Fresh off the plane …

and into a new blog.

I used to blog here at  http://thephdpimpernel.blogspot.com/ but I fell into bad habits and one missed post turned in to several months of missed posts and even though I have decided there is space in my life to blog again I felt the need for a fresh start.

Firstly I am an academic. I refrain from using the word ‘student’ (though really that’s what I am) as I feel my PhD demands a greater level of commitment than any other course of study I have undertaken and therefore needs a greater degree of professionalism. It has to be a full time job and incorporate all the aspects of working as a full-time academic, be it teaching, publishing, editing, conferencing and last (but not least) blogging.

This blog is aimed at fellow mature students, post-graduates, academics, bibliophiles, fans of Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Modernism, WWI, feminism, gender and all things literary. I hope to share insights into life as a PhD candidate who is fast approaching the final hurdle, and also those of a book and literature lover. Sometimes I wil take time to explore somethings which have fascinated or preoccupied me in order to make sense of the world … or as Rebecca West once said to a prospective dissertation student who approached her –

I explained that I was writer wholly unsuitable for her purpose … that I had never used my writing to make a continuous disclosure of my own personality to others, but to discover for my own edification what I knew about various subjects which I found to be important to me …

Supernatural Power

I am going to kick off my first entry with a post about the joys of Academic Conferencing as I am fresh off the plane from Baruch College City University of New York having presented a paper there on Rebecca West.

When I first started my career as an academic in 2003, conferences didn’t figure too largely in my life. The odd class presentation was bearable, if a little uncomfortable, but not too demanding. I could cope. But my first ever full-size conference was another matter altogether! I had submitted an abstract based on the thesis I had written at the conclusion of my MLitt course. The argument was condensed into a 20 minute format and I was not confident in either the content or the structure of my paper. The conference was at Newcastle University and was to host over 200 delegates. I was terrified. I could barely speak for the entire three days … and my 20 minutes (well the entire 1 hour 30 minute panel session) is a bit of a blank for me. I do remember that I shook, my hands trembled as I turned the pages of my talk, my throat closed up, I licked my lips repeatedly, I spilled water, and  stumbled through the Q&A without actually hearing any questions properly at all. All in all I looked a complete wreck!  Or so I thought. The feed back was fabulous – my paper was even referred to by the keynote speaker,the author Kate Mosse (Labyrinth and Sepulchre) because her new novel tackled similar issues to those I had raised in my paper on Vera Brittain and The Lost Generation Myth.

I was heartened. I presented the paper again at a smaller venue for local scholars at my home university, but also in front of many of my former tutors. All people I admired and wanted to impress. Again I felt my paper lacked adequate erudition to impress and I stumbled my way through it, blinking like a proverbial ‘rabbit in headlights’ each time a question was directed my way. Again the feedback was not so bad.

By this time I was well into my PhD, which was slowly taking on a proper form. So I felt bold enough to submit an abstract to a huge international conference, held at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge as part of their week long celebration of Women’s Writing.  I worked hard, adapting a large chunk of my thesis into a 20 minute Powerpoint presentation, with photographs and quotes. This foray into technology did oohing to quell my nerves. I  dreaded the return of my usual stammer and twitchiness but to my surprise when I took the floor I found myself giving an accomplished and articulate presentation. I fielded the questions with skill and dexterity and even managed to throw in a few laughs along the way. I found I actually enjoyed the experience! What a transformation. The feedback was better than I ever expected. I felt I had made a success of my trip, and yet I knew I had missed opportunities to chat to other delegates in the preceding couple of days because of my social nervousness.

But this time I took a new approach to presenting in front of an audience of world-renowned West scholars. Conferences are a necessary part of any academic career. They give you the unique opportunity to ‘geek it up’ with fellow nerds who find your subject as equally as compelling as you do. Unlike your family, who tend to glaze over when you even utter the name Rebecca West, these individuals embrace the conversation and provide you with fresh and new insights and approaches that can only enhance your future research. I embraced the conference experience and as a result I found that I looked forward to the event with far less trepidation and as a result my paper went even better than I’d hoped. I have also made some new friends and some important contacts who will be able to help me in my future research. It has been an invaluable experience.

There is a reason that this trajectory has taken the course it has and that is confidence. Presenting is a skill that can only be learnt through experience and over time. Some people are born presenters and they may flourish from the get go but most people are like you and me and they take time to acquire the confidence and know how to give a polished performance. And conferences are the killing fields of experience. It’s where you can make mistakes and no one will remember them. 20 minutes in a 3 day even t is a mere blip in time … I’ve accepted that the only way to approach a conference is with my head held high and my paper well researched.

I am already scouring the web to find future events that I can participate in and share what I am learning about the fabulous writer Rebecca West … I embrace the conference challenge!

BTW – the banner header photograph is one of my own, and it is the torn fragments of a rejected draft of my recent conference paper … my other love is photography and I can also be found on Blip – a daily photographic journal. Please feel free to come visit.

All photographs are my own unless otherwise acknowledged. 

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