“Writing Your Abstract for Conferences,” continued

Thanks to people writing in with the productive feedback regarding my earlier tutorial on how to write a conference abstract:  I have received helpful feedback online from scholars based on their own experiences at a number of conferences, identifying key components they incorporate into their abstracts and also their presentations.

One conversation in particular identified a clarification necessary in the earlier post, and which will be incorporated into the document still in development: when it is appropriate to cite other scholars in your abstract and in your presentation.  Are you identifying yourself as part of the larger critical debate, or are you at risk of name-dropping?

In my earlier post, I purposefully tempered my language: “name major scholars whose theories you definitely understand,” which is another way of saying that you should name (or identify) scholars (rather than “name-drop scholars”), and name only the scholars you know and hence naming only because you know that they are applicable to your argument.

Likewise, it’s why I warn not to “over-do” it when naming scholars. Just as your presentation is primarily about your ideas, so too must you dominant the abstract—but that doesn’t mean you should not identify how you stand out in the debate.  By staking a claim in the debate, you make yourself identifiable to audience members.  Likely, any reference that you make to another scholar should be two sentences, not an entire paragraph, or else your presentation will veer into a lengthy off-topic discussion that distracts from your insights. You do want to make sure you are addressing the larger critical debate, and you have to focus on only those parts of the critical debate that really have something to do with your research.

I think that naming the critical school in which you situated your argument is applicable when it really does have something to do with your strategy of arguing: you only have 300 words for some abstracts, so make your writing count.

For example, for my work, it means more to say “I follow Meredith McGill’s example in reclaiming journals, not books, as the original site for the nineteenth-century marketplace, hence my attention to Poe and Hawthorne’s publications in the journals of their day” rather than making my argument without identifying (a) that I have read the big names, (b) I am only citing the most major scholar if that scholar is applicable, and (c) using shorthand so I can get to the point to organizers who likely know who McGill is. And it is faster to say “Meredith McGill” than to say “examining the economics and publishers in the antebellum United States as related to a cultural practice that emphasized women’s participation in editorial guidance and literary production but which is ignored today due to a fixation on F. O. Matthiessen’s limited set of all male writers.”

In that example above, I’m describing McGill’s method as my method, not describing her as someone I’m necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with (because, when you present your argument, it’s going to be apparent to audience members that you are agreeing or disagreeing with someone, so let the audience do that work for you—they’ll have enough questions about, “Do you agree with this scholar?” and you already have the answer and can impress the audience with your knowledge of the field). Sometimes, it’s better to say that you work in the mode of someone else, not to get into a debate with some scholar who is not in the room.

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