Tag Archives: professionalization

Applying to Present at an Academic Conference in the Humanities

By Didem Uca
Assistant Professor of German Studies, Emory University
CSGSH Co-chair

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.

Why Present?

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!

 

Tips for Writing a Dissertation or Capstone Project

Writing a doctoral dissertation or a capstone project for a master’s program can be one of the most challenging and intensive parts of earning a graduate degree. This already difficult task has been heavily exacerbated by major global events, such as the Covid pandemic, systemic racism, and visa restrictions on international students. Members of the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities (CSGSH) share some practical tips and advice for working on and completing a dissertation or capstone project that can help graduate students complete their projects during these challenging times.

 

Didem Uca, Assistant Professor of German Studies, Emory University

DONE IS GOOD

Every semester before finals week at my undergraduate alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, we hung to-do lists on our dorm room doors with the phrase “DONE IS GOOD” and gleefully cheered each other on as we checked each item off. Once I reached ABD status in my Ph.D. program, I learned a different saying with a similar sentiment: “A good dissertation is a done dissertation. A great dissertation is a published dissertation. A perfect dissertation is neither.” If you are in a book field, you have to accept that you may not be able to accomplish everything in the dissertation that you hope to accomplish in the version that will eventually be published as a monograph. There are multiple reasons why this might be the case––perhaps you and your committee do not share in that vision; perhaps there are archival materials that you are unable to access due to COVID; or perhaps you simply are running out of time, funding, or patience. But pragmatism wins out over perfection. Done is good.

Backwards Create a Realistic Schedule and Set SMART Goals

Speaking of to-do lists, when you are working on a project that is bigger than anything you have ever completed before and that spans several years, it may be overwhelming to figure out your timeline and path to completion. Speak with your advisor and recent graduates or other students ahead of you in your program to make sure you understand what the precise dissertation or thesis requirements are for your program. Then, open your virtual or paper calendar or planner and begin to schedule your timeline working back from the date when you want to (or must) defend. The following example of an ABD beginning work on their dissertation illustrates this process: If you will run out of funding on June 1, 2023, you will likely need to defend, and in some cases, deposit your dissertation in time for the spring graduation deadline, which may be as early as April. You already have a dissertation outline and have reviewed relevant literature for your prospectus and have one chapter drafted based on a conference paper. After speaking with your advisor, you have learned that you are expected to write 4 chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion, and the three most recent graduates of your program wrote between 250-300 pages.

Using this information, begin to create SMART––Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound––goals to fulfill these requirements in time for your anticipated defense date. Make sure to account for the time it will take for your committee members to read and offer feedback on your work and any other academic and life obligations, such as needing to travel to an archive before working on a chapter, teaching service, or taking a week off before your wedding. Be realistic, build in extra time for the unexpected, and continue updating and revising your SMART goals throughout the process.

Gamify Writing––and Write Every Day

If you think you hate writing, may I suggest that you actually hate the anxiety of not writing? The mere thought of opening a blank document or returning to a particularly vexing paragraph can be paralyzing, and thus, we often choose to focus our energies on everything but writing. For me, this included reading Joan Bolker’s classic Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, in which she advises dissertators to “Do some work on your thesis every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes. (“Every day” is more important than how much time you spend, or how many pages you produce, or what quality of work you produce on any particular day.)” This advice was transformative at a time when I was plagued by writing––or, more precisely, not writing––anxiety and intense guilt. So I followed Bolker’s advice and began writing. For the first few weeks, guided by my SMART goals and completion schedule, I began to write 150 new words every day. I increased this amount to 200, 250, 500, 750…until I was reliably writing 1500-2000 words a day, managing to add 200 new pages to my dissertation in the final four months before my defense. Anything you write today is something you will not have to write tomorrow or two months from now. Future you will thank you for your diligence. If this abstract gamification strategy isn’t effective, consider that, like all living creatures, you are not above bribery; give yourself rewards for meeting your daily benchmark, such as, as soon as I finish my 350 words for today, I can watch the next episode of The Great. Speaking of which, I have to go work on my book proposal so that I can watch Sarah Cooper’s special on Netflix.

 

Amir Hussain, Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature, Emory University

I have three pieces of advice to offer.

First, think about and seek agreement about what kind of dissertation project you aim to do.

