It’s Congress. I’ve been to see a lot of conference papers. Some of them have been excellent and some of them have not; some of them have been inspiring and some have been boring and/or deeply frustrating. And I have an idea that I think can describe the essential quality that separates a really good conference paper from a poor one. It’s an analogy.
A conference paper is to academic research what a movie trailer is to a feature film.
Let’s just come out and admit it: it’s really hard to convey the nuance and weight of a big scholarly undertaking in a 15 or 20 minute paper. After all, most of us aspire to write books, 80 000 or 100 000 words long, and many of us produce one or two 6000-8000 word articles a year, and chafe at what the length restrictions do to our expression of our ideas. So if an a book isn’t always long enough, and an article is almost always too short for our liking, what of the conference paper? I’ve given something like 15 different conference papers in the last 10 years and I know for certain that 15 minutes is no more than 3000 words. Barely half an article!!!
Some oft-deployed strategies in light of this reality:
- Pretend that you can read 6000 words aloud in 15 minutes
- Hope the audience is so engrossed they just hand over all the panel to your talk
- Pray that the moderator does not cut you off
- Imagine you can cut words on the fly, while you talk, with an eye on the clock
- Cut out most of the text to hit the requirements, but extemporize the ideas back in while you present
- Curse the “time constraints” imposed by the format as the moderator drags you away from the podium
This is all foolish and annoying. If you read really fast, I can’t understand what you’re saying. If you are allowed to go overtime, I always resent that you are eating up the time belonging to the other panellists. Besides, I had mentally prepared myself to hear an argument that arced over 15 minutes. Go longer and I get confused and thrown off the pace. If the moderator won’t stop you, I get very fidgety, like a sheep dog who sees a sheep hop the fence. I can’t relax until order is restored. If you cut on the fly, you look disorganized. If you interrupt your own text to add in all the missing details it comes across pompous. And if you make a remark about how the “time constraints” are crushing you I get stabby, because you proposed a 15 minute paper and should hardly be surprised to only have 15 minutes to deliver that paper.
Why don’t we think of the conference paper like a movie trailer?
A movie trailer is meant to cover the gist of the thing, to draw your attention to a particular movie, to make you seek out the full-length thing. The way we give conference papers now, often, is akin to creating a movie trailer that is two hours of movie sped up into an incomprehensible and boring 2 minute clip. Or we just play the first two minutes of the movie, which is just the opening credits and one clever shot, and then bemoan that you can’t really “get” what the movie is about from that. Everyone knows a movie trailer is not the same thing–can’t do the same things–as a full-length movie. I think we should learn a similar lesson about the relationship between conference papers and full-length scholarship.
A really good conference paper, I think, presents your idea in such a way that everyone gets the gist … and everyone wants to know more. Hit the highlights: if you had one weird finding among ten others, that is leading you in a new direction, just talk about the one. Show the chase scene: some parts of your research are more amenable to delivery in 15 minute chunks and some are less–a close reading of one poem using a particular slant, say, rather than the literature review that undergirds your development of that slant. Simplify the plot: maybe the article you’re writing makes three main points–in a conference paper, you should just do one of them. Maybe you can do two more conference papers, devoted to the other points. Like a comedy/action/romance movie, you cut one trailer for air on Sportsnet, and another one for air during The View.
Maybe we’re all afraid people will think we’re dumb if we create engaging, comprehensible, well-paced, on-time conference papers. (Crazy, huh? But very true, no?) But when I do my conference papers like movie trailers, I find that people tell me instead that they want to know more: have I published something on this? Can they read it? Can we have lunch? What’s my Twitter? If they think I’ve skimmed over something important, they’ll ask about it during the question period–and when everyone sticks to time, we can actually HAVE a question period–and I can explain it more fully then, to someone who actually cares about that one point.
So that’s my pitch. Think of the conference paper like a movie trailer, because all the speed-reading and complaining about ‘time constraints’ has been continuing fruitlessly for the 15 years I’ve been giving papers, so we have to find a different solution, I think.
What do you think?