Conference Trips: Where the Line between Research and Travel Blurs

2015 Graduate Blogger
2015 Graduate Blogger

There is one thing I always tell a new friend, especially an international student, who has recently started a graduate program in the University of Arkansas: don’t miss the opportunity to apply for a travel grant for conferences, every year if possible. Sometimes, it’s really hard to tell whether I encourage them to apply for the grant because a conference trip can be a great opportunity for us to get feedback on our writings or our projects, because it’s a stylish way to make our professor/adviser happy, or because it is an incomparably low cost way to see more of the United States. 

I would usually begin by telling this new friend that there are numerous conferences we can choose to attend and that U of A has a special funding for us. Many fresh international students don’t know national organizations in their fields, and I believe it’s understandable. However, of course, a five-minute Google search will reveal those organizations. In my field of Comparative Literature, there are a number of nation-wide organizations of this kind, such as American Comparative Literature Association, Middle East Studies Association, or Modern Languages Association. Each of these organizations has a huge annual conference involving dozens of or even over a hundred panels. Sometimes, we can also find regional conferences or even international conferences organized by Departments in certain universities. Smaller conferences like these are also great because usually major professors of the host university attend and listen to our presentations. What is more exciting—and can inspire confidence—for us international students than having great people listen to us talk about our research (of course it will be equally exciting if they also want to know about the culinary arts or the history of our homelands)?

The other thing I would tell this friend is the fact that attendance to such conference will open their eyes to current trends in our fields and meet “celebrities” in our fields. This past February, I got the opportunity to present a paper in the British Commonwealth and Post-Colonial Studies Symposium organized by Georgia Southern University. I attended panels and discussed with the panels about South Asian and Middle Eastern literatures, which are of my interest. When I was presenting my paper, I saw Dr. Barbara Harlow in the audience. For your information, in the field of Comparative Literature, Dr. Barbara Harlow is the superstar literary critic whose works deal with gender and Palestinian resistance literature. I don’t think I’m exaggerating if I say that this experience is comparable to showing my own movie with Quentin Tarantino in the audience. My paper had a lot to develop, I have to admit, but hearing her response on that paper, which I plan to develop further into a dissertation, was one of the most humbling experience I’ve had in my career as a graduate student.

If this new friend does not seem to show any interest in what I tell them, I would continue with another thing: that first-year Ph.D. students have the opportunity to apply for the travel grant even though they do not present any paper. Sometimes, reluctance to participate in conferences is just a matter of taking the first step – especially if we don’t really know the “customs.” If it were not for Asaad Al-Saleh, I would never have taken my first step. In my case, I’m just luckier because, back in 2009, Asaad told me about every detail of a conference and presentation. He built my confidence to attend and present in my first conference back in 2010, the second year of my Master’s program. He encouraged me to send an abstract to this conference and to apply for the travel grant. A couple of months later, I found myself driving a minivan Southbound with Asaad and a couple other Comparative Literature students, to New Orleans. It was a wonderful weekend—and a scholarly one. I got to present my paper about the diaspora and learned about the history of New Orleans through walking down the streets French Quarter in between panels, all of which took place in colonial-style restaurants.

Usually, by this time this friend is already eager to hit his keyboard to write an abstract or to research professional organizations in their fields. To make this friend more enthusiastic, I would just tell him or her that these conference trips have made me see great places that I wouldn’t have had the chance to visit, such as the vibrant city of Providence, Rhode Island or a small university town called Manhattan in the Middle of the Great Plains (The residents of this Manhattan call their town “the small apple”!) If it were not for the conference trip, I wouldn’t have seen New York City in person and its special feature: innumerable ethnic groups. I heard people speak dialects of English, Chinese, Japanese (and some other European languages I didn’t recognize), saw people buying Vietnamese soup in Chinatown, witnessed a Muslim man pray on the sidewalk next to his newsstand near Central Park, and saw the vivacious Washington Square where people performed acrobats or played classical music to make a living. This New York trip was really a pilgrimage for me to the “Mecca of multi-ethnicity”. Of course, it’s the combination of researching, reading my paper, and experiencing the “multi-ethnicity” of New York City that really made this trip special.

Last but not least, there are also moments when conference organizers are very good at time management. Of all the 42 weekends in a year, they choose to organize the conference on the weekend right before Spring Break. If that’s the case, well, there’s nothing to stop you from writing a paper, presenting it, taking note of comments and questions (for developing the paper in the future), then change your suits for your Spring Break clothes! Like an automobile ad in the local country music radio station says: “Everybody needs a little RnR!”

Wawan Yulianto is an international student from Indonesia and has been living in Fayetteville since 2008. His academic focus is on Muslim-American literature… Read full bio Leave a comment below.

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