Attending Conferences

  1. General Information
  2. Practical Considerations: Money
  3. Practical Considerations: Time
  4. How to Get Accepted to a Conference
  5. Writing the Paper
  6. Giving Your Talk

General Information

How do you begin to locate yourself in literary, cultural, composition, rhetoric, folklore, and/or language studies? One site for that work, obviously, is in course work. Another site is the academic conference, where you can present your work to a broader audience and, at the same time, hear from others in the field. It is at conferences that scholars--you, for example--try out the arguments, stories, and ideas that later show up in journal articles and books.

Conferences range in size and importance from smallish local gatherings to huge international to-dos. The smallish local ones tend to attract anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred people, and the big ones can attract thousands. In general, it is safe to say that the bigger the conference, the more prestigious it is to present there.

No matter what the size, though, all conferences have certain features in common:

Their purpose is to facilitate the exchange of ideas, and all of them, even the smallest, manage to meet that goal. That’s why we participate: to get feedback on our ideas, to give feedback to others, and to meet others in our field.

Conferences are oral events. Although many speakers do read their presentations verbatim, the best presenters are good orators who establish a lively rapport with the audience.

Speakers are generally grouped into sessions. A session consists of anywhere from one to six or seven speakers. The most common kind of session is the "panel": three speakers who talk for about twenty minutes each with time for Q&A afterward. Other common session formats include forums, roundtables, and workshops. Medium- and larger-sized conferences have "concurrent sessions," meaning more than one session is held at the same time.

There is often a small registration fee to attend.

Worried? Intimidated? You might want to attend one or two conferences just to listen, especially if you have not presented at a conference before. And the Department provides an excellent opportunity to practice presenting your work right here among your peers, at the Graduate Student Colloquium, held once per quarter. Some grad students find attending their first conferences a bit intimidating, but really, if you’re not presenting material, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the show. Calm yourself and get the most out of the experience by viewing it as a mini-vacation in which you will be exposed to a variety of new ideas and new people. As a grad student, you have every right and every reason to be there and take part.

Practical Considerations: Money

Of course, conference attendance costs money. Registration, transportation, food and accommodation can cost from 500 to 1000 dollars per conference, and more if an expensive international flight is involved. Many presenters share hotel rooms with another grad student or faculty member, making arrangements via email listservs.

As soon as you are accepted at a conference, start looking for cheap flights and hotel rooms. Try online travel websites like Travelocity and Expedia flights are usually cheapest 2-3 months before the date of travel. Conferences often have their own "deals" for rooms at the conference hotel(s) when you book through their methods. Accommodation close to the conference venue is important especially considering transportation to & from the conference venue, inclement weather, and/or the safety considerations of walking or using public transport at night in a big city.

Each funded graduate student is allotted a certain amount of money per year for reimbursement of transportation & hotel costs--each year it changes with the budget, so ask Wayne Lovely if you don't know. You will have request pre-approval for travel expenses and keep all your receipts and submit them with a form to Wayne.

There are travel grants available from the Graduate School and the Council of Graduate Students at OSU. The conference may also offer bursaries to graduate students who live far away from the conference location. If you are traveling to do dissertation research, you can combine that trip with a conference nearby and save money that way.

Practical Considerations: Time

Consider whether you have time to prepare and attend a conference at that time. Will you be teaching? Find a substitute for the day(s) you will miss. Usually it's excusable if you have to miss a graduate class to speak at a conference. Will you be preparing your Portfolio Project or for your Candidacy Exam that quarter?

It's better to start attending conferences early in your graduate career, despite your feelings of insecurity and unpreparedness, because when you get to the end of a PhD degree you may find yourself focused more on the exam, job search, and dissertation writing, and you will then be thinking of publishing some of your earlier conference presentations. If you are searching for academic jobs it's nice to have a good list of conference papers on your CV!

How to Get Accepted to Speak at a Conference

1. Browse "Calls for Papers" (CFPs).

Calls are published on professional listservs, in major journals, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and are distributed by hand and by mail as flyers. You can also go to the Penn State CFP Web site, where you can also sign up for their listserv. Sometimes grad students and faculty in our program post calls on our program listserv.

You will need to submit a proposal sometimes 6 months to a year in advance of the conference date.

2. Prepare a proposal.

To present at a conference, you must submit a proposal (a short description of what you would say) by a certain deadline. The deadline and other important information on how long the proposal should be  included in the "call" for the conference (the notice that advertises the conference and solicits proposals).

First find out if the proposal should be for a whole PANEL of speakers, or if individual PAPERs are accepted. Often you will find it easier to get accepted if you put together a panel of 3 speakers. For a panel, ask your fellow grad students if any are interested, and any faculty members. If you are on any listservs that include members outside of OSU, send a message with your idea for a panel and ask if anyone is interested in joining you. Sometimes conferences like panels more when they include people from a variety of institutions.

When writing your proposal, think about your audience. If the conference is related to a society that has a journal, look at the kinds of things presented in the journal, to find out what the current issues are among that group. Look at websites or literature for the previous year's conference and look at the titles and abstracts.

Also consider the breadth of the topic. You want to make it sound interesting to the people who will attend the conference, and the people who are screening proposals. The proposal needs to have a specific argument, and are usually related to the conference theme (if the conference has a theme). Use language and references that the community members are likely to know (and explain those they might not know). Make sure it sounds like something that can reasonably be delivered in 20 minutes or less (depending on the time allotted for the panel and the number of speakers).

3. Workshop your proposal.

Get feedback on your proposal(s). Show your advisor or another professor. Take it to the Writing Center for a tutorial. If possible, find people who have already spoken at that specific conference--they will understand better the kind of audience you are addressing.

