Special Advanced Section: So, You Want to Be an Organizer?
We are assuming that you are an eager young graduate student. You may be an eager old graduate student. You may be an eager old faculty member. Whatever combination you are (and being consenting adults of wide experience, we know there are many combinations out there) you are reading this because you want to present a paper detailing the fruits of your research to an eager audience, and you are not a regular at conferences.
Getting your paper selected is actually quite easy at Texas Medieval. We're so happy that people want to come that we accept just about everyone who submits a decent abstract on time. Most other regional and disciplinary conferences have much the same attitude. But we know that some hoity-toity organizations actually pick and choose. Therefore, the correct thing to do is to write a brief abstract of one page or three paragraphs (being careful to remain within any specified word-limit guidelines). Explain the main focus of your paper and the basis of your research. Explain why your work is different or important. Explain it in a way that any fool reading your abstract can understand what you're saying.
You should also say in your abstract if you will need audio-visual or computer equipment. Don't assume that it will be sitting in the conference room waiting for you; the organizers will have to make special arrangements for you.
Also, if you're sending in your abstract "blind" (meaning that you don't know anyone in the organization or conference) send along a brief, one-page c. v. that will help to introduce you to the organizers.
If your abstract fits in with the general theme of the conference, and if the organizers have room, they'll probably put you on the program. Do not be upset or hurt if you don't get on the program, however. The conference may have filled; your topic may not have fit; the organizers may be a bunch of effete, no-good bums descended from bipedal pond scum. There are organizations that seek gender and racial diversity and make choices based on those criteria alone. We do not recommend that you boldly proclaim your race, gender, and sexual orientation on the abstract (we at Texas Medieval would rather not know). Instead, try again. Once you get on a program, you'll find it's ridiculously easy to get on more programs, and your conference career will be launched.
When you write your paper, bear in mind that most people in the room will not be experts on your field of study. They will be hearing your paper, not reading it. Therefore, you have to organize your paper so that it is comprehensible. Have a clear introduction and a clear conclusion. If you talk about dates, figures, charts, or have unusual names, you should consider putting this information on a handout for easy reference. Avoid excessive use of foreign words and phrases; always provide a translation; and for crying out loud, make sure you pronounce them correctly.
Things to keep in mind as you write:
Most people fear speaking in public. This is an unreasonable fear, because few audiences actually become violent. Most academics are very passive types. The worst they will do is talk about you afterwards. And if you didn't want people to talk about you, you shouldn't have come anyway.
Not every conference will provide a podium. This is a shame, because it is better to give a paper standing up than sitting. It is easier to project your voice, the audience can see you, and it enables you to psychologically dominate the room. If no podium is provided, make one out of one or two briefcases (someone will always have a briefcase).
If you've never spoken in public before, give your talk to a group of friends and ask them to tell you what bad habits you've got. Some of the best presentations are made by graduate students because they over-prepare. Some of the worst are by senior scholars who expect their brilliance to carry the day. At least two academics of our acquaintance have overcome serious speech impediments and are really good paper presenters. SO DON'T SAY YOU CAN'T DO IT.
Some conferences have commentators on the panels. You should send a copy of your paper to the commentator of your session at least two weeks before the conference. This will enable the commentator to prepare comments about your paper. At the conference, let the commentator know if you have made substantial changes since you sent the paper.
Most commentators and questioners are not hostile, although it may seem that way. The commentator is supposed to put your work in a broader context. The questioner may be seeking additional information or clarification.
Worst case scenario is when folks just have to show everyone how smart they are. We've all gotten slammed with a bad comment. You didn't say enough about the commentator's work, the work of his or her friends, he or she may not agree with your methodology or politics, or the commentator may be a psychotic alcoholic who obtains sexual satisfaction by yanking the wings off baby birds. Be assured the audience will know where the commentator or questioner is coming from. They will assess the validity of the comment. Your best response is to stay cool. Smile, show your teeth, and say "Thank you very much. I consider all these points in the published\longer version of the paper." Then take good care of yourself so you'll outlive your enemies and can desecrate their graves. Unless, of course, you have the fool dead to rights. Then you can slam them right then and there. The audience will love you for it.
It looks easy. All you've got to do is sit up there and stay awake. But the chair has responsibilities. That's why panels have people to chair sessions.
If you are chairing a session, keep in mind that people are not there to hear you -- sad, but true. Your mother would come, but that's about it. Your job is to get the speakers on and off. You introduce the speakers, pronounce their names right, and make sure that speakers do not exceed the twenty-minute time limit. You have to pay attention because the chair may have to ask the first question to get things rolling. You then have to moderate the question and answer period.
The hardest part of chairing a session is getting the speakers off. Some folks just won't stop talking. Chairs make eye contact, make signs, pass notes, and still the speaker yammers on. One chair armed herself with a crossbow, and THAT didn't work. The Europeans use a timer with a buzzer. When the buzzer goes off, so does the speaker, even in mid-sentence.
There's more to the conference than just your paper, strange as it may seem. There are other academics there who are also intent on giving papers. Academics are not known for their social graces, so you may have to take the initiative and interact with the other life forms you meet at the conference.
It's always safe to ask someone what their paper is about. The danger is that they will tell you in great detail. It's ok to have an urgent appointment elsewhere if this happens. You can also find out a bit about the politics of the organization by asking about the history of the conference (every conference has a history) or about the aims of the organization. Everyone will have an opinion, and it will probably be quite interesting. If all else fails, ask what cuts in education are doing to the program at your interlocutor's institution. That should be good for a heated discussion involving an entire group of people.
You should dress conservatively. Being mistaken for an undergraduate gets old, and no one takes you seriously. Likewise, you should only read a paper adorned with a visible tatoo and a tongue stud if you are an ivy league grad student presenting avant garde lit crit. You want your ideas and your work to be remembered, not your clothes.
Both men and women attendees may find that there are conferees who are more interested in their bodies than in their minds. If you want to take them up on whatever suggestions they make that's up to you. It is unprofessional behavior, and you are perfectly correct to say no politely but firmly. Talk about your spouse, partner, children, or your bad case of lycanthropy that does not respond to treatment. The predator will then move on to the next victim.
The organizers will start planning next year's conference at the conference itself. Provided you delivered a good paper and remained within the twenty minute limit, you will probably get on next year's program. If you blethered on for forty minutes and the chair had to chase you off with a pitchfork, don't count on it, especially at Texas Medieval.
Do send email to your new friends. Do try to get your paper published, if not in the conference proceedings, then elsewhere. Do keep on networking. And always save your receipts, because it's all tax deductible.
Call us at Texas Medieval. We're always looking for a few good people.
Author: Theresa M. Vann. Copyright ©1998, Texas Medieval Association. You may use this material in whole or in part for non-profit purposes as long as you attribute it to the Texas Medieval Association. If you steal it for your own mercenary purposes, I've still got that crossbow somewhere.