Sunday, 11 March 2012

Do Presentations Matter?

Lately, I have been asking myself whether paper presentations matter. Lots of people include sections on their cvs listing presentations at conferences, but this is usually at the end. In polling other professors, the consensus is that preparing papers for conferences is time consuming (almost as much work as writing a research paper), and not that important as a contribution to a cv. One scholar likened paper presentations to book reviews, in terms of importance. The added problem is that presentations at conferences are often limited to twenty minutes, which translates to about ten pages of double-spaced text. Can anything of substance be said in a twenty-minute paper? As I prepare my papers for two upcoming conferences later this month and next, my initial response is no, I can't say enough in such a short period of time.

In one paper, I am trying to describe Erskine's indebtedness to Early Enlightenment thought, as demonstrated in his education at Edinburgh University and in his sermons. But I also want to show that Erskine never compromised his evangelical beliefs. As I continually hack down my paper, I realize how difficult it will be to accomplish my goals. If I make the paper too general, and do not include enough evidence in the form of quotations and specific examples to prove my points, I will feel like a shoddy historian, but if I narrow the scope of my argument to a specific time in Erskine's life, I will not be able to demonstrate the breadth of Erskine's indebtedness to Enlightenment thought.

These kinds of problems relate to the bigger issue I have been wrestling with: do presentations matter? Senior scholars who I respect have advised me to save my research/travel budget to do archival work that will lead to publications, rather than spend money to travel to conferences and give papers. I wonder if this advice would be unanimous if I polled other professors in humanities departments.

If paper presentations are not all that important to a cv, then why go to the expense of traveling to a conference and participating on a panel? Supposedly networking is one sufficient reason to attend conferences. Job searches seem to be another draw, at least at larger conferences like the AHA and AAR. Perhaps if you give a good paper, you may be approached by an editor at a university press to write an essay, or even a book. Or, maybe if you are looking for an academic post later on down the line, someone who remembered seeing you at a conference, who is serving on the selection committee will place you on the short list. But are these reasons enough for going through the trouble of crafting a twenty-minute paper that takes away time that could be spent on other projects?

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