Friday, November 11, 2011

Transitions: Part Two

In part two of this transitions series I am taking up one element of academic life that has always been seen as an important aspect of professionalism-the conference-and sharing how my experience at two recent conferences as a tenure-track faculty actually felt quite different.

Scenario One: The Graduate Student

Bernice walks, mostly eyes down, along the corridor looking for the “Acorn Room.” On noting the nametag of a near passerby, she stops and gapes, mouth open, at the retreating back. Was that really just [insert name of famous scholar here]?? Bernice finally finds the Acorn Room and sits uncomfortably at the front table, wishing she were in the audience. After giving her paper, Bernice counts herself one of the fortunate who was not asked any questions, and she flees the conference floor up to her room. She spends the rest of the weekend enjoying [insert city here, chosen as the conference location either for its obvious attractions or because the city could never hope to attract people otherwise]

Scenario Two: The TT

Bernice walks, looking at tags or faces for familiar names or people, along the corridor until she finds the “Acorn Room.” Along the way she stops to say hello to someone she met yesterday in panel 3. They chat a few moments, and then scatter to their respective sessions. As Bernice ducks into the room she notices [insert name of famous scholar] and stops to gape at the retreating back. After giving her paper, Bernice counts herself among the fortunate who get to answer several questions about her paper, take on some challenges to her ideas, and jot down some resources others share with her. Bernice leaves the session and joins a group of people to chat for a few minutes over coffee before heading to another panel.

Bernice’s experiences (which are eerily similar to my own; how strange) illustrate a few of the key differences between the conference experience as a graduate student and as tenure-track faculty. I am sure there are many graduate students who will read my description of how I approach conferences as a tenure-track faculty member and think that is already how they view conferences. To them, I would say Bravo! But for the rest of us who are slow to realize ourselves as professionals, I attempt to pinpoint some of the differences in attending a conference as a student and as a scholar.

Community: As a graduate student conferences were mostly a means to an end, namely a line on my CV. They were also a place to have a great time, but that was usually totally disconnected from the conference itself. In many ways, both of those things are still true now, but conferences have also become a vital source of community for me. I have never before felt the urge to go up and introduce myself to people, but in the two conferences I have been to this semester, I have done just that numerous times.

The banner of overwrought graduate student no longer forms the ties that bind me naturally to those down the hall. What I found, then, at my first conference as a tenure-track faculty member was that I wanted to be part of the British Literature community. The “ties that bind” had now become my field. I suppose this should have been true all along, but for me this revelation only happened when I no longer had my community of fellow cheap laborers (oops, I mean graduate students) to commiserate with.

Ideas: Even though I landed a job in an extremely vibrant and friendly department, it still seems like people walk around the halls in their own little bubble. Perhaps the simplest answer is that the stakes are higher now than in graduate school, and there isn’t the same room for intellectual play and the spontaneous exchange of ideas amidst the business of daily department life. My eagerness to attend panels and engage in discussions before, during, and after sessions at these two recent conferences was evidence, I believe, that this kind of engagement does not happen as organically on an everyday basis for tenure-track folk. The publish-or-perish motif of tenure-track necessitates grabbing onto an idea and stubbornly pursuing it at all costs. As a good friend and colleague recently said to me: Flailing isn't cool in that context and flailing is what makes learning great.

There doesn’t seem to be time for flailing on the tenure-clock. Except, perhaps, at conferences, which are the professions glorified water cooler break. Away from the immediate influence of meetings, department hierarchy, deadlines, conferences are a places to flail, to try out new ideas and see what others think. Certainly they still feel like a place to prove myself, as they did when I was a graduate student, but having gotten a job takes some of that pressure off. Sort of like getting published proves other people outside your department think your work is worthwhile, getting a job proves other people outside your graduate institution think you have something to offer. Conferences become less about proving yourself, to some extent, and more about truly sharing your work.

Professionalism: In bringing the above two points together, I come to my third – the sense of myself as part of a field. This is something I never had as a graduate student, and so I missed that aspect of the conference experience. I might mark the difference like this: whereas before I would peruse the book table displays to see if there were any titles relevant to my dissertation research, I now pay more attention to which publishers tend to produce books in what areas. The authors on the cover of those books have become people now, and I recognize how they developed a certain niche for themselves. I observe the trends that are happening in the field by seeing how many books have come out recently on certain topics. By observing the broad sweep of ideas, as well as their smaller nuances, I gain a sense of the pulse and breath of the field around me, and consequently of my place within it.

In short, conferences have become more than a line on my CV (though that is still an essential part of it as well. tick tock. tick tock). They are a place of community building and a way to feel the heartbeat of your chosen field. Although “networking” has an icky sound to it, and has probably left a bad taste in anyone’s mouth who has tried it before, I think it worth noting that network as a verb in the nineteenth century meant “To cover (something)” often used in the sense of a region being covered with railroads, ie the region was networked (OED). This definition can give a fresh twist to the role of conferences in the tenure-track life. Instead of the usual word “connect” networking may have more to do with this notion of “cover.” As in “I got you covered.” My new peeps have my back and we’re “tracking” together now. As in, hey, I got this man!

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Kristen Pond specializes in Victorian studies with an emphasis on the novel. Her current project examines forms of telling in the Victorian novel and their influence on the rhetoric of sympathy. Learn more about her transition from graduate student to tenure-track at http://lumiacompositions.blogspot.com

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