Erika Sakaguchi and Kate Stevens
April 3, 2023
In a recent episode of the Impoverished Aesthetics podcast, Erika Sakaguchi of the University of Toronto sits down with Kate Stevens of Rutgers University to talk about the recent conference Impoverished Aesthetics: New Approaches to Marginality in Latin Literature. They discuss returning to in-person conferences in a pandemic, attendance as a graduate student, and strategies for ensuring conference accessibility. We’ve transcribed, edited, and condensed the conversation for ease of reading.
Erika Sakaguchi: I’m Erika Sakaguchi, a second-year Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto. Our guest today is Kate Stevens, who presented their paper on Martial and the aesthetics of illness at the conference. They are currently a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where they focus on epigram and literature of the Roman imperial period more broadly. For people who were not able to make the panel, would you mind telling us a bit about your paper?
Kate Stevens: 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. I argue that they [fake] being sick to manipulate social guidelines and norms for their own benefit. They are adopting a specific aesthetic of illness — generally, things that can be faked without much effort but are recognized as dangerous illnesses — to get sympathy, gifts, and a “get out of jail free” card for social obligations.
ES: What drew you to write about the aesthetics of illness? Why do you think Martial facilitates the discussion of aesthetics so well?
KS: Martial is very interested in presentation: how do people present themselves, how do they use clothing, how do they use makeup? He is really interested in people and their daily lives, whether they present themselves in a certain way, or for Martial to reveal something about them through their presentation.
ES: Did you have any particular takeaways or questions [from the conference] that you thought were useful for your research?
KS: I found that it’s not all the Q&A. It’s been difficult in the past couple of years with online conferences. Online conferences can be held in a way [where] you can get some small talk, but it’s really difficult. It requires a lot more effort on everyone’s part to have small interactions. I felt lucky to feel comfortable enough to go to this conference; I felt very safe. It was exciting to be able to have small conversations on the side, where it’s not just in the question-and-answer period, but “This was really interesting, I think this could apply to my research too,” or “This is something I encountered in my research.” I found that incredibly productive.
ES: You mentioned that this conference was very welcoming and accessible. Do you have any advice for people organizing conferences? What do you think makes conferences fulfilling and accessible for scholars? What can organizers do to make them comfortable for presenters, especially junior scholars?
KS: I’ve attended a handful of conferences, I’ve run a conference…I’m no expert, but the things that I’ve found incredibly useful — and these are things that [the organizers] Rebecca and Lorenza did an amazing job at — they were very clear in their communications and very responsive by email. I didn’t need to ask too many questions because the information — the format, the schedule — all of that was provided in a very clear way.
They also did a wonderful job providing swift reimbursement for things. I’m really glad they could get this grant to help scholars travel there, which made 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 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. The swift reimbursement was wonderfully supportive.
They also did a lot of work making sure that everyone was able to socialize comfortably, providing structured opportunities to do so. Those are things you can do with an online conference, too, it just requires different effort. All these things I’ve mentioned make a conference better for all attendees. I never 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!”
ES: 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.
KS: Oh, that was so helpful! Keeping everyone fueled: vital.
ES: I wanted to ask a bit about your process going through a conference. What was your process for turning your work into a presentation? What did you have to take into account for the conference setting?
KS: I wrote [my paper] for the Call for Papers for the original Classical Association panel, which is a bit different from turning a seminar paper or a chapter from a written format into a spoken format. I was able to make it a bit more conversational, and it flows better. I was also able to practice and get feedback from my colleagues over the process of writing it. The more you present, the better a sense you have of how to present, how you sound when you’re going too fast. Getting a better sense of that, becoming more comfortable, being able to look up from your paper and smile — all those things are a benefit of more practice.
ES: Usually I hear about people transforming papers that they’ve already had for a topic or for a conference, but that sounds like a totally different process.
KS: It totally depends on where you are. 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’ll be able to integrate pieces of this into my dissertation. It’s something related to my dissertation, but wasn’t exactly the same, so that was really exciting.
