Whether you are working toward the terminal MA at Sam Houston State University or contemplating PhD or MFA work, consider sharing your ideas and writings at any one of hundreds of scholarly or creative writing conferences around the region, country, or world. In so doing, you make a place for yourself in the larger academic and creative communities.
WHAT TYPES OF CONFERENCES ARE OUT THERE?
Conferences, typically hosted by professional scholarly and creative organizations, come in all types. There are huge annual gatherings like those hosted by the Modern Language Association (MLA), the Popular Culture Association (PCA), and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).
There are also international, national, and regional conferences held annually by organizations devoted to scholarship in certain academic areas: the American Literature Association (ALA), the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR), and the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (alas, ASECS), to name a very few.
There are conferences for rhetoricians and creative writers like those presented by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). Some conferences cater to specific theoretical interests. And there are some conferences exclusively for graduate students.
HOW DO I FIND OUT ABOUT THESE CONFERENCES?
You can find out about the international and national societies, their regional affiliates, and the conferences that they host by several means:
- Ask a graduate faculty member who is an area specialist.
- Go to an Internet site like the Scholarly Societies Project, which tries to keep tabs on all such organizations (an unenviable mission).
- Go to an Internet site that lists academic resources; Jack Lynch at Rutgers has a good one.
- Subscribe to a “Call for Papers [CFP] Mailing List.” The most extensive one is that from the University of Pennsylvania.
THE PAPER PROPOSAL:
You will almost always have to submit a proposal for a conference paper or creative reading. This will be judged against others for the same presentation panel by a moderator or conference board. For papers presented at regional conferences, the deadline for submitting presentation proposals usually falls in the previous season. For big national or international conferences, the proposal deadlines often come a year before the presentations; participation in such conferences is much more competitive.
If you come across an enticing call for paper proposals for a particular session at a particular conference, consider first exactly what the invitation calls for. If you think that you have a paper or an idea that fits the bill, send in a proposal.
A call for papers invites proposals, usually with a word limit (typically between 250 and 500 words). The proposal is an abstract of the paper that succinctly sums up the main points, making clear how the paper suits the panel. In the abstract, you should show the importance of your topic to the interest of the panel specifically and perhaps the conference generally; indicate the methods by which you will approach your topic; and make clear your thesis and, in a general way, your line of development for that thesis. The idea is to sell the proposal—so well that it cannot be turned down.
Here is a model proposal for a paper titled “Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Wild Tales,’” provided by Dr. Julie Hall:
A little less than a year after Nathaniel Hawthorne assumed his post as American Consul to Liverpool, a position bestowed upon him by close personal friend and then-President of the U.S., Franklin Pierce, the celebrated author made the first of three weekend tours into neighboring North Wales. First with his young British friend, Henry Bright, in late July 1854, and then some two months later with his family—wife Sophia, and children Una, Julian and Rose—Hawthorne saw the celebrated sites and landscapes of this ancient home of Druids, Britons, and Celts. Terming the visit with Bright a “delightful . . . little tour,” Hawthorne found the mountain scenery and sea vistas “picturesque,” while medieval castles like Beaumaris “quite [came] up to [his] idea of what an old castle should be.” Later, he would rhapsodize of Conway Castle that “nothing ever can have been so perfect in its own style, and for its own purposes, when it was first built; and now nothing else can be perfect as a picture of ivy-grown, peaceful ruin” (The English Notebooks, 102, 99,121). Indeed, Sophia Hawthorne noted to James Fields, as she edited Hawthorne’s journals for publication, that Nathaniel “was more enchanted with Conway than with any other ruin or place. . . . (CE XXI 737).
In sojourning in Wales, Hawthorne revealed himself alive, as ever, to the intellectual currents of the time, for Wales was increasingly of interest for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelers and writers alike. Hawthorne’s beloved Samuel Johnson toured Wales in 1774; Thomas Pennant (an author, if not a text, with whom Hawthorne was familiar) published A Tour in Wales (1778-81); George Borrows brought out Wild Wales in 1863; and Thomas Gray, William Sotheby, and William Wordsworth all published works that made prominent literary use of Welsh tours and sites. For some of these writers, Wales—with its lingering vestiges of Celtic culture now vanished from other parts of the kingdom, its colonized status, and its history of fierce rebellion and resistance to imperial England—was both familiar and foreign, a part of, but still separate from the “mother country.” Indeed, as various scholars have pointed out, Wales and the Welsh often came to be, in British writings, the “cultural other”—primitive, alien, and exotic (English Romanticism and the Celtic World).
