The Academic Conference (Or, How I Learned to Love Myself, and, Consequently, Others)

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready
To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgettin’
What he wrote down, the whole crowd goes so loud
He opens his mouth, but the words won’t come out
He’s chokin’, how, everybody’s jokin’ now
The clocks run out, times up, over, blaow!

-from Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”

This excerpt is potentially the best representation of what it’s like when presenting your research at an academic conference. For grad students, scholars, and other professionals at varying levels, conferences are the best (or worst) places to go and discuss your research emphasis and getting feedback from like minded people in your field. Earlier this month, I attended the Graphic Medicine Conference, taking place at the Seattle Public Library, (for more info, click here) the same city where I completed a brief internship a few years ago. It was both a homecoming and a discovery as I continue to pursue my research interests.

I’ve been presenting at academic conferences since my time as an undergrad; about eight years now. For those who don’t know, an academic conference is when scholars and experts in a specific field get together and talk about their research. It can be a really enriching experience, most times, or it can be petrifying, standing in front of people who have studied the exact same thing you have for…roughly, about as long as you have been alive. The first time I presented, I thought my paper was going to rip in half- my hands were shaking so much. But, thankfully, I was also there with friends and some of my mentors. Once I was done, the feeling was overwhelming- you become a Titan of knowledge, slowly turning into the expert you are hoping to become. That was all it took. Now, I’m constantly looking for new conferences to attend, in hopes to meet others, learning about new areas of interest that can strengthen or broaden my own research. They get to be pretty fun.

Conference Picture

Me (the one in all black), presenting  at the Associated Graduate Students of English (AGSE) Conference at CSU Northridge, with some pretty cool people 🙂

As much as I enjoy attending them, there’s a lot of stigma about conferences that people have, some with a bit of credibility; I only say that because I’ve actually seen this with my own eyes. A lot of the criticism involves people who are not presenting taking over the discussion, or sitting in rooms with experts (pardon the language) stroking each other’s ego. At times, what a lot of critics feel, including people I know closely, they can feel like a center that symbolically represents what is wrong with academia: a room full of experts with a lot of ideas offering solutions to a problem without any practical purpose or social value. As someone who grew up working class, it’s hard to say that I don’t see where this is coming from. However, the Graphic Medicine Conference I attended did an amazing job dispelling this stereotype. I met real people, addressing real concerns, eager to see them in practice. This was so inspiring, I just had to document it.

New Yorker Cartoon on Conference Behavior

(I’ve actually seen this happen at conferences)

When I heard about this conference, I knew I had to try getting in. Not only is it tied specifically to my research interests (graphic novel memoirs/disability studies [more on this in a future post]), but a lot of really important scholars from schools I wish to apply to and my mentors might be there. This came at a great time since I was also in this crisis when it came to knowing exactly what it was I wish to study. There are so many fields and interests and studies out there- it’s so hard to focus on one. I submitted an abstract in order to hopefully present my research. Unfortunately, I didn’t make the cut on this one. As bummed as I was to hear this, this turned into a moment of revelation. If my research isn’t focused enough to get into a conference, maybe this means my research could use a defibrillator-like shock to get the focus I need for application season. A lot of scholars go to conferences without presenting- for me, it would be my first time going for the sole purpose of learning from others. If there’s any time I need to take my studies seriously, it’s when I’m at the cusp of application season, already envisioning what my application process will look like.

I book my flight, get an AirBandB, (no, seriously- THIS is my last one), register for the conference (oh, sidenote- some of these aren’t cheap when attending), and look at the program to determine which panels to attend. I also study a few of the names to learn who to reach out to. Aside from learning from these speakers for my research, networking at these is essential. I message a few people I know that will be there, and we agree to meet at the conference. Everything was planned accordingly…..except for one thing- the whole time, I completely forgot that I was going to be out of town. I was so enveloped in research pursuits, I completely forgot that I was going to be in a whole other state. What will I be doing when I’m not at the conference? I’m here for a whole four days, but the conference is only a few hours during the day. I take the train off the tarmac to my AirBandB, and this wave of loneliness hits me- I’m in a town where I know less people than the number of fingers on a hand.  I remember a few spots from last time I was here, but the fun of this trip was suddenly sucked out. This was the cold reality you need to adjust to in academia- nights where your plans are you, a stack of books, and a window reminding you of all the fun things you won’t be doing tonight for the sake of your research. Plus, it was Seattle, so it was raining, too.

