Monday, October 3, 2011

Two Conferences, Too Different

A few days ago, someone commented that I looked exhausted. I was asked if this was the results of the ongoing bronchitis battle and the flooding issues with our house. Most people would have agreed or said something simple to dismiss the question. The problem with being exhausted is that I end up answering questions bluntly.

"I'm tired of being around so many people," I answered. "I need some time to recover."

I had attended two conferences, one on Friday and another on Saturday. That meant dealing with people — and trying not to mess up too badly. I'm sure the second conference went poorly, since I was too tired to monitor myself effectively. The first conference, however, went relatively well because I arrived, spoke, and left. That's always the best way for me to deal with situations. Leave before I have to deal with too many one-on-one interactions.

Speaking to a group, as I did on Friday, is relatively easy. I don't have to be polite, because people are listening to me speak. I don't have to know how to deal with the flow of conversation because there is no flow. I speak, the audience listens. When I speak, the reviews are generally positive, even when I don't feel great about the presentation.

But, the second conference, which was an academic conference, was tough. I sat in the back row of the meeting room for presentations, but  the luncheon and the reception after the conference required dealing with people and social interactions. Even though I sat alone in the meeting room, people sat on either side of me at the luncheon. Not good.

I am not good at "couching" my statements in the obtuse and polite language of chit-chat. It is best to avoid conversations, but I was too tired to force myself to disengage. It is frustrating that I didn't walk away from people or avoid interpersonal moments. I make that mistake when I am exhausted, and then I compound the mistake by not keeping quiet.

The Friday conference was a gathering of authors. Some of the men and women were openly hostile to formal writing education. I enjoyed the panel I moderated in part because the participants were not afraid to criticize how our schools and universities teach writing. I always find it interesting that popular writers hold writing programs (especially MFA programs) in some disdain. Of course, some MFA programs hold popular fiction in disdain, too.

The Saturday conference? It was a gathering of writing professors and graduate students. I don't belong in the group, no matter what my job is or my title. I enjoyed being among writers, I didn't enjoy time with academics.

I know the professors are smart. I know they are well-intentioned people. I also know I disagree with them on nearly every topic they discussed. The right thing to do is listen silently. Yet, I can't keep my mouth shut when I should. Normal people learn to be silent or to express themselves in ways that aren't entire "honest" in these situations.

Like most people, I want to fit in with my colleagues. I want to be "normal" in academic situations. I want to seem less disagreeable and less annoyed with the views being expressed than I am. I want to sit there, silently if necessary, and not be compelled to speak up on some topics. I want to be able to walk away and recover before I say the wrong things. I don't deal well with the attitudes I encounter at academic conferences. I'm also certain the academics have no idea they are so different from the people I meet at other conferences or within other groups.

Don't get me wrong: I love teaching and I love my university job. I just feel like an outsider much of the time.

I should have skipped the luncheon on Saturday and I should have left immediately after the last presentation. If I hadn't been tired, I would have been able to force myself to leave. It is strange that when I am tired is when I end up engaging with people more than I should. You'd imagine that when I am tired I would want to leave and relax. Instead, my ability to evaluate situations fails and I don't recognize that I need to get away from interactions. Yet, I also know things aren't going well — so I am aware of my failings even though I don't act to remove myself promptly.

Social networking, which is a career skill, is not a skill I possess most of the time. I have to be well-rested and able to mask my personality if I want to make a decent impression on others.

How am I going to coordinate writing programs without too much exposure to academic gatherings? It is going to be difficult, but I do need to develop a strategy for dealing with my colleagues that will not offend them or seem too evasive. I need to be good at this job. That means not being myself, and when I can't control my mind it means not being present at all.

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