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Venice Advice: Four things to Remember when attending Conferences

2013 May 31
by lucinda matthews-jones

J. Stephen Addcox

1) Go to the parties

On the first day of the NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA Professionalization Workshop in Venice, I learned that I’ve been doing conferences all wrong. While I’ve always known on an intellectual level that conferences were about making connections to other scholars, my practice has tended toward driving to a conference, delivering my paper, and driving home (there is also a pitfall of only submitting to conferences near my home institution). But in reality, the guest speakers at the professionalization workshop all indicated that the social aspects of conferences can be just as important as the actual act of giving a paper.

2) Conference organizers read many proposals

Especially important for writers of proposals, and often graduate students aren’t aware of these things (I wasn’t), remember that the organizers read <em>a lot</em> of proposals. For competitive conferences there can be upward of 800 proposals, in which case, you don’t have a lot of time to make your case before the reader starts to lost interest. Emily Allen (Purdue) developed the rubric seen here as an aid for ranking proposals; it offers a guide in which papers were ranked from 1 to 5 (1 being best) in the following areas. Working with these kinds of criteria in mind can help shape a proposal more compelling. In any case, it’s important to get the main thrust of your argument out rather quickly, but to do so in way that isn’t ham-handed or clumsy. This perhaps sounds rather obvious, but too often, as Dino Felluga (Purdue) pointed out, we can waste space with phrases like “I will problematize this” or “I will contextualize that,” which is a classic saying instead of showing error. As writers we need to demonstrate rather than assert complexity.

3) Achieved Lucidity

Catherine Robson (NYU) offered a short and precise term to the group that encapsulates many of these guidelines for an effective proposal: achieved lucidity. Finding achieved lucidity not only allows the proposal to be convincing and exciting, it also makes the proposal understandable to those who may not be intimately familiar with the author’s topic. This kind of accessibility can be crucial for an area like Victorian studies, which is home to a diverse group of academics. Another valuable lesson for conference proposals is this: obscure doesn’t automatically equal valuable—but obscure doesn’t mean valueless either. The workshop speakers agreed that proposals focusing on an obscure topic can tend to suggest that the topic’s value lies in its obscurity, rather than its relationship and contribution to current scholarly discussions.

4) Reading a Paper is a Performance

On the actual delivering of papers, Nancy Henry (UT Knoxville) emphasized that conference presentations are performative, and it is important to hear how your paper sounds before the day of the conference. Obviously checking for length and timing is important, but she also encouraged us to think about the value of humor and of editing your manuscript to make it more charitable to listeners (rather than readers). Since a listening audience can’t go back and re-read a dense passage, it is important to speak slowly and avoid overly jargon-laden sentences. Finally, for graduate students, while it may seem like a mercenary admission, conferences are in many ways a sales pitch from the proposal to the event itself. Be gracious, be considerate, but also remember that conferences can offer one of the best opportunities for creating valuable connections with both new and established scholars.

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