Category Archives: Conferences

Final thoughts

This being my third year in an Art History Program and my first time at the CAA conference, I feel at times like I’m still a little wet behind the ears. From time to time, I peruse the curricula vitae of my professors and stare with my mouth agape at all they have accomplished: articles, panels, books, television specials, etc. It’s a pedigree wholly unmatched by my skimpy, two-page bio. I haven’t published any papers, after all, and my dissertation topic is still nebulous at best. Outside the walls of my own institution, I’ve only presented a single conference paper, and I’ve yet to become the recipient of any terrifically generous grant. Yes, at times it’s easy to feel as though I haven’t accomplished much in my brief career as a PhD student, and I wonder if maybe I’m off to a slow start.

But conferences possess a certain knack, I’ve found, for bringing out the best in us. For example, at the Dumbarton Oaks conference last October, a scholar whom I admire a great deal introduced herself to me out of the blue one morning over coffee. (She introduced herself to me!) She said simply, “Hi, I’m S0-and-So, and I study Precolumbian art. What do you do?” I wanted to tell her, “Excuse me, but I know EXACTLY who you are! You’re the greatest! I’ve read all your books!” Yet surprisingly, I maintained my cool and we ended up talking for quite some time. In the end, she signed a book of hers that I had just bought from the museum bookstore with the inscription: “To William, who will bring new energy and understanding to our field.” A sweet but simple note, I know — but I swear my heart almost leapt from my chest!

And then a few days ago, here at the CAA conference, I witnessed one of my own esteemed professors — who is normally very composed and eloquent — sort of stumble and balk during her talk as she wrestled with technical difficulties and slides that were a little out of order. By no means did I take delight in her momentary fluster, but I did (for the first time) see that she was prone to mistakes as well. I realized that even she gets nervous sometimes and that these kinks and mishaps I so lament happen to everyone. It was a huge relief, and I definitely took notes on all the beautiful ways that she recovered herself.

Finally, yesterday afternoon, I approached a former professor with whom I had not spoken much since he wrote me a letter of recommendation three years ago. I approached him with (I’m sure) a little awe in my eyes. I told him with all honesty how much his writings and courses had meant to me, and that what I am doing today is in large part because of his influence. He seemed genuinely touched, replying, “Well, you were always one of our stars! We’re just glad to hear you’re doing well.” I then tried to offer to repay the favor somehow, offering my services if he should ever need help with archival research or something like that here in New York. He iterated rather magnanimously that, “No, please. Your success is truly repayment enough. Just keep us informed of what you’re doing. That would mean to world to us.” Wow. What a fantastically cool thing to say.

Yes, conferences provide us that rare opportunity to gather, mix, dance, and speak with one another with unusual ease of access. As often as we see each other struggle and strain to be more than we think we are, we witness one other being virtuous and grandiloquent. Absolutely, it’s a chance to see how we stack up against our forebears and the dreaded competition. But it’s also a chance to be humbled and validated. Humbled not simply because others are kind in their words, but because you realize that everyone has stumbled many times in their lives and will do it many times more. And you finally see that it’s all in how you learn from these moments, how you carry yourself afterward, wherein all the difference lies. The focus is not on becoming just like someone whom you admire, but to be the best you can be while never losing touch with those who spurred you along so many years ago. In the end, it’s not about paying anything back — it’s about paying it all forward.

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