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Finding confidence and inspiration at an academic conference

07 Jan

It’s after three in the morning, and I should probably be in bed, but I need to take a few minutes to revel in the small sense of victory I feel tonight.  Progress is always uneven, so despite some of my early posts, I have still struggled with self-doubt, lack of confidence, and the lethargy that results from both.  I have had many things on my to-do list for weeks but couldn’t bring myself to face them.  Instead, I have often found myself trying to drown out the nagging voice reminding me of those many tasks and the other incessant voice whispering that it wouldn’t matter how hard I worked, that I would still fail.

But today was different. Despite the busyness of attending panels at the American Historical Association conference and trying to to think through the fogginess of a head cold, I managed to focus on research and my article for eight hours today. It’s impossible to pin today’s motivation and sense of purpose on any one thing, but I’m sure that the conference has played a role in inspiring me to continue working on my own research.

I can’t measure the value of my productive time in how many pages I wrote or the number of sources I examined.  The mere fact that I worked for so long without the distraction of music, talk radio, simultaneous tasks, or even the desire for any of those things felt like an enormous accomplishment.  What is more, I enjoyed every minute of that time.  There is still much more work to do on the essay, but the pieces are there.  All that remains is to fit them together.  I say “all that remains” as if it is as simple as following a recipe to bake a cake, but that would be quite inaccurate. Writing history is more akin to putting a large puzzle together with a jumble of pieces, some that fit, some that belong to other puzzles, and some that are needed but missing. In addition to the usual challenges of historical writing, this is one of the most difficult stages of the writing process for me because I tend to be very impatient.  As I’ve mentioned before, I became so accustomed to the “one and done” drafts of high school and college papers that rewriting and revising frustrates me to no end.  While this process might always be tedious, hopefully it will become routine and therefore less daunting.

On a related note, I worked up the courage to ask a question following a panel of presentations by leading scholars in my field.  This probably doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but it felt like it to me.  After academic presentations, there is generally a time for questions, and these questions should either push the scholars to think more deeply about their own work or enhance the general discussion.  This requires a certain knowledge of the secondary literature, and some familiarity with related primary sources is often helpful.  I can’t speak for professors, but I know that most grad students sense that this is one more measure by which they are judged, and the impression is accurate.  Those who ask insightful and helpful questions acquire greater intellectual capital, which translates into greater facility in forming their own panels, finding people to read and comment on their own work, and better letters of recommendation.  Of course, these things don’t rely solely on one’s comments and questions at seminars and conferences, but they are important, nonetheless.  After being told several months ago that I should be seen and not heard, like a child rather than a colleague, it has been difficult to work up the gumption to participate in discussions as I used to, so I consider today’s brief comment and question to be another achievement and small step forward in my journey.

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