So did you have a good GSA?

You might not expect faculty of a language department to banter around questions that bend grammatical convention like the title of this post does. “I need to submit my proposal for the GSA.” “I got into the GSA!” “Did you have a good GSA?” “The GSA” is short-hand for arguably the most significant Germanist conference in North America: The German Studies Association Annual Conference, which just occurred last week in Kansas City, MO. This was the fourth time I’ve attended – I gave a paper in Milwaukee two years ago, and attended without presenting in Louisville and Denver. It is exciting to be a part of something so central to a particular slice of the academic profession, but I’ve also found it an overwhelming and exhausting experience in years past. This time, however, I have been able to say “Yes!” to the question asked above with a more confident tone than I ever felt in years past. Here’s why:

1. I only went to five panels.

This seems like blaspheme – How dare I travel on university money across the country, and only attend 5 panels when I had the opportunity to attend twice as many? The program itself was the length of a short novel; there were truly only five topics that interested me? But I have to say, being selective in the choice of panels attended was a huge contributor to my positive attitude. Previously I felt obligated to attend as many talks as possible, to be exposed to as many scholars and ideas as I could squeeze in. All that produced for me was a sense of inferiority and hopelessness. I would never be able to know as much as the other people I saw presenting! And more often than not, presentations that promised to be innovative, ground breaking, and add relevance to German Studies fell short of the lofty goal I had built up for them. I left feeling like we had no choice as a profession but to remain dedicated navel-gazers. This time, I went to presentations I was intrinsically curious about. That ended up being only five of the hundreds offered. The result of this was that, regardless of the quality of the papers I heard, most of which I learned a great deal from, my desire and curiosity, and not my sense of duty, remained intact.

2. I presented first thing on the first day. I had one “genuine” audience member.

Unfortunately, scheduling is completely out of participants’ control, and thus this benefit is one I have no way of guaranteeing in the future. But it was a huge relief to have my presentation out of the way, and save my energy for listening, not for worrying and revising. The second point is an unfortunate downside of the same schedule. 8AM panels are notoriously ill-attended, a condition exacerbated by the creation of seminars that meet all three days of the conference, always at 8AM. Nevertheless, the small size of our panel and audience allowed for a level of candor both about our subject and our research conditions that might have been stifled in a larger setting. Perhaps this particular set of panelists would never have dissolved into grandstanding and academic chest-thumping, but the pressure to conform to this tradition would have been much higher if we had been in front of a large, anonymous audience expecting nothing less.

3. I went for two 3-mile runs and a bike ride.

This is the part of my story that really activates the guilt from my first statement. I chose physical activity over the life of the mind! My internal jocks-vs-nerds identity is feeling betrayed. Now, to be sure, the first run was before the conference even started, and the bike ride was during the end of the last panel. But, and I am mustering all my newly minted PhD. resolve to defend this choice: my participation in panels, conversations, and networking opportunities was significantly improved by the mental clarity and emotional regulation that physical activity affords. Of course, this sort of moderation as a concept is not new at all, as any scholar of the eighteenth century must know. Still, it feels risky to admit it – risky for my “academic reputation,” whatever that is. Long term, though, I think it is riskier to support the “brain on a stick” myth a moment longer. So my secret is out: when I go to a conference, I bring my body with me, and still have to take care of it like I would at home. That includes running.

That’s it! I took care of myself and my work, and I had a good conference. Seems simple, right? Looking forward to it not seeming surprising.

 

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