We all know presenting at academic conferences is important: Doing so helps us gain experience clearly and concisely explaining complex ideas, responding to unexpected questions, networking, and oftentimes reshaping our work to fit a different format. But how to get started?
To begin, you’ll want to find a call for papers (often abbreviated cfp) that addresses questions you’ve been working on. To find calls for papers, keep a close eye on your department’s email listserv, as well as those of any professional organizations whose specialties align with your work. You might consider setting up a filter to redirect any email containing the term “cfp” to a separate folder in your email inbox. This way, you can choose to deal with cfps on a recurring basis (say, once a week) rather than the many times a weekday that you’re likely to receive such emails. Other places to watch for cfps in the humanities, particularly literature-oriented cfps, include Penn’s great cfp compiler. Ask your adviser, other mentors, or fellow students in similar areas–and run some Google searches–if you’re not sure of what professional organizations exist for your (sub-)discipline or field. Think both disciplinarily and interdisciplinarily. You’ll want to check the cfps posted for their upcoming conferences, such as that for the Modern Language Association. For example, Americanists should check https://www.theasa.net/jobs-opportunities/cfps, while modernists (and those who work in the twentieth century more broadly) should keep tabs on https://msa.press.jhu.edu/cgi-bin/cfp_archive.cgi. You can also check your department’s library subject guide for ideas or set up a meeting with your subject’s librarian. Be sure also to check the parameters of different conferences, as some conferences guarantee panels before they seek papers to fill them out, while others, like the MLA, seek papers for unguaranteed panels, which then must go on to apply for a position on their program. Also note that some cfps will ask for paper proposals for pre-formulated panels, while others will ask for proposals for a broader conference whose organizers will later do the work of sorting accepted papers into panels. Relatedly, conference organizers will likely often have a broader vision of what topics may fit their event than panel chairs may have for their intended panel. Know this when drafting your paper proposal.
To select relevant cfps, think about the work you are currently doing for courses or toward a dissertation. All writing you do for a conference should come from material you would be working on anyway; conference papers should be germane to your body of work. (Proposal composition can be helpful for other kinds of graduate writing too: When I was beginning to write my dissertation prospectus, I found cfps asking for work similar to my ideas, and used those cfps as prompts to write not only the paper proposal but also drafts of my chapter outlines.) Be wary of applying to conferences solely based on their location. You may have friends living in a town hosting a conference whose subtopics you can use to shape an upcoming seminar paper, for example, but make sure the resulting paper is one that can help scaffold the broader body of work you are trying to produce in graduate school, and that the conference will foster useful discussion for your thinking. If you are a modernist considering writing a paper on classical literature’s influence on Virginia Woolf, for instance, you will probably benefit more from presenting your findings at a conference oriented toward the twentieth century than one hosted by a classics department. One slight caveat: while the above generally goes for graduate student conferences, too, if a graduate student conference is conveniently located, I suggest worrying less about whether it caters to your niche subfield. Graduate student conferences, particularly at your home institution, are a great opportunity to practice presenting conference papers in a convivial environment. (Plus, such conferences are often free.) In addition to taking note of the content of the cfp and the organization sponsoring or hosting the conference, you should also attend to whether the conference has a theme, as annual conferences often do. Can the research you are doing fit this theme? It’s okay to skew your academic interests a little bit to suit the criteria of a conference theme, but if you stretch too far, the conversations at the conference may be less helpful to your thinking. Be honest with yourself.
Once you’ve isolated a fruitful cfp, check out the sequel post in this two-part series, “How to Respond to a Call for Papers in the Humanities,” for guidance on how to write your paper proposal or abstract once you’ve selected a promising cfp.