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How to Conference Again: A Conversation with Kate Stevens

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

Join Erika Sakaguchi (University of Toronto) and Kate Stevens (Rutgers University) as they talk about the excitement of returning to in-person conferences, conference attendance as a graduate student, and the importance of conference equity and accessibility.



In this podcast, Erika Sakaguchi of the University of Toronto sits down with Kate Stevens of Rutgers University in order to talk about the recent conference: Impoverished Aesthetics: New Approaches to Marginality in Latin Literature. Listen in to join in the conversation as they shine a light on the experience of attending and presenting at a conference. They will discuss returning to in-person conferences in a pandemic, attendance as a graduate student, and strategies for ensuring the accessibility of conferences.

Erika: Welcome to our podcast following the October conference: Impoverished Aesthetics: New Approaches to Marginality in Latin Literature. I am Erika Sakaguchi, a second-year PhD student at the University of Toronto. Our guest today is none other than Kate Stevens, who presented their paper on Martial and the aesthetics of illness: “gula est: Appropriating the aesthetics of illness in Martial’s Epigrams.” They are currently a PhD candidate at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where they focus on epigram and literature of the Roman imperial period more broadly. Hello Kate, welcome to the podcast! How are you doing?

Kate: I’m doing well, Erika, thank you for having me! I’m delighted to chat more about this conference.

E: Thank you for joining us! So, for people who were not able to make the panel, would you mind telling us a bit about your paper?

K: Sure! For this paper, “gula est” — greed — appropriating the aesthetics of illness in Martial’s Epigrams, I was looking at malingerers in Martial, malingerers being people who fake illness. These people in Martial’s epigrams — scattered all throughout — they are faking being sick, and I argue that they are faking being sick for a specific reason: in order to manipulate social guidelines and social norms for their own benefit. Basically, they are adopting a particular, specific aesthetic of illness, generally things that can be faked without much effort, things that don’t require a lot of pain on their end, but are generally recognized as dangerous illnesses, fever, in particular. And they’re faking that aesthetic in order to get sympathy, gifts, and a “get out of jail free” card to get out of social obligations in a way that burdens others, particularly Martial, in his opinion. I also talk a little bit about two malingerers who don’t fall quite into that pattern partially because they are putting a lot more effort and suffer a lot more consequences for their particular aesthetic that they adopt.

E: What drew you to write about aesthetics, in particular, the aesthetics of illness? Why do you think Martial facilitates the discussion of aesthetics so well?

K: So Martial is a fascinating resource for this type of stuff, because he is so interested — I mean, he’s interested in many things, we have a very rich corpus in Martial — he is very interested in presentation. How do people present themselves, whether that’s in regard to social class: how do they use clothing, how do they use makeup. And this particular group of people who are faking illness is a very productive size to investigate. It wasn’t too many — and you often have that problem in Martial because there are around 1500 epigrams. It’s a lot! There’s a lot of stuff there. But he is really interested in people and their daily lives, and how they present themselves in a way as a social tool, whether that’s for them to present themselves in a certain way or for Martial to be able to reveal something about them through their presentation.

E: Yeah, that’s great! You already have considerable experience presenting at conferences. But, at this one, since it was a themed conference rather than an open-call, with a variety of scholars from differing academic situations and specializations coming together to talk about ancient aesthetics, how did you feel anticipating the conference and how did you feel once you were there?

K: I was very excited for this conference. I have some conference experience; I was involved in the Impoverished Aesthetics panel that was at the Classical Association this past April, which was also organized by Lorenza and Rebecca and which was a fantastic experience, but a very different one than the development and interest of a themed conference. With a themed conference, you have a group of people who are all very interested in the topic and who are interested in working on a question or topic productively. As opposed to an open-call conference, where sometimes, your paper’s just out there, and you might get a question, and that question may or may not be what you find interesting. It might be what the question-asker finds interesting. You’re having this group of people who are all thinking about certain things in a particular way that’s similar — even though everyone’s paper was on a different author, a different thing in that author — everyone was thinking about it through the lens of “how do we think about this in this idea of this impoverished aesthetic — everyone was thinking about aesthetics, everyone was thinking about the question in a similar direction. And that can be very daunting, very intimidating, to have the prospect of people really interrogating your paper from a paper of deep knowledge and deep thinking themselves. But that’s also really exciting. It’s really exciting to have people ask you questions that will strengthen your paper, strengthen your own thinking, to have colleagues engage with you in a way that is meant to be deeply productive. And it was! It was daunting, I was nervous, but everyone there was very excited to work together and to talk about their shared approach. And you know, as a grad student, and as the only grad student presenting at this conference, there was a little bit of performance anxiety there: “would I be able to hold my own?” And the welcoming nature of this conference, and the way it was done, everyone was very thoughtful. Everyone was engaging with each other, everyone brought different questions to the table, and that was really exciting and productive.

