Conferencing

Are you submitting a proposal to a conference or speaking on a conference panel? Inspired by Emily Prifogle’s post on the Legal History Blog, I wanted to offer some thoughts. I’ve been a regular participant and occasional organizer at a number of meetings relevant to South Asian legal studies. These include the Annual Conference on South Asia and the South Asia Legal Studies Preconference workshop (both in Madison),  the American Society for Legal History (ASLH) meeting, and the Law and Society Association (LSA) meeting. What follows represents only my own personal thoughts.

1. Panel vs. single paper: If at all possible, submit a panel proposal rather than a single paper. At many conferences, panels that the organizers create from individual submissions have a higher cancellation (or drop-out) rate than panels that are submitted fully formed. You may also be dissatisfied with the thematic coherence of the panel when it is put together by the conference organizers. Most importantly, many conferences have a lower acceptance rate for single papers than for panel submissions. In many instances, your individual paper may be rejected not because it did not make the cut quality-wise, but because it did not fit with other individual submissions. You may wonder why conferences continue to allow individual submissions at all. The answer is accessibility. Newcomers and scholars who are not well connected in the field may not be in a position to put together a fully formed panel. Organizers recognize this, and want to give people in this position a way in. That said, some people also don’t start thinking about their submission until shortly before the deadline, where there is not enough time left to put together a panel. Whatever your situation, you should aim for the panel route if at all possible.

2. Easy things to get right on proposal submissions: proofread your proposal before hitting “submit”! Spelling and grammatical errors make your proposal look last-minute. Submitting abstracts that are far under the word limit (say 60% or less) gives the same impression. It is important to realize that having a big name chair or discussant will not necessarily ensure acceptance for your panel, particularly if the big name has a tendency to pull out before the conference. Be sure in each individual paper proposal to describe the nature of the research itself (methodological, types of sources, location, dates covered, etc.). Try not to get to this in a single throwaway line at the very end. In most disciplines, it is important to have a good mix of high and low. The program committee will be asking itself: is this person asking the big, interesting questions? But also: is this person’s research grounded in careful, solid research? A nice thing to do for the panel abstract is to offer a series of questions. This can be a good way to bring together a group of disparate papers that may otherwise be hard to tie together.

3. On finding a chair or discussant: Check to see if the conference wants a separate chair and discussant for each panel, or a single person in a combined role. Some conference organizers feel that splitting the roles makes the chair’s job a rather empty one. Others like the “insurance” value of having both chair and discussant, in case one person drops out before the conference. When trying to locate a chair (often as the deadline looms), try to figure out: what scholars generally go to this conference every year? Those people are more likely to say yes and to actually show up on the day! Also: what scholars are in the same city anyway? Check the rule on the max. number of appearances on the program. If that limit is low, you may need to line up all of this early. Your top choices could already have their dance cards full by the week before the deadline.

4. Book panels (like  LSA “Author meets Reader” panels): Many conferences only allow book panels for books published the calendar year before the conference. In other words, if your book was published in 2015, you would only be able to propose a book panel on it for a 2016 conference. As with book prize competitions, this gives book authors a tight window that is easy to miss! The leading challenge for book panels is to make them accessible even to people who have not read the book. The session should be able to speak to people trying to decide whether they should read the book, not just to those who already have. One way to do this is to get one person to give a summary at the start, before the others offer comments. It is always a great idea to bring in scholars from other disciplines working on similar themes, or who work on similar themes but for different historical periods or parts of the world. Other format ideas include creating a panel on more than one book in your field; or asking each commentator to cover a different chapter (if the panel focuses on a single book).

5. Diversity: It is of course ideal to have a mix of institutions, stages (junior/senior), genders, ethnicities, nations (of home institution), etc. among your panelists. Other ways to diversify include: having a trans-South Asia panel (for the Madison conference or preconference) or a global one (for the ASLH). At the ASLH, panels on non-US legal history get much larger audiences when they include speakers on several regions of the world, instead of just one. It is more work at the front end to find scholars working on similar themes for different places, but it produces great results. Plus you meet people that you did not already know from your own area of study.

6. Multi-part panels: Be a bit careful here. Find out how many linked panels are allowed (as a max.) for your particular conference. Multi-part panels are like edited volumes or special issues: organizers (like publishers or journal editors) are often cautious out of the concern that a less rigorous paper or article will squeeze in.

