Constructing the Conference Paper: Hosting a Special Session at SCLA

This past weekend I attended the annual meeting for the Society of Comparative Literature and the Arts. In addition to chairing a panel and participating in the requisite conference mingling (I didn’t present a paper this year), I was also invited to host a special workshop.

conference-1SCLA is a wonderful organization I’ve been involved with for quite some time and the annual conference is one of the most low-key and supportive conferences I’ve attended. As such, it attracts a good number of graduate students, and even some undergrads—one year we even had an entire undergrad panel. Because of this, for many this is one of their first, if not their first, conference. What many of us who have been conferencing for a while, and feel comfortable speaking in front of large groups of people, forget is that the conference paper—taking it from term paper, to conference paper, to presentation—is a unique and sometimes strange genre. The workshop, Crafting the Conference Paper, was set up to take new or inexperienced conference presenters and walk them through the steps one takes to make a conference paper successful. (Or to simply remind veteran presenters of the fundamentals J )

I was very excited about this idea, as it is often something that is left unaddressed—one simply writes a paper, sends in an abstract, gets accepted, cuts the paper down to length, then reads it in front of a group of people, right? And yet, those of us who have been to conferences can attest to how often the conference paper goes wrong. This workshop was an attempt to lay out explicitly how one takes a written paper, to a conference paper, to a presentation.

The first part of the workshop focused on editing the written document. I know I myself conference-2have been guilty of taking a paper I’ve written, cutting it down to 12 pages, and saying “Done! Ready for the conference!” and putting this presentation together was a great reminder as to why that is the wrong way to go. The way we write papers does not often translate smoothly into a swepoken presentation. Because your audience is listening and not reading, organization, signposting, and transitions are absolutely critical. We went over how even strategies that might seem overly simplistic in written work, are actually very successful in a presentation. Things like “I argue,” “there are three main points I’ll be covering,” “my first example is” are useful for listeners to more clearly follow what you are arguing. We also discussed that it is important to think about how one integrates quotes. In a written work, they are, of course, indicated by quotation marks. But when you read your paper, you need to think about what you’re going to do with those. If the paper is quote heavy, saying “quote/end quote” over and over can become distracting and tedious for the listening. We talked about a number of other editing issues, then moved on to the presentation itself.

While many of the presentation suggestions seem like common sense—sit up straight, project, make eye contact—we sometimes forget these simple strategies. Also, the conference paper has added components. Where are you going to hold your paper? Will
you lay it on the table? What does that do to your posture? Will you read it on a computer or laptop? How will you navigate the pages?

The discussion session was lively, with people asking questions, sharing their own strategies, or anecdotes where they were in the audience during a presentation that went
conference-3wrong so we could brainstorm how to avoid similar mistakes. The handout was a topic of great interest. Most people noted that they had rarely encountered a handout that actually added something valuable to the presentation, more often they seemed to simply distract the listener, giving them something to read while the presenter was speaking. Extemporizing was also something several people wanted to examine. How and when to speak extemporaneously? How can you insert “planned” extemporaneous sections to make your presentation connect more with the audience without rambling and eating up your time?

Overall, this workshop was extremely rewarding and, even though I was leading it and planned our topics of discussion, it was a great reminder to me to not get lazy with my presentations, and to conscientiously approach every conference paper with my audience clearly in mind. The turnout also exceeded my expectations, and everyone was engaged and ready to discuss and do work. I think this indicates that there is a real interest in special sessions like these, where graduate students can gather and hone their craft in an informal and welcoming environment.

More info on SCLA can be found here: http://complit-scla.org/

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