4. Send it off!

Mail or e-mail the proposal in the required format before its deadline.

Writing the Paper

Full text or notes?

Consider that some conferences expect a full text of your presentation in formal style at the conference. Other conferences, especially if you are receiving a travel bursary from them, require you to submit the full text a month or two before the actual conference.

You may speak from notes to make your speech lively, but have the text available for members in the audience who request a copy.

Less is more.

Let’s say you have 20 minutes for your presentation (rarely will you have more; often you will have 15 or even 10 minutes). Keep in mind that one double-spaced page takes about two and a half minutes to read. Therefore, a 20-minute talk only needs to be about 8 pages long, max.

Thus, if you’re working from a long seminar paper, you’ll have to whack it down to size. Don’t think, "I’ll read a bit from section one, that paragraph from section three, and from here to the end of the paper." This may cause you to become confused or at least look confused as you flip past the pages.

Time yourself.

Practice speaking it to yourself, or to a colleague, including the introducing / handing out of supporting images or texts. This will also help you to find out which are the rough spots that need work.

Prepare a "Speaking" Text.

Remember that listening to a text requires much more concentrated attention than reading it, and no one can go back to reread what they don’t understand. Here are some tips for making your text "speakable":

Make it easy to read aloud.

If you are new to speaking at conferences, you may feel more comfortable reading from a text. However, you will soon notice as you listen to other speakers at conferences that no matter how well a text is read aloud, it is not as good as presenting from notes, where the speaker can make eye contact with the audience, freely gesture or move around, and use the rhythm of conversational speech.

Practice reading your text at normal speed, ideally in front of friends at OSU, who can offer feedback on both content and delivery. Are there any places where your tongue trips over the words? That’s where you need to rephrase. When the whole text reads well aloud, print out a special version of it in fifteen- or sixteen-point type. This is your "script" or your "speaking text." Having a speaking text enables you to make better eye contact with the audience and stay connected with them because you won’t be squinting downwards at the podium. It is particularly helpful to mark places to take breaths.

If you plan to depart from the text for asides, amplification or visual aids, make your text even shorter because those things take time. Above all, do not make your presentation slightly too long and then read fast to make up for it. Reading fast leaves your audience in the dust. They’ll be thinking, "Nice shirt. What did she say?"

Make it simple.

Use shorter sentences and simpler syntax: stick to subject-verb-object word order and put the agent in the subject position. Also, keep the diction as simple as possible. Try to cut out academic jargon, especially theoretical jargon, and replace it with straightforward statements. And don’t try to say too much. Reduce your message to a small number of basic conceptual moves.

Make it vivid.

Avoid prepositional phrases, long clunky noun phrases, and "to be" verbs. Instead, use concrete nouns, active verbs, and visual imagery. Enliven your speech with metaphors and examples.

Make it easy to follow.

Use many transitions that make clear the logical relationships between your ideas. Put your points in series ("first," "second," "next," "finally"), in clear logical relationships ("on the other hand," "similarly"), and in explicit reference to other parts of the paper ("like I said a minute ago") and to the overall thesis ("this is an important nuance of my main point, which is X"). Don’t worry about condescending to your audience. You’re not. They will not think your ideas are too simple. They will, in fact, be grateful and impressed.

Make it memorable.

After you’re done, the only parts the audience is likely to remember are the introduction and the conclusion. Make sure, then, that those parts really encapsulate your message. To make those parts memorable, consider using a startling statement or question, a bold opinion or quotation, a vivid anecdote, or a striking claim.

Be considerate of the other speakers.

Don’t go over the time limit. Lots of people cut into the time of other speakers as well as the audience’s time for questions, making the conversation a monologue. This implies that they think their work is more important than anything else (including audience comprehension) and that makes a very bad impression.

Make the panel coherent. Before the conference, send your co-panelists a copy of the paper, or at least of your proposal, and request the same from them. Think about the connections between your ideas and theirs. Make those connections explicit, if you can, in your paper.

Giving Your Talk

When your panel is ready to start, breathe deeply, relax, and smile. You are ready to do this and you will learn from it. So will the audience. Cultivate a desire to just talk to them.

If you’re in front of the room the whole time, be conscious of your visibility. Look at the speaker, not the audience, and at least appear to be engaged with what the other speakers are saying (which may be impossible if you’re up next). Focusing your attention on the speaker shows that you’re supportive of your colleagues. Gazing into space, looking over your own text, or looking out at the audience makes you appear selfish.

When your moment comes, speak directly to the person farthest from you and project your voice clearly to that distance. Establish eye contact with the audience and pay attention to their level of engagement. Scan equally from left to center to right. If making eye contact makes you really nervous, try looking just over their heads. It looks like you’re looking at them, but you’re not.

Keep your voice at an audible level, your diction clear, and your tempo lively but not too fast or slow. Many presenters inadvertently speed up out of nervousness; resist that temptation. Focus on getting each sentence out one at a time, at a good pace and momentum. Again, turn to your colleagues at OSU, who can help you develop your sense of tempo.

In the Q&A period most of the questions will be supportive, but some might sound self-serving, aggressive or downright incomprehensible. All of them are potentially useful since this is roughly the same audience that will read future publications. Think of it as an opportunity to get candid feedback toward future revisions of your work. Take a few moments, if you need to, to compose an answer, then respond, politely and briefly, so that others can ask questions too. It’s fine to say, "I don’t know." If you don’t have an answer, admit it and suggest that the question is an important one that ought to be explored further. This allows you to be honest while also appearing knowledgeable.

Thank people, including the chair of the panel, for their interest and attention.

When it’s over, take a deep breath, drink another glass of water, and enjoy the rest of the conference.