Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 12, 1997

On Students:
Graduate Student
Hits Road As
Career Begins

Amy Hungerford
Contributing Writer

There comes a time in every graduate student's life when she has to pass from being strictly a student to being a new professional in the field. In the English Department, where I am a graduate student, that moment comes at the end of the third year, when each student prepares a paper to be read and discussed by the entire faculty and all the graduate students. As a way of working up to this rite of passage, I applied to present part of my third-year paper at a graduate student conference before the presentation at Hopkins. And so, just days after making my paper available to the department for reading prior to the next week's discussion session, I took off for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and my very first professional conference.

Thursday afternoon, the day before I left Baltimore, I was still writing the paper. Or rather, I was still shrinking it. To make it fit the time allotted in the schedule, I would have to cut another two pages out of the 11 that survived revisions earlier in the week. A year and half in the making and 30 pages in its original version, the conference paper would have to get its point across in 10 pages, or 20 minutes. I began to have doubts about the value of this kind of intellectual exchange.

When I applied to present a paper at the American Cultures graduate student conference at the University of Michigan, I naively thought I'd get to read the essay I described in the proposal. After all, this was a graduate student conference. I thought that only the star-packed MLA conference schedule demanded such short presentations--or perhaps we should call them advertisements. Of course, I was wrong. There will always be more people wanting air time than there are minutes of attention span in listeners.

The point was not lost on the organizers of "Contested Sites: Negotiating American Cultures," who arranged to have two panels of speakers running at any given time. This allowed for many papers, but drained audiences to a handful of people (as opposed to two handfuls). When I arrived to present my paper on Saturday morning there were about eight people in the room. Two were under the age of 10, the son and daughter of one of the presenters. I am sure it wasn't their idea to attend. Again, I wondered why I had gone to the trouble of coming to present a paper.

It became clear to me in retrospect. First of all, I need the practice. Presenting what you hope are new ideas to an unfamiliar audience is nerve-wracking. My hands, for example, refused to reach temperatures above 40 degrees from the time I arrived in Ann Arbor to the time I stood up behind the podium the next day. This made meeting new people a bit awkward, the best policy being to clutch cups of tea throughout the day in an effort to take the chill off introductions. And I feared voice failure. Though I am usually confident in front of groups, occasionally my voice will tremble as I speak, making it sound as if I am about to cry. I'm convinced this gives the impression that I am deeply moved by the things I have just heard myself say. So the conference did its job in one sense: it made me nervous.

The conference also made me consider my work in a different professional context. I have always had the sense that what we are taught to do at Hopkins is unlike what graduate students are doing elsewhere, and that many in the profession would resist the kind of analysis I have learned to do here. At Michigan I found this to be only partly true. What we are taught to do is in some important ways unlike what I saw students at Michigan doing, but no one was hostile to my work. In fact, people didn't really care much about the substance of what I said. Conversations relied heavily on the word "interesting," as in "What you are doing sounds really interesting; we should e-mail about it." The atmosphere was appreciative, rather than critical.

During the presentation itself I learned just two more things. First, never depart from your prepared text unless your extemporaneous version will be as clear as what you wrote. I learned this while muffing an important point in an effort to be more engaging. Second, presenting a paper is much like teaching a class; since I am comfortable teaching I ended up being comfortable presenting to colleagues. I was relaxed; I looked up while I read. My hands even warmed. Relief.

But notice what I am not saying: I gained no new intellectual insight, and I was not faced with any challenging question. In fact, there were no questions, probably because there were only five minutes left in the session after all the papers had been presented. At the "Contested Sites" conference, I learned how to look more professional, not how to think better. And I now can include a special genre of acquaintance in my social circle: the conference friend. The e-mail is already flying. I discovered what the seasoned conference-goer knows: conferences are not really about intellectual exchange; they are about schmoozing.

Back at Hopkins just three days later I found myself again at the front of a room, presenting my third-year paper. This time there were 30 or 40 people assembled from the ranks of faculty and graduate students. They were all bent on making sense of my work or revealing its flaws. The questions ran nonstop for an hour and a half. This time, I would not escape intellectually unscathed--that is, I would not escape without being challenged to think better. But thanks in part to the Michigan conference, I would escape with my professional dignity.

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