In what is truly a momentous event, I have finished a conference feeling like an accomplished academic. This never happens!
Seriously: this conference has been a huge boost to my professional self-esteem. And I can honestly say I needed this. Not that I was feeling particularly depressed about my academic potential but I’m always harboring feelings that I can’t really cut it in professional circles. I won’t say that I’m suddenly feeling like the second coming of Socrates but I definitely feel better about my academic self.
I was invited to speak at this conference, a complete first for me. How that came about is sort of random but, in the end, that doesn’t matter: they asked me to come, they asked me to give two talks, I said yes. Knowing this, of course I didn’t do my talks until the last minute. I’d been thinking about them for months but actually sitting down and putting them together: yeah, we all know how that goes. Part of my problem was the simple fact that I’ve never presented at length before. Doing a 20 minute research talk takes a little prep but, in general, I can kind of wing it. Doing a 45 minute keynote isn’t something I can pull out off the top of my head.
You can imagine the nerves. But maybe that helped, because I really worked on these talks. For all intents and purposes, I wrote two papers. And I just checked: one was 4600 words, the other 4000. That’s pretty substantive, thank you very much. Talks are different, of course; you don’t need to present the arguments as formally and you cite in completely different ways but you’re still writing a cogent consideration with lots of support. And one of them even included quite a few videos.
The first one was pretty good; the second one was great – if I may say so. I had some compliments on the first one, which was offered to a decent sized audience (about 130) but I got the feeling many of them were offered for politeness sake. And that’s fine. I was talking on a topic tangential to the day’s main theme; some people really appreciated that but I’m sure it seemed lightweight in comparison to the others. The second talk was the winner. I had about 250 people there, the largest audience I’ve ever had for a talk. People were really interested in what I was offering; I had some good questions at the end of it; people were laughing at loud at some of my witty attempts.
I think I’m a pretty good speaker, and I think I’m a pretty good writer. I don’t always think I’m a good academic. I’m not a heady thinker kind of person; my thinking is more of the “what can we do with this” type. I understand theory, and I can use it when I need to, but I don’t always do a good job with it. I suppose part of it is not playing the game very well. I know how this works: quoting the right people, using the right buzzwords, striking the right academic tone. Choosing not to do that is a indeed a choice to put myself outside the inner circle.
So, this time, I played the game but on my terms. I used my big words; I incorporated theory; I quoted a few experts. But I also did things my way: I included stories, I made things personal, I used the academic stuff to set the foundation and then I built my own house. And, for once, it worked.
It helped immensely that I was speaking to teachers. The other professors in the room: they were nice enough but the earth didn’t move for them. And that makes sense. I was offering things they already knew in language that they use everyday – nothing too exciting there. But the teachers really liked it; today, they loved it. Honestly, I was overwhelmed by some of their comments: that they had never considered the topic that way before, that I was inspiring, that I had given them lots to think about, that they had enjoyed my talk more than any other in the conference. I was talking on the subject connected to my book (how awesome to say that) and several people told me they’d bought it in the bookshop. One woman asked me to autograph it: seriously, someone asked me for my autograph!
I won’t lie, it was nice to have people say such nice things. They stopped me in the hallway, they came up to me at lunch, they tweeted. I’m not that kind of academic; I don’t get recognition like that. It was flattering and I really appreciated it. But more than anything, it was gratifying to feel like I’d offered something meaningful to people. Having adults you don’t know stop you to say they had really learned something from what you had to say: that’s pretty heady stuff.
I’ll never be a rockstar in academic circles – the paper rejection received today confirms that – but I can take what I know and make it accessible to teachers and students. It might hurt my ego to think I’m not taken seriously by my peers as an intellect but, in the long run, I think it might mean more to make a difference to the person I once was – a classroom teacher, an undergraduate student – than the person I struggle to be.