Tuesday, February 17, 2009

conference papers: a poetics (for academics only)

Fritz Senn, the grand deity of Joyce scholars, has been going on for years about how dreary & intellectually vacuous the typical literary studies conference is, where people get up & read prepared papers, & other people, who've listened to the paper & gotten it, or who've listened & haven't gotten it, or who've half-listened & half gotten it, or who've dozed thru it but don't like the presenters' shoes, get to attack them with questions. 

It's not like that in the hard sciences, where everybody's already read the paper & checked the equations & the time's devoted a real, substantive discussion. Senn proposes two solutions:

1) Literary scholars meet to discuss papers they've already read & thought about. A good model, & one that they've been pursuing in the "seminar"-style sessions at the Shakespeare Association forever, & which the Modernist Studies Association has been following for some time. Drawback: it means that you have to have your paper written well in advance of the conference (if you call that a drawback).

2) Scholars just get up & talk, maybe from brief notes, maybe just "cold," so that we're treated to the spectacle of the mind in action. Drawback: this can be pretty exhilarating if the scholar in question is Fritz Senn, or Hugh Kenner in his prime; but I've seen younger Joyce scholars trying this out, and I've seen exceedingly well-established academics who thought they could bluff their way thru 45 minutes of airspace, & they haven't been pretty sights.

But given the way things usually are at academic conferences, from the MLA on down to – well, the conference I'm off to later this week, how precisely do we go about preparing the 20-minute papers we typically deliver? Seems to me there are 3 primary models, the first two of which put one uncomfortably in mind of the Bed of Procrustes:

1) Scholar has biggish MS on hand (a book project, a dissertation chapter, an essay-in-progress), hacks 10-page bleeding chunk out of it and deftly or clumsily sutures up the loose ends. Potential awkwardnesses are obvious: all those moments of "at this point I've cut out a 15-page passage on Alain Badiou, which I'll summarize in 2 sentences, so keep it in mind" or "I'm skipping all the close readings here, so you'll just have to take my grand assertions on faith"; sometimes this works very handily, I'll admit – I spun off quite a few conference papers from books-in-progress over the years – but there're few things more irritating than sitting thru an absurdly truncated slice of an extended argument.

2) Scholar has 250-word abstract written for the conference, and frantically fills it out, zipping four new sentences between every sentence of the abstract, pasting in quotations where appropriate: the paint-by-numbers, or connect-the-dots school of paper-writing. Potential problem: sometimes you get a paint-by-number Sistine Chapel; sometimes you get the get the intellectual equivalent of the "Garfield" (the cat) movie (ie a good 30-second joke stretched out over 90 excruciating minutes).

3) Scholar sits down & thoughtfully constructs a 10-page argument, one that is neither foreshortened nor padded out – like Baby Bear's bed, it's just right for the space allotted; it has a beginning (preferably with a joke), a developmental section, and a clear-cut conclusion. The complex bits are tackled slowly, since even the brightest audience is apt to be tired or hung over in a conference setting, transitions are clearly telegraphed, and the overall level of discourse is just a notch down from what it would be on paper (since even the brightest audience etc.). Drawbacks & problems: none, aside from the fact that you've made your arguments so pellucidly that clever jerks in the audience can actually see the holes in them and call you on 'em during the Q&A.

While I've done a fair number of category (1) papers, & even confess to a few category (2)s, I'd like to think that most of the papers I've presented over the years fall into category (3). The conference paper, after all – & here I'm addressing some imaginary grad student – is not a published essay, nor is it a bloody slice of work in progress, to be admired for its potential & pardoned its rough edges. Rather, it's a very specific performance, a piece of writing that's meant to be read aloud & received & assessed in viva voce. Ignore this at your peril. 

Anyway, I've got to get back to writing – er, polishing – a conference paper.


tyrone said...

Yep, I always think I'm gonna do no. 3 but invariably wind up at no. 1, probably because in the process that deveil whispers into my ear, "You know, this could be part of that book you've been thinking about writing since grad school..."

Norman Finkelstein said...

I freely confess that the Susan Howe paper which you will hear on Saturday is a chunk (deftly sutured so it's not bleeding too too much, I hope) from the Howe chapter of my (ahem) forthcoming book. I have on occasion written conference papers intended to be conference papers, but I've never thought they were any better or worse than a hacked off and sutured chunk. All of this reminds me of either major surgery or my childhood errands at the kosher butcher down the street.

E. M. Selinger said...

I'm in the opposite boat, Norman. (Do boats have opposites?) I write them as conference papers, to be read, and then have a devil of a time turning them into anything longer.

Have fun in L'ville, y'all.

Mark Scroggins said...

Nobody sutures as well as you, Norman (my son the doctor! well, the PhD...), but you know how irritating it is when someone summarizes a longish argument & so forth...

Afraid I'm in the dinghy with Eric: a hard drive full of beautifully-turned 9-page gems, all polished up & nowhere to go.

Archambeau said...

Wish I were going this year -- any chance of a blog-report?

A.J. Ferguson said...

I found this post extremely informative.


Eric Hoffman said...

In my experience, I've chopped my papers down to size, given a 15-20 minute presentation from an essay that has been written for that purpose, and revised, revised, revised. I'm allergic to the word "um." Thankfully, most of the other papers I've heard presented on these occassions were considerably well thought out and therefore, limited on the "ums." Thanks for the enjoyable read, Mark.