Graphic Medicine Conference tote bag

Free Graphic Medicine Tote Bag for every attendee

The next morning, I’m at the conference. I don’t worry about what I’ll do that night or whether or not that wave will kick in again. I just focus on the information. I’m sitting in a panel where the focus is on “Graphic Pathegeographies”, narratives that represent diseases, both physical and psychological, in graphic novels and comics. (Here is a link to the entire program- highly recommend reviewing) I heard about a community comic arts project that sought veterans to discuss living with PTSD; there was a presentation on Alisa Wild’s graphic novel The Invisible War, which discussed a WWI nurse’s grappling with an intestinal infection, utilizing a microscopic-like examination of the disease;  lastly, there was a review of comics by Nepalese comic artists who wrote about the lack of access to healthcare, humanizing the dire need for modernization in telecommunications and health education. Attending this panel soon felt like I was comforted by all of the good things conferences have to offer- brilliant research that is trying to uplift underrepresented works of literature, while also offering a public good that a lot of people can benefit from. This is exactly why conferences matter. While I can only speak to my experience, I feel that conferences like these can begin to ultimately make people feel more welcomed, make ideas more viable, and make academic research accessible while still allowing scholars to present it the way they best wish to.

Conference badge

Me, at the conference with my nametag

Shortly after this, I attended other panels and speaking engagements. The difference between these and the one I attended earlier is that I now have a huge appreciation for the work these scholars are doing. I wanted to attend all of them, learning as much as possible. Later that day, there was a small get-together at a local bookstore. While I appreciated all of the knowledge that I witnessed and the people who presented, that wave of loneliness was started to creep in like a fog. I’m entering a space where I know no one, where the only thing we have in common is an obscure area in research. Why go to this? I’d be more comfortable at a bar, sitting alone with a drink, where knowing people is not a requirement.  The bookstore, Fantagraphics Books, was at the edge of the city, so the conference put directions to it in the program. I jump on the bus, and on my way, I see a lot of other attendees. We all sat near the back, making an arrangement where we can all face each other. We started talking about how great the panels were, soon becoming a small networking session. We get to the bookstore and it’s a nice ambiance between a bunch of people who love books. It’s a really interesting kind of introvert that attends these conferences: those who can’t start a conversation for the life of them, but once whatever obscure subject they’re into comes up, they open up like books. Also cool when it happens in a bookstore.

Fantagraphics Bookstore

A Small Pic from the Get-Together at Fantagraphics Bookstore (click image for Fantagraphics website)

We’re all hanging out, talking books, research, brainstorming research ideas. (Also, there’s beer here) One of the presenters there then invites me to dinner at a place across the street. While we’re eating, one of the people at the table passes a journal and asks everyone to make an original drawing. I know I can’t draw and every person that passes it, I start to freeze up. It finally comes and I try to think of the easiest thing to draw. A boat with two stick-figures. Sounds silly, yes- then I remember the French phrase Mer de Noms (Sea of Names; also the name of a Perfect Circle album), and I think of all of the people who are here, want to be here, wish they could find a place where they are welcomed, maybe those who could benefit from the research presented here. There’s a boat with two faceless individuals, looking for the next island to rest on, being carried by people who believe in their mission.

Sketch drawing of boat

My Boat Drawing

The next day, in the best way I can describe it, is when I started to really get it. I sat in a panel entitled Comics and Health Literacy. This panel talked about how to make issues of health and medicine more accessible through comics. While this particular panel may not line up with what I research, the way they presented their work really made me think about what I was doing. How can I make my research more compelling? They presented themselves with a mastery over their research. The key terms they used, citing their primary and secondary sources, visual aides, describing it in ways that welcomes discussion. It was more than just impressive; it was inspiring. I came to this conference to learn more about the subject so I can have it polished enough to write about. What ended up happening was learning about the issues in presenting my research I struggle with. I can list every source I have ever used in my research, but when it comes to articulating it, words ooze of out my mouth like freshly mixed concrete. This is why I came here. I need to better what I know; not improve it, but learn how to make the research I’m passionate about, the research I spent years crafting it, and turning it into something that contributes to the academic sphere of knowledge. All of the anxiety, nervousness, sense of imposter syndrome, these were small demons, now vanquished, thanks to mustering the courage to come to this conference. I tried desperately to write all of this down in my notes. Luckily, as incoherent as they look, reading them  brings me back to this epiphany.

