A Pedantic Post on Giving Papers
Another repost from Bill Caraher.
This past week I enjoyed a nice set of papers at the annual School of Graduate Study’s Scholarly Forum here at the University of North Dakota. I was, however, struck by some trends in the graduate student papers that I did not particularly find useful. My papers tend to conform loosely to a template and some folks have nudged me to write a bit on my template and my general critique of conference papers in my blog. I am not super excited about writing such a pedantic post, but I’ll do it anyway. As always, if you do it some other way, have differing opinions, or just want to hate on me, the comments are open.
So, here are five rules for any graduate student giving a paper at a conference:
1. Read your paper. There are three reasons for this. First, it is tremendously difficult to present a complex argument from short notes. Complex arguments rely on a certain amount of intellectual and rhetorical rigor that is typically foreign to a conversations style of speaking. Second, if you have rather extensive notes, one gains little advantage from reading them. If you have extensive notes, might as well write out the entire paper. Finally, people at academic conferences are not there – in general – to be entertained. We’re there to hear sophisticated arguments. If someone in the audience is bored because your presentation style is boring, then they aren’t doing it right. Present a good argument and no one will be bored.
2. No More than Five Words on a Powerpoint Slide. My policy is to avoid the dreaded “Powerpointer” whenever possible. In fact, I’ve given it up for Lent this year. I’ve never quite understood the practice of putting words on a Powerpoint slide that are the same as the words you are reading in your paper. At best, it encourages us to ignore you; at worst it is a distraction. Use The Powerpointer for images that help advance your argument. If images are unnecessary, then skip The Powerpointer and force the audience to focus on your text.
3. Thesis. Provide your thesis within the first 2 minutes of your paper (or in the first 10% of your content). If I have to wait 5 minutes or more to figure out what you’re arguing, then I have lost interest. Your thesis should be supported by historiography or a literature review. As soon as you tell me your thesis, tell me why I should care. My rule is: drop your thesis within the first 2 minutes and then spend the next 2 minutes contextualizing your argument. For a 1500-2000 word paper, it should be 200 words for an introduction concluding with a thesis and no more than 300 words on the secondary literature supporting your thesis.
4. Use a Case Study. I am guilty of trying to say everything that I have ever thought on a topic in a 15-20 minute paper. While these papers stand as personal monuments to my brilliance (cough, cough), they are usually pretty rough on the audience. Recently, I have tried to focus my papers by using a single case study or single, focused argument. I try to keep the case study to around 1000 words and leave a couple hundred words for a conclusion that will relate my single argument or case study to a larger body of evidence.
5. Chose your Last Sentence Carefully. I just discovered this very recently (and in part it is a product of blogging because I never know how to end a blog). A nice, final sentence tells the audience and the moderator that your argument is now done. It avoids the dreaded “that’s all I have to say”, awkward conclusion moment. It also gives the audience something to remember from your paper and gives you one last chance to exude confidence before people begin to pepper you with questions.
I know everyone has their own style. In fact, when other people have delivered papers that I wrote, I’ve been told that my somewhat Billtastic style comes through. And I also realize that adhering to a rather formal template can imply that an argument resides – somehow – outside the text (rather than being coterminous and intrinsic in the text). I also know that some disciplines love The Powerpointer more than knowledge itself and so my somewhat primitive attitude toward The Powerpointer probably reflects my rather conservative disciplinary leanings. My post is meant mainly to offer some practical tips to students as try to figure out how to present their research at academic conferences.
That’s all I have to say.
Since it is the beginning of the semester (2nd week actually) I thought I would share this little piece that is widely known. I generally go over this in the first or second day of class. Its funny how this is a continual process to me. I have read this a hundred times, but each time, it challenges me in a different way.
RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.
RULE TWO: General duties of a student - pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.
RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher - pull everything out of your students.
RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.
RULE FIVE: be self-disciplined - this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.
RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There's no win and no fail, there's only make.
RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It's the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.
RULE EIGHT: Don't try to create and analyze at the same time. They're different processes.
RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It's lighter than you think.
