By: Natalie Boldt
This post is part of a two-part series on applying to, preparing for, and presenting at conferences. For a list of resources to help you begin looking for a suitable conference to apply to, see Heidi Rennert’s post, “Resource List For Conferences and Knowing Your Field.”
Applying to, preparing for, and presenting at a conference is an intimidating prospect—true or false? The truth of this statement will depend on what kind of person you are (introverted? extroverted? an introvert masquerading as an extrovert?) and how much experience you have under your academic belt thus far—but I think it’s safe to say that, for many of us, the thought of attending a conference, especially for the first time, is a daunting one. Nothing I can write here will completely remove those “first time” nerves, but I’m hoping that a little reflection on my first conference-going experience will mediate your fears and, if nothing else, give you something to laugh about as you sit waiting to take the podium and deliver your paper.
I attended my first conference in the second year of a Master’s program in Interdisciplinary Humanities. I was working quite extensively with dystopian literature at the time and a friend of mine who had taken to trolling the University of Pennsylvania’s CFP website sent me a Call for Papers for a panel on apocalypse and disaster in contemporary literature and film. The only drawback—the conference was in Albuquerque (Albuquerque?!) New Mexico. Never dreaming I would be accepted, I submitted a proposal anyway based on a paper I had just written on the deconstruction of progress narratives and the “American Dream” in Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. When, wonder of wonders, my proposal was approved, I realized I needed to pack my bags for the South West of the United States and—oh yes, that’s right—fund my expedition. Fortunately, I was researching for a professor whose grant funding allocated a certain amount to “student development” and he generously offered to assist me with costs. Here I give you Moral #1: Don’t apply indiscriminately. Take your proposals seriously—can you afford to travel to New Mexico (or, perhaps, somewhere more glamorous) to present or is there a conference closer to home that might offer a similar opportunity? That being said, Caroline Winter has written a wonderful blog post about obtaining travel funding should you be accepted somewhere far flung (click here to read her post).
Once my travel plans were in order, I began scrupulously reformatting my paper. I drove two hours to the UBC library and checked out upwards of ten texts on Western literature, Cormac McCarthy, dystopia, utopia, American history, etc. in order to give my paper the theoretical backbone I felt it needed to be “conference ready.” When I was finished, I had a monster of an essay on my hands and, I realized, only 15 minutes to present. Here I give you morals two through three—#2: Always be wary of your time limit, because, as I was told multiple times, the panel chair will cut you off mid-sentence if you exceed your time slot. #3: Though you will probably need to revise your seminar paper to some extent, also be aware that conferences feature presentations of all kinds—many of which are works in progress. Often scholars attend to gauge the audience’s reaction to their work and receive feedback from other scholars in their field. Moreover, at the end of the day, these are oral presentations and, as such, simplicity is much preferred to overly theoretical and complex arguments that are best left for hour-long keynotes or journal length articles. Some of the best panels I’ve attended included people who came armed with notes instead of a paper and proceeded to wow us with their charisma as well as their ideas (not for everyone, of course). Needless to say, in the end I wound up presenting an essay that was nearly identical to what I’d started with—lesson learned.
When it came time to attend the actual conference I was terrified—not just to read my paper but also to interact with “real” scholars who were sure to go for the jugular during the question and answer period. When I shared my fears with a friend who was an experienced conference-goer, she told me, and I quote, “The worst thing that will happen to you during the question and answer is someone will unravel your entire argument with one question” (helpful, no?). “If that happens,” she continued, “just respond honestly—say that you hadn’t considered their point while writing the paper, but that you’ll take his or her comments under advisement and do further research.” And, really, that’s all you can do. Moral #4: Maintain a healthy fear of question and answer, sure, but also remember that no one in the audience is “out to get you.” Very rarely will someone hope to “prove you wrong” with their questions or comments. More likely, they’re simply responding to your ideas, which is, ultimately, what you want! As terrifying as it can be to be put on the spot, receiving no questions is much worse. But back to the narrative—
Arriving in Albuquerque did little to assuage my nerves. Full disclosure—for my first conference, I was accompanied by my mother who, though not a scholar, felt confident that I was a burgeoning genius and was comfortable enough with her assessment that she volunteered it to anyone who would listen (the cab driver, the hotel concierge, the stranger in the elevator, our waiter at dinner—you get the point) and I quickly issued a gag order. I wanted to fly as low as possible under the radar, present my paper quickly and quietly, and interact with as few people as possible. Registration engendered both relief—I made it! I have a nametag! It’s almost over!—and panic—I’m presenting in Ballroom C. Ballroom C?!?! Immediately I was overcome with visions of myself offering up my meager paper to a massive audience composed of professors, publishers, and authors—all of them experts in apocalyptic literature. Wait—doesn’t Cormac McCarthy live in New Mexico? Yes, yes he does! He lives in Santa Fe! That’s, what, an hour car ride from Albuquerque? What if Cormac McCarthy is in the audience? What if he asks a question? What if he disagrees with my analysis of his book? What am I saying—of course he’ll disagree with my analysis of his book. . . . And so went the inner-monologue. Fortunately, my mother (practical woman) quickly ran reconnaissance and informed me that “Ballroom C” was not, as I had thought, a literal Ballroom, but rather a large room in the hotel that had been divided into “Ballrooms” A, B, and C—three of many rooms all running panels simultaneously.
Comforting as that information was, the night before my panel I still found myself researching all things Cormac McCarthy just in case he should happen to materialize, dressed in black and disguised with sunglasses, in the back row of Ballroom C the following morning. As you probably suspected, when it was finally time for my panel, McCarthy was not there. In fact, there were a total of ten people in the audience (if you think that’s small, I recently presented to an audience of four). Those ten people, however, were all collegial, engaged, and incredibly supportive of the panel’s collective papers. Our question and answer period (which was not nearly as intimidating as I anticipated) was followed by an additional ten minutes during which we exchanged e-mails and ideas, made suggestions for further study, and congratulated each other on a job well-done. Cheesy? Perhaps. And granted, not everyone’s first conference experience will be quite this rosy. At the same time, it is highly unlikely that you will be the exception that does present to room full of one hundred, malicious professionals ready to slay your argument with a single comment as Cormac McCarthy watches from the back of the room. Moral #5: Odds are, it won’t be as bad as you think. Now go apply!
To aid you as you contemplate applying to conferences and/or publishing in journals, we’ve compiled a list of links (generously supplied by several professors in the department) that will direct you to various literary societies, journals, and CFPs. Also, for a detailed account of attending conferences as a graduate student (finding the right one, crafting an abstract, writing your presentation, networking, choosing the right outfit [seriously]) see Chapter 9 of Gregory Colón Semenza’s Graduate Study for the 21st Century available for download through UVIC’s Library website. Happy hunting!
Natalie Boldt is a first-year PhD student focusing on contemporary Canadian and Speculative Fiction.