HOW TO GIVE YOUR FIRST (HUMANITIES OR SOCIAL SCIENCE) ACADEMIC PAPER

KINDS OF CONFERENCES

There are many kinds of CFPs (call for papers) to reflect the many types of conversations people wish to be having at a conference. There are conferences that have a disciplinary focus (anthropology), a subject focus (music), or a very specific focus (Arthur Russell). Two broad catagories for conferences are "topical" conferences and "open call" conferences. Topical conferences mean that the conference committee has selected a topic that they wish to have their peers discuss. It's a way to focus people to a particular discussion, and the topics can reflect current events, scholarly trends, disciplinary rifts, or attempt to inspire new innovations within or across fields. The "open call" is one that is inviting any papers within a usually smaller range of scholarly foci but with no topic.

In my experience I have seen that large professional conferences have topics but also have quite a lot of off-topic papers. Groups of 3 or 4 people get together and make panels about their own topics of interest, and when you have several hundred presenters it is possible for the committee to group people's work into logical sets of conversations. People come from all around the country and world to participate. Smaller conferences tend to be more on topic, and some are very specific with the goal of either celebrating a recent work (say a landmark book or film) or with the goal of producing a book (say of an emergent subdiscipline). Again, people come from around the world for these kinds of conference, but generally they are already are or want to be specialists in the topic. The only truly open call conferences I have seen in my own field (music) tend to be local graduate conferences or conferences run by regional chapters of professional organizations. These conferences tend to draw younger folks from regional or local communities. They can be a good place to get started.

CFP to ABSTRACT

Look at the conference call long and hard. Usually the call will include a number of possible subtopics posed as questions or a list. Think about which of these fits closest to your interest, then do a bit of thinking squarely about how it relates to your existing research interest.

Look at abstracts from years past, and if the conference archives papers (as does IASPM-US on a limited basis) it is good to see how widely the abstract and actual papers can diverge. Some conferences require that you submit your papers in advance to the moderator or to a "responder" who will synthesize all the panelists' work and respond to all before the conference talk is opened for questions. That said, most pop music conferences I have gone to do not have responders, which means that you can veer pretty widely from your abstract (and, for better or worse, not have your paper done until very near the time it is read).

Then write a draft of a the abstract. The final version will be about 250 words but in draft form can be longer. Get everything you would want to say in there. You can think of it as a pitch to a particularly smart editor, because that's what it is. Make sure to include not just the argument, but the kind of evidence you'll use (interviews, your own experience, theories or specific texts), and how you might be presenting it (showing video, playing tunes, etc). Remember that most conferences give only 20 minutes for talk, and maybe 10 minutes for question. That means you only have 9 pages to develop your argument and present your evidence. That's not a lot of room, so don't expect that you can tell a whole history, describe a whole life, walk an audience through a whole scene. Pick something intriguing, controversial, unique, new, unheralded, or otherwise brilliant about your giant topic and stick with that. There's time for the rest in your amazing book or dissertation, or blog post.

Once you do write a draft you can show it to folks you trust and get advise, fine tune and keep doing more focused research on specific people you'd want to include or research you'd want to do to make the argument really work.

Once you get your feedback and feel happy with what you've written, wait a night, reread 10x and send it off. They'll get back to you within a month or two or so to let you know if you've gotten in.

WHAT ARE THEY LOOKING FOR?

Once you submit your abstract, it goes in to the pool of abstracts submitted to the conference committee. Most conferences practice "blind" review of abstracts, meaning that there is no name associated with the abstract so the committee won't be swayed by the person's reputation.

I've been on two conference committees, and they were very different processes. The first was a conference with several hundred applicants and about 120 selectees. The second was a graduate conference with 17 applicants and eight selectees. The big conference involved a committee of about 10 people talking over email (ugh) over a number of weeks, debating specific abstracts. The other one involved a group of six getting into a room for about two hours arguing. This was obviously the more preferable one, and ended up sharpening my own idea about our topic as well as convincing me of the merit of two abstracts I didn't like and the superficiality of one that was outside of my discipline but seemed fascinating. It's good to have a committee of people with passion but different interests so that this kind of balance is achieved.

