I’m hosting the English Scholars Beyond Borders 2018 conference at the University of Toyama in March 2018, and as part of promoting the event, I emailed a short announcement to the mailing list for one of the MA programs I work on part-time as a tutor. One of my former students wrote back almost immediately saying he didn’t know where to get started and was confused by some of the terminology in my message. Rather than reply to just one person, I realized this may be an issue for more than one person, and so I decided to put up a post with information about applying to give an academic presentation so it hopefully helps more than just this one student.
Keep in mind that what I write below is generally specific to my field, language teaching and applied linguistics. It likely applies generally to presenting within the social sciences, but different fields have different expectations, so you may want to double check some of what I say. I’ve also tried to keep the discussion pretty general; if you have a specific question, I would recommend asking someone you know who is versed in your particular circumstances.
First things first, I want to start with the question of why present at all?
Why do an academic presentation?
Excellent question. I’m glad I asked it. I’m based in Japan, so most of my information is Japan-centric, but I think that the general principles apply in a variety of different higher education teaching contexts worldwide.
The uplifting, glass is half full answer, is that giving a presentation improves your abilities as a researcher and helps to connect you to colleagues who are potentially interested in similar themes, developing your professional network and helping you to access additional opportunities. For example, in my PhD research I’ve analyzed the text histories of six published papers. All six include a conference presentation at some point in their history. Some are conference proceedings papers, and so in order to be published in a proceedings, they needed to be presented. But even the high prestige international journal publications include presentations in their trajectories. Not only do those manuscripts include publication, but the authors feel as if presenting their work was key to ultimately successfully publishing it in the prestigious publication of their choice.
Authors also benefited in ways that went beyond publishing the specific manuscripts I analyzed; they were able to learn about and take advantage of book chapter and book review publishing opportunities outside of the specific manuscripts whose trajectories I analyzed.
Presenting your work can also help you to improve it. Because you are able to share your ideas and get feedback in a (hopefully) supportive environment. It can also help to drive research forward; knowing you have to present your research could give you the impetus you need to complete a particularly difficult data analysis. That was the case for one of the papers’ trajectories I analyzed; one author shared that, had he not had to present his results, he didn’t think he would have completed analyzing the data.
The glass is half empty answer is that if you are going to be looking for teaching work in the higher education sector in Japan, there is an expectation that even part timers, and especially full timers, are active in their academic fields. In the case of language teaching or applied linguistics, this means attending and presenting at conferences, in addition to writing for publication. So if you are looking to work in the sector, this is going to be something you’re expected to do, particularly to qualify for teaching positions.
A debate can be had about how ‘academic’ such positions are; many tend to be primarily teaching, with a bit of research expected on the side, but the reality is that hiring committees will be looking for evidence of some academic participation in conferences and publishing. What does this look like in hiring documents? Here’s the requirements for one such part-time listing:
(2 publications minimum are required)
I’ve purposely not included the name of the university because it’s not particularly important; this is a general expectation across the board at many institutions. Does this mean you can’t get a university teaching job without such qualifications? Certainly not, but having academic presentations and publications will help to open more doors than not having such achievements on your record.
Presenting can open the door to publishing in conference proceedings, and can also help to link you to people aware of other potential publishing opportunities.
How do I get started doing an academic presentation?
I’m going to write specifically about presenting for a conference here. This is not the only option for presenting; many language teaching societies have local chapters that hold regular meetings. They are often eager to find interested, interesting presenters for their local events. These presentations tend to be invited, though, and so may be difficult for someone just getting started to gain access to.
In contrast to invitation-only local society presentations, conferences tend to hold open calls for papers. These invite people interested in presenting at the conference to submit a proposal in the form of an abstract that is then generally evaluated in some way by the conference committee and a decision is made whether to accept the proposal and invite the speaker to present at the conference.
One such call for proposals, from the ESBB 2018 conference I’m organizing for March 2018, has been included below:
Call for Presentation Proposals
While the conference theme is English Beyond Borders, our intention is always to embrace the global along with the local, including supporting teachers grappling with local EFL/ESL issues. We are keen to hear from presenters wishing to discuss a very local issue. You can also download our call for papers as a PDF.
Our conferences explore the diverse kinds of borders and boundaries that English teachers and scholars must negotiate to achieve success and benefit learners.
We invite papers on the following themes:
- Research related to English language teaching and learning at the college or university level
- General research related to English language teaching and learning, TEFL/TESL, and TESOL
- English for research publication purposes
- Studies which critically investigate academic publishing from the perspectives of authors, reviewers/editors, and Open Access;
- Multilingual scholars in study and publication
- Non-blind dialogic review
- Multi/bilingual issues in language learning and linguistics
- EAP/ESP across borders
- English literature across borders
- CLIL (Content and Language Integrated learning)/EMI (English Medium Instruction)
- Study abroad and International exchange
- Interdisciplinary issues in TESOL
- Encouraging (cultural) diversity in voice and agency
- New directions in critical thinking and reasoning
- Using technology to cross borders
- Corpora in language teaching and research
- Migrants and refugees in language learning
Papers are invited on any aspect of the above themes. English is the working language of our conferences, although we are eager to incorporate as broad a range of speakers as possible, so if you are interested in using a language other than English to present, please contact the local conference organizers.
Proposals should include brief biodata, a 50-75 word abstract and a one page summary of approximately 300 words. Please submit your manuscripts through our online conference management system.
The call above is a bit long because ESBB is a general circle of academics, not really organized around one particular specialty. However, the general gist should be similar across conferences. There is a statement of the academic interests and themes that are being solicited, along with specific instructions for what should be submitted, in this case “brief biodata, a 50-75 word abstract and a one page summary of approximately 300 words”. A presentation title is also expected, but this is not stated explicitly in the call.
