Notes to Conference Presenters, or, What I Learned not to do by Attending MLA


Offered here for the edification and instruction of the people, and for the benefit of the world, some negative lessons in conference presentation, courtesy of my time at MLA Chicago. Many young academics will be in this thing for a long while; keep these commandments, that it may go well with you.

  • Read more slowly

Almost no matter how slowly you're reading now, go slower.

  • You don't actually have to read the whole time

Take a minute and speak, elaborate, share an anecdote. Remember, your audience has been in sessions all day, and is in no position to welcome an indiscreet wash of verbiage. 

  • Remember: a conference paper is not quite the same as a journal article.

It's shorter, and needs less evidence/support. They can be livelier, and take more chances, since you won't be on record for the ideas therein. We might have an actual conversation following, and part of your job is to help make that happen.

  • To that end, Dear Conference Organizers: demand copies of the essays before the conference, and distribute to the panel.

I've been on a dozen panels and never had this happen. The first time I hear my co-panelist's paper is the moment s/he shares it with the audience as well. This means my "response" to the other papers is knee-jerk, scattered. It's no trouble to request the papers two weeks out and give us a chance at real intellectual engagement: argument, even. 

  • You do not have to say "unquote."

We know the quote is over because you stopped speaking in iambic pentameter. Also, we know the work and the can tell your prose from, say, Wordsworth's. If these fail, you can signal with your tone, or a pause, that the quoted material is over. 

  • Men, if at all possible, try wearing suits that fit.

We do have to stare at your body for an hour, after all. Ladies, you're doing great. 

  • Oh, and OMG, while you may use an iPad to take notes, you may not type notes on an old laptop during a presentation.

Especially if you have clickey, manicured nails.