This guide provides resources relative to an English student's research needs. (Edited by Kristin Gaffglione)

Why Go to Conferences?

As you move further towards the dissertation, and especially, the job market, you should try to attend at least one conference per year, preferably two. Going to conferences creates built-in discipline. It means paying attention to recent research in your field, and honing presentation and networking skills you will need later on the job market. It also presents the start to a more formal written paper you might submit for publication, or it may force you to stop procrastinating on that early draft of a chapter of your dissertation.

These do not have to be world-renowned events. In fact, often smaller conferences are better, especially if you are just starting out. They are friendlier, might offer more helpful advice, and may give you a chance to do service in your field. Check out your regional MLA (SAMLA) or an author society for someone you’ve written about. If you are going anyway, and undoubtedly some of that is going to be on your own nickel, consider joining committees and working groups. Do some time in the trenches. If it’s an established author or subject society panel and they request an organizer for next year, volunteer. This is a great way to network and start building relationships outside of your home university. It also looks good on your résumé.

The book tables at conferences are staffed by the same people you will one day submit manuscripts to, so go browse, get a sense of what the press does, if it has a running series you might contribute to. Chat up the table reps. If you get hold of an actual editor, not just sales staff, be ready to discuss your dissertation if you’re writing already, or at least some interesting seminar papers that might be developed more fully.

Arrive a little early for your panel so you can A) make absolutely sure any electronic equipment is working, and B) meet and greet your fellow panelists. The panel chair may be considering a collection of essays on the topic, and others may have ideas for journals or collections that are looking for submissions. Suggest that you might all go out for lunch or dinner after. Be professional. DO NOT go over the time limit on your paper. It is essential that you have practiced it in advance (not from notes you scribbled the night before) and you can get it in under time. When you go over, you cheat the audience of opportunities for discussion and if you go very far over, the other panelists may have to cut short their own presentations.

And finally: PowerPoint (or any other presentation software) at conferences or anywhere else. First, you don’t have to have one. Your brilliant rhetoric could hold the audience’s attention. Second, if you do have one, it must add to what you say, not duplicate it. Nothing is less interesting than staring at a screen that has precisely the same points you are listening to. And never, ever choose some random, unrelated background photos (look—a cute kitty!). I want to scream every time I see a screen image that is unrelated to the text in any way, and the speaker says, “Oh, I couldn’t find an image of X, so I just put this in. Pretty close.”

When the discussion is over, be ready to make some interesting comments about your co-panelists’ work. Take time to talk to anyone who comes up to express interest in yours. Don’t forget to suggest talking more in a social environment. These folks are also working in your field – you want to stay in touch. If everything above fills you with anxiety and dread, don’t panic. Everyone is nervous the first time. The audience will know that you are young and starting out; they will be kind to you.

How to Write an Abstract for a Conference Paper

An abstract is a short document that is intended to capture the interest of a potential reader for your paper. It does not have to summarize every point; your goal is to convince the reader that you have something interesting and original to contribute to the subject. If the abstract is badly written or if it fails to make any point, then it will not encourage a potential reader to accept it.

The title matters: it should be short and convey the essence of the paper (yes, you can have a colon, but whatever quote, pun, or catchphrase causes you to need a subtitle had better pack a punch). Go easy on the puns, especially ones that involve unsubtle neologisms with parentheses in the middle of words. Very long titles are hard to follow and confuse the reader.

In the body of the abstract, you need to make a clear statement of the topic of your paper. Use sentence starters like “the paper explores” or “a close examination of novel X reveals”. You don’t have to give away your thesis, but you need a teaser at least. Positing your new reading against previous ones (do this respectfully) is good. If the paper uses or builds on a body of theoretical work (psychoanalysis, reader-response theory, New Historicism), indicate that. If it is a new and original close reading based on evidence other critics have overlooked, say so. If the conference has an overall theme, try to reflect that.

If you have already written the paper, obviously this will be easier, but if you are working from a great idea or perhaps a seminar paper that will need substantial revision you may have to think carefully about what kind of claims you can make for the paper that you will actually be able to demonstrate.

Every conference (and sometimes panel proposers) will have a word limit for abstracts. Get as close as you can without going over. If you exceed the word count you send the message that you do not care about the panel chair or conference committee’s time constraints. It’s also a red flag for papers that will go over the time limit and take away from other presenters.

Many journals and conferences now request that authors provide keywords for their paper at the same time they submit the abstract. Keywords or phrases are used by Internet search engines to locate the paper and also allows conference attendees to search the program. Choose keywords that most accurately reflect the content.

When you are finished, put the abstract away for 24 hours and then look at it again. Objectively decide if as a reader you would want to select this paper. Proofread it one last time for embarrassing misspellings or typos before you hit send. Reading aloud will illuminate awkward wording that you won’t see easily on the screen.

What is an Annotated Bibliography? How is it Different from a List of Works Cited?

    An annotated bibliography is a list of works that are relevant to a particular field of scholarly endeavor, and includes, along with the bibliographic data, a short summary of each entry, and what interest it might hold for a scholar in that field. Topics addressed can include the source’s expertise, the scope of the research, your analysis of its value as scholarship—the goal is to be both succinct and thorough. Primary sources should be identified in terms of their historical value and interest and their contribution to the final project. Students are often asked to submit annotated bibliographies as a part of the writing process for research papers to demonstrate to their professors or advisors that they are actively seeking out the best and most relevant primary and secondary materials. Book-length annotated bibliographies contribute to the work of the academy by providing up-to-date lists of scholarship in a particular field. Graduate students approaching their dissertations may be asked to submit annotated bibliographies to their committee to ensure that their sources or theoretical underpinnings are appropriate to the subject.

   Bibliographies are not the same as your list of works cited. A bibliography will contain all sources you think might be relevant to your own work, but also to the general subject and other scholars working in that area. You may submit a bibliography for a research project, but not use all of those sources in the final paper. Your list of works cited at the end of the paper should contain only those sources which you actually used: you referenced them by name, cited or paraphrased ideas, used exact quotes, extracted images, graphs, or charts, referred to them in explanatory footnotes as further reading. Note that while MLA calls these “Works Cited,” APA prefers “References.”

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