Unpacking the request, the one page summary of 300 words is likely to be evaluated by the conference committee to make a decision about whether to accept the proposal for inclusion in the conference. In the case of ESBB, we’re more interested in inclusiveness than exclusivity, so if there’s some problem with a proposal, we’re more likely to request revisions than we are to reject it outright. Not all conferences function this way, though; particularly prestigious conferences can reject as many as 80 to 90 percent of the proposals they receive.
The shorter summary is likely to be printed in the conference handbook (it’s cheaper than printing the full abstract). Bio data means some information about the presenter’s academic biography and research experience and/or interests. This may be included along with the presentation abstract information in the conference program. I’ve included mine as an example below:
Theron Muller is an Associate Professor at the University of Toyama, Japan. He is lead editor on two book projects, Innovating EFL Teaching in Asia (2012) and Exploring EFL Fluency in Asia (2014), both published with Palgrave Macmillan. He is active with JALT Publications and the Asian ESP Journal. He is a member of English Scholars Beyond Borders.
That may not help someone relatively new to academic presenting, so as a bonus, here’s my biodata from 2005 (I’m a digital pack rat):
Theron Muller, an American, is co-owner of Noah Learning Center, a small English school in Nagano, Japan. He teaches students of all ages and levels, including various college classes. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hopefully if you’ve read this far into my post, you’re familiar with what an abstract is and while you may not have a lot of experience writing one, I trust you are generally familiar with their basic form. One thing to keep in mind is that for the kind of conference above, you can write a ‘prospective’ abstract; you may not have finished all of the research and have clear findings to share at the time you submit your proposal. An abstract like this could begin:
This presentation will describe an investigation into …
What kind of presentations are there?
The cookie cutter academic presentation is a 20 minute short presentation followed by some question and answer time. This is the kind you typically apply to give at a conference.
Conferences may also invite poster presentations. These are generally printed on A1 or A0 paper, and the presenter is asked to stand at their poster for a certain amount of time during the conference. Conference attendees circulate and talk to presenters in small groups or one on one. These are generally less competitive than a short presentation in terms of the review process, and are an excellent way to ‘break into’ academic presenting or to share data from a project that you feel isn’t quite ready for a longer presentation slot. Please don’t conclude, though, that these are exclusively given by people new to presenting; many experienced presenters may prefer to give a poster presentation at a given conference for any number of reasons. Also, sometimes conferences that are overbooked with short presentations offer presenters a poster presentation slot rather than rejecting the proposal outright.
Keep in mind the information above is field specific; in medicine, generally the kind of presentation is determined by the quality of the abstract. I’ve had doctors whose abstracts I’ve edited request that I make their abstract good enough to get accepted for a poster presentation, but not so good that they have to give a short presentation about their topic!
How much does it cost?
Generally you will be expected to pay a registration fee to attend and present at a conference. These are typically the same fees that someone who wants to attend but not present at the conference would pay. This is the case with the ESBB 2018 conference above. Some academic societies charge presenters more than regular attendees, so you may want to double check this in advance.
Costs can vary wildly. 30,000 JPY or $300 US for a weekend conference is not out of the question, although generally conferences in Japan are cheaper than that. Some conferences may include meals in their fees and others, such as ESBB 2018, may charge separately for conference attendance and meal options.
If cost is an issue, I would recommend looking out for scholarship and conference fee waiver opportunities. Many societies offer these, and they give you two merits on your academic record; you can claim having won some award if you get one, and you can also list the presentation you give as an academic achievement.
Are all academic conferences the same?
This is an important point; no. Some conferences expect you to submit your full paper before the conference. Others, like the ESBB conference cited above, allow you to present your research first, then they have a call for conference proceedings papers following the conference. Usually if a conference is going to ask for your paper before the event, it’s clearly stated in their call. My experience is that in language teaching the majority of conferences follow the ESBB conference pattern above; I have yet to present at a conference where I have to submit my presentation paper ahead of time, although I have friends who have done so.
Sometimes conferences may refer to their call for presentation proposals as ‘paper proposals’. While I have been to conferences where a presenter literally reads their paper to the audience, I would encourage you to develop a presentation that engages your audience and worry about the actual academic paper later. Reading an actual paper really is as boring as it sounds, no matter how interesting the topic being discussed.
Another point that I should raise here is that, surprise surprise, academia has its unscrupulous actors as well. If you see a conference advertising that you can spend a week in Vegas as part of an event, it’s very likely a money making scheme for the organizer and will have very little in the way of academic value. I wouldn’t go so far as to call all of these conferences scams, because they usually are held and there are presentations given, but their academic quality is generally very low, and the presenters pay a small fortune to attend and present. My recommendation is to stick to conferences put on by academic societies such as JALT, JACET, JASELE, KOTESOL, and KATE, to name a few. ESBB is another conference I would recommend.
Finally, after you present a paper, you’re likely to get emails saying some journal has heard of your interesting research and would like to invite you to submit a paper to their publication. These are academic spam at best and academic scams at worst. I would recommend publishing in the conference’s Proceedings if there is one, or asking colleagues about what publications they may recommend. I’ve been writing for academic publication since 2004 and I’ve only published one paper in that time where I had to pay publication fees. That was for a Japanese language teaching society’s conference proceedings journal, and was definitely less than about 20,000 JPY, or $200 US. Be wary of any journal that reviews a paper you send them within a week, saying it’s excellent and ready for publication. Paying exorbitant fees to publish a paper that is reviewed within a matter of days as ‘excellent’ and not requiring any changes is likely to not help your academic career in the end.
That’s all, folks
I hope the information I’ve included here helps. If you think I missed something, please let me know. Also, if you have an unanswered question, you’re welcome to ask.