E: Yeah, it seemed like a really great, supportive environment when I was there. Did you have any particular takeaways or questions that you thought were useful for your own research?

K: Yeah, I found that it’s not all the question and answer. It has been difficult in the past couple of years with online conferences. Online conferences can be held in a way that you can get some of that small talk in the back end, but it’s really difficult. It requires a lot more effort on everyone’s part in order to have those small interactions. I felt very lucky to feel comfortable enough to go to this conference. I felt very safe, it was really exciting to be able to have those small conversations on the side, where it’s not just in the question and answer period, but in the “oh this was really interesting, I think this could apply to my research too,” or “this is something I encountered in my research.” And I found that incredibly productive.

E: Wonderful! You mentioned that this conference in particular was very welcoming and accessible, and I wanted to ask: do you have any advice for people organizing conferences? What do you think makes conferences fulfilling and accessible for scholars? What have you found that organizers can do to make them welcoming and comfortable for presenters, especially junior scholars?

K: I’ve attended a handful of conferences, I’ve run a conference, I am no expert on conferences, but the things that I have found, generally, incredibly useful — and these are things that particularly Rebecca and Lorenza did an amazing job at with this conference — they were very communicative and clear in their communications and very responsive by email, but I didn’t necessarily feel the need to ask too many questions because the information, the format, the schedule, all of that was provided in a very clear way that made it a lot less stressful to feel like I was not in the know of how I should be acting and engaging in this conference. They also did a wonderful job with regards to providing swift reimbursement for things. I am really glad they were able to get this grant to help scholars to travel there, which made it a lot easier. That’s not always the case, but it does make it a lot easier, not just for grad students, but for all types of less-settled scholars. Being a grad student means I have access to university funds in a way that, say, independent scholars don’t, or adjuncts don’t always. Even junior faculty don’t always have the flexibility to put a lot of money up front. And the swift reimbursement was wonderfully supportive and it made me feel very much how thoughtful they were being. They also did a lot of great work making sure that everyone was able to socialize comfortably, providing a lot of structured opportunities to do so. The structured opportunities to chat I find are incredibly useful. And those are things you can do with an online conference too, it just requires different effort. Happily, all of these things that I’ve mentioned are things that make a conference better for all attendees. And that was also how it was approached in this case, which meant that I never felt singled out — I don’t anybody felt singled out — because the information was presented in a clear, matter-of-fact way and there was no feeling of an unnecessary special treatment. It was just “let’s make it more accessible for everyone!” because it makes it easier for those who have less resources to also attend and have it be as big of a deal, which is fantastic!

E: Absolutely, that’s great advice. I think they catered really well as well. That provided space for chatting at the lunch breaks and it was delicious food.

K: Oh that was so helpful! Keeping everyone fuelled: vital.

E: Absolutely, that was wonderful. I wanted to ask a bit about your process going through a conference and your mindset as you go through it. So I have a few questions about that.

K: Absolutely!

E: For example: what was your process for turning your work into a presentation? What did you have to take into account for the conference setting in particular?

K: So, I really enjoyed writing my paper for this conference. I wrote it for the call-for-papers, for the original Classical Association panel, which is a bit different of a process than turning a seminar paper or a chapter from a written format into a spoken format. Writing it as a spoken format, y’know, it’s a different type of process. Because it is a spoken document, made for speaking, I was able to make it a bit more conversational, and it flows better, right? Sometimes when I am writing a thing that is for, for being written, whether that’s an article, or a chapter, or a paper, it can get really dense and complicated in terms of sentence structure. So being able to write it in a more fluid way, right, I wasn’t converting something. Even when you’re converting something, i think it’s really important to, not just pull things straight over, but write in a way that makes sense as you’re speaking, pay attention to how you’re speaking. I was also able to practice this and get feedback from my colleagues over the process of writing it, which was really great. It’s always really helpful as you’re writing to get feedback from colleagues. And the more you present, the better a sense you have of how to present, how you sound when you’re going too fast, right, it’s very easy to be deafened to how fast you’re going, and often that’s too fast. And getting a better sense of that, becoming more comfortable, being able to look up from your paper and smile, right, all of those things are a- a benefit of more practice.

