The Conference Presentation
I. Conferences – Pluses and Minuses
-Conferences are good prepublication activities. They give you a chance to try out a short version of a paper (often one still in progress), to get some initial (peer) responses to your arguments, and to engage in dialogue. As well, sometimes committing yourself to give a conference paper serves to jump-start your writing of a scholarly essay (or thesis chapter).
-Since the formal talk is often an important part of our profession, giving a conference paper can be good professionalizing experience. In particular, since the job talk is now so often part of job candidacy (and many universities specifically ask candidates to present “a conference-style paper”), giving a conference paper can be good practice for that aspect of campus visits.
-Conferences also have a useful educational dimension. They supplement your reading of professional journals and secondary books by locating you within the immediate discourse in your field and allowing you to hear what questions are being asked right now—and how those questions are being framed.
-Conferences give you a chance to meet others in your field. These contacts could prove valuable if you need to ask a colleague a question about research or if you need to locate someone to vet a manuscript or provide a reference.
The Down Side:
-Conferences don’t count much as scholarship. While conference activity is considered desirable by committees looking at C.V.s when hiring or when engaged in tenure review, it is seen as part of one’s larger professional activity rather than as counting (much) towards a record in research and scholarship. Someone whose only critical and scholarly activity is in conferences will not be given much weight as a scholar: conference papers must get turned into full-length publishable papers (or at least be supplemented by these). Too high a ratio of conference paper to published essays is not desirable.
-Conferences can be expensive. Travel funds may not be available from the university or funding may be limited. (Always find about your funding in advance and if it is available, make sure it has been approved before committing your own funds. Find out about such things as limits on meal-allowances and the need for receipts.)
-Occasionally conferences have small subsidies for travel at their disposal, but that is increasingly rare. You will probably, however, get considerable discounts on accommodation associated with the conference.
Hierarchy of Conferences:
It can be hard to get papers accepted at some conferences, and quite easy at others. In terms of your C.V. that difference won’t matter a whole lot to committees looking at you as a job candidate—provided the conference (and your paper) otherwise looks serious. However, conferences that are perceived of as local or as graduate conferences aren’t usually taken very seriously by committees.
II. Conferences: How to Get a Paper Accepted
Finding announcements of conferences (also known as “conference calls” or “calls for papers”—the latter is frequently abbreviated as CFP) is easy. Consult the journals in your fields, especially the newsletter of your professional association. Join the e-mail discussion groups in your scholarly area. Consult various departments bulletin board. Go to web-sites such as The Voice of the Shuttle <http://vos.ucsb.edu> or see the handout about this service.
Most conferences will ask for you to submit an abstract (i.e., a short statement of what your proposed conference paper will be). Please observe the specified word-limit (typically between 150-500 words). Learn to be efficient in writing abstracts. Think of them as a miniature version of the paper you envision. Don’t waste words on statements like “What I propose to prove” or “This paper will argue.”
Some conferences will invite you to submit “detailed abstracts or completed papers.” Since most conference presentations are 20 minutes in length, a completed paper will run about 2500 words in length. (Time yourself: typically you’ll find that you read a formal essay at the rate of about 125 words/minute.) Never submit anything longer than 2500 words for consideration. A “detailed abstract” could be thought of as a short version of the final paper (say 1000 words or more).
E-mail submissions are generally acceptable, but check the CFP carefully and follow all guidelines.
III. Conferences: Guidelines for Paper-Giving:
-Write your paper well in advance. Pay no attention to friends who make jokes about how “You can write it on the plane.” You can, but it won’t be good enough.
-Think about your probable audience when you write. Remember that the audience for most conference papers is a self-selected one: large conferences often have several parallel sessions going on at the same time, which means that no one will come to your session who isn’t already quite interested in at least one of the papers being given in your session. That doesn’t mean that every audience member will be familiar with your subject. (That can partly depend on how related the other two papers are to yours; you could presume common knowledge in your audience if, say, all three papers in your panel were on the same author.) Never write for yourself: put yourself in the place of possible audience members and allow for their interests and probable range of knowledge. Try to gracefully include any who may not be familiar with the details of the work you’re talking about. (As a more general matter, always remember, when writing or talking about a work, even for an informed audience of specialists, that you have undoubtedly read the work you’re discussing more recently than they have, and you may have also thought about it more intensely than they have—so reminding your audience of details, especially if you can do that without seeming too heavy-handed, is always appreciated.)
-Remember that oral presentations are harder for an audience to take in than written ones. Provide clear “signposts” so your listeners can pick up the structure and logic of your overall argument. A bit of overview at the beginning is always appreciated. And some statement that suggests when are coming to your conclusion is a good way of keeping listeners engaged at the end. Throughout the paper, avoid over-complex sentence structures that are hard for the ear to sort out (even though those might be fine for a written version of the same paper).
-Rehearse your paper—more than once, and at least once in front of someone. Rehearse your presentation until you feel comfortable and fluent with it.
-Time yourself. Make sure that the time it will take you for your presentation is within plus or minus two minutes of the time specified. Anything else—including saying that you’re skipping to the end to stay within your time limit—is unprofessional (though you will frequently see it done). Conference sessions are typically made up of three speakers, each allotted 20 minutes, with 20-30 minutes set aside for discussion at the end. If you run over in your presentation then you are taking time that does not belong to you. Timing is crucial in a job talk: NEVER go over your time—it will be seen as bad teaching, unprofessional lack of preparation, etc. In fact, at the start of your presentation, tell your audience what you have been asked by the hiring committee to do and for how long—then DO IT! That way, they have the same expectations you do concerning level of discourse, timing, content, etc.
-In our field, it’s quite ok to read your entire presentation, but look up often enough to give your auditors plenty of eye contact. It helps to think of the presentation as a kind of conversation that you’re having with your audience. Moderate your voice to signal the developments in your argument, the turning points, and the conclusions. Sometimes a pause for a brief off-the-cuff comment will help give your presentation vitality. (Make sure you have time for that.)
-Don’t feel anxious about the question period afterwards. The questions will almost never be attacking. Often they are asked simply because questioners want to show they have something to say on your topic. This is a complement to your ability to stimulate thought in your audience. Prepare a brief “filler” to add as people prepare questions—to avoid the awkward silence.
-Answer all questions as best you can. Remember, you can simply thank audience members for their observations or promise to think about their ideas when you work on your paper in the future.
Adapted from the Department of English Placement Office