There are many different kinds of dissertation projects that one can theoretically do. But not every dissertation project can be done without the aspects and planning that so often precede the actual dissertation writing, such as the prospectus, language training, archives you may need to visit or approvals you may need to have to conduct your research, and committee support. While a traditional dissertation is typically conceived of as one large project with chapters that are in some way or other organically related, there are many discussions about traditional dissertations and discussions on other innovative configurations for the dissertation. So it is crucial that you, your advisor, and your committee are on the same page about the kind of dissertation you want to do, are expected to do based on previous discussions or on disciplinary training, and would be departmentally permitted to do. Seek input from your advisor and committee on this with the prospectus and throughout the project. And while it is possible that your project may develop as you work on it, there should still be a reasonable consensus and clarity about what kind of project you are working on and why.

Second, keep in touch with your advisor regularly

Your advisor is not merely the main key between you and graduating with a Ph.D. degree. Rather, your advisor is your main and most vital source of help throughout your degree. Ideally, this help should come in many forms: input on your trajectory during the doctoral program, honest but supportive feedback on your dissertation and on application materials, and institutional guidance. It is crucial to get input on your work at crucial junctures, such as between ending one chapter and starting another, or on materials that you submit as part of your applications for fellowships or for jobs. If you are not receiving critical feedback on your work, be sure to ask for it. On the other hand, if you need more encouragement, it is fine to ask for that, too. Regardless, keep in touch with your advisor and avoid long stretches of time without any communication. This way, not only will your advisor know what you are working on, but you will also know if you are staying on track or if you need more feedback and assistance.

Third, take your time with the dissertation.

The authors of The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy argue that the rapid pace in academia and in contemporary society is not conducive for the long form of research and scholarly writing. Their view applies directly to dissertators as well, who are often interrupted by competing demands and pressures to publish their work quickly. But being slow and deliberate with the long process of research, writing, and revision can allow dissertators to get sufficient feedback from an advisor or committee, to revise, to produce stronger work, and to aim for quality over quantity. And on a related note, taking your time on a dissertation relates to how one thinks of graduate school more broadly. Applying for dissertation funding or teaching opportunities during this crucial stage can allow you to spend this time now to write and get feedback during your graduate school years.

 

Viana Anette Hara, Ph.D. student in Romance Languages, University of Oregon

On Taking Care of Yourself

I have no idea the amount of mental, physical, and emotional energy that the ultimate goal of writing a dissertation requires. I remember attending a workshop on how to initiate your dissertation by organizing material, choosing your project’s topic, and the importance of communication with your advisor—all of these are crucial steps. However, it was not mentioned that physical and mental health are pivotal to accomplish this goal and that life also happens. 

While writing my master’s degree thesis, my beloved dog of 16 years old died. I was already stressed, physically, and mentally. This event caused me great sadness, and I hit a wall on my thesis. Life can happen to all of us in many ways. So what do you do when you are mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted? And, what do you do when life happens while you are writing a thesis or dissertation?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these questions, but I’d like to share with you some humble suggestions that worked for me and could work for you:

Seek help: It is vital to have a support system, whether it is a family member or someone you trust, or a healthcare professional. Seek help. It is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that you are human, and not only a graduate student. 

Sleep: Sometimes, there is so much to do and not enough time to sleep. But remember that sleep is essential for brain function. Rest makes a difference in mental, emotional, and physical states.

Eat: I am not referring to a diet, but instead, to the mindfulness of nourishing your body. The act of eating away from distraction, including your dissertation is important. Focus on taking care of your body by fueling it with food.

Walk: The act of walking helps the body physically and mentally, and you are moving. It lightens the mood, and it helps support sleep. It is not a strenuous exercise, and it can be done anywhere.

Meditate: I was very skeptical about meditating, but it helped me greatly–physically, emotionally, and cognitively. It is not really about quieting your mind. After all, we are graduate students. We are always thinking. Instead, it is observing those thoughts calmly while being aware and connecting to your body. Great ideas can flourish unconsciously in meditation.

Do it all over again: There is no formula to deal with life’s curveball. Making a habit of these small practices could help you while writing a dissertation or thesis, which you can carry over in other life stages.

 

Ari Wolf 

I’d like to offer some suggestions regarding the MFA thesis project. I completed my MFA in Creative Writing last year with relative ease of mind, and I hope you can learn from whatever small fragments of wisdom I picked up along the way.

First of all, start early.

If you begin writing your MFA thesis during your final year, you are probably going to find yourself far more crunched for time than you expect to be due to one small problem–human inclination to change our minds. Every single person I was in the Master’s program with changed our minds at least two or three times about the topic of our thesis, and often also the genre, timeline, and basically every other significant detail. This is to be expected, but these are not the kinds of questions you want to be asking yourself while going into your final month of your second-to-last semester of your MFA program. These are the kinds of questions to be asking yourself in your third-to-last semester of your MFA program, and to resolve over summer break. That way, when it comes time for you to write your thesis, you can actually write your thesis, instead of spending that time and brainpower trying to make decisions about who is going to narrate your story, and by the way are you going to write a memoir or a hybrid work? 

