Sunday, November 04, 2007

How to Get to Carnegie Hall: Giving Good Paper

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) "Sex/Changes" 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 went to a panel organized by undergrads on transgender issues on campus that I enjoyed immensely. 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 going to New President's inauguration, 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.

And while I am at it, here is more advice from Linda Kerber, another terrific speaker, courtesy of the Graduate History Society.

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P.S. For clothing, I cannot help you. Like the late, great Johnny Cash, the Radical wears a black suit and often looks like she has just been beamed in from a 1950's lesbian bar. See above. For clothing hints that are actually useful, I would go to GayProf and Flavia. Haberdashery advice volunteers will also be accepted in the comments section.

P.S.2 I temporarily turned off anonymous comments to try to rid myself of spambots. I think they must be dangerous, although I don't know why except that they trigger a control issue I didn't know I had. Hat Tip to Dr. Virago for showing me how to fix this. I always wondered how people got those annoying little jumbled letters on the comments section.

24 comments:

Dance said...

Re #7, Interact---I recently presented a paper, and I only got one question from the audience. But I didn't mind at all, because I could see people reacting to the paper as I presented it, so it was still very satisfying.

Linked you with a little additional commentary on why it matters here.

Dr. Virago said...

I just gave all the same advice to my English lit MA students, including the advice about regional conferences. So good to know that my advice is seconded by Those Who are More Wise! :)

Turn on the "word verification" function and that will get rid of the spambots, btw.

Oh, and I love your tags!

Belle said...

Excellent advice, and I'd like it to be included in all conference submission packets. It's not just good for grads and newbies, I've known way too many profs who need to learn how to Give Good Paper.

FYI, I just sent you an email pleading for your advice. See, this is what you get for being superb.

Morgan said...

I just started grad school and one of my professors keeps encouraging us to submit abstracts for smaller conferences to get used to presenting, and this is very helpful. It's fairly easy to know when a paper presentation is going well or not, but this was good to explain what are the components to really pay attention to while presenting.mar

Rebecca said...

Maybe this is a discipline thing (I'm in a social science) but I really HATE hearing someone "read" a paper to me. It seems to me that we all, to one extent or another, TEACH for a living. We all know how to lecture. Why don't more people adopt that kind of delivery mechanism? Make an outline of what you want to cover and start talking.

Susan said...

Great advice, as usual, TR. My sense is that the 20 minute conference paper is an especially difficult beast, because it's hard to get significant argument and data together. Most people err by either doing all argument (too much abstraction) or all data (not enough argument).

I'd add that there is also a talent to commenting. At a very different conference from yours this past weekend, I saw a session chaired by Eminent Retired Scholar. ERS reminded the participants all of the time, so he could give a comment and then we could have discussion. Well, of course the session started late, then everyone went a minute or two over time. Then ERS said, well we don't have time for a comment, but I just want to say briefly... and then went on for 10-15 minutes about something that no one on the panel had talked about, reading from one of ERS's own books.

Sigh. I'm with Rebecca, though: ideally people do their papers as talks or lectures, which helps untether them from the text.

Tim Lacy said...

Dear Rebecca, Susan, and Others:

Reading is just fine, so long as the reader does what he/she can to make it a ~dramatic reading~ (as well as following TR's advice on audience contact, pausing, etc.). I think most of the reaction against reading is against bad, poor, and un-emotional reading. As soon as I realized this, I just called to mind years and years of watching middle-school and high school English teachers read works to us in class. They did it with style. And of course making one's conference paper into a dramatic reading involves rethinking your paper as a story, not merely a conference paper. But historians are supposed to be storytellers, yes?!

- TL

adjunct whore said...

i just want to know if the photo is of you, since you self-describe the 1950s lesbian look?? besides the suit, the speaker looks animated and entirely present in her talk. good advice as per usual TR. thanks.

i agree with the regional conference advice 100%--not only are they more enjoyable but they often are more supportive and give more helpful feedback to your work.

Emily said...

thank you, TR and commenters, for convincing me to apply to NEPSA. i had been on the fence.

also: in other disciplines, are there hierarchies within the category of regional conferences? for instance, tons of grad students in my program and at the school where i did undergrad--both on the east coast--go to/submit to MPSA, while i have never heard of someone going to NEPSA. i think i've heard similar things about the regional ISA conferences as well--one of the regions is the 'good' region, the others are less well regarded. is this my crazy discipline, or does this sort of bias exist elsewhere?

(the PS here is political science, the IS is international studies.)

Susan said...

Emily, it's likely to have more of a relationship to the local leadership, which changes over time. In my field there have been times when the mid-Atlantic regional was more active than the New England, and then a while when New England was more active than Mid-Atlantic, and now they are pretty similar. You get a series of energetic people running the conferences, and they become lively places to be. People run out of steam, or in a small field you start running out of people...

Anonymous said...

I'm beginning to think that practicing the paper is possibly the most critical stage of doing a conference presentation. When one is very familiar with one's own text, lots of other problems are solved. My last paper got just one practice reading, and I think I lost some impact because of that. The previous one, well, I must have read it a dozen times, and it seemed quite successful. The extra work paid off.

Mary L. Dudziak said...

Thanks for the typically fantastic advice, which I've borrowed from for a post on the Legal History Blog, with more comments on the to-read-or-not-to-read problem, as it is faced by legal historians: http://legalhistoryblog.blogspot.com/2007/11/how-to-give-paper.html
My advice: even if delivering a paper to an audience with non-historians who aren't used to the practice of reading papers, it's usually still best to have written out the section of the paper conveying the historical narrative. Perhaps outline the opening & closing. But the key is to practice so much that the part of the paper that's read doesn't lose the social scientists & other non-historians in the audience.

Rufus said...

This is all great advice. I've also decided that it's best to be very open to audience suggestions, having seen a few situations in which presenters became grumpy with audience suggestions. Sure, sometimes their ideas don't help much; but there's no reason not to be thankful and open to them.

Zach said...

I didn't really realize when I submitted my proposal for NEASA that it was kind of weird to not be at least a grad student and submit something, but I learned so much from writing and presenting all on my own. The larger conferences aren't really open to the unaffiliated, to my knowledge, and I wouldn't have the chutzpah to submit something even if they were. I'm grateful to NEASA for the opportunity to learn how to present, as well as the thrill of getting to hear smart people discussing intriguing topics. I was surprised at how many of the sessions I attended were people just reading their papers, though. These folks can all lecture without a paper-- they do it every day. What do you think is the reason almost everyone sticks so closely to the script?
It was also cool to a) see you and other Zenith folks and b) get to meet students and faculty members from schools to which I might eventually apply (though no faculty from the host school, despite heavy attendance from its grad students. strange).

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Thanks so much for this list, I've had it bookmarked for almost three years now. I'm adapting your list for an undergrad class I'm teaching.
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