Why a Conference Paper is Usually Just a Conference Paper

Why a Conference Paper is Usually Just a Conference Paper November 11, 2014

[Today’s guest post is from my Baylor history colleague Dr. Beth Allison Barr. You can follow Dr. Barr @bethallisonnbarr]

We academic types have all been there.

Piecing together funding grants and last month’s grocery leftover cash to present “the” conference paper. The one that will grab the attention of a notable scholar, land us a journal article or book contract, maybe even help find us a job.

Only to get there, 20 minutes early to the presentation room, and realize as the session starts that the audience is three: the other two presenters and the session chair.

Tommy Kidd, Philip Jenkins, and Miles Mullins have all written helpful advice recently to graduate students. As I have just finished my fall conference circuit (indeed I am penning this on the in-between in the airport), I decided to add my thoughts on graduate students and conferencing to this growing corpus.

The cold, hard truth is that a conference paper usually is just a conference paper.

We spend so much time writing our papers that they are too long, which means our audience starts watching the moderator (how will they make us stop talking?) instead of listening to us. We are so nervous that we read too fast, we don’t make the necessary eye contact to engage our audience (who subsequently starts checking their Twitter feed), and we are flustered during questions, giving responses like: “I looked at published sources and stuff.” (Yes, I actually heard a clearly intelligent and capable graduate student say this during her Q&A. Little did she know that the editors of at least two journals were listening.) And, of course, the oh-so-significant scholars we dream of being in our audience don’t show.

So what can we do to make conferences worth it?

First, be mistress (master) of your own fate. The most important part of conferences is not (gasp!) your paper. It is the people you meet. So meet people. Find out who is going to be at the conference and ask them (in advance) to coffee or breakfast–including the significant scholars. They might say no, but chances are they will say yes (especially if you are buying). Reserve tickets to as many of the scheduled meals as possible and sit with people you haven’t met. Make appointments with book editors to talk about your work and what you might have that would interest them. Go to the open receptions of different societies–not only will you meet more people, but it is also a good way to reduce your food costs. Your conference calendar, in other words, should be full. Instead of waiting for other people to fill it up, send the emails and fill it up yourself.

Second, be more memorable than the usual conference fare. Present well: be under time (you will be amazed at how relaxing it is to read a short paper), look at your audience as much as possible, speak slowly. Make sure your paper is part of something bigger (dissertation, an article, related to another conference paper). Not only will the time and effort you spend on it enhance current writing projects, but you will be able to talk more richly about it (instead of answering questions with “and stuff”). Talk about your research with people you meet. Most people at conferences will not be able to attend your session; but many will still be interested in your ideas. Often the conversations over dinner are much more helpful than the actual presentation itself (Although remember to listen to their ideas as well.) Be proactive about doing something with your paper after the conference. If it is not part of a larger work, clean it up and send it to a contact you made for peer review. Then fix it and send it to a journal.

Conferencing well is a learned skill. It isn’t always easy. But it is worth doing.

Indeed, simply sending a few strategic emails in advance, buying a coffee or two for new contacts, and having a post-conference plan for your paper can make sure that your hard work doesn’t become just another conference paper.

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  • philipjenkins

    This is very useful indeed!

    I would also add that presenters should see their papers as part of a real and coordinated panel, rather than as isolated individual things, and try to make the various papers speak to each other. Remember in The Big Lebowski, you have the rug that really tied the room together? Well, your paper should aim to be that rug, tying the panel together. (End of groaning metaphor).

    Don’t just present or read a paper without taking account of what has been said in other contributions, so keep your paper flexible enough for that. eg “In making this point, I was struck by what Dave just said in another context. In fact, there are many points of resemblance between my case study and what he has found, for example XYZ. And I think Mary will be addressing similar themes in her paper. This all takes us back to the title and main theme of this session, which is X”. With any luck, Dave and Mary will then join in that conversation when they present their work, and in the time for question and discussion. This makes the session more valuable for all participants.

    This is a personal thing, but I also take lots of copies of my prepared text (I don’t actually read lectures, but that gives an idea of what I am talking about) – usually 25 or so. I then hand out copies to anyone who expresses an interest, whether at the session or at related gatherings.

    And an obvious point – be sure to take a good supply of business cards!

  • A Big Lebowski metaphor will draw the audience in and leave them begging for more. Remember that, kids.

  • philipjenkins

    I warn you , sir, this aggression will not stand.

  • Did I urinate on your rug?

  • philipjenkins

    Oh, I could continue this all day, but really shouldn’t…. I’ll just leave with a quick “Nice marmot!”