Second, and this is advice I learned the hard way, keep a separate draft for just yourself, and show this draft to no one.

Look, every class you take in graduate school is an academic class. Your advisor is not G-D, she is a professor, and it is her job to help you with your writing. Listen to what she is telling you. However, if you have only just written the last thirty pages of your draft, and by the way you decided on nonfiction after all, and so you are literally editing stories about your parents and sister…you need a spare draft. Trust me. Mark up the draft you hand in to your professor, make the edits your Thesis Advisor and Reader asked you to make, but hold a draft back for yourself. That way when you inevitably change your mind about story or direction later on, you can refer back to the original copy without finding yourself drawn astray by your need to make the grade. It is necessary to make whatever edits your professors require of you, in order to earn a healthy GPA. It is not necessary to edit your life’s work based on someone else’s feedback that you accept under the duress of GPAs and graduate school aspirations.

Finally, do not kill your darlings, move them.

Whenever I sit down to write a long paper, I keep two documents. One document is my working  draft of my paper. The other document is my “extra” draft, which has every line I wrote and loved but don’t quite have a place for. This is good advice whether you are working on a book or a Literature paper. Write your essay, but hold onto the ‘extra’ you love but can’t use right now. You might come back to it later in your paper, or you might use it to write a different paper altogether. But don’t throw away your words just because you don’t know how to use them quite yet.

Everyone take care, and don’t take this all too seriously.

Tips for Conference Presentations

Presenting at a conference as a graduate student can be intimidating and stressful, but a crucial part of your graduate school experience! As conference season rolls around, members of the CSGSH committee offer a compilation of presentation tips for graduate students preparing to present in humanities conferences. Whether this is your first time presenting or you are a seasoned presenter, these tips can help improve your presentation. We have divided the list into tips for before, during, and after presenting.

 

Before the Presentation

Allot yourself enough time to begin preparing well in advance of the conference, as there are a lot of things that need to come together by the presentation day.

 

When presenting from a seminar paper, you should plan on revising it to make it effective as an oral presentation. An unedited seminar paper rarely has the level of signposting required for an oral presentation.

 

Similarly, it is not recommended to present from an outline containing just key words or to speak impromptu. Withstanding extensive public speaking experience and nerves of steel, it is recommended that you create a carefully edited script.

 

When editing a written work for an oral presentation, it can help if most sentences are two lines long or shorter. Good punctuation can ensure that a five-line sentence remains coherent in writing, but in speech it can be hard to follow. Leaving really long sentences in a script before can mean losing your place while reading, or giving words the wrong intonation as read, which makes the ideas harder to follow.

 

If you are using a PowerPoint or a Prezi, avoid overloading with too much text, which can distract your audience. You want the audience focusing on you, not your slides. Here are some helpful tips for slides. (Also, mark the slide transitions in your script, if you are using slides.) Too much text also relates to accessibility.

 

Consider guidelines for accessible conference presentations. The Society for Disability Studies presents accessibility guidelines here. A disability accessibility specialist offers tips here. And the Web Accessibility Initiative offers many accessibility tips here.

 

Practice reading your presentation aloud. It is a truism that one double-spaced page takes about two minutes to read at an unhurried pace, so ten pages would make up a twenty-minute talk. But really, sometimes ten pages ends up taking eighteen minutes or sometimes twenty-two minutes, to read aloud. So, once your script says what you want it to say, read it aloud as many times as you can, making quick notes as you go (and editing afterward), until it sounds right. Some sentences that look fine on the page do not sound quite right when spoken.

 

Once the script sounds right, practice it with any A/V you will be using. That practice may bring forward technical issues you might not otherwise anticipate, giving you an opportunity to smooth these issues out. Then practice leaving extra space to say hello to the audience, to thank the panel organizer, and to offer any background that the audience might need (i.e. remarks that prepare and engage them). It is more than okay to write these extemporaneous-sounding remarks into the presentation script, if it will keep you on track. Ideally, try to practice in front of colleagues/department-mates. Practicing in front of a partner or friend can also work. Have someone time you as you read.

 

When it comes to A/V, prepare for the unexpected. What will you do if your laptop battery fails? What if your phone dies, and you lose your presentation notes? We live in a high-tech world, but sometimes technology can fail. Make a checklist of your materials and check it both before you leave home to travel to the conference, and before you enter the room to give your presentation. Have a video adapter for your machine (and expect that one of your co-presenters may need to use yours).

