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September 17, 2013

On giving a conference paper, by I. M. Esteemed

This week we are blessed with a guest post from renowned waffler Isengard Matlock Esteemed himself, who has, for a small fee, agreed to share his thoughts on the giving of papers and subsequent throwing of monographs.

The conference season is now drawing to a dignified, signified close, and as such, I have been asked by the Editor to gather together some notes on my extensive experience of presenting. Mine is an illustrious career to which you, dear reader, can only dream of aspiring, but I hope that some crumbs from my Ikea desk will enable you to develop from a conference con to a symposium superhero. Read my words carefully, such a brush with greatness only comes around once in a blue-cheese moon (blue cheese, that’s my first tip, lots of blue cheese).

The art of the conference paper dates since the dawn of man, and possibly before. Archaeologists have recently uncovered a forum in Swindon where they believe monkey-like creatures held a series of academic meetings, including the seminal conference, ‘Tools: The Future for Apes?’. We do know that cave-dwellers would keep the second half of Wednesday free from hunting-gathering duties in order to participate in reading groups, and that pre-historic Slough (at the time a swamp) hosted the first ever international conference on interdisciplinary approaches to paper and papyrus manufacture. At this point I tend to skip over the Romans and the Greeks, who did not really contribute anything except perfecting the sandwich.

Of course, when the time comes to present your own paper at a conference, you should carefully review such histories, preferably in the short and rather relaxing walk between your chair and the lectern. It will also be helpful to keep the following pieces of advice in mind; in fact, you should write them down right now on the back of a receipt or a beer-mat, or send off for my new book, ‘Overcoming The Mind-Numbing Fear That You Might Make a Fool of Yourself in Front of People Who Are Considerably Smarter Than You’, now available at all good book-shops and bus-stops.

Never forget the importance of time-keeping, by which I mean, understand that a time-limit is little more than a barefaced challenge. When the conference organisers say ‘twenty minutes’, what they mean is ‘we don’t think you have more than twenty minutes worth of witticisms’. In this they are undoubtedly correct, but the trick I find (and I can tell this works because the organisers always look so angry that I have uncovered their ruse) is to only start discussing original work (if any) in the last fifty seconds of your paper. Yes, your panel chair may flash cards at you saying ‘five minutes’ and ‘one minute’ and ‘STOP’, but what they mean is ‘five minutes until I fall in love with you’ and then ‘I’m pretty much in love with you’, and finally ‘STOP…in the name of love’. To help them with this problem of the heart, try and act like a strutting peacock, pronouncing the long words very carefully and proclaiming that ‘the best is yet to come’.

As with time limits, abstracts are a formality which it is de rigueur to openly ignore. No-one in the history of conferences has ever attended a paper on the strength of an abstract, apart from a man in the eighteenth century who decided he quite liked the cut of this Isaac Newton fellow’s jib. For this reason, it is advised, neigh, it is essential, that your abstract makes a promise which you cannot possibly keep, usually involving paradigm shifts and a decent PowerPoint, and that the first thing you do as you take the stage is to say ‘oh, the paper’s changed quite a bit since the abstract’.

Actually, no, scrap that. The first thing you should do upon taking the stage is to pick out the most senior person in the room, and then pitch the whole paper at them. If necessary, mention them and their publications by name. If this proves too easy, seek out the second most senior person in the room and recklessly rip them a new pigeonhole. I find the words ‘outdated’ and ‘lacto-normative’ are particularly good for getting across one’s general vibe, funky or otherwise.

Most conference papers will usually be followed by a period for questions, or questions for a period, depending on whether you have stumbled across the American Symposium for Punctuation and Punctuality. By now it is well-established that you only need to listen to the first three words of the question, and then discuss their specific relationship to your research. I was recently asked ‘can you expand on your methodological assumptions regarding post-capitalist state formations in the Arab Spring?’, to which I replied, ‘yes, absolutely, that’s why I always have a second helping of crumpets at high tea.’ Everyone found that very funny, but it was the kind of laughter which looks very frown-y. 

Most conferences will end with post-conference drinks, and if you have had a bad conference, by which I mean you have made intelligent comments and surgically removed the proverbial roll from the metaphorical sausage, then the drinks reception is the time to redeem yourself. It is essential that you try everything on offer, preferably by mixing them in the same receptacle. If other delegates do not appreciate you holding a glass full of white wine, cranberry juice, pretzels and fingers (Ed: surely ‘Fingers’), then they are not worthy of your time. Conferences are also famous for being hotbeds of open debauchery, so I would advise you to proposition, in a ridiculously overblown manner, the nearest piece of furniture. Many academics have over the centuries made their reputation with some well-timed table-mounting.

After this you may be asked to leave, but if not, you should climb to the highest point in the room (usually a waste paper bin) and announce your imminent departure. ‘Fare thee well, dear friends, colleagues and academic flotsam’, you might bellow, ‘my work here is done. Now I must carry this nuclear device clear of the conference centre limits and subsequently emerge, without reason, in Florence’. No-one will get this reference. Thereafter you bake a cake made out of rainbows and smiles, whereupon a single lone voice, echoing from the back of the room, will shout, ‘She doesn’t even go here.’ No-one will get this reference either, and by the time they do, you will have gone to a better place: the library.

i m esteemed

All your blue cheeses are belong to me.

Heed these words well, my disciples, for someday I will pass on the torch of ebullience, and one of you will take my place on the ‘Do-Not-Invite’ list of every major conference. Until then, I will continue to lurk in the academic shadows, emerging only when I am needed, appearing only when a first-time presenter mumbles their opening lines, when an assistant professor is needlessly critical, or when all the crisps are gone in the first five minutes of lunch. Until then, I am truly, sincerely, faithfully yours, I. M. Esteemed.

Good night, and good luck.

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