The Art Of The Conference Paper

I’ve spent most of this offensively glorious summer’s day at my desk inside my flat, desperately boshing away at a conference paper. I’ve just typed the final lines, quickly saved and closed down the document so I can’t look at my horrific handiwork, wiped the sweat from my beleaguered brow and poured myself a nice cold English Garden. It occurred to me that it might be good to get a blog post in about the art of the conference paper (as I see and aspire to it) while I’ve got it all still buzzing around in my head.

Some of you will be only too familiar with conferences as such. Others, not so much. They’re a cornerstone of academic life, and occupy a wide variety of places in the hearts of those who, happily or miserably, attend them. Some see them as the best thing about academia – I have a friend who describes academia as her long-term lover and conferences as their dirty weekends away, when they ‘rejuvenate their relationship’ and she’s reminded of how much she loves it even though most of the time it just gets on her nerves. Others see them as either terrifying (especially if you’re giving a paper) or pointless and expensive (especially if you’re not). Some attend them with a careful strategy to see as many papers as they can to actually maximise their knowledge; others go – quite frankly and openly – just to network, to make those all-important contacts that might help you publish a paper or get a leg-up in a funding competition or even get a job.

Unsurprisingly, they can be all of the above, depending on who’s running them and how the programme shapes up. Personally I love a good conference, and have tried to submit papers to as many as possible over the course of my PhD so far. You often hear some great research, put a face to a revered name, and often get to corner your heroes and heroines and ask them about their work / get their thoughts about yours. When they let their hair down (which they invariably do after a bit of the lukewarm wine that your conference fee pays for, among other things) the academic community is an excellent place to be – full of fiercely intelligent, slightly weird people who have both a great passion for what they do and a keen sense of the ridiculous about the oddities of their profession.

But I want to specifically write about the conference paper today – the twenty minute presentation that you give at these things. The process goes like this; you submit an abstract (usually two hundred words or so) a few months in advance of the conference, outlining the focus of your paper and the argument you want to make. Hopefully you get accepted, at which point your paper is put into a panel with two others, often with a convincing overarching theme to enable discussion. Then you have to write the thing.  Yep, that’s right. You’re basically hypothesizing when you send your firm, confident abstract in. You haven’t yet done the research and have no idea if your argument holds water. You get the nod, and then you have to start researching and writing and hope for the best.

Of course, this is just one way of doing it. It’s my way, and it derives from a sort of principle I have that conferences should be used over the course of a PhD to push research forward. When you get an acceptance and know you have to present your paper, well, you’ve got to write it. The other way of doing it, of course, is to present papers that you’ve already written, that you may have presented already, and just perform them again, slightly tailored. That has its own benefits of course – there’s less work involved. But the one time I did that, I felt rather dead inside without the adrenalin rush in the couple of weeks building up to the conference. I was bereft of the sense that this conference had really helped me inch a bit further along the path to a finished thesis. So, no more of that if I can help it.

This is leading up to something, promise. I have this idea about how the conference paper could be made a better sort of beast than it currently is, which, as an experiment, I’ve been trying out with the paper I’ve just written. Of those papers I’ve seen over the last year or two (and I DO include myself in this statement, and there ARE exceptions) the majority have been – to my mind – based on work that is altogether too polished. What I mean by this is that, whether written years before the conference or days before, they generally appear to be large, finished, carefully reasoned, elaborately footnoted pieces of work, probably originally clocking in at about 10 thousand words or an hour long, BUT then mutilated and squished to fit into a twenty-minute box for the conference. What this means in practice, for the listener, is a very quickly spoken, rather garbled polemic that assumes an awful lot of knowledge and as a result, can rather lose one’s attention. And, invariably, run over time.

Crucially, this kind of process – writing a long piece of work and then cutting it down for a spoken paper – also has a necessary impact on the tone and feel of one’s argument. If you’ve put that much work into a chapter or essay, trust me, you’re going to feel very defensive of your conclusions. As a result, many of the papers I’ve seen are presented in a rather confrontational or else frightened way. There’s a definite feeling among panelists that the audience are an enemy, there to catch you out or attack your theory. As an audience member, I never feel at all hostile to the speakers, but I do frequently feel that I’m just being presented with a range of fait accomplis ; stuff that is often not related to what I study, and doesn’t make an attempt to reach out, link the research to wider questions and engage the diverse specialisms of the audience.

As I mentioned, I have been guilty of all this and more myself. So, this time round, I decided as an experiment to write my paper rather differently. This paper is called “Ne suis-je pas son mari? Frances Burney, Charlotte Smith and Cross-Channel Conjugality”. It’s  for a superb-sounding graduate conference to be held at Newcastle University on 1st June (so, a week today) called ‘Romantic Connections: Networks of Influence’ (full info here, for the that-way-inclined )

What I’ve done differently this time is consciously attempt, in my writing, to destine this piece of work for a conference paper and a conference paper only. I’ve asked myself: As an audience member, what would I love to hear? And I came up with the following:

1) A brief introduction to the work of the writers in question – don’t just assume that everyone knows who they are and what they did and why they’re important

2) A series of exciting questions with broad appeal to be asked about their work and significance – relate their output to themes that everyone can think about and offer thoughts on

3) A clear hypothesis or suspected argument; but more importantly, the sense that actually this is work in progress; that as an audience member I can engage with and possibly influence the direction of the research during the Questions session

4) A sense that the day is interactive – that the speaker has been soaking up the ideas of other people, and that they will actually use their paper to respond to some of these issues.

So, I tried this out. I gave myself a 3000-word cap (still probably a bit too long, but I usually do about 7000 and then cut it down to 2500, so a definite improvement). I have obviously read all my primary texts thoroughly, and have given the nod to a few critics whose work has helped me articulate to myself why this subject is important; but I’ve tried to utterly ignore the demon who sits on your shoulder and hisses, “But you haven’t read this, but you haven’t read this, but you haven’t read this“. (I don’t NEED more material! It’s only twenty minutes. ) I’ve given a lot of space to an interesting anecdote and to asking what I think of as broad, exciting questions. And only 1.5 pages to each of three novels that I discuss. Hardly any to criticism. And I’ve left space, or I will, to reflect the content of an earlier paper or two.

The result looks… hmm. It looks a bit sketchy and unfinished. Thinking about showing this or reading it out to someone, I feel as anxious and just WRONG as I would if I showed them an early draft of a short story, or a painting while there were still big swathes of white and unfinished limbs. But I’m trying to ignore that feeling.

The real test will be this time next week, when I’m in Newcastle, being very frank about the fact that this is work in progress and seeing how the audience respond. There is an unfortunate possibility that I will come of as an underprepared amateur. But maybe (hopefully) it will go down well. And I’ll get some feedback and advice and thoughts that will make this little sketchy piece of hypothesis bloom into a wonderful, informed chapter that is something of a collaborative effort. That, I reckon, is what conferences might be for. That and the dear old lukewarm wine.

Ok, enough. I’m off to meet friends at the park. Speaking of wine, I have a champagne-washed cheese and a bottle of Prosecco and I know how to use them. Til next time.


One thought on “The Art Of The Conference Paper

  1. Pingback: This Much I Know – Starting a PhD | sophiecoulombeau

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