Given that I claimed my main reason for blogging so infrequently was that I didn’t have anything to say, I feel a little bad that I’ve had two planned posts for the last couple of weeks and have yet to write either of them. So here goes!
Nearly two weeks ago now, I went to the Tales and Transmission conference organised by the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic department at Cambridge. It was a conference looking at Irish and Scottish Gaelic literature from 700AD to the present, which is obviously something that interests me, especially because throughout my degree I felt like I wanted to look more at how those stories developed after the medieval period.
Going to an academic conference despite not being an academic or currently affiliated with a university is possibly a slightly strange thing to do, but it wouldn’t be the first time. I joke that I’m a fake academic, and it’s true, but why shouldn’t I? For me it’s a chance to learn (in 20-minute chunks), but most importantly, it’s a chance to chat to real academics and see what’s going on in the academic world now that I’ve detached myself from it.
The first time I went to a conference was the Ulidia-Finn conference on Skye last summer. It was immediately after my finals and I thought at the time it was a chance to end on a high when it came to academics, since I was leaving and wouldn’t be coming back. This, in some ways, made it more chill (if I embarrassed myself I could comfort myself with the knowledge that I’d never see any of them again), but it was still a fairly nerve-wracking experience.
I was one of only two undergrads, I think, and I was largely too intimidated to have academic conversations with any of the Serious Researchers — after all, many of them had been assigned reading during my undergrad. As a result, I ended up hanging around largely with the postgrads and other early career people, simply because I found them less intimidating too talk to. That’s fine — I made some friends, and I’m still in touch with them, and they have as much to the offer to the conversation as the so-called Eminent Scholars — but I felt like my anxiety had held me back slightly.
The second conference I went to was a small grad conference in the ASNC department, which I primarily attended because a bunch of my friends were giving papers and I wanted to support them, so that was way more chill. This one was somewhere in between — only two days, in a familiar place, with several familiar speakers, but also with a number of well-respected names whose work I’d read.
And it’s funny how being a fake makes things easier.
You see, being outside of academia means I have very little to lose in these situations. These people aren’t my supervisors, my colleagues, my teachers. If I say something silly, who cares? It also takes the pressure off — I’m not representing any department, I don’t have to be a credit to anyone, no one expects anything when you’re just there for fun.
I resolved that this time, lack of letters after my name or not, I would just … talk to people.
It helped that I’d met some of them before. A few people remembered me from Ulidia-Finn, and recognised me as a fellow nerd, which neatly broke the ice and meant I could join in conversations without feeling like I had to start from scratch every time. Others didn’t indicate that they knew who I was, but since I knew who they were and knew we’d chatted before, I felt able to join conversations they were having without the need to explicitly introduce myself.
I ended up having a bunch of really great conversations, but I made one mistake, and I made it repeatedly: I confessed that despite my assertion that I wouldn’t be doing a master’s, I actually had half a master’s thesis proposal on my computer, at which point whoever I was talking to immediately asked, “Oh, what is it?”
You’d think, after the first time when I hastily scrambled to summarise my ideas in an academic manner, I’d have learned. But no. I think it was partly because I didn’t think anyone would actually be interested, so every time someone asked, it caught me by surprise all over again.
But people were interested. I’m used to non-Celtic Studies people glazing over when I give even the most basic summary of what I’m interested in looking at. I tell them I’m exploring the figure of Láeg mac Riangabra and even once I’ve explained who that is, it’s rare for them to really get it or care, even if they’re generally supportive because it’s me and they’re nice.
Turns out, when you tell this to people who actually care about the Ulster Cycle, suddenly they’re asking you questions, contributing ideas — and listening. There’s something profoundly validating at sitting at a table with someone whose books you read during your undergrad degree, telling them what you know about a figure, and them saying, “Oh, that’s fascinating, I didn’t know that.”
The thing about this research project that I have in mind, too, is that I always thought it was something that only interested me. Yes, it has some academic merit, but it didn’t feel like it would be a meaningful contribution to the field, something that would change Celtic Studies as a discipline. I still don’t think it would, but one of the people I was talking to (whose academic work I really respect) was of the opinion that not only was this something no one had done, it was something that someone should do, and that I should be that person, and that it would be useful and interesting to other people.
I… might have cried a little bit under the weight of that sweet, sweet academic validation.
This despite the fact I was relatively sure I didn’t want to do a master’s.
At the end of the conversation, though, that particular person said, “It was nice to meet you!” — just to puncture my ego a little bit, because we’d met. At Ulidia-Finn. And had at least one proper conversation there. But hey, it was last year, it was busy, we were halfway up a hill at the time — I understand, and I’m not uspet about it. I do feel like I must have come across as super confident, because I’d just joined this conversation as though I had a right to be there despite being infinitely less qualified than the people at the table, but it’s because I thought we’d already broken that ice last year, haha.
I suffer a lot from impostor syndrome when I’m being academic on the internet, partly as a result of not currently being In Academia, partly as a result of being English in my chosen field. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from following a lot of academics on Twitter, it’s that impostor syndrome doesn’t really go away. It’s like writing that way.
But somehow, I’m learning to embrace that a little bit. When I go to a conference as a ‘fake academic’, I know I’m an impostor… and that takes the fear out of it. If anything, it’s an excuse to be fearless. If I make a mistake, I can chalk it up to being an outsider, and that’s okay, because I am? I think I’d feel differently if I felt like I was supposed to be an insider, but because I’m emphatically not, I have a degree of protection from that.
I also learned that, although I’m sure there are plenty of snobs out there who will look down on people without a string of letters after their name, for the most part if you have interesting ideas people want to hear them, regardless of whether or not you’ve got qualifications to ‘prove’ that you have interesting ideas.
I talked to at least three different people in the field about my personal research interests, and not once did I feel like they weren’t interested or that their interest was condescending, ‘support the baby academic’ type thing — they legitimately wanted to hear what I had to say. That Eminent Scholars would acknowledge that my weird obsession with Láeg means I might even know stuff about him that they don’t, and that they’d find it interesting to listen to me expound on the topic… it meant a lot.
And the main reason I had the confidence to talk about it was because I knew I was an impostor and I stopped caring.
There were some interesting papers at Tales & Transmission. I took some detailed notes on a few, and recorded a couple of others when my wrist pain kicked in and I couldn’t type any more. But the reason I’m glad I went wasn’t because of what people said when they stood at the front of the room and spoke.
It was what people said while we were having tea, while we were at the pub for the dinner and performance in the evening, while we were hanging around and chatting. All the informal stuff. The conversations with younger academics about the role of memes in academia (crucial). The jokes about shared acquaintances who weren’t present. The faces I can now put to names (even with my mild faceblindness and generally appalling memory for names). The academics who have gone from names on the front of a book to people I actually feel like I know.
And the conversations where I was able to contribute my own ideas, and be listened to, in a way that felt astonishingly validating.
So who knows. Maybe I’ll do a master’s after all. Apparently there are several people who would want me to.
And if I don’t?
Well, I’ll probably see you all at a conference some time anyway.