E: Usually I hear about people transforming papers that they’ve already had, for a topic or for a conference but, yeah that sounds–

K: Right!

E: –like a totally different process, mmhmm.

K: Right, it’s- it’s both– like– It totally depends on, where you are in– how much time do you have to write. Everything you write should be useful–it’s not always going to be exactly how you think it’s going to be useful…but you’re always going to use something from what you’ve written. No research should be wasted. I’m excited because I will be able to integrate pieces of this into my dissertation. And it is something that is very much related to my dissertation, but wasn’t exactly the same, and so that was really exciting.

E: Yeah! Yeah, that sounds really useful.

K: Extremely!

E: Were there any main challenges that you faced as you prepared for and attended the conference?

K: So, this is a challenge that I worked through. I think that a trap that’s really easy to fall into–and I do it all the time and it’s something that I need to keep an eye on to not do– is making sure to not close my argument too much in a paper or presentation. Right, when –like especially for this conference, where I knew there were going to be people who were genuinely interested in the topic and wanted to see how much they could engage and push this type of theoretical approach– I think it’s really easy to feel like your argument needs to be completed, and closed off and done and you can answer any question that comes up. I think that’s a common thing that people do. And I think that it is really important to leave space, for taking big swings and leaving space for collaboration! Leaving spaces where you’re not entirely sure where you’re going, or where you want a little bit more feedback–that’s the joy of a conference. Being able to get feedback on something you’re working on, and to collaborate, and to stretch out and- and to be able to think through things in dialogue with your fellow colleagues. It’s an incredibly valuable resource, being able to collaborate like this! And leaving yourself openings where you’re not entirely sure is not a bad thing, and is in fact the place where your argument can grow stronger. And I think it’s a totally reasonable fear that if you have those gaps, you’re going to be seen as not as- as ‘strong on your topic’ or that you ‘don’t know what’s going on actually’ where, in reality, those are the places that you’re leaving open for collaboration and growth.

[[NB: thank you to Michael Brumbaugh for his advice on this topic! Join the WCC and take advantage of the excellent mentoring program!]]

E: Mmm, yeah, yeah as someone who has attended conferences as a grad student, it can be intimidating. Something that I dread is always the questions, if I were presenting, you know, it’s, it’s sort of this big intimidating thing. Like, oh, am I going to look like a fool up there, you know–

K: Totally!

E: Yeah, yeah. It is a frightening thing but, you’re right, yeah, it’s– to look at it as an opportunity for growth and for collaboration is really what it’s for-

K: Right-

E: So that’s wonderful.

K: It’s not– it’s not an oral exam. Right? This is about making your argument stronger, about talking– about being an expert in your paper, and talking about it with other people, and working through problems on the spot or later or in dialogue. Opening up doors of conversation, right, and- and things will come out of that that you can’t even imagine.

E: Yeah, that’s wonderful advice. That seems like, yeah, adjusting the mindset in order to be open to collaboration with other scholars, that’s wonderful.

K: And it takes practice! It always takes practice.

E: Absolutely, yeah. It’s going to get less intimidating, do you find, the more you go to conferences?

K: Totally. Right? As you–even just, like, attending is wonderful, it’s also something that needs practice. That is a different skill than presenting at a conference, right. These are all skills, that are not…really specifically taught, partially because it’s incredibly difficult to, and it is a lot–very much dependent on context.

E: Mmhmm, absolutely.

E: Ok, so you did mention being a graduate student at the conference. So, what advice–you did mention some advice, but what further advice would you give to fellow graduate students who are looking to present their research at conferences like this or who are considering it?

