Wading Into the Conference World

As a first year doctoral student in literature at Arizona State University, there have been many occasions where I feel as if I have no idea what I should be doing (outside of my enormous course load and teaching requirements) or how I am supposed to be moving forward in what seems sometimes to be a never-ending academic journey. The last thing I want is to be bogged down with stress and forget why I signed up for this life, why I LOVE this life. I have found (at least it works for the moment) that the best way to deal with these questions, which arise on a regular basis, is to take everything step by step. As we attempt to professionalize ourselves amidst the daily hustle and bustle of the halls of the English department at our universities, submitting abstracts and presenting at conferences is an activity we need to be doing, but for those who are new to conferences like me, the whole process is a bit daunting.

Just three weeks ago, I presented at my first conference. Saying I had nervous butterflies in my stomach is an understatement. The nervousness started with the writing of the abstract, and it didn’t really subside until I got up from the presenter table and walked out the door. An abstract is a difficult thing to write but so important to our professionalization. Abstracts also are something we rarely get a lot of training on in our day-to-day course work, which makes attempting to write them a bit more stressful. Summing up what I will be arguing, or more realistically, what I hope I will be arguing in a ten page paper in 250 words is a trying activity. I’ve started to look at abstracts like movie trailers. Hit the best, most entertaining aspects and sell the readers that it is worth looking at the whole thing. And remember, every word counts, so focusing on style is important. Style is something I have been working on in my scholarly writing, and adding the pressure of the importance of style in an abstract raises the anxiety levels. But ultimately, I have been reminding myself that everyone has to write a first abstract, and it gets easier each and every time. Practice does make perfect when it comes to abstract writing. Plus, ask your colleagues or professors if they would let you look at some of their abstracts; it really helped me to see how other people prepare an abstract when I was working on my own.

Preparing the paper for the conference was probably the easiest aspect for me. I write papers all of the time—so I was confident with my ability to write a solid paper to present at the conference. The actual presentation of the paper was nerve racking, and then as luck would have it, I found out I was selected to chair my panel. I felt completely lost; I had no idea what I was supposed to do. After an email exchange with the panel coordinators and the other presenters on my panel, I was at least more confident about my roles as a panel chair: introduce everyone before their reading and moderate the question and answer section. I was hoping that my duties as the chair of the panel would keep me focused and calm my nerves before I read my own paper (but that obviously wasn’t the case ☺). Most people would suggest attending panel sessions before your own to get an idea of how the conference works. That would have been a really useful tool for me, but my panel was scheduled during the first time slot in the morning. I arrived early, found the room with plenty of time, and let the butterflies flutter. As soon as it was time to start, I introduced the first presenter and everything flowed from there. At the end of my reading it was time to start the question and answer time. I was prepared for no one in the audience (of seven people) to ask any questions, so I had thought up some of my own just in case. A colleague of mine has presented at numerous conferences and she had never been asked a question—so secretly I was hoping no one would ask me a question either. It was scary enough to read my paper, but then to have to answer more questions was a lot to think about. However, we had an enthusiastic audience that was ready to discuss the different papers. In the end, I am so glad that I was asked a specific question about my paper because it not only gave me the opportunity to discuss something I am fascinated with in more detail, but it also gave me an idea of how to adjust my paper to make it that much stronger (and my colleague had her first question too—conference success).

For all of the anxiety that I felt during the entire process from starting to write the abstract to answering the last question at the end of the presentation, it was a wonderful experience. If you haven’t experienced a conference presentation yet, you can trust me when I say, if I made it through fine—so can you. In the end, I had a lot of fun. And now I feel much more prepared for future conferences.

With a couple weeks left before many of the MLA Romanticism CFP deadlines, if you haven’t submitted an abstract yet, you still have time. If you are like me, and a novice to conference presentations doubting whether or not to send out an abstract, just jump in! And hopefully, I will see you there ☺

2 thoughts on “Wading Into the Conference World”

  1. I’m with you–or almost am: I’m an M.A. student who has received offers of admission to several PhD programs. Your blog resonated with me tremendously. Though I have presented at several conferences, I am anxious about starting a PhD program. Heck, I’m anxious about selecting a program! I’m nearly in the same cohort as you, so I’m glad to read that being anxious about doctoral life is normal.

    I think I might apply to the Romanticism and the Grotesque (or something like that) MLA panel. To which panels are you think about applying?

  2. Great reaffirmation of the exuberance that should go into what we do! It’s always a challenge for me to realize the process really is one that unfolds “step by step” and building a romanticist is certainly not a process that happens overnight. Although, working with Ron and Lussier’s gotta help in this regard.

    But, congrats on giving your first conference paper and (on top of that) chairing your first panel!


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