General Advice about conferences, coming from both experience and other academics:
Conferences are important for reasons beyond presenting individual papers. Graduate student conferences are a very good way to get your feet wet. Do consider attending the major conferences for your field (SCMS for film, for example) with some regularity though. This is a good idea for a number of reasons:
- It is an efficient way to become familiar with the field, and scholars' current work.
- Showing membership and involvement in your association (at least one) is huge benefit on the job market. I have this on good authority that questions are definitely asked about this - they want to see that you are connected, and giving your time there.
- Meeting people! This may not be everyone's bag, but pushing yourself to socialize at these things has inestimable benefits, really. Introduce yourself to scholars whose work you like, invite them to your panel. Do the same with fellow graduate students. Seek out the sub-groups within your discipline that revolve around your areas of interest. This advice may seem to make you pushy, but trust me - 3000 people go to SCMS. If you want to build a community, you have to take the first steps. Think about how people you're meeting here may be on a hiring committee one day! Just speaking from personal experience, I have been going to the Canadian version of SCMS (FSAC) for nearly ten years, and working to build friendships in the early years has paid off for me in so many ways. Highly recommend!!
It is of course pretty standard for us all to crank out abstracts an hour before they're due. However, there are still ways to improve abstracts:
- Make sure you place your work within the larger critical discussion in the abstract - do not expect the readers to (be able to) do that for you. Make them do as little work as possible. Describe the conversation you think you are entering in your work, and highlight its currency and importance.
- Don't, however, only describe other people's work. Be very explicit about what your contribution in this paper will be.
- Even if you need to build up to the more nuanced description of argument/research discovery/contribution over the course of the abstract, aim to open the abstract with a clear and concise statement about the topic of the paper and your approach. Forcing yourself to boil things down to "I will be looking at x and showing x about it" will make your abstract so much more attractive to tired readers.
- Don't go over the word limit. Remove qualifying language - "I will aim to show", "I will try to make clear" should be "I will show", "I will make clear"...
- Don't expect people to be able to read something in your powerpoint and listen to you saying different words at the same time.
- Don't put up huge block quotes and then read them word for word. This is boring. Either pick out the key phrases for the powerpoint, or just read the quote yourself (without the visual accompaniment) if you think it's really necessary.
- Do not underestimate the power of a clip and or visual images. They help people absorb what you are telling them.
- Simplify, simplify, simplify. Conference papers are not the places to get across extremely nuanced points in complex language. You can get across maybe three points in a twenty minute paper, and the more clear the points are the more forcefully you will grab your audience.
- Do not be afraid to repeat or reiterate your main ideas. People's attention wanders. If an idea is crucial to your work, say it more than once. Emphasize it.
- A twenty minute conference paper can be no longer than 8.5 pages (for a speaking pace that isn't too fast, and does not include clips). Do not go over time. Just because people aren't stopping you doesn't mean they aren't hating you for taking their time or the Q&A's time. Really, it's a crappy move, don't do it.
- Remember that because this is your area of research, you know more about it than those listening to you. Really try to avoid downplaying your own knowledge or ability (especially in the Q&A). You bring these issues into being, performatively, when you do this. If you say, "Oh, well I haven't really done enough research," or "I'm sure this isn't the best work that's been done on this" (or whatever), you may thinking you're proactively defending against criticism, but all people are hearing is, "I don't know what I'm doing and this work doesn't have value." If you don't express the value of your work, others won't be able to see it.
- That last point is of course different than saying to an audience, this is work in progress, and I would love feedback. You can always direct your audience to certain areas while giving the paper and say, this is an area I'm still thinking about and would love to discuss further in the Q&A, or something similar...