This term’s Academic Development Seminar, organised by the Department of Theology and Religion of Durham University, aimed to answer some of the most important questions relating to conferences and conference presentations. The seminar, which followed a Questions and Answers-type format, was chaired and moderated by Dr Alec Ryrie. The respondents were Prof Francis Watson (Professor of New Testament) and Prof Lewis Ayres (Bede Chair in Catholic Theology).
It was agreed from the beginning that conferences come in many shapes and forms and that preparing and presenting a paper is very important in the academic life of researchers. However, the importance of conferences is generally misinterpreted and misunderstood. First of all, finding a job at conferences should not be the purpose for attending it, however inside knowledge about prospective academic jobs within different universities might be acquired at such meetings. Therefore, there is only an indirect link between attending conferences and getting a job. There was a consensus between the respondents that conference presentations are of little worth on a job application, unless those papers were subsequently published in peer-reviewed academic journals. The discriminating position that one should take with regard to publishing materials was emphasised, as articles published in edited collective books and conference proceedings’ volumes cannot match one good article published in an international journal. This is due to the generally poor quality of the edited volumes that gather conference presentations without peer-reviewing them. Thus, one’s focus should be on producing good presentations that can be published in academic journals afterwards, rather than simply publishing conference papers anywhere possible. Also, listing many conference presentations and no published articles in one’s CV raises questions and doubt in the eyes of a prospective employer.
Certainly, the most important feature of a conference is networking, getting to know people with similar interests. This should be a natural process that would allow for developing relationships, both professional and personal. Both Prof Watson and Prof Ayres agreed that there is nothing wrong in writing to someone in advance of a conference to set up a meeting at the respective conference.
Following this, Prof Watson and Prof Ayres presented a list of common mistakes and issues that may appear in a conference presentation and how to overcome them. (1) To say too much in too little time: to cram as much as you can in the limited time allowed for a presentation is simply inefficient. Instead of a speedy reading of the paper and the risk of including too many details, it would be better to cut it down and present the argument in a more concise and clear way. (2) Relating to the aforementioned, a paper full of technical details and bibliographical references might be hard to understand for most of the audience. Unlike a written research paper, a conference presentation does not aim to be exhaustive in any way. (3) Don’t go over the allocated time: this shows that the presentation was not well prepared. Reading the paper out loud several times and also timing it will definitely help in overcoming this danger. (4) The argument seems unclear and ambiguous: it is important to clearly state the argument of the paper both in the introduction and the conclusion. This way, one will set the audience’s expectations and enable them to follow it throughout. Also, the respondents advocated for the provision of handouts, which should comprise a short summary of the overall argument and the key texts, but also the title, author’s name and email address. The use of Powerpoint presentations is not encouraged, unless one needs to present visual materials (pictures, graphs, etc.) which accompany the presented paper. Within the paper, instead of using many sub-clauses, it is always advisable to use short and clear sentences. (5) The presentation is monotonous and tedious: one needs to remember that a conference presentation is, in fact, a performance and that one needs to find a way in which to communicate the paper efficiently. It has been suggested that varying the pace and pause before commencing a new section is usually helpful in overcoming this risk. Also, ad libitum comments and a few silly remarks might relax the audience and increase their attention. (6) The title is unclear and/or does not reflect the general argument: one must keep in mind that the title is usually the element that attracts those interested in that particular topic. A clear title that is related to the subject of the paper makes the presentation more easily identifiable. This is also relevant for published papers, as it is most important to make it searchable in a journal database, for instance. (7) The questions are unclear: in the case that the questions raised by the attendees are poorly formulated, it is always useful to reformulate them in a clearer and more concise way. It is also sensible to anticipate in advance the possible questions that might be raised and to provide possible answers. Also, during the presentation one may take a few seconds to prepare the answer.
Furthermore, other important aspects related to conference presentations were exposed, such as meeting publishers at conferences. If one is interested in finding a prospective publisher for submitting a written material, it is worthwhile to contact the publisher beforehand to arrange a meeting at the conference. In what the expected feedback is concerned, this can vary much, from more general (and sometimes of little use) in the case of bigger conferences, to a more detailed and specific one in the case of the more specialised conferences. This also applies to the questions that one expects to receive from the audience. Conferences seem a good place to acquire new books at discounted prices. This, however, increases the risk of purchasing books that are either unimportant or irrelevant. It is advisable to compose a list of titles that are of one’s interest and discern between the works of academic scholarship and those that merely rehash an old argument.
Justin A. Mihoc
Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University