I was quite the eager little first-year grad student last year when I submitted my paper proposal for the 2012 YALSA YA Literature Symposium. My subject–biracial identity in YA–was something I had been interested in for awhile, so I was happy to have an outside force encouraging me to turn my informal research into something real and accountable. But that was in February, and lots of school happened in between that acceptance and presentation, including a lot of procrastinating.
But I still made it, and on the Saturday of the symposium, I presented my paper and did not melt, have a heart attack, or run out of the room screaming.
I thought I would end up titling this post either “How NOT to Present a Paper at a Conference” or “How to Be the Best Paper Presenter EVER,” but I’m not sure I have the authority to write either. If there are rules other than “don’t rush and talk too quickly” (oops–failed that one), please let me know.
I’m still in school, and I’m getting a second degree in literature, so writing papers is kind of my thing. I love it. I think it’s fun. Seriously. And research is cool. So for most of the seven months prior to the symposium, I did that. There are copious notecards all over my apartment. I used my personal blog to work out some of the major ideas and tropes I was playing with. I yanked every free ebook and article PDF I could from the Internet and threw them on my Kindle. I made a booklist of so many novels that I can only say I read a third of them. Was it fun? Yes. Did it seem productive? Sometimes. Was I constantly writing and rewriting my paper at this time? Nope.
I am one of those people who writes best under pressure. This is not always a good plan when I don’t know what I’m talking about, but when I’m writing about something I’m passionate about, it works. That’s because from February to November, this paper was always at the back of my mind. Ideas were always percolating. I was always bookmarking interesting book reviews and websites. I was always pulling out my miniature Moleskine and jotting things down, generally in the form of titles, questions, or phrases with exclamation marks. So even though I didn’t write my paper until very close to my presentation, in a manner of speaking I wrote it repeatedly over the course of months. In another manner of speaking, I wrote it in a marathon blitz that I don’t really remember.
Not having presented a paper and not having attended many paper presentations before, I wasn’t really sure what to expect or how to plan. It turns out that when you present a paper at a YALSA symposium, you mostly need to a) have a paper, b) care about what you’re presenting, and c) present it. Then sit down and ask for questions and comments.
That’s it. If you care, and if you present, chances are you will be sparking conversation. That’s the point of research, right? When I finished reading my paper and started hearing everyone’s questions and comments, I alternately thought, “Well, I thought of that, but I just didn’t have time to read ten more books” or “That is genius! Now I have to go back and add more to my paper.” Throughout the post-paper conversation, though, all I kept thinking was how great it was to hear people respond to my ideas and to know that I was not the only person who had them. So that, I think, is the real gift of a paper presentation and of a symposium like YALSA’s. Preaching to the choir might not always be effective, true, but when it comes to sharing ideas and frustrations, or when it comes to gushing about excellent books, a room full of like-minded librarians seems a great place to start.
Do I have any sage advice to give to future first-time paper presenters? No, sorry. My only advice is that you should definitely consider presenting next symposium! You’re in good hands, I promise, mostly because you’re in your own.