The Linguistic Society of America’s Annual Meeting was held in Portland this year. About three weeks ago, I took off on a road trip with a few fellow linguists to attend. “So you went to a linguistics… conference?” my other friends asked me. “What do you do at a linguistics conference?”
The answer: largely the same things one would do at any academic conference, I’d imagine. There were thousands of people there from all over the country (and around the world!) in attendance. Hundreds of them gave presentations on their latest research in all kinds of linguistic sub-fields, such as (here’s a sampler) a diachronic analysis of the Boston accent, experimentation on imitation of Korean aspirated stops, a study of prosodic reduction in child-directed speech, and the latest research on the emergence of creaky voice (“vocal fry”) in American populations. There were also tons of presentations that involved endangered language research and preservation, and meetings of the LSA’s sister societies (e.g., the American Dialect Society, which votes on an annual Word of the Year, and The Association for Linguistic Evidence, because forensic linguistics is a thing) were concurrent. In short: there was a lot to do.
I attended lots of talks and poster sessions, hung out with my friends and made new ones from other schools, and explored downtown Portland. It was, all in all, a fun time! I didn’t go as a professional, but just as a student looking to learn as much as he could.
And while I did learn many new things from the talks I went to, I’d say that the most valuable lessons I learned involved my relationship with linguistics as a field, or with academia in general. During the conference, I took some time out to reflect on a few personal discoveries I’d made, connect the dots, and assess my feelings about my place in the throng of the intellectual bazaar. I want to share the first two ideas that came to me, which happen to be the most important, as well.
Firstly, I learned that I know nothing. I attended over a dozen talks and listened to quite a few poster presentations, and it dawned on me very quickly that I am nowhere near knowledgeable enough to be able to legitimately participate in the academic forum. Instead, I can only listen. I can’t really ask intelligent questions — yet. I can’t scrutinize anybody’s experimental methodology — yet. At this linguistics conference in Portland, in addition to munching on the city’s famous Voodoo Doughnuts, I also had a large slice of Socratic humble pie.
But I also realized that it’s easier to talk about somebody’s academic work (or even my own) in a small group setting, or even one-on-one, in the case of poster sessions or casual meetings. This format is less intimidating than venturing forth in front of a huge audience — that may or may not be live-Tweeting the proceedings — to ask a potentially stupid question or, even worse, to give a “bad talk.” And in poster sessions, a presenter can easily state their ideas more simply, backtrack, clarify — cooperative interluctionary practices that help me understand and give me more time to think things over before I speak up.
The second takeaway was that on top of knowing nothing, I can freely admit to knowing nothing, especially as a first-year graduate student. Yes, some first-year graduate students have already found their specialization, and one person in my cohort actually gave two talks at the conference! She knows what she’s doing. And I don’t. But that’s okay; I quickly got over being ashamed of being a neophyte.
You see, the upside of knowing exactly where I sit on the totem pole is that everyone who ranks above me has been overwhelmingly encouraging. For example, upperclassmen have continually reassured me that everyone gets “imposter syndrome” now and then: no one can escape feeling like they don’t belong, but it’s a fleeting feeling. My current professors, who are privy to all the mistakes I make in class and know just how scant my knowledge of their fields of expertise is, seem happy enough that I’m here at all, my utter inexperience notwithstanding. My past professors from undergrad are still cheering me on. I emailed a few of them to tell them that I was at my first conference, and their responses were so sweet. It’s nice to know that they still care about my academic experiences.
Even perfect strangers have done their part to help me feel welcome in an otherwise intimidating environment. I confided my insecurities in a few people I’d never met before. (In retrospect, I’m not sure why I did this. Social posturing is a strange phenomenon.) They told me that it was normal to feel that way I did. Just go with the flow, they said, until you hit your stride. Don’t reproach yourself for doing only as much as you know for now, and when you do venture outside of that territory and fall flat on your face? That’s okay, too.
One person even told me specifically, when I mentioned feeling out of my depth in the linguistic big leagues, that even at the LSA, there are “tons of bad talks.” I found out firsthand that this is very, very true. The thing is, talks are allowed to be bad sometimes. There’s no way that of the hundreds of presentors at a conference this large, everyone is going to nail it. But it’s okay. Who expects perfection from a beginner?
So after all of this encouragement and a healthy dose of introspection, I think that it wouldn’t be impossible, with the direction and education that I’m getting now, to work toward something that could be presented at a big or biggish conference soon (by the time I get my Master’s, perhaps). Like I said before, I’m a total neophyte. But I’m a lucky one, because I have lots of strong support here.
That’s what I learned at the LSA. It’s a scary world out there, but I have people rooting for me.
Word of the Day: anosognosia, a medical and/or psychological condition in which a person who suffers from a disability is unaware of the fact. For example, a person with stroke-induced aphasia may not realize that they have acquired aphasia (likely for the same reasons that they had a stroke in the first place), so they are without (a-) knowledge (gnosis) of their disease (nosos). I came upon this word after falling down a Wikipedic rabbit hole; it has nothing to do with this post except for the fact that its page is two clicks away from imposter syndrome.