Presenting at Academic Conferences is an Act of Bravery

In my field, part of the job description is sharing your research at academic conferences.  The way we go about sharing that information probably seems wild to those not familiar with the practice, since when we say “presenting at a conference,” what we really mean is “reading aloud a paper.”  We don’t lecture in the traditional sense at conferences.  Rarely do presenters frame their material like a TEDTalk, although that would certainly be interesting (probably even welcomed).

No, usually we write a paper and read it aloud.  Word by sweet word, we read what we’ve written to an audience of other scholars who listen, hopefully track along with our argument, and then question us.  We wear our most academic-looking clothes, scramble to make Powerpoints, and clear our throats over and over and over again until our airways feel clear for twenty long minutes of reading.

I cannot imagine how strange this practice must seem to non-academics.

But this weekend while listening to papers I realized that we are so vulnerable when we read our words aloud.  We have to read through all our flaws, all our logical mishaps.  And we usually stand, as if behind a pulpit, and we preach a sermon that would cause most congregations to quit us completely.  Sometimes, as we stand there reading, we have to face the fact that our words are boring.  Other times the words we read make us feel that, thanks be to God, we really do belong in the guild of scholars.

I go over these thoughts whenever I attend an academic conference, and this weekend has been no different.  I’ve spent the past few days attending panels at the Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture, whose focus this year was “Kierkegaard: A Christian Thinker for Our Time?”  I gave (read? presented? offered?) a paper on The Faerie Queene‘s representation of despair and Kierkegaard’s treatment of soul-weariness, and while reading I was struck by how much of my nerve I had to muster to read through my paper as gracefully as I could.  I didn’t quite feel the swell of anxiety I get when reading something in church, but I sure came close.  I’ve presented at enough conferences by now to know how to do it—and hopefully do it well—but it was this conference that made me realize how brave we must be to subject ourselves to this kind of intellectual showmanship.

It is a brave thing to read a paper at an academic conference.  You must be vulnerable, you must have something meaningful to say, and you must do the hard work of giving your words to others in an uncomfortable, somewhat unnatural way.  You need to keep your hands from shaking and your knees from knocking.  You need to deal with your sweatiness in a hot room while you try to offer insights on a text you love.  You need to keep up your enthusiasm while checking that your voice doesn’t crack.  You need to run the terrible risk of being boring sometimes…

***

I ran into a friend at a coffee shop the other day who had just attended her first conference—and she was not impressed.  “Are conferences always like that?” she asked, implying that some of the presentations she’d heard were, well, boring.  And I caught myself saying something that I had never really articulated to myself:

“When you go to a conference, you let things pass in front of you like watching boats on a river.  And you take what you can, because something will be offered up that you yourself need.”  Is this what I do?  I think it is.  Looking over my notes from this conference, I realized that I’ve gathered my own litany of offerings from the weekend, things I learned that I never knew before, questions I never thought to ask…

Can we imagine too much?

Aesthetics and human possibility are intertwined.

Terminus is the Roman god of boundaries and limits.

What is the difference between a Genius and an Apostle?

At what point does madness bring about insight?

You can maintain virtue by cultivating intimacy with your subject and your colleagues, living and dead.

As a Christian scholar, you must hold the virtues and vices of your work in tension.

Pray before studying.

Pray before teaching (and pray for your students by name).

What does it mean to be a “Christian public intellectual”?

The etymology of “amateur” is “lover.”

Where is apostolic authority found today?

The apostle has the power and authority to demand the attention of the public.

Mary asks, “How shall this be?” as opposed to Zechariah’s question, “How shall I know this?”  Mary asks the right question.

Zechariah wants to be convinced; Mary wants to understand.

Mary is the essential Christian theologian—she “ponders these things in her heart.”

But, y’all, one of the most beautiful things I learned about this weekend was “prayer before study.”  I’m amazed that this isn’t something I learned on day one in a PhD program at a Christian university; the need for it is real, tangible, and exasperating.  This is Saint Thomas Aquinas’s prayer, and I’ve already prayed it fifty times since discovering it two days ago:

Creator of all things, true source of light and wisdom, lofty origin of all being, graciously let a ray of your brilliance penetrate into the darkness of my understanding and take from me the double darkness in which I have been born, an obscurity of both sin and ignorance.

Give me a sharp sense of understanding, a retentive memory, and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally.

Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations, and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm.

Point out the beginning, direct the progress, and help in completion; through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Something was offered up that I needed, and I’m thankful that this was it. 

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