Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What to Bring to Conference Papers

I recently (well no, a while ago) did my due diligence and departmental support by sitting in the audience for someone's talk on campus. Luckily ABDs like to procrastinate, or else no one would ever have an audience for student talks and round-tables and such. (Of course, if you want to fill your panel's audience, I have made suggestions for packing the aisles in the past.)

And I believe that advanced grad students (I hate the term "old") and professors do a valuable service, sitting in and critiquing the presentations of new grad students, and ideally they model how to be good audience members as well, but I could probably write a whole other, much funnier, post about all the right and wrong ways to be the audience at an academic talk (Flavia has an amusing example of audience body language here). Grad students with conference experience can give advice on presentation style and hopefully nip some of the embarrassing tics or unfortunate conference assumptions before the new grads venture into larger venues and bring humiliation down on themselves and the department. (One tip: when you are asked to give a "bio" of yourself to the panel organizer, that means a short statement about where you are studying/working and your interesting current or past research. Not a 10 page actual life story or personal philosophy. And for heaven's sake, not in verse.)

So while I believe sitting in these talks is part of my uncompensated service requirement, to help out our department and the profession, the one I listened to most recently taught me much about what I do not want to hear about at a conference presentation. Which made me wonder, what does one bring to a presentation of one's work? This is not surprising as I can over-think anything to the point that I no longer have any clue how to do it, including writing or reading my own name if I stare at it hard enough.

I think the question of what to bring varies from conference to conference, depending on your expected audience (is it an author-specific conference? a field conference? interdisciplinary?) and the particularities of the field or discipline you work in. But I think of the conference presentation as one small part of a larger conversation with scholars, with the end goal to use your research to somehow help or teach them.

So, for example, I could see that simply bringing the existence of a text to your colleagues' attention could be a valuable project in itself, if it is a recently recovered or relatively unknown text, and so you bring them the text and show how it fits into their larger canon or framework.

Or, conversely, you want to bring in some context that no one puts with your text --- I love presentations with lots of pictures, but that could just be a comment on my own deficiencies in paying attention at conferences.

Or, perhaps, your specialty, like mine, is Bizarre Metaphors and you love to yoke together the most disparate texts imaginable --- say, for example, The Piano Teacher with Jane Austen's Emma --- to show us something new and surprising with the comparison. (This works often with theory --- oops, excuse me, Theory --- and the bringing together of texts with theories that are not commonly used on those texts. It's sort of like the person at the potluck who brings poached pears with pickled greens and then convinces us that this unlikely combination is in fact terrific.)

But what you should not do is to point out an unusual image pattern in an Extremely Familiar Canonical Text and then enumerate the appearances of these images In. Excruciating. Detail. Particularly if you find yourself running out of time and frantically jettisoning bits of your talk that explain why these patterns are important. Nor should you set up such elaborate framing and clarification and foreshadowing statements that you have to declare you are out of time as soon as you get to the "meat" of your argument. Nor should someone be able to summarize your paper before they've heard it.

In short, when you consider what to bring to the conference paper, consider what your audience already has. You wouldn't bring tomatoes to a salsa convention, of course, but you might consider even further than that and realize that you probably won't need to bring chips, either. Or perhaps you do, but you bring only a little bit and balance it all out neatly on the plate with other things. And there's the trick of it, right? Dr. Crazy has been blogging about the frustrations of writing a conference paper --- actually, it may be at the article stage now --- where she has to "write tight" to fit the constraints. And balancing all the things you have to say in order to bring your colleagues something lovely and useful in the time constraints of a conference paper is fucking hard.

Personally, I find my conference papers written "from the ground up" to be a huge mess compared to the ones I had the time to write out a huge rambling lumpy argument and then cut down from the chapter. But I think I need to learn how to start with smaller, self-contained ideas and "write tight" up from them because I need to go to conferences more often than I produce chapters. Bleah. I'm still not at the stage where I have ideas that occur to me at the level of arguments. I still start with "whoa, that bizarre image keeps happening in this text!" and then I have to brainstorm and write my way up from listing every instance in excruciating detail to developing some sort of argument about them to then figuring out what the stakes are for my argument and then finally turning it into something that resembles academic writing. And whoo! is that a lot of work. But at least I know to cut out all the useless early crap and I know when I'm far from done.

So if you see me at some conference, bring me something tasty and new and unusual. I'll be the one with the roasted garlic and jicama.


Sisyphus said...

What? No, I'm not hungry. I just ate dinner.

No jicama was harmed in the making of this post.

Dr. Crazy said...

Actually, it's the turning the conf. paper from MLA into an article that's got me nutso at the moment, but I'll say this: I think conference papers I write from scratch are always more *entertaining* than ones that I try to cut down from something else. Michael Berube actually gave me some of the best advice I ever got about conference papers, and I'll paraphrase: you only have time for about half of an idea in a conference paper.

Once you realize that, the only thing you need to do is to make sure that half an idea is interesting, choose good quotes to support it, and voila! conference paper is served.

Was this person who gave the paper very close to undergrad? Because this sounds like "I want to create suspense and I don't want to give everything away up front" syndrome....

kermitthefrog said...

Ooh, at my first conference I was on a panel with someone whose paper could be summarized before you heard it. Interestingly, though, not everyone thought it was groan-worthy, which made me think that it wasn't as much of a salsa convention as I'd thought (or something).

Susan said...

When I rule the universe the 20 minute conference paper will be abolished. It's about enough to tantalize people with an interesting idea, but not enough to really develop it. This may not be so much of a problem in lit fields, when everyone has the canon, but in history? Ugh. I can count on the fingers of one hand the good conference papers I've gone to.

Sisyphus said...

I think the magic question here is "how big is an idea?" And how can we tell, once we have this idea, whether it's a comment-sized idea or a conference-sized idea or a whole friggen stack of books?

Once I figure out the answer to this I will make millions selling my secret to the masses. At least, that's what I'm pinning my future job hopes on.