I’ve always wondered why people—very smart people, with PhDs and professorships—wait until the night before they’re slotted to present their work to finish their PowerPoints. Haven’t they learned a thing or two about time management over the years? Don’t they know you shouldn’t leave those things to the last minute?
Having submitted my abstract to the Society of Dance History Scholars last year (and having been notified of its acceptance back when snowbound Philadelphians were praying for a heat wave), I promised myself that I would arrive at the University of Surrey ready to go, PowerPoint in hand. No last minute finagling. No eleventh hour revisions. I would be the very image of poise and professionalism.
But then I attended my first panel.
And I panicked.
Unlike the majority of the graduate students, I slugged it out till the very end: three days of papers, key note speakers, performances, working groups and finally, the closing plenary. Although I did pull out my laptop to check my email during said plenary (and zipped through British Airways online check in), I would like to refute any and all claims that I was “facebooking.” It’s not facebooking if you’re catching up with the drummer from the London Tap Jam; it’s fieldwork.
Nonetheless, despite my attempts to commune with the outside world, I accidentally used the word “paradigm” last night. This would have been okay if I was still ensconced in the world of SDHS at the University of Surrey, but I wasn’t. I was back in London and having dinner with an American friend from Roehampton. Somewhere, between the burritos and the boy-talk, the word “paradigm” just slipped out.
“I’m so sorry!” I apologized. “Clearly I’ve been in conference-mode way too long…”
“It’s okay,” my hostess laughed, “I knew what you meant.”
And it’s true. She’s a postgraduate student herself, and as such is familiar with the world of closing plenary sessions and “paradigms.” For those of you who’ve been spared such trials, I offer the following explanation.
How to Present at an Academic Conference
Step 1: Give your paper the longest and most obnoxiously clever title you can manage (extra points for alliteration, bad puns, rhymes, quotes and witty regurgitations of the conference theme). It’s best if your title has nothing to do with the subject of your paper, because that’s where the subtitle comes in. Here, once again, verbosity is they key.
I would post a few of the gems from this weekend’s conference but not wanting to offend anyone who might be in a position to actually hire me someday, I will say only this: my paper was called “Trading Tap: Spectacle and Meaning in the Percussive Dance Challenge” and this, comprising a mere ten words, was a relatively short title.
Step 2: Decide whether or not you’re going to use PowerPoint.
Step 3: Inform all conference attendees of your decision and the reasons behind this decision (I find that the academic community’s attitude towards PowerPoint is not unlike George Bush’s attitude towards the Axis of Evil: You’re either for us or against us).
To Powerpoint or not to Powerpoint, therefore, becomes a question of great significance, dividing the academic community into two camps. On one side, you have the dance practitioners and the older academics; they form an unlikely alliance in which they regard PowerPoint as a nineteenth-century revivalist preacher might regard “the demon rum.” To them, PowerPoint is the source of all evils.
On the other side, you have young whippersnappers like myself and a host of technologically-inclined professors who have realized that in order to connect with their students, a few visual aids (to say nothing of eye contact, inflection and voice projection) might actually enhance their presentations.
Step 4: Prepare your PowerPoint well ahead of time. Surrender your USB to the tech people at the Registration desk and treat yourself to a congratulatory pint (and a discussion of comparative literature, including paradigms) with a PhD student from Amherst.
Step 5: Resist the urge, the next morning, to reclaim your USB from the tech people. Tell yourself that what you’ve prepared is going to be good enough, even though you’re not so sure anymore. Don your new dress (the one you bought in Oxford instead of doing laundry) and treat yourself to another congratulatory pint with the PhD student from Amherst and another from Berlin. Dance till midnight, even if the bar with the live band is not exactly a nightclub, and stumble back to the dorm just in a time for a few hour’s shut eye before Day #3.
Step 6: Panic.
Step 7: Revise paper.
Step 8: Take heart in the fact that everyone, actually, is panicking and revising their papers.
Step 9: Drink lots of coffee. Take lots of deep breaths. Force a smile as you recognize two of your old professors enter the lecture room and take a seat. Say “Yes, of course,” when the moderator of the panel asks if you would mind heading up the session since the first presenter is running late. Finally, give paper, demon PowerPoint and all.
Step 10: Answer questions. Smile when people clap. Think, “This wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe next year I’ll…”
And so it is that I find myself at the end of my European holiday, with just a few hours separating me from Heathrow. I’d go to Primark but between the Belgian chocolate, the conference paraphernalia and the results of my Oxford shopping spree, my suitcase is already bursting at the seams. But it’s okay, because I have a feeling I’ll be back again before too long.