Tuesday, September 23, 2008

DeBrief on Presenting an Academic Paper

After the sturm und drang of a summer spent developing the ideas for a paper on how Gertrude Stein’s so called children’s story To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays has many points of comparison with medieval literature and then bends back on itself with futuristic pointers, I can safely say, after delivery of said paper, that I am now prepared for serious public speaking.

What I learned from participating in the conference “Lifting Belly High: Women’s Poetry Since 1900” is the following:

• Talking point slides summarizing the major ideas with a few well chosen examples is a far better way to present a paper than to read word for word.

Why? Better control over the limited time given, better chance to make eye contact with the audience, less nervousness about whether your syncopation (Stein’s term meaning the gap between a speaker/actor delivering her words and the audience actually understanding what has been delivered) is successful.

• Speaking at 8 am in the morning, especially on the second day of a conference, is not likely to bring many listeners to your audience.
However, speaking at an early hour took the pressure off—the audience members clearly wanted to hear what was being presented and had made the effort to show up. Also if you are a novice as I was in presenting my first academic paper, speaking the second day gave the advantage of scoping out how things worked. So for example, I knew that most of the presenters were reading their papers and that it was hard to follow the compression of ideas, especially if they were reading fast and did not enunciating well. Had these presenters really thought through what they wanted to convey? Could they summarize their ideas and speak without the tangle of words written on paper?

• Using a stop watch while you speak can help you determine whether you need to cut anything from the presentation in progress.

It should go without saying that a speaker has practiced her talk with her slides numerous times and has used a timer or a stop watch to track the minutes. Practice helps the speaker refine the slides and perfect the presentation.


What was particularly nice about this conference was that the Power Center at Duquesne University, the main venue for the conference, was a brand new, well-equipped facility with excellent audio-visual support. I was able to insert my memory stick into their computer and voila, my PDF file was accessible to the screen with a few keystrokes. I had taken my PowerPoint slides and converted them to the PDF format because my husband recommended that was a more stable file. However, he also recommended that I show up with laptop and the PowerPoint files as well as paper copy that could be presented from should all the high tech options fail.

When I saw the room where my panel, which included two other papers on Gertrude Stein, I was stunned. The room could have easily held 300 people and it had two screens unlike the other rooms nearby that had only one screen and probably held a maximum of 150 people. So then I started thinking that because my panel was the only panel devoted to Stein and this being a conference bearing reference to her long erotic poem Lifting Belly that the expectation was that everyone would show up. During the early evening receptions, many people expressed interest in coming to hear my paper but I can only assume now that was the polite thing to say.


My roommate told me that she thought this conference was unusually friendly and supportive to the participants. Her experience with larger conferences like the Modern Language Association (MLA) was that conference goers were more competitive, more likely to attack presenters, and presenters were often presenting to nearly empty halls. When I started speaking, six people were sitting in the audience and little by little more people filtered in. That apparently was a respectable showing according to some conference goers I spoke with.

My friend Judith McCombs who was recently a keynote speaker at a conference in Belgium said I should proactively contact people before I left for the conference to introduce myself. So I wrote a letter to Lynn Emanuel who wrote the well-known poem called “Inside Gertrude Stein.” My long-time Pittsburgh friend Michael Wurster who is a mover and shaker in that literary community said Lynn would be a good person to make aware of my presentation and she was speaking on the plenary panel that followed mine. Long story short, we had an engaged conversation after her session but that was the only contact I had with her. Life is full and so it goes. I also contacted the only other presenter not on my panel who had a mention of Stein in the title of her talk. We had immediate interaction by email and she said she would try to get to my panel, but she had already promised a friend to show up at her panel and as it turns out, the friend’s talk was in a different building on the Duquesne campus, making it impossible to slip into both sessions.

The third thing I did was create a newsletter to introduce myself. I handed The Skinny from the Steiny Road to participants at the reception. The newsletter contains short paragraphs on my participation in Lifting Belly High; my sojourn with NPR radio interview at Toad Hall, a new arts retreat in New Hampshire; and my mini book tour, which includes an upcoming program with arias from my Stein opera in New York City. It also listed my calendar of events and how to obtain copies of my books.


What did I get from going to this conference?

• With a neglected work, I broke new ground in the study of Gertrude Stein and increased my personal knowledge about this important Modernist.

• I learned new skills in giving a public talk which made preparation for a lecture I gave two days later at Catholic University from my book The Steiny Road to Operadom a piece of cake.

• I learned how to negotiate an academic conference.

• I got an opportunity to meet and speak with Guenko Guechev, the head of opera programs at Duquesne University about my opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On.

• I reconnected with the Pittsburgh literary community.

Would I do this again? Maybe. It’s hard to say and would clearly depend on what additional feedback I get on this paper as well as whether I had another topic in the future that I felt equally as passionate about. People who usually go to these conferences are required by their universities to write, present, and publish papers. While I enjoyed the community and events that gathered around topics that I found immensely interesting, my preparation was all consuming just as if I were writing a dissertation for a university degree. How much room does that leave for poetry?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Primer for Participating in an Academic Literary Conference

What every writer dreams about is a quiet place in the country where s-he can think, imagine, dream, create and as a bonus get an appreciative and helpful audience. Maria van Beuren, has invited this writer for a third year to Toad Hall in North Haverhill, New Hampshire.

