Enter, stage left – My desk is buried beneath piles of open books and papers, and my eyes are glazed over as I stare at the monitor. But I can breathe a little easier now that the second of four major projects—all due this month—is completed. Of the four, this was certainly not the hardest, but it is the one I am most nervous about. It is a presentation that I will give at the annual meeting of the Korean Oral Literature Society on 24 May.
In Korea, at least, everything up to your M.A. degree is just practice for the big show. Once you begin your Ph.D. work, though, you have committed yourself to the road of the scholar. You have declared that this is what you are going to do with your life—after all, no one gets a Ph.D. degree just for the fun of it (not in Korea, at least). And that moment when you take that first step, everything changes. For all intents and purposes, you are treated as a scholar, and you are now allowed to officially join academic societies and present papers at meetings.
I had enough things on my mind at the beginning of this semester, though, and presenting a paper at an academic society meeting was not one of them. I was quite surprised, actually, when I was approached by members of the society in my department. It was a bit strange how it happened, though. Apparently, a professor from the U.S. is coming to present a paper on Native American literature, and the society wanted me to interpret his presentation (English to Korean). Having no real training in interpretation, I declined, and suggested that they find a Korean who spoke English reasonably well. Their next request was that I present a paper at the meeting.
So, what I’ve been wondering is this: was that request some sort of consolation prize, since I wouldn’t be interpreting? Or maybe someone got so excited about having an American professor present a paper that they decided to get as many foreigners to present this time around (I hear another foreigner living here is going to be presenting a paper; I think I might have even met him once, but I’m not sure). Or maybe I just have a persecution complex and they really want to hear what I have to say. Obviously I’m hoping for the latter, but in the end it doesn’t really matter why they asked me to present a paper—what matters is the fact that I am making my entrance on the stage of academia.
This being my debut, I am a bit nervous. At first my worst nightmares were of the discussion panel tearing my paper to shreds (figuratively speaking) and pelting me with questions I could not answer. And there I would sit, center stage, as the spotlights overhead would melt away my flesh and I would be reduced to a pathetic, blubbering, amorphous mass. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that that may not be the worst possible thing that could happen. Now my nightmares involve me finishing my presentation and looking up at the audience—only to be met by blank stares and utter silence. No questions, no discussion, no impact.
Which is worse: to be brutally criticized or to be completely ignored? I have decided that, for me at least, it is the latter. After all, if I am asked difficult questions it is because I have stirred interest. If I am criticized it may be because I have hit a nerve. But if I am ignored, shuffled off stage into the darkness waiting in the wings, then there really never was any point to it all in the first place, was there?
I must admit, I have never been into small dreams. This may sound simplistic, or idealistic (or maybe both), but I’ve always felt that if you were going to dream, you might as well dream big. I could probably get my Ph.D., find a teaching position somewhere in the States or elsewhere, and then settle down into a routine and coast through the rest of life. That’s just not my style, though—I want to be the best at what I do.
I try not to put too much weight on beginnings. A good start is always helpful, but a false step at the beginning doesn’t necessarily mean the race is lost. Last year I entered my first translation competition—and lost. It was close, and if there had been a second place prize I would have gotten it, but in the end I didn’t do what I set out to do. I was rather depressed for a while, and the people around me tried to comfort me with various rationalizations, but deep down I knew that the fault ultimately lay with me. I was still new to literary translation, and my entry into the competition was not a one hundred percent effort.
I could have cursed the judges, or clung to any of a number of other excuses, but in the end I had to face the fact that I had overestimated my ability and underestimated the competition. It would have been nice to have won, but I learned a valuable lesson from the experience, and I think I will be stronger because of it. I may have stumbled, but I got back up and continued running.
This is not to say that I won’t be severely disappointed if my presentation falls flat. My dream, of course, would be to shake the very foundations of my field of study, but I’m aware that that’s not likely to happen my first time out. So what I’m really hoping for is somewhere in between—a good reception, some insightful questions, and helpful corrections and pointers for future endeavors. My field of study isn’t going anywhere, and there will always be time for shaking its foundations a little further down the road. Now it’s time to just take the first step.