RULE TEN: "We're breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities." (John Cage)
HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything - it might come in handy later.
10 Tips For Graduate Students
First off, these are not my thoughts but I really appreciate and agree with Bill Caraher's comments and so have decided to repost them. In many ways, as I look back on my time in graduate school, particularly my 2nd round, I unconsciously followed many of these tips. Also, if you should be following Bill's blog...he is full of good thoughts and words.
Ten Tips for a New Graduate Student April 25, 2013
This evening I’m taking out a couple of my students who have been accepted into graduate school for next year. I threatened (offered?) to give them my list of ten tips to being a successful graduate student (also know as “things that I wish I had done in graduate school or did, but only by accident). I riffled through my harddrive and found a few versions of it and decided to compile them into one list.
This list is directed at prospective graduate students in my field and it reflect my mistakes and successes more than anything else.
1. Have fun. Graduate School is fun. Resist the urge to rush through the program toward an uncertain future. Don’t dawdle by any means, but make sure to savor your time in graduate school. Chances are that your graduate school environment will be the most supportive, robust, and dynamic that you experience throughout your career. Enjoy it.
2. Take all the gloomy press about the job market with a grain of salt. Graduate school in the humanities is like minor league baseball. You do it because you love the game and because you believe you have what it takes to make it to the big leagues (such as they are …). Don’t do it if you feel entitled to an academic position at graduation or out of some false belief that the minor league system is designed to give every prospect an equal chance at success. Do it because you love what you’re doing and it’s a remarkable opportunity to do it for a few more years.
3. Read as much as possible. Get in the habit of looking at the major journals in your field and reading reviews. Read bibliographies. Get to be friends with your librarian. Anything you can do to know what is being published and what it is about. (The arrival of review volume of the Journal of Roman Archaeology remains one of the highlights of my year.)
4. Work harder than everyone you know and collaborate with people smarter than you. My experience is that these two things are related. Smart people have better ideas, get more opportunities, and generally have more fun. Part of the reason that they are successful is they have less smart collaborators and colleagues who work really really hard. Work hard and smart people will let you ride their coattails.
5. Write all the time. I write for at least an hour every day, even if it’s just working on my blog and each year, I find it easier to write more. I might not be developing new ideas or getting smarter, but I am definitely better and bringing my ideas from my eddying and swirling brain to the page. Ideas only really count when they are on the page. Writing a blog or a journal offers a simple way to maintain writing discipline and move ideas from thoughts to words. It also offers you a chance to produce a positive presence on the web.
6. Develop a digital ecosystem. Find ways to stay organized on your computer, back up your harddrive, develop ways to use mobile devices to make your life easier. Try new software to streamline your workflow.
7. Develop some ancillary skills. I was lucky enough to be a sufficiently marginal field archaeologist to have a chance to develop some skills in GIS and database management. While this began as a way to keep me from somehow messing up field work, it has since put me in the position to shape field procedures, interpret data, and produce analysis. Despite only ever taking one archaeology course in my life, I have turned using various database tools into opportunities to direct my own projects and to publish the results. If you can, take classes outside your department and discipline.
8. Balance professional development and taking risks. There will always be pressure to publish and present your work and it begins in graduate school (earlier and earlier these days!). At the same time, remember that graduate school is where you can take risks, learn your limits, and experiment with new approaches and ideas. Despite the feeling that the stakes in graduate school are high, they are much higher when you get your first academic position.
9. Spend time at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. This is the greatest of the foreign research centers for American graduate students. It has an amazing alumni network, brilliant facilities, and a solid program. The School as an institution and its faculty take graduate education seriously. If you’re working in the Eastern Mediterranean, do what you can to spend time at the ASCSA.
10. Be interested in everything. There is tremendous pressure these days to professionalize and focus. While focus and discipline are good and will ensure that you move through your program with pace, maintaining academic interests outside your narrow field of dissertation represents an important risk management strategy. If your particular, specialized graduate research doesn’t end up being the “next big thing”, you’ll have other irons in the fire.
One last tip … listen to and trust your mentors.