A Graduate Guide to Guest Lectures, III: Making the Most of the Visit as a Student (especially a new one!)

This post is part of the “Graduate Guide to Guest Lectures” series, a collaborative endeavor by NGSC bloggers Deven Parker, Grace Rexroth, and Conny Fasshauer, all Romanticist graduate students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Drawing on our collective experiences organizing guest lectures at our university, our aim for this series is to offer advice and tips for NGSC readers hosting visitors at their institutions or attending one of these events.
“New” is relative—we’ve all been students for a long time, in some form or another. But when you’re a graduate student who hasn’t yet taken their exams, or you don’t have as firm a handle on your dissertation project as you’d like, it can be easy to make excuses for yourself that allow you to avoid interacting with visiting scholars. Here are some ways to combat those insecurities. (A note: I’m using CU Boulder’s recent set up for Michael Gamer’s visit—a seminar, a talk, and a few social events. Your university may have different opportunities, so substitute those in wherever appropriate.) 
“They’re not in my field, so I won’t know what they’re talking about.” 
Actually, that’s a really good reason you should go. If your university thought someone was important enough to pay to visit, they’re probably an important person in their field, and very likely, they have cutting-edge, interesting things to say. Besides, if you’re like me and always thinking about 20 steps ahead of where you need to be, remember that some day you’ll be interviewing for jobs with people who don’t just study your field. Now you’ll have a cool Joyce anecdote you can discuss with the Modernists. In addition, study the media they use, how they stand, how they speak or gesture, and how they answer questions. All of these are translatable skills (in the classroom, in job interviews, in real-world interactions) for which we can always use more examples.
“I have so much coursework. I don’t have time to go to the seminar/talk/extra event.”
There are a few ways around this one. First, if you hear about the speaker even a couple weeks in advance, manage your time carefully. Maybe that means watching one fewer rerun of The X-Files on Netflix this weekend so that you can look ahead at the Byron poetry you have to read, or taking an audiobook along with you when you go to the gym so you can get through a few chapters of Pamela (my favorite app is Librivox—it’s free).
Second, if you really can’t make both class preparation and full attendance happen, pick one event based on your needs as a student right now. Need networking time? Go to the seminar or a social event (reception, dinner, or something like that). Want to learn about their latest research in depth? Go to the talk or maybe the seminar, depending on the topic. However, if you go to the dinner, you should probably also try to attend either the talk or the seminar. It shows that you are genuinely interested in their scholarship in addition to their company (and the free food at the event).
Finally, prioritize, especially if the person is in your field. If you can do something next week instead, move it, and then adjust accordingly that week in order to stay (more or less) caught up. Or maybe you can reuse an old lesson plan. This might be the week you implement group work rather than prepare ten pages of detailed lecture notes on the origins of tragedy (maybe save that for the next class).
“I can’t ask a question during the Q&A! I’ll look ridiculous or ask something so obvious and then people will know I’m a fraud.”
No one is making you ask a question. But if that silence happens, or you’re feeling brave, there are plenty of conference-style queries you can use. For example, mention a point you found particularly interesting and ask the speaker to expand on that idea. If you attend the seminar, you should definitely participate verbally—it’s the best way to take ownership of the learning opportunity. (Although, there’s always this chart to keep in mind.)
Don’t worry about feeling like a fraud—the dreaded imposter syndrome will always emerge, regardless of your career status (or so I’m told by people far smarter and more well-read than me). Usually—especially if you’re a junior student—people are just excited that you spoke up. (See Deven Parker’s second resolution.)
“I can’t talk with them for a sustained amount of time, because if they ask me about my interests, I won’t have a bigger project to talk about.”
Having just started my PhD, I recently articulated a project for my Statements—but then scrapped that same idea as soon as I started the program. However, I knew Prof. Gamer’s work intersected with my interests, and I read the first half of his book so that I would have something to discuss. All of this is to say that even if you don’t have a big project, you probably have interests in common or questions about their careers. How did they get to where they are now? What was the most exciting project they worked on? How do they approach teaching graduates or undergraduates? If you need guidance later in your research, you can always reach out to them later over email or at a conference.