Spring Break as Conference Prep Time

When I was an undergrad, Spring Break meant a whole week to do absolutely nothing. Some years that meant traveling to a warmer locale with friends, others were of the “staycation” variety, but in both cases Rest and Relaxation were the name of the game. 

As a graduate student, things are a little different. This year, Spring Break meant a week of not needing to commute to New Brunswick from New York City, catching up on episodes of The Walking Dead, and starting the research process for end-of-semester seminar papers. Mostly, though, I spent this week putting the final touches on a paper I will be presenting at the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference at the end of March. 

As the name suggests, the ACLA is the national organization for scholars doing comparative work in the humanities, and the director of Comparative Literature here at Rutgers encouraged us graduate students to apply. This year’s theme is “Collapse/Catastrophe/Change,” and so I dusted off a seminar paper from a few semesters back and jumped at the chance to put myself out there and see if something stuck. And it did! I’ll be presenting a paper on two unconventional war movies: Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz with Bashir and Katherine Bigelow’s independent film The Hurt Locker (both great, highly recommended). This will be my third conference presentation, and while I still have much to learn, I thought I would share some of things I know now but wished I’d known earlier about applying to and presenting at conferences.

What is a conference? A conference in the humanities is typically a meeting of scholars who convene over one or more days to present papers on a particular pre-determined theme. Some are local and run by graduate student organizations (these are a great entry for your first conference); others are larger and run by national or international organizations (these are often held on university campuses or large hotels). There are often keynote and plenary sessions open to the public where notable scholars in the field offer some thoughts on that theme, concurrent sessions of panel presentations, as well as a reception to allow time for mingling. Other formats exist, but I’m not familiar enough with those to comment (though if you can, please do!).

Why attend a conference? Participating in conferences is a key part of professionalization in the humanities. They offer opportunities to meet other scholars whose interests you share, and allow you to keep up with current scholarship in your field. And while we’re being honest, it is actually quite fun to spend a few days with people who are just as obsessed with interested in the kind of work you are doing as you are.

What do you do there? This certainly came as a surprise to me when I first learned about conferences, but what typically happens is that a panel of 3-4 scholars is allowed 15-20 minutes each to read a prepared paper. That’s right — they read their papers to an audience. A Q&A session follows the presentations, and I consider this one of the highlights of conferencing.  During this time, I have been offered helpful suggestions on additional sources to consult and new angles to consider in my work. Thinking of your paper as a solid work-in-progress really takes the edge off the experience of public speaking, and allows you to share your ideas while also opening yourself to feedback. Depending on where the conference is held, you might also get to travel to a new city, so why not take some time to get to know a new place?

How do I apply? Organizations put out what are called “Calls for Papers” (CFPs), which are a few words describing the conference theme and the kinds of papers they are looking for. In fact, you need not have written the paper when you apply (though having a clear sense of what you would argue is key). Most CFPs ask for a short abstract, about 150-300 words, summarizing your main ideas and how your eventual paper would fit the theme. Once your abstract is accepted, you will either be asked to submit the paper before the conference, or simply show up with your paper in hand to present.

Where do I find Calls for Papers? While this list is certainly not exhaustive, you’ll find a wide range via UPenn’s English Department Call For Papers website. Scholarly associations such as the ACLA and the Modern Language Association also post Calls on their websites. Department administrators also do a wonderful job of circulating Calls via email, so keep your eyes peeled!

Fun Fact: Searching CFPs is also a great way to come up with a paper topic for the end of the semester. Just knowing that other scholars are thinking about the same topics and themes can help motivate your research, and that strong end-of-year paper can become a great conference paper (and possible future publication). 

So what are some of your best conference strategies?  What is the most surprising theme you’ve come across? What are conferences like in other fields?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

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