 

If you can, try to meet up with your co-presenters before the presentation, even if just for a 15-minute coffee to say hello. Meeting beforehand can really help organize the panel, and getting to know everyone’s work can make connections between the panel’s ideas during the presentation.

 

Bring business cards with you. You never know who might ask a great question or offer an idea post-session. Having your contact information handy allows you to take advantage of the connections you might make.

 

Plan what you will wear with your presentation in mind. For example, if you know you will be standing for your presentation, consider what shoes you will wear to be comfortable.

 

If you are nervous and have someone you know at your presentation, ask them to sit where you can see them. Sometimes, it is nice to be able to locate a familiar face as you look around the room at your audience.

 

Consider bringing a snack to eat an hour or so before your presentation, so you have something in your stomach.

 

Most of the time, you will have been asked beforehand for a bio, but if not, bring a short, succinct bio that a moderator can read during the speaker introductions.

 

During the Presentation

Get to the room where your presentation is as soon as you are able, and double-check your tech. Give yourself time to get organized and take some deep breaths.

 

Bring a bottle of water and take some sips during your presentation, even if you are not thirsty. This helps avoid a dry throat while talking.

 

Start by catching the audience’s attention and make a connection. This can be accomplished by reading a quote from the primary material that sets the stage, conducting a quick poll that gets them involved, or by sharing what led you to study your topic. Make it personal and make it pithy!

 

Signpost your argument with easy-to-follow language so that your audience stays with you throughout the presentation. Your introduction should prime the audience for what is to come (i.e. “In this paper, I draw on X and Y to argue that Z…”) and the structure of your presentation should be verbalized. Words like “first,” “next,” “furthermore,” “however,” and “finally” are your friends!

 

While the script you have prepared will keep you organized and ensure that your language is precise, make sure to read slowly and make eye contact with the audience. Notes in your script to “pause,” “slow down,” and “look up” make this easier.

 

Bring a couple printed copies of your presentation slides for accessibility.

 

Speak to the audience in front of you, not to your college professor and not to your high school English teacher.

 

Be respectful of your colleagues’ and the audience members’ time. This is essential conference etiquette and ensures that there will be time for discussion. Having the script that you have practiced reading aloud and timed beforehand keeps you within your allotted time.

 

One useful gesture is when you are exploring a new idea in the presentation, to say so and tell the audience that you would welcome their suggestions during the Q&A. This gives them an opportunity to demonstrate their expertise, and to help you refine your idea.

 

It is okay to ad lib if you want to point out a connection between your presentation and someone who has presented before you.

 

Do not sweat the Q&A. More often than not, you will get genuinely helpful, encouraging, and generous feedback that will help you work toward the next stage of the project. It is okay to take a second to think about your response before answering an audience member’s question. If you do not know what someone is referring to, you can always ask them to clarify or to restate their question. There may be audience members who seem to be there with the sole purpose of tearing down you and your co-panelists’ work, but this does not reflect on your presentation. And, keep in mind, that even a seemingly “hostile” question can indicate a gap in or a useful addition to your research that you had not considered and could become something that you follow-up on after the conference.

 

Take notes during your fellow presenters’ presentations. This will help you to make connections between your presentations and come up with questions.

 

Here is an essential part: be confident that you have something important to offer. You were accepted to your panel, to the conference, to the convention. No small feat. You have already convinced the panelists and the organizers that you belong. So, you do.

 

Don’t forget to have fun! If you are having fun, your audience will be too.

 

After the Presentation

Get together with your co-panelists. You have enough in common with them to be on the same panel, so try to have a meal together during the conference. They may even become your most treasured collaborators.

 

Take time after the conference to reflect on what you have learned during the conference, as well as to reflect on how your presentation panel went. There are many connections, materials, and new resources that you have probably learned about from your panel and during the conference, so do not forget to follow-up on these notes.

 

Remember, we are all learning and refining our arguments. Conferences are a great place to get ideas for further avenues of research. Pursue these threads after the conference is over so that you can further your project ideas.

 

–List contributed by Ariadne Wolf, Didem Uca, Kristina Reardon, Amir Hussain, Gerard Holmes, and Kayla Forrest

Chasing Data: Creating a Graduate Student Survey

The University of Arkansas’s Graduate Students in English (GSE) recently used the CSGSP’s “Improving Institutional Circumstances for Graduate Students in Languages and Literatures: Recommendations for Best Practices and Evaluative Questions” to create a survey that gauged the climate and concerns of its department’s graduate students. The GSE then used those results to advocate for a hybrid committee:

The Committee will address some of the trends and concerns raised by the GSE’s inaugural survey, including devising and implementing new graduate program protocols.

Read more about this work by the GSE in this post, authored by Megan Vallowe and Christy Davis.