On Presenting that Conference Paper

The post below was drafted by TR, my friend and a professor at Wesleyan University; she writes about the nature of academic meetings and presenting that conference paper. I will be presenting a paper this weekend at the World History Association of Texas. I have done a great deal of reading and writing in hopes of sharing my research with other scholars. I learned a lot from her post. Pictured below is a former student of mine delivering a paper on Marxism and the Gender Question in Victorian Literature at the Modern Language Association meeting. Oh, she is also looking to apply for an English position at HCHS.

Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow Misha Baker '10 presents her senior thesis research at the MMUF Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference, held at Cornell University in November. Photo by Robert Barker, Cornell University Photography

Well, not only is the conference season accelerating, but the job season is nigh and it is now time for the Radical to enter Advisory Mode once more with her: Guidelines for Giving Good Paper.

Before I do, however, let me say that I just finished giving a paper yesterday at the New England American Studies Association (NEASA) conference, and had a good time, as I always do at NEASA. It is a small conference, convenient and such a good mix of people. By this last point I mean a conference of scholars drawn from a variety of institutions (and let me point to a particularly interesting conversation between me, a member of the Yale American Studies program, and a fellow from a branch campus of a state university about the consequences of the federal de-funding of education), but also graduate students and the occasional undergraduate. I got to say hello to two Zenith alums, one a grad student, the other who might become one. Oddly, I did not see a single member of the faculty from the American Studies program at the Prestigious Ivy where the conference was held, but since I missed Day 1, let me hasten to say that my paticipation survey was by no means scientific.

But my point in mentioning NEASA is two-fold: one is that graduate students and young scholars might wish to think harder about participating in regional, rather than national, meetings. Regional associations were first created early in the twentieth century precisely because travel was so time consuming and expensive that many scholars simply could not afford to go to national meetings, much like graduate students and new tenure-line folk today. Indeed, a whole historical association, the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, had this partly in mind at its founding moment in 1907, and also saw regionalism as the best way to encourage the attendance of working historians who were becoming more marginal to the American Historical Association: professors at Normal Schools, local historical society people, high school teachers, and so on. As one of my Zenith colleagues said to me, “It’s such a relief to go to a conference without getting on a plane.” Yes indeed: and cheaper too, particularly when you don’t have to spend the night. But it’s also smaller, and it means that there is more intimate conversation between graduate students and senior scholars. From my perspective, a young scholar is more likely to get noticed and have a real conversation about scholarship (as opposed to the thirty second “this is what my research is about” interjection) when I — we — are not trying to hook up with a grad school friend who now lives on the other coast, or a member of the association committee that has to get its work done before the business meeting that afternoon.

But I also mention it since the dual keynote represented two kinds of Good Paper: one, by Joanne Meyerowitz, was the “this is why we need to re-think a large historical problem that we thought we were done with, and this is how we might do that” variety. The other, by George Chauncey, was a piece of the second volume of his history of gay New York that was of the “this is what I thought I knew about closeting and coming out, but when I listened to the evidence, I learned something new” variety. These are both important, and distinct, genres of paper, although there are others (exercise: see how many you can list). The first kind of paper should send you home to re-think some of the classic texts in the field, and how re-thinking them could affect your own research; the second should pay sharper attention to the nuts and bolts of performing the task outlined in the first genre of paper in a specific piece of research, and ideally it should also make you eager to read the whole book. Which I am, in both cases.

A third thing I want to throw in the mix is that everything I have learned about giving Good Paper I have learned by observing other people give Good Paper, in particular Joan Scott. I am reminded of this, because I saw her cut down a hundred fifty page book to a forty minute talk last Wednesday, and it reminded me that Joan has several great virtues as a conference participant or an invited speaker: the quality of her work is always high; if she is overscheduled, you will never know it because she is always gracious in answering questions during the discussion time and after the event is over; and she never goes over the time limit allotted. Never. I will get to this below, but many years ago, she gave me her rule of thumb: two minutes per page, and for a conference paper, never more than twelve pages; preferably one less page. So with that, the Radical’s Advice for Giving Good Paper.