Conferene Notes from my Moleskine

Notes form the Conference (yeah, I can’t read them either)

I attended a few more panels, including one that discussed the role of this particular study in practice, including teaching comics, how to discuss what “disability studies” means, and the social impact comics have, both in practice and bringing them to the classroom. Leaving this panel, I thought of the tasks I need to complete this application season, but it was no longer as intimidating, thinking also about the importance of this study, and how it can actually serve some good to the public. A group of writers and scholars recognize a social circle that has historically been disenfranchised and discovered the avenue for their expressions. Comics become democratic in a way that can help those aren’t privileged or lack the access of expression to let others know their worldview, their plight, what a day in the life of theirs looks like. Immersing myself in this subject has helped bring a perspective I have never considered into a place that is ever-present to me, raising my conscience, compelling me to hear the story behind these writers. One panel I heard included the autobiographical accounts of a woman, Georgia Webber, (her work can be seen here) who suffered a vocal injury, leading her into a procession of speechlessness. In her presentation, she discussed how this lead to a thorough understanding of exactly what “trauma” is. Creating comics was the vehicle for her expression, her new voice, where she can write, draw, and reflect, in a room where no one can tell her what to do, or more importantly, not to do, becoming the core of her work. In a quote she shared in her presentation, she writes, “Curiosity is the antidote to trauma.” An individual who lost her voice, slowly descending into grief, got the drama of her life, and turned it into comics. It’s not only noble- it’s a political act, standing up for those who wish to voice their thoughts.

Georgia Webber on trauma theory

Georgia Webber, discussing her latest work

Coming to this conference was such a great experience for me- as a person, as a scholar, as someone who thought they knew a subject and needed a refresher course. After all of the panels were presented, there was a small market-place like get-together on the top floor of the library. Here, writers and artists were able to share and sell their work comfortably, to a crowd that now had a special appreciation for them. It was here where real networking happened, meeting the people you heard a minute ago present brilliant research, seeing them here, laughing and looking at their phones. This gathering became a small center for all things good about conferences- communal, congenial, calm. I had no problem meeting with others, passing out my contact info card, getting signatures and autographs, taking pictures with other scholars and new-founded friends. And after this, there was another closing-conference after-party. We all headed down to a local pub for final words and one more cordial gathering. I got one more chance to hang out with other conference attendees, where we all had local microbrews and Mexican Coca-Cola. There, someone brought construction paper, and turned this get-together into a comic making session. I can’t draw for the life of me, as is evident in my boat drawing, but here, it didn’t matter. I was siting at a table with people from all over the country, with different backgrounds, all differently abled, with no one determining who should sit at this table, and who shouldn’t.

(Here’s a small gallery on some of the pics I took- feel free to browse 🙂  )

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I left for home the next day, looking at my new list of contacts, thinking now about where I am now- ready to apply to PhD programs. No matter how many times I think about it, there’s a sense of futility looming over me every time I sit down to work on application essays and the GRE. On this day, I now have a better sense of what is asked of me, but even more than that, I feel like this conference helped me appreciate having a laser-like focus on my research. My strategy is mapped, and I know what is being demanded of me. I look at my notes, indecipherable as they are, and think about all of the great lectures and contacts I came across. I think about the kind of work that was produced. I think about the articles I once wrote, envisioning them meeting the new standards I now have for myself. I think about the people I met there, and how I would have never come across them if I chose not to come, now expanding the village that will help me reach my goals. I have a list of contacts to write to, a new approach for articulating my research goals, and a new reason why I want to pursue this research- there is a body of narratives that everyone needs to read, and I wish to be a part of the movement to get them into more hands.

I sit on the train, heading towards to the SEATAC tarmac, and the song Reuse the Cels by Car Seat Headrest comes on. It fits well.

Will it be like before?
Will it ever be the same?
If we reuse the cels
Would the color start to fade?

It’s history that hasn’t happened yet
Last time I cried, this time I sweat
And doesn’t it seem an awful waste
That all of our cells will get replaced?

Will it be like before?
Will it ever be the same?
If we reuse the cels
Would the color start to fade?

(to listen to track, press play below)

 

One thought on “The Academic Conference (Or, How I Learned to Love Myself, and, Consequently, Others)

  1. Pingback: This Week in #GraphicMedicine (8/18/17) – The Graphic Librarian

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