Conference Experiences with Emotional Connections
A part of the PGR experience is the Academic Conference (insert mood music here). As we engage with our research in new and exciting ways, we are encouraged to share our brilliance with the world through submitting paper and presentation abstracts to conferences with scholarly and worldly audiences. While other blogs in this space discuss conference planning and how they are beneficial to us as early career researchers, I want to emphasize that they are also great learning opportunities and valuable experiences to us as human beings, especially when the emotional connections to your research take center stage.
I love conferences. I like to prepare for them. I like to travel to them. I like to meet new people and get the opportunity to listen to new processes and ideas and even old(er) ideas presented or approached in new and fascinating ways. And because I have loads of public speaking experience, I have never suffered from any serious anxieties about presenting.
Not until this past October, that is.
From 26th - 29th October of this year, I attended and presented at conference in Berlin, Germany called PathoGraphics: Stories of Illness/Disability in Literature and Comics: the Intersection of the Medical, Personal, and the Cultural.
Pathographics logo used with permission
My PhD research explores the impact of narrative inheritances on the development of identity, focusing specifically on the narratives of the “Other”, as (combinations of) socially constructed, culturally assigned, family generated, and self-selected narratives. These include illness and survivor narratives and their intersections with queer narratives. Having discovered the amazing scholarly work of Graphic Medicine: the Interaction of comics and healthcare, I began integrating comics and graphic memoir into my critical research last year and was thrilled to have my paper abstract accepted! I felt those pangs of imposter syndrome fading and I was excited in my discussions with friends and supervisors about planning for this conference. I even secured some funding from Foundation Scotland to help cover the trip’s costs!
The conference was hosted by The Freie Univseritat Berlin, and held in a once bombed-out medical school’s surgical theatre space. "SICK! Kranksein im Comic" art exhibit on Thursday evening in the campus’s adjacent art gallery.
The conference was an exhausting/exhilarating marathon, with a Thursday evening art gallery event and opening keynote, full days on Friday and Saturday, and sessions until 14:00 on Sunday. I was thoroughly enjoying myself until Friday evening; the panels and sessions all day had been informative and engaging, and the scholarship and company impressive. But not one person spoke from a place of personal experience. Or even referenced a personal connection to illness and/or disability. There were excellent analysis and scholarly examinations of texts and art, but that evening in my hotel room, I began reading all the details for Saturday’s speakers (of which I was one). None of them seemed to be members of the very communities they were studying (and serving).
I am a cancer survivor. I spent seven years of my life in and out of treatments and every day since then managing the fallout of those experiences. I am currently writing a sometimes dark and frequently humorous memoir in which the main character is a young cancer patient who struggles with how the world has categorized her, and finds healing in alternative support group structures, most notably in the drag queen culture.
And in general, when your presentation title involves Dobermans and Drag Queens, you can expect a banner turnout.
Me, at the start of my presentation. (Insert panicky heartbeats here)
For the first time in my life, I was visibly shaky at having to speak to a room full of people. I stumbled through slides, I stuttered on some references, and I misjudged my 20 minutes, even though I was well-prepared. I had all of the classic symptoms of stage fright, including cold sweats and bursting into tears in the toilet for a few minutes about an hour prior to my panel. Is it the anxiety of being in year three of my program? Perhaps I should refresh my Mindfulness Practices. Why was I so upset? While I’ve talked about my illness to crowds of over 1000 people at a cancer research fundraising event and I’ve presented well in the past on aspects of my research to both colleagues and fellow-students without becoming nauseous, I’ve never done these things in tandem. And I felt very much in the ‘fish bowl’ as the sole voice in the room combining personal narratives and scholarly research, to a decidedly undecided crowd.
All of these things combined to create the most stressful conference experience of my life.
I’ve never been so ready to get on a plane and come home. But now that I’ve been back in Glasgow for a month, I can say with confidence that I am GLAD I did it. I made interesting connections to new ideas through my interactions with conference participants, and even managed a bit of networking, but my big take-aways were things I learned about myself.
It’s true that every presenter has a level of anxiety about public speaking/public engagement, but it is equally true that these experiences are very personal ones and that anxiety will vary with every conference. Sometimes we focus so intensely on the scholarly elements that we forget to acknowledge the personal connections we have to our work as well. If you are PGR presenting at a conference, preparation is still your best weapon and UofG has so many great resources to assist you with this. But if those fail (and they might!), take a deep breath and some solace knowing that approximately 80% of the people there have flubbed at one point too, and some of them (like me), have managed to flub fantastically and survive to attend another conference on another day. And you will too.
Do you have a tale of presentation or conference anxiety to share from 2017?
Please do so in the comments and/or tweet the PGR blog team at @UofGPGRBlog