Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Academic Culture and International Relations

I got home from Munich last night, and I've been doing a lot of thinking about how to sum up my very first proper conference experience.  It was the first time that I was presenting instead of organizing, like with the PhD and Phil Taylor conferences.  I was extremely nervous and didn't know quite what to expect.  It was going to be my first time in Germany, too.  Despite having a BA in European Studies and being the German II student of the year in 2004, I really didn't know that much about Germany (apart from the cliches of WWI and WWII, efficiency and order, bratwurst and beer).  The night before the conference, I walked around the city centre and saw the Rathaus, and looked around a grocery store for an hour or so (always one of my favorite things to do as a tourist).  Back in the room, I went over my presentation notes and watched 'South Park' in German.  By dubbing his voice, they've managed to make the character Butters creepy rather than adorable...

I didn't sleep well and was really nervous, but calmed down once I actually arrived at the conference.  Everyone was friendly and interested in my project--and surprised that I was American, since they had seen that I was at Leeds on the programme.  "It's usually the other way around, with Europeans going to the States."  The conference was smaller than I'd expected--just 20-some people and half of them were presenting.  After chatting with some of the other presenters about their conference experiences, though, I think a small crowd was probably the best environment for my first presentation.

They were all historians, and most of the other presentations were WWI-era.  It was great to have feedback from a non-communications perspective--I've always felt that my research doesn't fit with communications, but now I know that it doesn't quite fit with history either.  They were interested in the ICT angle that I had just briefly mentioned at the end of my talk, when discussing future research directions--the idea that the student experience is different now in the modern communications environment (the ability to communicate with friends/family back home and transmit culture learning back home more rapidly--even concurrently!), and that students' study abroad blogs could be used as texts to learn about their experiences. They sparked a lot of ideas and gave me useful advice, and I have a long list of recommended reading now.

The main thing I got from the whole experience, though, was confidence.  I often feel like my research isn't worthy of a PhD, that I need to write something amazingly original and groundbreaking in order to prove myself.  The thirst to prove myself has always been a thing for me--from a psych perspective, I was much younger than my siblings (7 yrs and 12 yrs) and I always wanted to catch-up to them.  But it also has to do with defying people's expectations.  As an American, they don't expect me to be interested in international affairs, to be living abroad--or to even hold a passport.  As a woman, they don't expect me to be doing a PhD, and they don't expect me to actually use it to work in academia (or if I do, then I must be single and childless for life).  

(the Google search, my favourite way of measuring commonly held attitudes:  worrying about how the PhD will impact one's chances of getting married is a more popular search than scholarships for women are...ugh.)

But now, after chatting with professors about my work and being treated as an equal, I'm feeling much more confident and my research seems much more PhD-worthy now.  I'm more confident in my presenting skills, too--the powerpoint was a good balance of images and minimal text, and they laughed at the right bits, which is so encouraging.  I'm feeling better about my writing, too--after months of struggling, I actually wrote some sentences that I loved in this conference paper.  I haven't had that feeling in ages, and it's reassuring.  It makes me feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing with my life, and that feeling is seriously underrated.

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