Seven of my students will be presenting at conferences in the Lehigh Valley in the next month: two at the LVAIC Women’s Studies Conference, five at Lehigh University’s Literature and Social Justice Graduate Conference. I am proud of the work they have done going through the submission and revision process, but I can tell they are getting a little antsy about what it actually means to present at a conference (this is a new experience for most if not all of them), so I was thinking about the advice I was going to email them to assuage their concerns and help them be good academic citizens. Then I realized I could have really used some advice before I headed (across the ocean!) to present at my first academic conference, so here are my tips in no particular order:
Check the Internet for pronunciation: Postcolonial literature can offer us names that may be challenging, names we don’t hear very often. I find youtube clips of interviews helpful.
Print your paper in a large font and put page numbers on your document: When I dropped my graduate speaker commencement speech in the bathroom before speaking to thousands of people, I learned this lesson.
The audience will probably not be familiar with your primary texts or work: You need to bring them into the fold and offer some context. A paragraph will do, but you need to do that work to engage them.
Use clips or images: No human wants to just hear someone read for twenty minutes. I don’t care how smart said human is. Project some images or show some clips that bring your project to life. Your audience will thank you for it.
Bring a handout: I like to bring a handout that contains all of the direct quotes I am using. Since that is the meat of the project, it is nice for the audience to have something tangible. And they will probably engage more with your talk if you give them something good to chew on.
DO NOT GO OVER YOUR TIME: (OK, so I said in no particular order, but the caps might indicate otherwise. And, yes, I am shouting this tip): A fellow grad student and I flew to Calgary to give a talk about our work teaching students in Lehigh’s Global Citizenship program. We had an excellent presentation to offer, and we were the last paper of four. The first woman spent fifteen minutes on her introduction of herself, and the other presenters kept with their full presentations. There were seven minutes left in the panel duration when the moderator got to us. SEVEN. We flew to Canada and prepared for a seven-minute talk. Now, the moderator wasn’t doing her job either, but you can’t count on the moderator to do a good job. It is up to you to be a good scholar and colleague and stay within your time limit. So if there are three presenters for an hour-long slot, you have fifteen minutes. There should be time for questions at the end of the papers.
Listen to your fellow presenters and have a question ready for each of them: The point of the conference is to push your scholarship deeper. If you can find a connection between your work and your presenter’s, bring that up in the question. Be ready to ensure the question period is productive.
Don’t be afraid of questions: You are the burgeoning expert in that area. If you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know it. You can’t know everything about the topic, even if you have a Ph.D. A smart person won’t bullshit.
Some people won’t ask questions: Some people just want to hear their own voices (this is a common occurrence in academia). Find something in their mini-lecture you can respond to and move on. Don’t be surprised if they come up to you after your talk.
Read your paper aloud several times, i.e., PRACTICE: You must practice for timing and clarity. Those gorgeous written sentences when read aloud become impossible to follow. Find places you want to emphasize. This material is new to the audience. Be ready to give them your best.
Relax, breathe, and enjoy yourself: The hour will end. You can hope someone will be inspired to see a text or the world a little differently after that hour. You might make a new friend or connection. Eat lunch with that new person. Your field is a small world, and meeting your people is exciting and invigorating (and sometimes frustrating).
To those out there with conference experience, what would you add to the list?
And good luck to my students!