7. Roundtable panels: These are tough to do well, either because people over-prepare and end up essentially just giving normal talks or (less commonly) because they under-prepare. It is a good idea to have a fairly extensive conversation via e-mail in the months before the conference. This way, the session comes off as a discussion because it actually has become one. A skillful chair will moderate the way a radio interviewer would interview a group of people–by asking particular questions to particular people and occasionally re-directing the conversation in light of what is said. A good way to go into such a session is with a list of themes and questions developed through the prior e-mail correspondence. These can even be distributed among audience members as a handout. Another interesting format is to have each member of the roundtable ask one question.

8. Powerpoints: Not all conferences offer powerpoint facilities because hotels often charge a lot for this! If the conference allows you to present a powerpoint, one nice thing to do for the panel is to create a single slide that lists the panel title, speakers and talk titles. This looks very professional and brings the panel together well, particularly before the panel begins and during the Q&A. Even if one person does not have a powerpoint and others do, there is still an overarching default slide that can be up. (More on powerpoints below at 10.)

9. Being a discussant: There is a huge range in quality here. Some people put in a big effort while others do not. Some speak for too long. Others don’t speak at all. I recently saw one discussant give such a long comment that the entire panel had 5 minutes left for Q&A at the end of a 105-minute panel slot! Equally, I once saw a discussant declare that he did not want to take away time from the Q&A. To the amazement of everyone present, he then left to get coffee, only returning 15 minutes later when the three people in the audience were trying their hardest to pump out a stream of intelligent questions (it was an 8.30am Sunday morning panel of three graduate students). Let both extremes be lessons on what *not* to do! An ideal discussant will read all of the papers (having *received* them the customary week in advance) and will offer brief but insightful questions and comments. If each speaker has 20 minutes, an ideal time for the comment would be 10-15 minutes. It is very important to leave enough time for questions. A standard default format is to offer 2-3 questions or comments for each speaker and 2-3 for the entire panel. The latter are especially valuable. A good discussant will unify the panel by highlighting common or contrasting themes across speakers.

10. Being a panel presenter: It is customary to send your discussant the text of your talk *7 days* before the date of the panel. Discussants get frustrated when people are late. Sometimes this comes out in the form of snide (but justified!) remarks during the comment. The discussant may explicitly refuse to provide as many questions for one speaker because he or she was late (or did not send the talk at all). I recently learned of a discussant who cancelled his trip to a conference at the last minute because he did not receive the talks! This is extreme and unusual, but you get the picture. Don’t be that person who sends his or her paper to the discussant the day before the panel. A less set customary norm concerns the format of the text you send. A surprising number of people send their discussant a full 30-page article or chapter in preparation for the panel. Don’t do this! A conference panel is different from a small workshop with pre-circulated papers. The discussant probably does not have time read three or four 30-page papers the week before the conference. More importantly, he or she may not want to comment on things that come up in the full paper but not in the oral presentation.  The audience and other panelists have not heard these parts of the argument, and so it would be confusing to comment on them. When I am a discussant, I ask the panelists to send me *the text of what they are actually going to be saying,* not the 30-page text that they have not yet bothered to adapt to a 20-minute speaking slot. In 20 minutes, you can get through 10-12 pages of double-spaced, 12-point, 1-inch margined text. I ask people to send me their 10-12-page *actual talk text.* (If people are nervous about sharing the full details of their work with the discussant or the other panelists because they fear being scooped, they can omit footnotes.) This produces better comments from me at the panel. It also helps the speaker give a good talk. The classic mistake people make is to think that they’ll be able to summarize their 30-page full paper on the fly at the panel. This is usually a mess–a real dog’s breakfast, as they say in the UK. We’ve all done it and sworn that we won’t make the same mistake twice. Whether you read out your talk (as historians usually do) or speak it (as lawyers do), having the exact text written out is better for everyone. I never read out my talks, but I do send my discussant the exact text I will be presenting. In the week before the conference, I then reduce this 10-page text into speaking notes, and then I speak from those. I also aim to practice the talk a few times in advance, ideally once a day for the couple of days before my departure date. I aim to have my speaking notes (final version) printed out when I get on the plane so I am not scrambling around the conference venue trying to find a printer during the conference (instead of having coffee with new friends). You can also avoid the whole “OMG where is a printer?!?” ordeal by speaking directly from your iPad or laptop at the panel. Personally, I find a paper copy of my speaking notes to be more stable and reliable. If you are giving a powerpoint, it is still important to have a separate speaking text or notes. Don’t just stick your speaking notes up on the powerpoint. Your audience will be reading your slides instead of listening to you, and you will have nothing to add. Powerpoints are most effective when they are clean and minimal (for instance, emphasizing images rather than text), and when they leave the exciting news for the speaker.

[version updated on 3 May 2016]