Conferences, yet again
Another Damned Medievalist at Blogenspiel links to this site with, ah, suggestions about conference papers. Like ADM, I find that these kinds of things get my back up a bit. These read less like suggestions and more like personal pet peeves.
First of all, do you have a paper? I’m not joking. Is there a substantive discovery or a new (and correct) interpretation? Is there critical analysis? Is there an argument? If not?—no talk. The purely derivative, descriptive, or narrative will not do.
I really wish I knew what this meant. If all conference papers had to contain, in those 8-10 pages, a substantive discovery (whatever that is) or a new, correct (what constitutes correct, please?) interpretation, there would be very few conference papers indeed. I agree that all papers should have analysis and argument, but a conference paper is usually too small a space to fully elaborate more than one point—hardly enough space to fully explore a substantive discovery or a new interpretation. Instead, I think most conference papers suggest new avenues of inquiry, fresh arguments and interpretations that can be derived from known sources, new methodologies that might prove useful, or discuss new sources that have recently come to light. They aren’t intended to be polished, completely finished pieces of analysis. Instead, I like to think of conference papers as trial balloons: here’s something that I’ve been working on, here’s what my thinking is, and this is what’s new about it and why it’s important. Then, the audience can chip in and try to test it: does the idea work? does it make sense? where can it go? And that is the prime benefit of conferences: it gives you the opportunity to participate in a scholarly exchange and get the input of your colleagues without the pressure of going through a peer-reviewed publication process. If that’s what you’re going for, then you have a paper. It need not dazzle anyone with its substantive discoveries. And if it doesn’t work? Now you know and you can either set it aside or take another crack at it.
On saying “um” or having other verbal tics: yes, it would be great if everyone could deliver papers flawlessly, sounding like Martin Luther King, Jr. and leaving everyone in the audience breathless and inspired. But here’s a newsflash—not everyone is a great public speaker, and not everyone can be trained out of public speaking nervousness and other quirks (like fumbling through papers). If you’re in the audience, bear with the presenter and try to listen past the verbal tics. It’s the polite thing to do. If you’re a presenter, it is absolutely a good idea to practice your paper beforehand and to time it ruthlessly. Round up some of your friends and practice on them. I’m willing to bet, though, that even the best and most practiced of us have stood in front of an audience, very proud of our papers, and seen the Top Person in the Field sitting right in the front row. “Ummm,” she says, as she fumbles reflexively through her papers.