the act of writing — of converting intangible memory to tactile words, of using both sides of your brain — helps to solidify your memory!

6. Make consistent lists. It’s not worth much if you can’t ever find that super important note that I just know I wrote down on some slip of paper — it must be here somewhere. Is it in my desk at home? I’ve been there, and that’s why I now take notes in one or the other of exactly TWO and only two places: my day planner or, if for some reason it’s not on me, my cell phone. Hats off to those of you who’ve combined the two — my technological capacity is still slightly lower.

7. Create structure and set goals. While it can be thrilling to have the whole summer to work through your exams’ reading list or to be finished with coursework and therefore have tons of time to work on your dissertation, this open-ended time can, in contrast, be crushing, overwhelming, paralyzing. So break things down and make them into manageable tasks: I will read one chapter and one one article a day. I will write one chapter a week. I will make three pages of notes for each thing I read. Do the math — how much do you have to do and how much time do you have to do it in and how long does it take you to do each item? Add it up and divide it out — this will not only keep you going, it will also help reduce your anxiety because you’ll be able to trust that you will get through that WHOLE list soon enough. An important note: make sure that the goals you set are accomplishable. While it’s good to challenge yourself, if those challenges cannot be met, you’re setting yourself up not only for failure, but also for lowered confidence and self-esteem, which helps no one.

8. Create accountability. This is especially important for the kind of work we do without much supervision, like teaching and studying for exams and dissertating. It’s easy to make those lists and build that structure, but if you have no one to report to but yourself, it can also be easy to slip into a cycle of not meeting your own expectations, making excuses, feeling shitty, and then getting overwhelmed by the mounting overflow work. Instead, make a weekly date with a friend where you report to each other how things are going or create study groups, even if you’re not all working on the exact same materials. Not only will this make sure you don’t drop the ball, but just spending that time explaining what you’ve been working on will help solidify it in your mind and be valuable practice for when you have to explain yourself to — gulp! — exam panels or dissertation chairs or hiring committees.

9. Give yourself rewards. I have a lovely friend — Hi, Chelsea! — who rewards herself with a delicious bottle of our favorite wine every time she finishes a dissertation chapter. Brilliant! There’s some Pavlovian stuff going on there: she now associates finishing a chapter with yummy wines. But there’s also a celebratory aspect that I think is equally important; when we have four, five, six chapters to write, and then edit, and then submit for review, and then edit again, and then…. it can begin, I’d argue, to feel like a never-ending, thankless task. So what Chels is doing is celebrating the small accomplishments as they come, which (if the rest of this list is to be believed) is of the utmost importance for our sanity.

10. Work hard, play hard, and spend some time just lying in bed renewing. It’s important to put in a good day’s work. It’s equally important to go out with friends and have a whole heap of fun. It’s also equally important to, when the mood strikes, spend the evening in your pajamas, drinking cocoa and knitting and watching silly movies. Don’t diminish any of those tasks. Don’t feel like you need to justify yourself for not going out to the pub because you want to finish grading, or going out to the pub when you have more grading to do, or choosing grilled cheese and reruns of House over a shopping trip with the gals. You need to figure out your own balance and then honor that.

So there’s my two (ten?) cents on the matter — but now it’s your turn: what are the tips and tricks you all use to keep your sanity in grad school?

disclaimer: this post is full of words

15 Apr

So today has already been a really surprising day and, given that this blog is meant to help me explore all aspects of my situation as a grad student / instructor, I’m going to babble on here for a while in an attempt to process the morning and help me gain some perspective.

This quarter, I am TAing a course called American Novel Part I. This means that I attend the class (three days a week for an hour) and usually sit with my mouth shut unless the professor looks to me for an opinion, clarification, definition, etc. I have office hours by appointment for students who need help with their papers (which I will later grade). It’s a pretty low-key gig.

But this morning, at 7:15, with my hair still wet from my shower and my coffee not yet prepared, I got an emergency email from the professor asking me to step in and lead this morning’s class. At 9am. Without any notes or direction. About James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, a 400-some-odd page novel. Ooft. So I had a little over an hour to get dressed, eat some breakfast and guzzle some coffee, and prepare discussion questions for a class of 30 undergrads, many of whom appear (in the previous discussions of the novel) to absolutely hate this book.

So what did I do? My usual procedure for days when I have to teach goes something like this: Panic. Be unable to choose an outfit. Fret needlessly over hair, makeup, clothes, etc., while trying to convince myself that yes, the students will look to me as an instructor and not a peer and no, they will not rise up against me in a cyclone of hipster glasses and backpacks. Spill coffee on myself. Get nauseous. Run over and over my notes, hypercritically cross-referencing every possible point with myriad textual examples. Nearly miss my bus. Stumble into class clutching my notes. Nervously laugh a few times. Joke with the students. Remember that I’m actually kind of good at this. Teach class. Promptly collapse with an incredulous after the last student has left the room. Marvel at the fact that the students didn’t immediately peg me as an impostor and mock me openly. It’s a pretty effective pedagogy, don’t you think?

But for some reason, today was different. I got the email, realized what I had to do, and made it happen. There was no panic, no horrible feeling of my stomach rising up out of my ears, no nervous sweating or frantic laughter. Instead, I made a few notes, got myself dressed and fed and out of the door, and ran what I have to (not so humbly admit) might be one of the most dynamic class sessions that we’ve had in this class so far. Now, I have nothing against the professor, whom I think is wonderful and asks great questions and creates a really positive classroom environment. But I think that these students really rose to the challenge I gave them (which went like this: Hi, guys. I have no notes and nothing prepared. So you all are going to have to really work today) and responded well to my particular instructional style. They laughed with me. They really discussed the questions I brought up and raised issues of their own. They respectfully and ethically disagreed with each other, with me, with the novel itself. They acknowledged and held the moral ambiguity of the characters and the novel’s position within American literary history. They discussed the (very) troubling racial tropes that Cooper uses and the ways that Cooper  was trying  to challenge certain prevailing ideas about race in his time and the limits to Cooper’s ability to navigate these difficult waters and the ways that we, from our contemporary subject positions, need to read these issues. It was kind of great, and they all stayed with me, attentive and alert, until the end of class.

So what does this tell me? Well, I think that the lesson of the day is that if I carry myself with integrity, confidence, and humor, it doesn’t really matter what I wear or how close in age I am to my students; they are going to respect me and respect my class as long as I show them that I respect myself, respect the class, and (most importantly) respect them as experts in their own right and treat them like adults. All in all, though I am sufficiently exhausted and more than a little overwhelmed by the morning, I feel like this was a rise-to-the-occasion, sink-or-swim, watershed moment in my pedagogical maturation and I am exceedingly happy about the road forward.