Friday, March 2, 2012

my conference horror story

I think that we all can agree that this blog is missing some good stories of yours truly making a fool of himself. So, it is probably time that this gets corrected.

This post is inspired by the all of the first and second year graduate students who are heading out into the wild world to present at their first linguistics conferences. I've had numerous discussions over lunch or what-have-you and it has made me reminisce over some of my past experiences at conferences.

In many ways, I've been blessed. Sure, I've been to some conferences that weren't quite what I expected, but I've gained something from everyone that I've been to.

Still, there's one that I like to think back on. It's a funny story. In the end, it was probably one of the best conferences I ever attended, but it so easily could've been a total disaster.

It all started about a week and a half before I set to go out. I had finished a draft of my handout and sent it out for comments. A phonetician who I was quite close with was the first to give me comments. She asked about a data paradigm I hadn't considered. It didn't fit. At all. The analysis just couldn't handle it.


So, there I was, with very little time and I needed to solve this problem. The insight I had had before was still interesting and relevant, but, boy, it needed to be modified. For the next week I spent virtually every moment trying to solve the problem. Eventually, I came to something-- I was now leaving in less than two days. (It wasn't perfect. Certainly clunky. But parts of it do survive in my dissertation.)

I still had to prep my class for the time I was going to be gone, not to mention catch up to a certain extent on the work I had neglected otherwise. I had no time to do a formal practice talk. I barely had time to read over my handout...

I had a long plane flight, followed by a long shuttle ride (the host institution was not in a city with an airport). Perfect. I can go over it while traveling in detail, then do a few time talks before bed. Not ideal, but beats nothing.

The morning comes. My stomach is in knots. Nerves and the lack of sleep coupled with my already existing slight issues with air travel are not treating me well. On my way out the door, I grab some Imodium.

Little did I know at the time, but I wasn't taking Imodium. I was taking a sleep aid that looks nearly identical.

I'm on the plane. I pull out my handout. I can't concentrate at all. I'm feeling really cloudy mentally. And my stomach STILL hurts. I know that you can take Imodium fairly frequently so I take another dose.

Really, at this point, I'm just lucky I didn't seriously harm myself.

We land. I need to change planes. Delayed. I wander around the airport. I feel ill and incredibly exhausted; I worry I'm coming down with something terrible.

I arrive at the final airport just in time to see my shuttle speed away. Next one comes in 2.5 hours. Great. I won't make it to the hotel until well after 11pm now. I try once more to read over my handout but my mind is just not there.

We roll into the hotel. I get into my room and immediately set the alarm, my phone alarm and get a wake-up call. I'm out.

I wake up the next morning with a pounding headache. I still feel bleary but not as bad as before. I pound down more coffee than I thought was humanly possible. I am nowhere near 100%, but I am more like Jeff. That's good, it is almost show-time.

I remember very little from my talk. I was the second speaker. The room was fairly crowded. And the attendees were bigger names than I ever could've expected. It went by in a flash.

At first, I was just relieved it was over.

But as the conference went on, something funny happened. People kept asking me questions from my talk. I apparently had piqued some interest. I had started discussions. That's what a conference talk is all about.

Somehow, out of what should've been a disaster, I made numerous professional contacts with people I would now consider friends. Out of the discussions I got the basis of what would be the earliest parts of my dissertation. This should've been much worse. Instead, I look back on that conference as one of the best I've ever attended-- probably one of the best I ever will attend.

So that's the message I'd want to get out. It'll all be alright. Sometimes things go wrong. But at the end of the day, you never know where the real blessings are going to come.

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