1. Never exceed your share of the time for more than a minute or two; indicate that you are aware when you have hit the time limit; and reassure your audience that you are wrapping it up. If you are on a panel or a conference roundtable, it is just rude to use other people’s time: it shows a deep lack of awareness and consideration for the people with whom you are supposed to be working cooperatively. It also shows a lack of planning. Importantly, it leaves less time for questions, which is often where a panel can get really fun for most of the people in the room — your audience. It also helps you shine, Miss Graduate Student On The Market. Many people can competently present their own research, but fewer people can relate their own work to someone else’s when put on the spot.

2. Reading really fast to make up for the fact that your paper is too long is not an option. People just stop listening. It is perfectly fine — and often useful — if you find that you have no more to cut, to stop in the midst of the paper and gracefully summarize what you have cut, offering to address it in the question period (for which you have just left time.)

3. Practice reading your paper ahead of time. This gives you an opportunity to iron out awkward syntax that looks alright on the page but doesn’t sound alright at all; to time yourself; listen to whether a complicated piece of theorizing or analysis sounds like word salad to a listener (hint: recruit a listener!); and practice the mechanics of any audio visual material you plan to present. If you are an inexperienced paper giver, you will undoubtedly be seized with nerves at unexpected moments in your presentation, which can cause AV screwups that might not have happened if you had practiced talking and clicking computer keys at the same time.

4. Your paper should look like a script. It could be punctuated with instructions to yourself like “Breathe,” “Pause Here,” and bracketed sections that are titled in italics “Cut if needed,” in case your timing is off. Once you become more skilled, you also might have something in brackets that says “Pause here to mention problem with archive.” Stopping to tell a little story can refresh your audience and renew their desire to listen closely to an otherwise highly structured talk. The best paper givers also often “map” the presentation for their audience. OK fine, the words we often most want to hear are “In conclusion….” but that, I think, is in our DNA. Phrases like “As I will argue,” “I hope to persuade you,” and “I will make this argument in three parts (A,B,C),” when delivered in short, non-jargony sentences, help us frame a response to you that really addresses the meat of the presentation.

5. Look at your audience. Understandably, you are terrified that if you ever look up, you will lose your place, decompensate, and have to be carried out on a stretcher. So why not hold a pencil (which also gives you something to do with your hands) and make a big check at the place where you looked up? Of course, looking at your audience also means you have to be able to remember a sentence or two of your own words for the twenty seconds it requires to say them. Another reason to rehearse. But not only is there nothing sadder than listening to a paper that is literally being read, eyes glued to the paper, but if you are giving a job talk, those interviewing you will be thinking you are going to require a lot of work as a lecturer. Which is why you should also…

6. Display a sense of humor. Tell a funny story, say something amusing that happened during the research, or relate an odd misunderstanding that will get a laugh. Turn errors into an opportunity for a laugh. If you flub a word, or a sentence, rather than blushing, making a face that says “God, you must think I’m a dork,” and rushing to correct yourself; pause, smile, and say — if the error is some kind of Freudian slip — “Well, wouldn’t that be fun,” or “Oh my goodness!” or “I’m sorry, I can’t seem to read my own handwriting.” But for Goddess’s sake, don’t encourage people to feel sorry for you.

7. Interact. This means catching the eye of people in the audience, and speaking directly to them. It means that if you don’t go first on the panel, making a gracious connection to the speakers who have preceded you; or picking up on a theme of the keynote. It can mean thanking the people who invited you to campus (a must! and include the departmental secretary who made all the arrangements), or the person who put together the panel in the first place. It can also mean acknowledging people in the audience whose work will be referred to directly or indirectly in your paper, and it means acknowledging the expertise of others in the room when you make a brief reference to something in their line. For example, “I can’t get into this point now, but of course this phenomenon has its origins in the Truman administration — something the students of Professor Y who are in the room can probably speak to in the Q & A.”

If there is any general principle that all of this falls into, I would say it is this: giving Good Paper relies on enhancing the comfort of everyone in the room, starting with yourself but not ending there; and conveying your research to people in ways they can understand and respond to. Having a good paper — one that is intelligent and well-written, and conveys the new things about your work without couching them in a lot of unnecessary jargon or too much context that we are familiar with already — is important. But presentation is also important, and it is a learned skill. Watch people who do it well and ask yourself why; ask those people questions about the choices they made; and, as the apocryphal New Yorker once advised about how to get Carnegie Hall, practice, practice, practice


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