K: I think– and right, you know, everyone’s experience engaging with the field is going to be different for a variety of reasons. My– I can only really speak to my own experience, but I have personally found that acting as a colleague, right…When you are at a conference, it is important to have a sense of what the norms are. And that is the difficult part, right, that is- that is the knowledge that is very difficult to access, especially for people who are coming to the field from not deeply deeply steeped in academic backgrounds, or- or all sorts of other reasons, right. Norms are those things that are not communicated well, as we see in Martial himself, right. Having a sense of those helps. As a graduate student, as a candidate, as someone who is junior, junior in the field but- but working, researching…you are a colleague. And you are an expert in what you are talking about, what you are researching, what you are dissertating on, what you are presenting on. You are the expert in your argument. There are things you are not necessarily an expert on, but your argument? You’re the one who made it. And you deserve to be confident in that, and to not be defensive about it, but to try and engage in good faith, and to not necessarily…be overly deferential but to be respectful, but to act as a colleague among colleagues. Because, you are there on merits, too. You are also there on your own merit. And so being confident in that, will make you feel a lot better.

E: Yeah, that’s– very useful for me. And I think that it will be useful for a lot of people, especially since, in the academy, there’s a lot of imposter syndrome, there’s a lot of intimidation about going to big events, where there are so many really experienced scholars. So, I think-

K: I mean, right, a big event– Social- social stuff is hard!

E: Yeah.

K: Social stuff is very hard. Especially when there are a lot of different types of generational expectations. It is very difficult to navigate those. Especially if it’s not something you have a lot- a ton of experience in, if you don’t have a ton of practice with, and if you have any type of— any type of disability, or difference, or neurodiversity, or anything that is– makes you feel like the odd one out, is going to make it more difficult to feel confident. But…you’re there, and it wasn’t a mistake.

E: Mmm, in particular, after the pandemic, sort of, exacerbated a lot of issues, because we were cut off from so many people, but…Yeah, such a large part of the humanities, and academia is interacting with other people. And that can be-

K: And everyone’s practicing again! Right?

E: Yeah.

K: You brought up the pandemic. Everyone’s practicing being in person and engaging again. Right, we’re all coming back to it. At different places but, everyone’s gonna be a little weird for a little while.

E: Ayup.

K: And trying to act with grace about that, both to yourself and to others, is something that will– right, treating others with grace makes it a lot easier to treat yourself with grace.

E: That’s beautifully put, thank you.

K: Martial wouldn’t say it like that! But.


E: I think you put it better than Martial.


E: So finally, looking back, so where are you in your research as a PhD candidate and where do you see it heading? And do you think you’ll integrate more thoughts on aesthetics in your future research, or was that sort of a diversion for you?

K: I– So currently I am in the process of writing my dissertation, on Martial, on how Martial treats human bodies in his epigrams. Which engages with a lot of this presentation stuff, right, that- that we talked about with the impoverished aesthetics. You know, I’m writing about how he engages with ideas about beauty, but also with a disability studies lens, and how he’s dealing with illness, and–as I mentioned, right– people faking illness. Those are both different groups that Martial talks about. So, illness, ugliness, how do people engage with medical procedures, how do people– less about how do people dress, but more about how they do bodily care. I think that the, this sort of, sideways motion into aesthetics has been incredibly productive, and has definitely– I would love to engage more with it, I found it very stimulating, and can’t- can’t wait to keep thinking about it and keep sort of seeing it in my work. The great thing about Martial as I- as I continue to- to research more with him, right, there’s always more Martial to work on.

E: Wonderful, yeah. That sounds great, and I’m glad that this conference was useful for your research and that it provided sort of a different perspective for you from which to look at Martial. That’s wonderful. I wish you all the best in your research, it sounds very exciting, and I’m excited to read your dissertation when it’s finished.

K: Absolutely, thank you so much!

E: Thank you so much, yeah! And thank you for joining us in general for this interview, wonderful. This was a great conversation and I found it personally very useful as a graduate student, and someone who wants to attend more conferences, now that we can finally be in person.

K: I’m very glad that you had me, and I’ve been absolutely thrilled to be involved with- with all of this work on the impoverished aesthetics, and working with Lorenza and Rebecca, and you, Erika! This has been really charming. Thank you so much for having me.

E: Thank you! Yeah, it was wonderful. And thank you to everyone who listened and if you haven’t already, check out the conference blog for other content on ancient aesthetics.

Gratias maximas vobis ago. valete.

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