This year this writer used her ten days to work on her paper “On To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays—Gertrude Stein: Medievalist, Futurist or Both?” To Do is an A-B-C primer for children that Stein wrote in the spring of 1940. Her publisher didn’t think it was appropriate for children and Stein’s partner Alice B. Toklas said it was “too old for children and too young for adults.”


The talk will be presented at “Lifting Belly High: Women’s Poetry Since 1900,” which is taking place September 11-14 at Duquesne University. It’s the first time this writer has participated in an academic conference. She is an “independent scholar” and she doesn’t know what to expect, so she was hopelessly bogged down in the underbelly of what one needs to know to write a paper with such an audacious thesis. After all, Stein was intensely focused on the present moment. Luckily, the assembled group at Toad Hall, who was starving and waiting for a lobster feast, had no choice but to listen and comment. Would those lobster pots ever boil? Would the speaker ever get to the point?


Writing about Gertrude Stein requires a lot of chutzpah, especially if a writer intends to seek an audience of academics. One assumes that whomever is up early enough to hear this writer talk (I am scheduled to speak at 8 am on a Saturday morning) and chooses my panel session (my paper gets presented with two others also writing on Stein) probably knows a good deal about Stein. I am shaking in my shoes, but I keep thinking—will there be anyone in the room besides the panelists?

Those familiar with academic conferences know that there are numerous other panels running concurrently with the panel you are on. In the case of the Lifting Belly High conference, there are six concurrent panels in the first session of the day and for two days in a row, there are three sessions of six concurrent panels or roundtable discussions except for the last session which has seven. This involves 118 speakers not including moderators. What’s the possibility that there will be more than four people in the room where this writer will present her talk, a talk she has fretted over since early June when she received an email message saying she was selected and therefore invited to present a paper? Is it possible for someone not registered at the conference to come hear my talk? Yes, for one panel session, anyone can steal in and not have to worry about being bounced at the door. Building and room designations are posted on the conference schedule.

Also, I should confess that besides having identified an exciting subject for an academic paper this past January and published a preliminary essay in Scene4 Magazine, this writer was influenced to apply for this conference by two other factors. The first is that the conference name is taken from Gertrude Stein’s long erotic poem entitled Lifting Belly. The second factor is that for several years, this writer Karren Alenier has been talking to the head of opera programs at Duquesne University about her opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On. So the poet-librettist recently called Guenko Guechev, Director of the Duquesne Opera Workshop, to set up a meeting with him. While he isn’t doing any jazz operas this year, in past years, he has had the voices for this kind of theater and hopes to again in the future. So yes, this conference appeals to my investment in Gertrude Stein and I look forward to hearing my co-panelists Kimberly Lamm and Liz Vine talk about Stein. We are three of only four talks mentioning Stein by name in this conference.


So back to the question of who will attend my talk? One thing I know is that the speakers are a fluid group of participants. How many people actually come for the entire conference? This question has gravitas. To play, you have to pay—cost of a hotel, transportation to Pittsburgh, food not covered by the conference (you get lunch), and the conference fee. As soon as the conference schedule went up, I started contacting people I knew to see if anyone wanted to share a room. One person said she was bringing someone who was not speaking. Wow! There will be at least one person who is purely there to listen. Another person I contacted said she was flying in, giving her talk, and flying back to DC on the same day. I posted a message on the Women in Poetry listserv (WOMPO) and about eight weeks later someone emailed asking if it was too late for her to share a room with me. Luckily, I had reserved a room before the price went up and so with a number of phone calls to the hotel, I got the room sorted out and the reservation to show there were two people in a room with two beds.

Another thing that is a shock to someone who has never participated in an academic conference is that one has to pay a conference fee. For some academics, the fee, as well as their travel and board, is paid by their college or university. I asked about the fee, reminding the conference governors that I was an independent scholar with no organization behind me that might pick up the tab. They kindly cut the fee in half for the two independents, which one might think was no big deal for either side. However, I have limited funds for expenses beyond my usual day-to-day costs and the conference board is paying for food and other things not covered by Duquesne University. As any who handles money knows, small amounts add up.


On a panel of three, each presenter at this conference has 20 minutes to dazzle or bore her audience. (Here, I prefer the feminine adjectival pronoun because there are very few men.) If the presentation order is alphabetic than Alenier goes first, meaning Ms. Lamm and Ms. Vine will divinely follow and therefore won’t sneak out. I already heard from one possible listener who may drop in, but not for too long because a friend of hers is presenting on a different panel during the same session.

What I wanted to do was create a video where my Second Life avatar Kaala Ragu chases Mr. and Mrs. Quiet’s big bad rabbit away from the little rabbit warren. In Stein’s To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays, the letter Q is predominantly the allegorical story of a couple who love a big rabbit so much that they allow him for many years to get away with evil behavior—he always eats a little rabbit on his birthday. My belief is virtual worlds like Second Life would be a great place to teach Gertrude Stein. There her cubism would be fully realized in the present moment. However, my time is short and at my last practice session, the talk was 21 minutes. I need to cut it by a few minutes to be on the safe side. So, video moves to the back burner.

Now this writer will go back to creating slides to talk from instead of reading her paper. She’ll also be biting her fingernails and wishing that she had the attentive audience at Toad Hall who could teleport to her panel session at Lifting Belly High.
This time around to honor her Toad Hall friends, her pot boils rapidly on the front burner. Lobster or rabbit?