Cynthia Patterson describes delivering her first paper at a major humanities event, from proposal to presentation
It's mid-February when I spot it - the call for papers for the Graduate Student Caucus at the Modern Language Association conference, one of the world's most prestigious conferences in the humanities. It is held in Philadelphia this year, and I've spent seven years preparing for it. I'm delighted that this year's panel is right up my alley. The title is S quare Pegs, Round Holes: The Paradox of Interdisciplinary Research and Nontraditional Studies in a Circumscribed Job Market.
Boy, do I know a thing or two about being a square peg. To start with, I'm not 26, or even 36. In fact, I left 46 behind more than a couple of years ago, so in addition to pursuing a "nontraditional" PhD in cultural studies, I'm also a nontraditional student.
I spend nearly two hours crafting my proposal: "(Re)Visioning the Philly Pictorials: Anti-Disciplinary Praxis in an (Inter)Disciplinary Academy". It has everything the moderator is looking for: interdisciplinary and discipline-based teaching experiences; juggling dissertation committee faculty from American studies, art history and history; the anti-disciplinarity of cultural studies - and the Philadelphia angle, since I work on illustrated magazines published in Philly in the 1840s and 1850s.
If I were the panel moderator, I'd pick my paper.
March 28, 2004
I'm in! Steven Thomas, vice-president of the GSC and the panel moderator, just sent an email accepting my paper. Woo hoo!
I have a fellowship at the Smithsonian, and I am shuttling between the Archives of American Art and the National Museum of American History. I must finish a draft of the whole project by the end of August so that the committee that vets my PhD can legitimately write recommendations assuring hiring committees that I will be done by summer 2005.
I proudly mail a draft to my committee members and take up my teaching load of four courses per semester. I've planned my PhD to end as my youngest daughter heads for college. Now all I have to do is present a knock-'em-dead paper - and land a job.
I submit my MLA paper to my writing group of doctoral students.
We meet monthly to give feedback on conference papers, journal articles and so on. A few changes are suggested, including complete reordering of my visuals.
I've agreed to give my paper at the final cultural studies student/faculty colloquium of the semester, always reserved for student work. The paper goes well, the director of the cultural studies programme suggests a few changes and I'm ready to email it to Steven - in his own words, a "hands-on" moderator.
The paper is down to nine pages so I'm feeling pretty good. But Steven suggests more cuts. I could strangle the kid (of course, I'm just sure he is a kid). But I grumble, cut to eight pages and resubmit, along with my three images. He pronounces the images "cool" and says "you rock" when I assure him I'm a pro at this from 15 years of conference work in the fitness profession.
December , 2004
I check into the hotel and start networking at the welcome event. Steven stands up as the GSC vice-president, so I introduce myself afterwards. If he's surprised at my age, he doesn't show it. I can't do dinner with the GSC tonight because there's a panel on community college teaching that I want to attend. Until recently this was regarded as "slumming" at the MLA, so I keep it secret for now.
December 28, 2004
Steven has bumped my paper from its original position, last, to first. I wonder if the two other panellists did not submit their papers on time. Or was he just so impressed with mine? It turns out I'm the only one with visuals.
December 29, 2004
It's D-day and I'm a little nervous. In addition to delivering the paper, I have a job interview today - the only one of the conference.
But rather than hide in my room and rehearse, I go to all the panels I had planned to attend. I arrive early for my panel and set up my laptop for the visuals. I pour a glass of water, exchange pleasantries with the other panellists and then it's on with the show. I'm aware I'm making good eye contact, speaking clearly and raising interesting experiential issues for some of the graduate students in the audience who have not yet taught their first solo class. I think it went well.
Afterwards Steven asks if I'd like a leadership position on the GSC. I'm flattered, but explain that I've got my work cut out to finish my PhD by next summer. What I didn't tell him is that I'm not seeking a job at a research university, so I'm no longer worrying about fitting in. Thanks to the panels I've attended, I've realised I'm best suited for teaching at a community college - that my "praxis" should be what it has always been: teaching non-traditional students who are trying to become better writers and critical thinkers.
Yes, the paper was a success and the conference was a turning point in my professional life - but not exactly as I had imagined.
Cynthia Patterson is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University, Virginia, where she also works as a term instructor in the English department.
Kate Simpson is only 29, but her conference appearances have already earned her national newspaper headlines. The young geographer, currently teaching at Newcastle University and looking for a permanent position, earned her first 15 minutes of fame - but possibly not her last - with a paper on the changing nature of the gap year at the 2003 Institute of British Geographers' conference.
She got a lot of media interest. A series of stories, sometimes based only loosely on Simpson's research, attacked the gap year industry for selling a false idea of a link between young Britons taking jaunts around the world and international development.
Simpson was thrown in at the deep end of the conference experience, but she stresses the importance for young academics of support from older colleagues when taking their first steps on the circuit.
"It can be very hard if you don't have somebody to introduce you to people.
These conferences can be so large and so impersonal. I was fortunate enough to have a PhD supervisor who made sure I was introduced to people. If you want to avoid a bad experience, try to make sure you have somebody to do the same for you."