Real Talk: Should I be Proposing Conference Paper(s)

Real Talk is our new professional development series. We discuss the things that’ll make you a better teacher-scholar. If you have a question or want to share your own thoughts, message our curator.

Dear Professor Newton,

The Call for Papers is out for the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings. I have colleagues who have presented multiple papers. And I know people who’ve never presented. Should I be submitting proposals, and if so, how many? The deadline is March 1, so please reply quickly. That way I can figure out how much time I’ll need to cram. Thx!

Okay, Thx! Bye!

On Deadline

Dear On Deadline,

Let me begin to respond to your excellent question by naming the elephant in the room. There’s something you want professionally that you believe a conference paper  may help you get. I’m not trying to be dodgy, but the answer to your question really depends on what it is that you really want.

Traditionally, academic conferences have provided a venue for informed scholars to weigh in on an issue of interest. They’re the live space to talk about what’s up and what’s next in the field. A Call for Papers or “CFP” goes out with the concern of the hour. Applicants pitch their work as timely additions to the conversation. If accepted, the participant prepares a presentation that showcases their work on the subject and engages with others who have done the same with an interested audience. (I’ll speak to my diction here later in the post.)

Now I’m not convinced that conferences have ever been so altruistic. In my experience, every one goes in with a hustle. And if they don’t, they’re likely not seeing their work move beyond the one showing. Ask yourself what you need this presentation to do for you. Are you looking to demonstrate to prospective employers that you’re active in the field? Maybe you’re trying to break into the field and this is your coming out party. Are you on some sort of contractual agreement (e.g. the tenure-track, fellowship, instructor’s re-up requirement etc.) that demands you prove your quality among your peers? Perhaps you’re looking for a book deal or grant opportunity. Or maybe you want to do it for the experience. When you know what you want, you can better assess the cost-benefit of your investment.

Consider the following:

(1) Good proposals come after research, not before.

Having been on the committee,  I am amazed at how many people propose papers without actually having done the research. I do my darnedest to keep these out of the lineup, but sometimes I get outvoted and have to watch the hot-mess unfold in November. It is not a good look to propose an argument to which you haven’t devoted serious attention.

That said, don’t discount the work you’ve actually done. Take a look at strong grad school seminar papers, public lecture drafts, and innovative classroom lessons. Those –along with your active research agenda– are all great candidates for the right CFP.

(2) Good proposals take time.

On Deadline, do you have and want to put in the time necessary for crafting a solid proposal that may or may not get accepted? For SBL, you’re talking about an abstract, but for AAR, you’re looking at an abstract and a 1000-word proposal. Ask yourself whether you could be doing something more productive with your time?

(3) Good presentations take even more time!

Suppose your proposal gets accepted. Congratulations, you’re now committed to making good on what you proposed. Will you be committed to developing a memorable presentation?

That’s right. I said presentation. Although conferences like AAR and SBL still use the language of “paper,” it’s really euphemism. Some people still do read manuscript papers for 20-minutes. <Not necessarily a bad thing.> But program units are increasingly changing up the format to include Pecha-Kucha style, lightning round presentations, and summary and response. No matter what style you adopt, there’s little point if your work isn’t going to have a chance at a life beyond your initial delivery. What are you going to do to put in the work that will make the presentation an experience not easily forgotten? Your hustle depends on it.

(4) CV Optics- Quality v. Quantity

Proof of activity behooves you, whatever your hustle. But there’s a difference between being professionally active and looking busy. Once you’ve presented a few times, an extra presentation doesn’t actually look much more impressive until you reach that critical mass of senior scholarship. Even then, seniority’s just a number if those presentations don’t mature into pieces of longer-lasting products (i.e. publications), even if indirectly.

 I keep coming to a post by University of Alabama’s Dr. Michael J. Altman on why he doesn’t blog as much as he did in graduate school. There are seasons to how you work. If you want to thrive, then get some perspective on where you’re at and where you want to go. If you know you’re on the job market, and you want to roll out your latest research agenda across multiple program units and interview at the same conference, go on ahead. If you’ve been there and done that, you might be better off working on another aspect of your portfolio–grant writing, teaching, administration, publications, service, etc.

(5) Stay healthy.

I can’t stress this enough. Your health is no joke. Don’t sacrifice it to chase professional goals. Work on having presence enough to enjoy the successes before you and the journey ahead. Knowing my own personality, I take the preemptive measure of making a good portion of professional conferences about self-care–scouting out potential running routes, trying out a new gym routine in the hotel, or just making sure to spend time with people who give me life (rather than draining it from me). I want to be at my best during the event, whether I’m on the mic or in the audience. Making the effort to do so starts months before the annual meeting.

So what do I do?

Dr. Nyasha Junior lays out the importance of seeing yourself as an organism in a demanding ecosystem.

There are lots of things you could be doing. There are lots of opportunities to serve. There are lots of communities in need. Make sure that you conserve your energy. Conservation doesn’t mean doing nothing. It means expending your resources on things that are important to you.

I’m sure one of my readers could come up with a score card to determine whether you should or shouldn’t present. I’ll just end by commending the CFP as a chance to assess where you are in your own professional development. That sort of reflection will orient you on a successful path–proposal or not.

Richard-Newton PictureRichard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.


One thought on “Real Talk: Should I be Proposing Conference Paper(s)

  1. Excellent response and insights.

    It seems to me that looking to AAR/SBL is like looking at the deep end of the pool. It looks great and fun, but takes some skill and stamina to jump in.

    I felt much more ready to propose a paper in my own niche society (North American Patristics Society) after I attended the conference. I had a much better sense of the culture of the conference, and had an idea about the conversation after the papers were presented.

    Also, these specific conferences often have an open call for papers that the planners then begin to put together in various topical panels. This is much more conducive to student papers. My first conference papers were all extended research assignments for classes… papers that I would consider as the basis for a full on article. Presenting them at a conference gave me a chance to polish the argument, hear critique from peers or senior scholars, and think through if this was a paper that should be expanded into a journal article. Again, this goes back to the initial question from the response… what are you hoping to get for presenting at a conference.? For me it was a matter of stepping into my professional society, get to know the people and culture, and to test my work in the wider conversation. None of those, I felt (and continue to feel) was met by presenting at a big tent conference the likes of AAR/SBL.


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