How to stop being boring in conference papers

I’ve not been going to conferences all that long: I’m only a first-year PhD student. However, in the short time I have been attending and speaking at conferences, I’ve already become a pretty vehement opponent of a certain way of presenting. You probably know what I’m talking about – the kind of conference paper where someone reads out an extract from an essay or article in a monotone, barely lifting their eyes from the page.

Now, when I’ve talked about this to people, they sometimes draw a dichotomy between reading a paper like this, and presenting in an improvisational, ad hoc style – the idea being perhaps that they have to read their papers, because they’re not able to present just from notes or slides. This is a false dichotomy! And I think it’s quite a damaging one, because it means people fall back on the monotone paper-reading because they don’t feel able to improvise. There’s absolutely a middle ground, though. I’d love to be able to present my work just from notes, but right now I don’t have either the confidence in my material or the skills at timing to do it. So I do use a script for my papers. But I don’t just cut an extract from previous work and read it out; instead, I edit it to make it more conversational in tone, and I try to present in an engaging way. In this post, I want to offer a quick guide to presenting a paper with a script, but without being…well, boring and difficult to follow.

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Turning points: chance and decisions in the academic journey

Six and a half years ago – can it really be so many? – I was making decisions about where to apply to university as an undergraduate. At the time, I was one of those slightly odd teenagers who was weirdly into party politics. The sort that wants to be an MP one day, and goes on marches with the Young Labour faction (see this post’s picture). Pretty embarrassing to look back on. Anyway, I wanted to study politics at university. I also knew I wanted to apply to Oxford. So I applied for Philosophy Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford, and for straight Politics degrees at my other four choices. (Which were LSE, Leeds, Edinburgh and Queen Mary, incidentally). I got into Oxford. I did PPE.

I’m now doing a PhD researching early modern women philosophers. I also don’t want to be an MP any more, and in general try to distance myself from my seventeen-year-old-self as much as possible. What I find a little alarming and destabilising to think about, though, is this: if I hadn’t been lucky enough to get into Oxford back in late 2010, if I hadn’t ended up studying PPE rather than straight Politics, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I wouldn’t have taken a paper in Early Modern Philosophy: indeed, the closest I would have come to philosophy at all might have been a political theory course.

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