On Conference Papers: a Plea

20 minutes is about 10 double-spaced pages. 15 minutes will be about 8. The one complaint I had about the NCS–it’s not a big one, but it was common enough that it kept itching–was that a number of presenters didn’t seem to care about this. I’ve hesitated for days before posting this, since this problem did not define the NCS for me–it really was a wonderful conference–but it seemed to occur regularly in sessions I attended. I’m not sure what the organizers can do about this. I’ve not noticed it as much at Kalamazoo, though maybe that’s just not true. It’s not just me that noticed this (see the third or fourth bullet). Perhaps most remarkably, for the first time, I saw a chair actually stop a paper mid-course.

Asking around about this, I heard awful stories: of a presenter who gave a ten minute precis before lifting the first page (which said the same thing as the precis), of presenters who misquoted or misrepresented sources who were sitting in the audience, of chairs who let panelists take so much time that a final presenter was left with too little time to speak, of presenters who spent 10 minutes before the paper summarizing a text (use a handout!), of panel chairs who seem increasingly absent as the papers draw themselves out beyond the allotted time, of the frustration of seeing thousands of dollars in travel funds and weeks of work evaporate minute by minute.

I can imagine many causes for this. We can become very wrapped up in our work–out of necessity–and the work we do is hard, so when there is a forum to actually speak to an audience who might understand, the urge to right others’ misconceptions can seem to be a fight against some kind of demon. Perhaps we fantasize we are the origins of our knowledge, and so when we have a chance to disseminate, we seize it. Another reason is more generous (just barely): we prepare late, and have not taken time to hone a point to concision, to whittle the 15 pages down to 10. Or perhaps this comes from the same reason we can miss deadlines.

In any event, all of these reasons have in common a kind of solipsism. It’s hard to break out of. Our work can foster the illusion that we work alone, but really, we never are. When we read a book, we are talking to others (plural). When we teach, and when we blog, we are in dialogue. And most especially at conferences with our peers, we are explicitly, vocally, in dialogue. The point of a conference session is not any one person’s point–even a plenary speaker’s–but to see how an idea generates some heat when it’s rubbed up against other ideas. I at least am always hungry for the post-prandial discussion. If papers run on too long (whether I’m speaking or not), I start to enter a kind of state of incurious annoyance, and then, increasingly, frustration: whatever brilliance a point or a speaker might have all just starts to float away.

Here’s what I’m grateful for, given all of this: I have come to appreciate, deeply, a good chair. A chair should above all preserve allotted time for discussion, not merely introduce panelists and stand back. Trust me–everyone is rooting for you, not for the person you may have to cut off. Perhaps I’m being a bit too tightly wound up about this; I’d accept that criticism. But, am I the only one?


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

3 thoughts on “On Conference Papers: a Plea”

  1. My goodness no you’re not the only one. Anecdotally, I did think it was worse at NCS than I’ve seen it at any other conference, particularly among folks who presumably have delivered many, many conference papers. That’s the greatest befuddlement to me: at a certain point, we all must know roughly how many pages = 20 minutes. And frankly the indifference to the needs of the audience and the needs of one’s fellow presenters evident in the 35-minute “20 minute” paper, or the 12 minute “7 minute” panel paper, just burns me up.

    Also to complain: plot summaries should always be brief, but for certain texts at certain conferences, they should be entirely deleted. At a Chaucer Conference, no one should summarize the plot of a Canterbury Tale: if we didn’t know it, we wouldn’t be at this conference. Sheesh.

  2. I had one panelist go over on my panel, plus one frustrating technical difficulty that robbed us of half the discussion period. The latter I couldn’t do anything about; the former I could have and wish I’d done so. When he got to his last page, he was at the finish point, and I thought, “OK, 2 more minutes isn’t a terrible crime,” and let him wrap up. But somehow — I’m not sure how — it took him 4 more minutes to finish, and during that time I couldn’t get his attention. I should have given him an “ahem.” Should there be a next time, with the encouragement of you and JJC and other people who have complained about weak panel chairs, I will be bolder. I promise.

  3. It is often hard to get people’s attention when they’re over-running. I’ve had signs and pieces of paper which their fixed stare never encountered, not least because I presume they must know and don’t want to know how bad the situation is. The only way is actually to verbally interrupt, and of course it’s only really viable to do that when it’s already over-running rather than beforehand, which might be more use. The first time I chaired a panel, anyway, I assumed that these things would be easy and in fact they are fraught with ways the communication can fail. So one does have to be harsh, but also quite seriously prepared…

    I walked out of one session at the NCS where two papers of four had over-run. The last guy wouldn’t stop at 30 minutes and all the session was used up, I had to be ready to go somewhere else, and I thought it might send a message. There was no time for questions, I gather. Apparently the speaker did this the last time he presented where my interlocutor had seen him, too. I don’t quite understand how it gets that bad. I sometimes over-run by a few minutes through not having left ‘time to make it short’, but not by a full half-paper.

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