Academia and introversion often go hand-in-hand. Introverts prefer to work alone and engage in highly personalized research. They find socializing in large groups draining, preferring smaller interactions. They hate large gatherings filled with lots of people and small talk in favor of smaller and more intimate conversations. The major academic conferences (AHA, OAH, SHEAR, SHA etc.) were the worst part of academia for me as an introvert.
Graduate conferences, on the other hand, were relatively easy to navigate. They had small numbers of people, generally everyone fit into a large conference room or filled a quarter of an auditorium. The participants and organizers were all graduate students who were similarly anxious and excited about presenting their research. The commenters were generally faculty at the host or other nearby institution. Their comments were critical, but kind. The crowds between the breaks were small, maybe a dozen or so people hanging out in the hallway or walking to the next session. There was simply less to take in and potentially be overwhelmed by.
My trips to major conferences, however, were often overwhelming. Entering the ballrooms and reception halls for the various receptions were a flashpoint for my anxieties. Like most introverts, I’m highly reactive to new situations, trying to take everything in and assess the situation. At the big receptions, where I knew only a handful of people, I’d latch on to the few people I knew and wouldn’t let go. I had to deliver the same spiel over and over. “I’m from U-Del.” “I study physical confrontations between slaves and whites.” “Yes, I’m enjoying the conference.” “No, I didn’t see that panel.” Having to engage in the same conversation again and again would drain all the energy from me. I’d last as long as I could before the voice in the back of my head demanded that I go back to my room and recharge.
Being in the audience for other panels and sessions was also particularly difficult. I tried to arrive early to stake a seat in the back away from the crowd, but invariably I’d always have to make small talk with a stranger before the panel started. I’m sure the people who struck up conversations could sense my anxiety. Often the rooms would be packed with people, giving me more things to think about and more people to potentially have awkward interactions with. Afterwards I would often replay the conversations in my head and chide myself for my awkwardness. One time I went in to say thank you to a participant on a panel I had organized, but once I realized he was surrounded by a group of friends and I couldn’t immediately get his attention I just left. I’m sure someone noticed my awkward lurching around, only compounding my self-consciousness.
Despite the stereotypes about introverts being shy or awkward, I had no problems delivering my papers in rooms of varying capacities. It was just like giving a lecture. And I loved lecturing. How could I not? I had an audience interested in what I was saying. What can be more personally affirming than that? I would rehearse my papers again and again. I’d read them aloud in the basement of my apartment. I’d time myself, note areas where I stumbled over my words, and tried to limit my use of jargon. I approached every presentation like I was trying to tell a story. On the day of my panel, I would reread my paper incessantly. I’d find a quiet corner of the hotel and scribble down some last-minute changes. Twenty minutes later, I’d change it all back. My presentations always went fine. Thanks to my constant practice I never went over time. The Q&A portions were seldom challenging since I rarely got any questions. Whether that was a testament to the quality or lack thereof of my papers, I’ll never know.
Eventually, I figured out ways to manage my stress and my introversion. I told myself that it was okay to retreat to my room when I needed to. I allowed myself to skip sessions if nothing particularly interested me or if I just needed a break. I took solace in walks alone and leaving the hotel to eat. I would try to get as far away from the conference as I could and disappear into a restaurant with a book or my iPad. All of this, I believe, was essential for me to succeed at conferences. I will never be holding court at the hotel bar. I’ll never be the panel participant inviting strangers to come to his hotel room to watch the big college football game. And that’s okay.
As I’ve travelled more for my non-academic job, I’ve gotten better at dealing with my introversion away from home. I do my research ahead of time and look for places that I might like to go. For me, that’s restaurants and bookstores. Ultimately, I hope that my experiences remind other academic introverts of their own experiences. Maybe this will help some of them navigate conferences as best they can and remind them that there’s nothing wrong with needing to get away from it all for a while.