They haunt class announcements and announcement boards. They haunt CV categories. They haunt department-wide or even campus-wide emails. They are…Conferences!
Yes, those dreaded events that are the combination of rich citations, boring topics, and public speaking. Those pillars of privilege in which ivory tower nerds can use 5 syllable words to discuss two lines of a poem in its original Genovian or whatever. And yet, professors herald them as the key to networking, to a job, and to nirvana. Okay that’s far but you get it.
Conferences seem these daunting figures that hold the key to career success. Whether networking for creative publication or academic pursuits, a key step seems to be speaking at these events. But are they truly that terrible? What kind of genius insight or idea must one slave over to earn a spot? And is it all dry shut ins getting in fights about Elvish translation? Having freshly returned two weeks ago from the Southwest Pop Culture Association Conference (hereon referred to as Swapaca) in ABQ, NM, allow me to give my thoughts on the process.
1. Conference selection and Concrete Abstraction
The first step is finding out who is looking for writing and/or what genre you’re interested in presenting. Find an interesting journal in Auraria Library? Odds are they have a conference. Definitely ask around campus or journal editors to find conferences friendly for first timers. Being at Auraria Campus, there is a bounty of options including one coming this April taking submissions through March 11, submit today! https://www.msudenver.edu/english/events/uec/
If you are inclined toward presenting in the ABQ I can say that Swapaca is very kind to its presenters.
So, let’s say you’ve found a friendly looking conference. Now comes the hang up of what to present. Your old papers were so specific, and few care about the exact fandom in which you find yourself. Well, let me tell you about calls for paper. There are calls for near every type of paper imaginable. Medieval LGBT poetry? Got it. Science and Harry Potter? Got it. Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the Culture of Riffing? Got it, in fact it was this one that caught my gaze in October 2017. I had spent too much time watching riffers on YouTube (still do by the way) and figured the least I could do was count it all as research and present my abstract. While I am no master in the genre of abstract (as I’d figure no one could be), my simplest research confirms every recommendation before it. Explain your argument or summarize your story concisely without needing to fill the 500-word standard. Both of my accepted abstracts centered around 250 words.
And I am aware of the crucial modifier there, “accepted.” Hearing your submission has been rejected can break your heart. And it has happened to everyone. Your peers, your professors, and even your author have been rejected. Just as in a job interview, know that their decision is not rooted in failure or perception of intelligence. It is simply a matter of hitting a topic their audience will dig.
2. Uncredited Homework and Financers
Congratulations! Your abstract has been accepted! Now fork over a couple hundred so we can let you present. I admit the costs associated with conference travel and the event itself do nothing to help the image of the elitist academic. A good option provided a couple of hours work is asking for money from the Student Travel Committee with a faculty advisor, other students, and conference cost stats in tow. (Note: coming in with a group is always preferable to a solo student, both financially and marketingly.) Several conferences have scholarships for travel as well. Otherwise, start saving and plan on a diet of power bars during the trip.
The other thing your acceptance has given you is a two-part homework assignment: 1) complete a more-than-competently polished piece of creative or academic work and 2) be able to talk about it engagingly for 10-20 minutes. Going into the conference I figured most would opt out of part 2 but was pleasantly surprised as a majority of presenters talked about their research rather than reciting it. Accompanying PowerPoints may have varied in quality, but as a whole all of the scholars presented their work as if it were something they actually cared about and hoped you would too. A scholar reading head down in podium will be forgotten, so learn to engage with your topic and make it engaging.
3. The Main Event
Accompanying this may be a bad travel video that I implore you to avoid. Carpooling is always preferable to the solo road trip. But that’s really irrelevant to the whole process and at least provides a rest bit to gather your thoughts. The key things to pack is an adapter if you’re using AV and your paper. Whenever you arrive, take a second to swing by the room you’ll be presenting in. If at all possible, try practicing your piece. Having a solid view of the room will calm nerves. Get a good night’s rest, eat breakfast, and wear something that makes you feel like a boss.
Attend as many panels as you can and diversify. By seeing other presenters you can get a good feel for the tone of the conference. Often there are sessions that are more interactive than listening to a series of papers. At Swapaca I attended a panel on teaching that used a Dungeon Crawl to teach philosophy. It was baller. The hour before your presentation, it is a-okay to take time and practice your presentation and get hydrated.
Now, I hate to be the pragmatist, but I do need to address one thing that would have helped me going in. It is okay if only two people show up. It is worth it to present and hear your own labor unfold. To see your peers from across the country or the world and absorb their passion as well. It also will be okay if your room is cramming to fit in. These people are here largely because they are interested. There are the few who want to pick a fight or prove their superiority. But that’s in their bucket. Keep to your points, look up every now and again, and remember to breathe.
Congratulations, you have presented at a conference. You now have the right to advise others as if you truly know what you are talking about.