Here was the shorthand that I developed for the grad conference committee, inspired by the teaching technology called "the rubric." We ended up assigning a 1-10 numeral value for each sub-section and adding things up as a starting point. We quickly found consensus on four (1/2) Yes's, found quick consensus on probably six No's, and debated the final seven for the remaining four slots. Here were are basic evaluation criteria:

- Relation to the conference theme
- Is the paper topic related to the conference theme?
- Is it going to contribute to the overall dialogue for the event?
- Will the paper contribute to a good balance of topics and approaches for the event?

-Writing
-Is the presentation of the argument clear and concise?
-Does the abstract show evidence of the scholar's engagement/expertise on the topic?

-Scholarship/Method
-Is there a clear justification for the mode of theoretical/methodical approach?
-Is the intended method of presentation in line with the results projected?
-Is the use of research materials valid?

-Originality
-Is the material to be covered, as far as you know, a new contribution to the field?
-Is the scholar engaging with the theoretical or methodological literature in at least a sound way, and hopefully in a new, thoughtful and inventive way?
-Does the abstract mention the project's contribution to larger understanding of music, the conference topic, etc.?

Presentability
-Is the mode of intended presentation likely to appeal to a range of music and culture scholars?
-Is it possible for this scholar to present this argument well in 20 minutes?
-Do you trust this mode of argumentation and presentation for this argument?

ACCEPTANCE TO DRAFT
Once you've gotten in, then you can start doing the more focused research that will tie your ideas together for the specific argument you're making.

When you write the paper remember it s 8 or 9 pages double spaced MAX, no exceptions. No you CAN NOT have more pages if you talk fast. Ask people who have attended the conference in the past about the level of familiarity you can assume among the listeners. With some conferences you should give background to your project but with those where a high level of familiarity can be assumed, it is possible to launch into the specifics much quicker. You do NOT want to spend 1/3 of your paper explaining who Big Mama Thornton is at a blues conference, for instance. Give maybe one or two sentences that tie the preexisting knowledge to what you're setting up and just go to it. When writing remember that you're speaking, not just reading a scholarly paper aloud, and write with an oral performance in mind. Practically speaking, this means avoid long sentences, don't use tons of jargon, and paraphrase secondary sources to get just what you need. Once you have a draft you can share it with folks to get feedback.

DRAFT TO PRESENTATION
As for the presentation it is always good to have some tunes or visual aids, depending on the technical capabilities of the conference. Never expect anything though, and be ready to read sans microphone in a hot room with blinking flourescent lights (oh and if this is the case, the door to the room you'll be speaking in will likely be locked and no one will know where the handyfolk are). Whatever happens in the moments before your paper, don't panic.

As for the actual giving of the paper, my advise is to print your paper at 14 pts or larger after you've made sure it's 8-9 pages as 12pt. If you will use visual or media aids, put in [PLAY CLIP 1] with a line break. Hell, I even write [PAUSE] when I know I should let people think about something. My manuscript becomes for this presentation a kind of play's script. Other good advise: speak slowly, take time to set up your visual and media clips, and look up from the paper every once and a while. A pet peeve of mine is when people talk over sound or video clips, unless they're doing some kind of experimental interaction. Set up the clip, then let it reveal your point!

Remember too that your audience has been bombarded by brilliant, great, passable and tedious work during the course of the conference, and they're likely to be a bit exhausted. My goal with a conference paper is to present one idea really well in about three different ways.



PRESENTATION BECOMES A CONNECTION

So you're on your panel with some likeminded strangers. Talk to them, and listen to their papers! If you're unlucky enough to have a 9am slot, you may have to do the polite thing of being their audience and asking questions so there isn't dead air. They'll be thankful. When it's my turn to speak I always ask someone on my panel to write down the questions that are asked of me by audience members, because I am always SO NERVOUS that I can barely remember what I said afterward. Maybe one day I'll get over this, but until then at least I have a record of my feedback.

And...bring a pen, paper, and business cards. When people approach you after the talk they'll have ideas, want to share info, or want a copy of your paper. It's just easier to remember if you write down a note to self on your draft and then follow up through email after the conference. And remember to follow up! That's one of the major parts of going to a conference. It's how your paper becomes a published piece, and how you make a connection with someone who cares about your work. This is one of the most valuable (and difficult) parts of scholarly life. Don't be afraid to engage someone who had serious questions about your work. If they took the time to ask, then they are deeply invested in the questions you've brought up and want to help. The best scholars are the ones who can admit that their are things they don't know, haven't considered, and those who use a challenge as a space to grow intellectually. Be one of those people.