Feeling like an outsider

There has been a history conference at Berkeley over the past couple of days, ostensibly to discuss race in America, but really to celebrate Prof Litwack’s contributions to history (and his recovery from recent stroke). I love Prof Litwack–not only is he a genius, but he is so incredibly nice–so I went to the second half of yesterday’s events and to part of the second half of today’s. I think it says a lot about Prof Litwack’s personality and his achievements that the people assembled were all very eloquent and enthusiastic, and many of them were complete luminaries in their own right. It was really fun, interesting and moving what people had to say about their experiences with him. (People read papers too, but I missed most of those. Annoyingly, they changed the order of today’s afternoon program so I missed the one person’s paper I wanted to hear! Doh!) Many people cried continuously because the stories people had to share were just so moving. One woman, now a professor, told of coming to Berkeley as a grad student from China shortly after the Cultural Revolution. She didn’t have a great command of English (still has a heavy accent), so Prof Litwack helped her with her writing by going over her papers with her, at his house, word by word. When she ran out of money, he paid for her books and much of her tuition, out of his own funds. This is an amazing story, but there were many others like it. The more I hear about Prof Litwack, the more respect I have for him both as a person and as a professor. It’s a real honor to even have met him in office hours. But not all of the tributes were the kind to make you cry. Prof Litwack has a great sense of humor, and it came across in most of the anecdotes, even the sweet/touching ones. One woman from Milan (very snappy dresser, I might add) explained that as a native Italian, it was her job at one conference to show the American participants around the city. They passed a group of protesters, and suddenly, lo and behold, the august historian had joined the protesters and was singing–in Italian–a Socialist anthem. (At this story one of the other professors jumped up and exclaimed, ‘I taught him that! He learned it from me!’ πŸ™‚ ) Lots of laughing at this gathering, a very jovial mood.

I enjoy going to conferences like these, because they give me a sense of what historical discourse can be like, and I really feel that the history community is a friendly, energetic one. But I almost always also leave these gatherings feeling worse about myself, because I am generally the youngest one there and I never know enough people to really be able to mingle. I always feel like an outsider, or maybe even some kind of poser who’s just there for the free food (actually, I hardly ever eat the food, since it’s hard to eat when you’re not totally comfortable). I wonder whether it’s just my insecurities that make me feel this way. Maybe I should mingle more, introduce myself to more people even if they don’t remember me or care who I am. But I don’t want to come off as ignorant, and I think I would, because my discomfort usually renders me inarticulate. Plus everyone is so busy talking to more famous people, or grad students with more experience, that I feel like it would be impolite to push my own inane conversation on any of these individuals. I could just go up to people and say things like, ‘Hi, Prof X? I’ve read your book and I love it!’ But the problem with that is I usually haven’t read these people’s books. And I can’t always remember who they are.

I did a little better this time than usual. Maybe it’s my memory of Amanda’s easy navigation of such an event that prodded me to reach out a little more. I told the Chinese professor I mentioned earlier that I enjoyed her speech and that my parents lived through the Cultural Revolution as well. She was very kind, but I had practically nothing to say after that and I was afraid she was uninterested anyway. Today I also managed to catch Prof Litwack to tell him how happy I am that he’s recovered and how much I’ve enjoyed his work. He was also very kind, as always, but of course it would be rude for me to monopolize the guest of honor, so I only got in a few words with him.

It’s funny that I feel so inadequate at these events, because I’m usually so self-assured. I go to professors’ office hours all the time and I don’t have a problem talking to them. I enjoy it. They’re usually such interesting people. And I don’t think I usually have too big a problem just talking to other people, though I am naturally quite shy. I don’t know what my problem is at these events. Maybe I should just stop worrying so much, and just operate on the assumption that I am as interesting as the most famous professor and therefore I have just as much right as anyone on any individual’s time. But it’s hard to do that, when I’m quite sure I wouldn’t leave much of an impression on anyone…

Well, bleh. I don’t feel any better, and I still don’t have any answers as to what I could do next time. Give me advice? Insights? Scoldings?

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]