Vol. 27, No. 3, Spring 1996
The Captive Audience; or Liberating Thoughts on Conference Papers
Edward H. Friedman
There are no less than six hundred separate sessions listed in the official programme, which is as thick as a telephone directory of a small town, and at least thirty to choose from at any hour of the day from 8.30 a.m. to 10.15 p.m.
David Lodge, Small World
TO THE graduate student: Those of us who are teaching you and preparing you for a professional career are hardly in agreement on the aims of our mission. We want to educate you in your chosen discipline and to make you aware of research tools in your field. We want to help you develop your critical skills, but we debateand sometimes ignorethe ways you might implement those skills. We often give especially short shrift to the area that likely will take up most of your time: teaching. Perhaps we support your publishing an article or delivering a conference paper to increase your chances of finding a job, but by encouraging you to enter the profession before you complete the dissertation, are we doing you a favor or a disservice? Graduate students have been pushed already in directions that may not contribute to good teaching and that may arguably interfere in the long run with the best kind of writing, contends Patricia Meyer Spacks. Focusing on conference papers, I propose that, while early professional experience can be highly rewarding, the rewards are directly proportional to the student's preparationon several levelsfor the venture. The emphasis on productivity, at the ABD stage or before, Spacks notes, means that the question What can I say? may replace What do I know? and, more significant, What do I need to know? I submit that faculty members can guide students toward an appropriate synthesis of learning and sharing of knowledge, so that professional activities complement rather than compromise the educational process. What causes problems is not productivity per se but shortcuts to scholarship and a cutting short of the training period.
When we ask students to write, we expect them to read with care, to analyze texts, to consider the views of critics and theorist, and to weigh their own analytical points with those of others. We can show our students exemplary and less-than-exemplary works of scholarship, and we can offer them constructive criticism on their writing assignments. Students often receive critical commentary on papers without having the chance to incorporate the suggestions. The revision of class papers deemed of conference quality allows students to collaborate with faculty mentors, to polish writing and analytical skills, and to test theses on a new and broader audience. Some departments allow students to present papers on campus before a conference, enabling students to work on delivery and to anticipate questions and strengthening the bond between faculty members and students.
The theory and practice of the conference papers, of course, intersect. Attendance at conferences should be worthwhile for those who give and those who receive intellectual messages. The advice that follows comes from one who has heard hundreds of papers and who has learned much from the experience. This knowledge did not come without some unnecessary suffering, or at least discomfort. The suggestions are directed toward those about to undertake the scholarly journey and to anyone else who is apprehensive before an audience of discriminating peers.
Advice for the Speaker
Responding to Questions
Participating in Discussion
Questions of Protocol
Selecting Papers to Submit for ConferencesIn a difficult job market, students need to do whatever they can to impress potential employers. A record of conference papers and articles accepted for publication may help set an applicant apart. Individual departments and professors differ on the advisability of submitting materials to journals and to conferences before the receipt of the degree. Most would agree, however, on the importance of judicious screening of material. Students should realize that very few class papers are ready for submission without revision. Graduate programs give students the chance to seek the counsel of faculty members. Students should consult first with the teachers for whom they wrote the papersand then with other faculty memberson the advisability of submitting the papers and, once the decision has been made, on how to revise and where to submit.
The other side of the coin is that conference organizers also must focus on quality. This is easier to manage if the procedure requires the submission of the complete paper. A one-paragraph or one-page abstract may be more problematic. Some selection committees, it would seem, are inclined to accept every abstract. This practice not only undermines the faculty member's emphasis on quality but also teaches the wrong lessonthat quantity supersedes quality. The type of paper that should not be submitted unrevised is not necessarily unintelligent or unsatisfactory but is incomplete, overly general, or naive, showing the author's lack of background or familiarity with the critical tradition of the work. Students should feel free to call on faculty members for assistance. Teachers, in turn, can seize the occasion to help students organize their ideas and adapt their work for conferences and journals. No paper should be submitted before its time. If this message is to be clear, conference organizers must monitor quality.
Making one's self marketable need not be a bad thing. The preparation of a conference paper should go beyond class work, inspire additional dialogue, and give the student experience in introducing and defending ideas, much as classroom teachers and researchers do. Well-written conference papers set forth new concepts or approaches. They give speakers a forum and a foundation for future investigation. Using Spacks's terms, one could argue that the questions What can I say? and What do I need to know? do not have to oppose each other. One can seek the path of least resistance, or one canquite literallydo one's homework. The difference between the two is the difference between a conference paper and professional effort.
If you are graduate student who is contemplating entry into the profession, take advantage (in the best sense of the term) of the faculty members in your department who are willing to consult with you as you ready your work for submission to conferences or to journals. Use whatever resources are available to you. If you seek the help, it should be there for you.
The author is Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Work CitedSpacks, Patricia Meyer. The Academic Marketplace: Who Pays Its Costs. MLA Newsletter 26.2 (1994): 3.
© 1996 by the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. All Rights Reserved.