The Rhetoric of Conference Proposals

Wikimania press conference 2008. Image by Cary Bass

Wikimania press conference 2008. Image by Cary Bass (Wikimedia Commons)

I occasionally get requests from academic colleagues and students to read over their conference presentation proposals.  In this post, I distill some advice about attending and choosing academic conferences, the process of proposal writing, and describe the rhetorical features of a good proposal.

Why present at a conference

Conferences are of course a good way to demonstrate you are an active scholar in an area.  Attending 2-3 conferences/year is expected among full time academics who are usually members of academic associations and have expense accounts that can pay for some of their travel.  It is somewhat less common for graduate students to speak at conferences, and very rare among undergraduates, and so it counts more for you if you are a junior scholar. It is very helpful for PhD students who are looking for academic work, MA students who want to apply to PhD programs, and is an unexpected bonus in an undergrad’s application for graduate school.

Conferences are primarily useful for getting you to write up a piece of research you want to publish, or for further disseminating a piece of work that is being published or was recently published.  Ideally you use the conference to “test drive” a short version of your publication and get the audience’s reaction.  It starts to look like you are stagnating if you present on the very same topic year after year, so if you are writing a book or dissertation, choose to present on different aspects on the theme.

Conferences are also useful for academic network building (essential for building research, publication and referee relationships outside your institution), for learning about the most recent work being done in a field of study, and for learning about the strengths of other institutions’ academic programs based on the academics who study and work there.  Occasionally I go to a conference I am not scheduled to present at — mainly for the learning and social networking value.

Research your conference

1. The first thing to do is to choose a conference wisely, and propose a presentation that fits with your research, teaching, or service, so that it does not pull you too far outside your area and thus scatter your intellectual energy.  I am a great fan of synergy — ensuring that there is some overlap and integration among these three spheres of academic life.

Other Criteria for choosing a conference

  • If you are looking for a high-status academic conference, choose something sponsored by an academic association that publishes a respected journal and/or book series and/or that publishes conference proceedings, and whose conference planners are associated with universities.
  • If you want to learn from or meet particular scholars in the field, look for conference programs of previous years, and see if you recognize the names of presenters who have published books you are interested in or those who have published articles you’ve skimmed or read.  Or find the scholar’s CV online and see if he/she lists the conferences attended in the past few years.
  • If you are looking for an opportunity to get to know a field of study and its people, avoid extremely huge conferences where you are in an ocean of anonymity, or extremely small conferences where you talk with the same people over & over.  Find out how many people presented at last year’s conference by looking for the program online, or finding out stats online.

Research your audience

Your first “gatekeeping” audience is the conference planning committee and those whom they have chosen to read proposals and give feedback on their quality. Usually it is quite difficult to find out who is vetting proposals if you are not an insider.  It may well be people who have served on the executive of the association or who have presented at the conference for several years.

Ideally, talk to someone you know who has gone to that conference in the past.  They may have some crucial information about the ethos of the group and the kinds of presentations they have accepted and speakers they have invited.

If you don’t have any “insider” friends, your best bet at understanding the knowledge set, values and culture of the conference is by studying its Call for Papers and conference Website, and if you have time, its journal, newsletter, or other publications.  Your proposal should be consistent with this general ethos.  You may need to cite scholars theories that are part of their “canon,” or at very least make reference to a debate or pressing issue that is relevant to the scholars in this field.

Your more focused rhetorical cue will be found in the Call for Papers (CFP).  This is useful even to scholars who have presented previously at their conferences.  Carefully scan the CFP for words and phrases that demonstrate a value for the kind of research you would like to present.   Sometimes your specific topic area might be mentioned only in one or two bulletted items.  Take this as your personal invitation.  Use these key terms in your proposal.

Although most conferences have a “theme” in order to generate deeper discussion on a key issue, they often also welcome proposals that are related to the general topic even if it is not directly related to the theme.

