By Claire Aitchison
By and large, I love conferences. I love the reward of being away from work (the further the better!) and the legitimacy of sitting around all day being entertained by, and engaged in, ideas. It’s great to find out what’s going on, what’re the hot topics, and who is doing what. And even though it can be terrifying, it’s great to have a go at putting out your ideas.
But you don’t often get to a conference without presenting, which means that you’ve previously had to have written the conference abstract and had it reviewed and accepted. When I run workshops on writing conference abstracts, we talk about successful abstracts engaging in the conversations of the field; making a contribution – for example, by extending or critiquing that conversation; the importance of addressing the conference theme and so on. I refer to the rhetorical moves that occur in much scientific abstract writing (eg see Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2009) and in the social sciences (eg see Thompson and Kamler, 2013 and Belcher 2009), and we critique and discuss abstracts. We don’t often talk about the conditions in which abstracts are written.
Oh! What was I thinking when I submitted that abstract back in April?!!
When I was a doctoral student I (mostly) scrupulously prepared for conferences; my abstracts were well considered and thoroughly based in what I’d been doing. I would spend many weeks reading, writing my conference paper and constructing the PowerPoints. I wrote scripts to go with the PowerPoint presentation, recording what I would say against each slide. I timed my presentation, and rehearsed and rehearsed. In those days, the conference really was the focus of my attention. I was well prepared and it usually went OK (well, … apart from the pounding heart, sweaty palms and speedy delivery!!).
These days, it’s not uncommon for me to throw together an abstract imagining that in four or six month’s time, I will have found the time to do it justice. These days, I put up my hand to attend conferences as a way of forcing myself to do some new serious reading, thinking and research. I no longer have the luxury I had as a PhD student to put the conference at the centre of attention. And, these days, I’m a bit more forgiving when I attend a less-than-perfect presentation. I know how it can happen. For example, this year, for the first time, I had a conference abstract sent back to me. A Conference Abstract rejection!!! Shock, horror! I admit, I was taken aback, but, when I looked at it afresh, it did fall short. What can I say? I dashed it off, late at night, hours before it was due; and it read like it!
At the recent and wonderful AARE – APERA 2012 Conference the exceptional quality of submissions for the annual Doctoral Award was attributed in part to the highly focussed, concentrated nature of doctoral study. I, for one, have never again had the satisfaction of the intense research gaze afforded by doctoral research candidature. Perhaps this is a poor indictment on contemporary academic lives? Or a note to celebrate the joy of doctoral research candidature? Any thoughts?