conference

What did you learn today?

So, what did you learn today? (or the last few days)

Here is what I learned last week:

I spent the second half of last week in San Diego at a conference of the NAES, National Association of Ethnic Studies. The main goal was to see how such a conference is organized and to learn how to present a conference paper. This means I was more interested in the technicalities than in the content, but I still tried to choose presentations that were of some interest to me.

Here are some of my observations:

  • General framework: each panel was scheduled for 1hr 15min, and had 4-5 speakers. As there should also be time for questions at the end, this meant that each presenter had about 12-15 minutes. This is very little. It is certainly not easy to stick to that time.
  • The chair sometimes introduced the presenters in detail, sometimes not. In one case the chair used the final time slot to present a critique (not criticism) of each presentation, basically giving an additional presentation. I found that less interesting than the Q&A times.

Presenters roughly fell into three groups:

  1. Some gave a strict reading of the paper, often with little eye contact.
  2. Others read the paper, but interspersed with informal comments and explanations, usually with more eye contact and lively (livelier) intonation. In some cases they read large passages but then made transitions with informal remarks that made it more lively. Or the reading was interspersed with explanations about the PPT (powerpoint) slides.
  3. A third group presented the material freely without reading any material, except maybe some quotes. My guess is that most people in this group were teachers or professors who were used to lecturing without reading their paper.

Other differences and observations:

  • Some read too fast and it was hard to follow, especially when coupled with
    • Reading with little intonation, not very lively way of speaking.
    • Using too many big words that were hard to conceptualize for non-insiders.
  • Only one person handed out copies which was good because his PPT did not work, but it is hard to know how many people will come to each group.
  • Maybe half of the presenters used PPT.
  • In one case the picture on the screen was for the following presenter. This was distracting.
  • Only one person went overtime and even that was due to a misunderstanding.
  • There was especially one presentations that kept the audience spellbound by the way of presentation (as far as I could tell):
    • an African professor who was a great storyteller (in good African tradition).
  • There were three presentations (among those that I heard) that captivated people due to the content:
    • an African-American young lady who talked about her auto-ethnographic research and search for identity,
    • two men who spoke about the humanitarian blight of illegal immigrants along the American-Mexican border.

Concerning the content of the presentations and the supporting research data:

  • The presenters did not give a lot of information about the research data, only about general methodology (probably due to the time constraint).
  • Even if they had done a lot of research the presentation could only focus on a small part of it.
  • The titles of the presentations were not always telling you much about the content.
  • In quite a few cases I had the impression that the title had more to do with the conference theme than with the actual content of the presentation.
  • Some presentations had very little to do with ethnic studies, e.g.
    • one geography student who had done the same presentation at a geography conference and now just left out a lot of geographical details.
    • one student of philosophy (?) spoke about the Islamic concept of the heart with very little reference to the panel theme.

All this tells me that I need to be less concerned about not having material that fits exactly with the conference theme. It seems to be OK if it only touches on the theme in some broad sense and with creativity. This was actually my main worry because it is of course rare that you have done sufficient research in an area that fits a conference theme exactly. I also go the impression that there are large differences in the amount of research that went into each presentation, and the depth of knowledge.  This will also help me to be less afraid of not having enough data or having done huge amounts of research.

Good ideas and things I want to copy:

  • Set a timer before you start. Even though the chair will give you a notice when you have only 2 minutes left.
  • Say “quote” before you read a quote.
  • Explain the larger context of your paper in the beginning, including any planned future research.
  • Don’t assume that the audience knows a lot about your topic, give enough simplified explanations so that anybody can follow.
  • Avoid “big” (technical) words and tongue twisters.
  • Mention authors of existing works in your research area by name.
  • Preferably use a PPT but not too many slides.
  • Try to speak freely but practice good timing and lively intonation.
  • Provide a clear summary at the beginning and the end of what you propose or want to communicate through the paper.
  • If possible try storytelling and include personal stories.

All this was very helpful and gave me a better idea about what it means to present a conference paper, as this is something I will be doing in the near future. Thanks to this conference I am now better equipped to do it. And hopefully less nervous. 😉