By Didem Uca
Assistant Professor of German Studies, Emory University
The calls for papers (CfPs) for next year’s MLA have been posted, which means that the sessions are currently seeking abstracts. If you have never applied to present at a conference before, this post covers the essentials, including why you should present at a conference, how to find and select a panel, how to write an abstract, and how to submit it.
If you are passionate about the topic you are studying and researching, chances are that you enjoy sharing your work. But you may feel intimidated by the formality of a conference session or feel that your work is not ready to be judged by others. From personal experience, I have felt that most conference audiences are friendlier and more constructive (not to mention much smaller) than your panic dreams may lead you to believe. The oft-feared question and answer session is an opportunity to receive valuable feedback from others working on similar topics, which ultimately helps push your project further.
Furthermore, speaking at a conference can motivate you to meet your project’s benchmarks in a timely manner and speaking about your research insights can help you gain confidence as a scholar. A presentation can often lead to other opportunities for professional development, such as publication or future collaborations. All in all, attending and presenting at conferences allows you to connect with colleagues and potential mentors around a set of shared interests, allowing you to exchange ideas with others in a meaningful dialogue while supporting your scholarly development.
Finding and Selecting a Panel
There are two main ways to find out about conference panels. The first is by signing up for various email listservs related to your discipline or subfields, such as through H-Net, or, similarly, by following the social media accounts of professional organizations. You can also check out UPenn’s CfP repository for a searchable list of humanities CfPs for a huge number of conference sessions. By being plugged into these networks year-round, you have the best chance of learning about opportunities out there to share your work. The second way is by checking out the conference’s calls for papers portal, which sometimes requires a membership login. On the portal, you can search for calls based on keywords or other specifications.
Once you have found a few panels that interest you, try to think about papers you have written for seminars or concepts that have been important for your research and decide which panel might be the best fit. This may not actually be a panel topic where you have already done the most relevant work, but rather the topic that best matches the direction you would like your work to take. A common misconception is that you should have already written a paper before applying to a conference, but that is definitely not the case! The conference will likely take place 6-10 months after proposals have been chosen, so you will have plenty of time to write your paper in the interim.
Note that while for some conferences, you may be allowed to apply to an unlimited number of sessions, at others, you may only be allowed to apply to one or two. Make sure to read through the submission guidelines or conference FAQ before submitting.
Writing an Abstract
Once you have selected a panel or panels to which you would like to apply, you should start crafting your short proposal, or abstract. An abstract is generally 200-400 words (NB: the length varies, so follow the conveners’ instructions) in which you briefly summarize the argument your presentation will make. This can be tricky if you are writing a proposal for a new project rather than one based on a paper you have already written. But it is actually okay if your paper’s final argument ends up being somewhat different from what you propose, as changes during the research process are to be expected.
When writing your abstract, it helps to decide on your paper’s scope. If presentations will only be 15 minutes long, you won’t be able to discuss 6 epic novels or summarize the findings of your entire dissertation or even one entire chapter. I think that the most successful conference presentations are when the presenter addresses a specific and narrow research question that serves as a microcosm of a larger issue. The presenter draws you into their argument through careful analysis of a case study and successfully articulates the project’s stakes by suggesting what broader implications such an approach could have. Another important factor for selection is how well your contribution would fit on the panel, so make sure to reread the panel description as you are crafting your abstract and consider including relevant keywords or concepts from the description to underscore your project’s suitability. If you are able to articulate all of these aspects in the abstract, you will have a good chance of being selected. And don’t forget to give your paper a strong title!
Once you write your draft abstract, you may wish to share it with your advisor or another mentor for feedback. This is why it can be helpful to plan ahead and give yourself enough time for them to read it and then to incorporate their suggestions. However, you should also not feel obligated to ask for feedback if you feel confident with your proposal.
Submitting your Abstract and the Selection Process
Once you’ve written your abstract, be sure to follow the submission guidelines from the CfP. For MLA panels, you are asked to send your abstract and a short professional biography to the organizer(s) via email, and the deadlines for submission vary based on the panel. For some other conferences, you have to submit your materials through the conference portal. Once you submit your proposal, the organizer(s) will often send you a confirmation of receipt and then it will generally take 1-3 weeks after the deadline until you learn whether or not your proposal has been selected. If your proposal is accepted, you will receive more information about the conference, format of the session, and any associated deadlines, so be sure to keep an eye out for those correspondences. If you were not accepted, don’t be discouraged! Oftentimes sessions receive 2-5 times the number of proposals they can accommodate. Other factors, such as how well the papers fit together or your institutional context (for example, the MLA has a limit on the number of speakers that can be from the same university), might have edged you out. Sometimes you may even be able to submit the same or a slightly revised version of your abstract to another conference session, so keep a look out for the next opportunity to share your work.
Good luck, and be sure to check out the CfPs for our committee’s two sponsored sessions: “Building Your Scholarly Identity: How to communicate your brand in a Remote World” and “Mental Health and Wellness in Graduate School,” both due by March 15!