So it was, at least in part, for Nathaniel Hawthorne, who in his notebook writings characterizes Wales, the Welsh, and the language repeatedly as “wild,” thus transforming the country and its people into the cultural opposite of the civilized world. But Hawthorne also occupied a different relationship to Wales, as an American, than did these Englishmen, albeit he was an American strongly aware of his ancestral English lineage and heritage, drawn to English cultural traditions, and making England, at the time, his temporary home. This paper will examine Hawthorne’s complex cultural interactions with, responses to, and inscription of “wild Wales” in his English Journals (English Romanticism and the Celtic World, ed. Gerard Carruthers, 1).
PRESENTING THE PAPER:
At the risk of putting the caboose before the engine, you will certainly be able to write a better paper if you can anticipate the circumstances under which you’ll read it. Assuming now that your paper proposal has already been accepted, consider some of the following features of the presentation: presentation formats, your audience, and questions and responses.
Consider any restrictions imposed by the makeup of the panel and the structure of the session. Guidelines about the length of a paper are usually determined by the number of readers on a panel, typically three or four for an hour-and-a-half session, more rarely five. For the standard three-person panel, each reader has approximately twenty minutes, with another twenty minutes or so for discussion among the panelists or questions from the floor. Make sure that your paper or creative work is manageable within the allotted time—and be respectful of the time allotted for the others on the panel. Most readers find that they have to cut sections of their paper—often, alas, the fun, anecdotal sections—to make the time limit. An eight-ten page, double-spaced paper is usually about right. But you should practice reading it a number of times, with a watch in hand. There are variations on the time allotment. At some conferences, each panelist has ten minutes to summarize her or his research findings. The summaries are followed by forty-five minutes of open discussion among panelists and audience.
The usual format for presentation is to read the paper verbatim, although the better you know your subject and the more you practice reading the paper, the better that you can speak the paper rather than merely reading it woodenly.
The reading audience usually comprises reasonably well-educated individuals, most of them scholars and creative writers like yourself, who most likely have some interest, broad or narrow, in the panel topic.
First, while the audience usually have the benefit of a conference program and a responsible panel chair’s introductory remarks, make sure that they know who you are and what you are talking about. Don’t take for granted that they know the subject of your paper or the swirling critical controversy that inspired it as well as you do. Provide useful—but brief—contexts, as necessary. But in doing so, don’t condescend to your audience; these are bright, well-read people, most of them seasoned scholars and teachers. If you rely overmuch on plot summary, for example, you risk being labeled as naive and superficial.
In addressing your audience, the expected personal and verbal skills appropriate to a speaking presentation before one’s peers hold: appropriate dress, good eye contact, absolutely clear enunciation, and rhetorical decorum: Never insult a fellow panelist or member of the audience.
While the usual presentation format is a reading of the paper, knowing the paper very well will allow you to look up every once in a while and engage your audience; perhaps even make an aside or two, so that you’re speaking the paper rather than reading it. Given the sometimes grim circumstances of an academic conference, consider the entertainment value of a good—but appropriate—anecdote or two. The problem is that including such anecdotes is something of a balancing act, since the kinds of asides that might make a paper more entertaining also cut into the precious little time that you usually have for delivering it.
Consider that your audience has a single chance to get your argument. While you do not want to seem simple, keep in mind that the complexity of that argument and the level of language that you use should correspond to the expectations and abilities of your listeners. If you plan to read any quotations—but particularly any that go on for several lines—provide a handout for the audience so that they have something concrete in their hands.
Be prepared for questions. Unfortunately, this is the part of the presentation over which you have least control, especially when questioners sometimes have their own agenda in asking the questions; sometimes they are really making statements.
On rare occasions, some audience members challenge with an edge; at a recent conference session, for example, an Englishman in the audience took the American chair of the panel to task for his “barbarous” pronunciation of some English names. Usually, however, audience members ask responsible questions and engage in meaningful discussion, in the spirit of scholarly debate. The best way to prepare for questions from these individuals—the ones who really count—is to know your topic very well, of course, and, as you write, to think through the implications of your subject matter and the thesis, especially as your educated and well-read audience will receive it.
Try to be as polite and succinct in your responses as you can, answering the questions asked and not those hoped for or imagined.
And keep in mind the constructive value of good questions and the ensuing discussion, both of which will help you refine your own argument, especially if you are thinking about preparing your paper for publication.