Genre / style research

Each field of study will have a range of acceptable genres and styles for its proposals, from the extremely formulaic scholarly recipe to the most whimsical and literary.  For the most relevant samples of accepted presentation abstracts, look at sample abstracts from a past conference program of this conference (or a related conference) that includes speakers’ full abstracts, especially the abstracts of the speeches of INVITED speakers.

Some abstracts will be good models, others may not be as good models because they may have been accepted on other grounds, such as the fame of the scholar or the location/affiliation of the scholar (some conferences may accept proposals based on a desired mix of presenters from various regions or institution types).

How to draft your proposal

Find any specific information about the length and desired content of the proposal.  Hold yourself to word limit/length requirements out of respect.

When you first draft your proposal, most people draft “inductively” and get to their major claim or point at the very end of a paragraph or series of paragraphs.  You will probably need to revise this later so that your main point is moved up near the beginning, and your support follows as a deductive pattern.

It is wise to start with a sentence that establishes relevance and common ground: something that names an issue held important by your scholarly audience.

Right after that, contribute your “voice” to this debate or issue or concern by naming your particular topic of study and your major claim or question about it.  This sentence could have a “flag” in it like “This presentation will explore…”

Then “develop” the meat of your presentation by explaining the questions and theories that you use to investigate the question, and the methods you used to discover and analyze your data and/or texts.

You do not need to give away your conclusions, since many people propose a presentation before or during the research process.  This is not like the introductory paragraph of an essay.  A presentation proposal inspires more curiosity and communicates more humility if you do not give your answers as if you know them already.  After all, the conference (at least in the liberal arts and social sciences) is for discussion and testing of ideas, not for the proclamation of certain facts.  However, you do have to write confidently and knowledgeably about the relevant theories and issues, and prove that you do know your specific topic, data or text well enough to know how to analyze it.

Conclude with a statement of the possible uses or implications of your study.  What might people do with your presentation?  What do you hope they will think about and ponder as they leave?

If they require a few scholarly citations, within your proposal you should strategically cite those that are both central to your presentation AND some that are directly relevant to the conference’s field of study.

Common structure and ingredients:

1) raises an issue, debate or aspiration of scholars in the field,

2) links the issue to a clear statement of scope and topic/question of presentation,

3) names and briefly explains key theories, concepts and methods of data gathering and analysis, showing signs of confident knowledge of the area and scholarly competence

4) raises curiosity and establishes room for debate and conversation

5) ends with “audience takeaways” — points to ponder, future implicaitons, or tools to use in scholarly or public life.

Obtaining useful feedback on a draft

If you are new to this conference or scholarly area, it is especially important to get some feedback if you have time before the proposal deadline.

Getting feedback from a scholar in the area is best.

  • They can tell you if it has the right mixture of scholarly themes valued by the association.  For example, a proposal to a rhetoric conference may look too much like a proposal for a history or literature or film conference and thus may be rejected.
  • Does your proposal reveal naivety about something that is extremely important to most scholars in the field? Does the proposal seem methodologically and theoretically sound?  A scholar will also tell you if you have misused any key terms in the field.
  • Your proposal may be so narrowly focused on your specific issue or data set or texts that its connection to the broader field is not apparent, and even if you are accepted you may have only 2-3 people attend your session if the abstract is too narrow!
  • Ask a scholar about the degree of excitement your proposal generates: does it go in a direction that is too controversial at this time, is it deathly boring and cover ground that is not relevant to most people in the field?  Or is it just intriguing enough to inspire curiosity among a fair sized scholarly audience?

Feedback from ANY scholar or colleague will be useful to get feedback on the clarity, organization, and style of your proposal.  They can tell you if certain key terms seem puzzling to them – but you will have to discern whether the jargon will be understood by your proposal’s evaluators or is too specialized.  It is quite common for a draft to have organizational problems with flow from one idea to the next… YOU know how to connect the ideas, but the reader may be dumbfounded about the connection you presume to exist.

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