ES: Were there any main challenges that you faced as you prepared for and attended the conference?
KS: A challenge that I worked through [was] making sure to not close my argument too much in a paper or presentation. 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 push this type of theoretical approach. It’s easy to feel like your argument needs to be completed, and closed off, and done, and you can answer any question that comes up. It’s important to leave space for taking big swings and for collaboration! Leaving spaces where you’re not entirely sure where you’re going, or where you want a little more feedback — that’s the joy of a conference. Being able to think through things in dialogue with your fellow colleagues. Leaving yourself openings where you’re not entirely sure isn’t a bad thing, and is, in fact, the place where your argument can grow stronger. It’s a totally reasonable fear that if you have those gaps, you’re going to be seen as not as “strong on your topic” or that you “don’t know what’s going on actually.” 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!]
ES: As someone who has attended conferences as a grad student, it can be intimidating. I always dread the questions. It’s this big, intimidating thing — am I going to look like a fool up there? — but you’re right, it’s an opportunity for growth and for collaboration.
KS: It’s not an oral exam. This is about making your argument stronger, talking with other people, and working through problems on the spot or in dialogue.
ES: Adjusting the mindset in order to be open to collaboration with other scholars.
KS: And it takes practice! It always takes practice.
ES: Absolutely. It’s going to get less intimidating, do you find, the more you go to conferences?
KS: Totally. Even just attending is wonderful; it’s also something that needs practice. That is a different skill than presenting at a conference. These are all skills that are not specifically taught, partially because it’s incredibly difficult to, and it’s dependent on context.
ES: What further advice would you give to fellow graduate students who are looking to present their research at conferences?
KS: When you’re at a conference, it’s important to have a sense of what the norms are. That’s knowledge that is very difficult to access, especially for people who are coming to the field not deeply steeped in academic backgrounds. As a graduate student, as a candidate, as someone who is junior…you are a colleague. You are an expert in what you’re talking about, what you’re researching, what you’re dissertating on, what you’re presenting on. You’re the expert in your argument. You’re the one who made it. You deserve to be confident in that, and not be defensive about it, but to try and engage in good faith…not be overly deferential, but respectful. To act as a colleague among colleagues. You are there on your own merit. Being confident in that will make you feel a lot better.
ES: 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 [and] intimidation about going to big events.
KS: Social stuff is very hard. Especially when there are different types of generational expectations. It’s very difficult to navigate those, especially if it’s not something you have a lot of experience in. And if you have any type of disability, or difference, or neurodiversity, or anything that makes you feel like the odd one out, [that’s] going to make it more difficult to feel confident. But you’re there, and it wasn’t a mistake.
ES: The pandemic exacerbated a lot of issues, because we were cut off from so many people. Such a large part of the humanities, and academia, is interacting with other people.
KS: And everyone’s practicing again! Everyone’s practicing being in person and engaging again. Everyone’s gonna be a little weird for a little while…Treating others with grace makes it a lot easier to treat yourself with grace.
ES: That’s beautifully put, thank you.
KS: Martial wouldn’t say it like that, but…
ES: I think you put it better than Martial. So finally, where are you in your research as a Ph.D. candidate, and where do you see it heading? Do you think you’ll integrate more thoughts on aesthetics in your future research?
KS: I am in the process of writing my dissertation on how Martial treats human bodies in his epigrams. I’m writing about how he engages with ideas about beauty, but also with a disability studies lens, and how he’s dealing with people faking illness. I think that this sideways motion into aesthetics has been incredibly productive. The great thing about Martial [is] there’s always more Martial to work on.
ES: That sounds great, and I’m glad that this conference was useful for your research, and that it provided sort of a different perspective from which to look at Martial. I wish you all the best in your research, and I’m excited to read your dissertation when it’s finished.
KS: Thank you so much for having me.
ES: And thank you to everyone who listened. If you haven’t already, check out the conference blog for other content on ancient aesthetics!
Header image: Carle (Antoine Charles Horace) Vernet, "The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus." 1789.