How to answer a CFP

This is the first of four installments on academic writing to be published every Wednesday in November.  I will attempt to answer some of the frequently asked questions posed by beginning graduate students.  When I started my graduate program two (and a half) years ago, I was clueless about so many things.  I can laugh about it now, but I wish I had known then what I do now (and in three years, I anticipate writing a similar series of posts about entering the dissertation phase).

Today’s topic will be on how to write an answer to a conference call-for-papers.  I should remind y’all that I’m in graduate school to get my PhD in English; thus, my advice may only apply for graduate students in the humanities.  And, remember that what I write is only advice and is based solely on my personal experience.  If your adviser tells you something different, listen to them!

Ok, now that I’ve got my disclaimers out of the way, let’s get started.

Conferences are a great way to meet people in your field.  You will see some of your favorite (and perhaps not-so-favorite) writers and learn a lot about where your field is going.  I find that conferences are the most useful when you take advantage of all the opportunities given.  Namely, I strongly encourage you to go to conferences where you are also a presenter.  Not only will this make getting funding easier, but also you will present your own ideas to said Favorite Academics and get feedback during the Q&A session.  Are you nervous about talking in front of people?  Great!  So is everyone else.  Don’t let personal phobias get in the way of a productive (and fun) experience.

CFPs will usually be due 6 months before the conference.  Big organizations may ask for proposals earlier, smaller conferences may accept them right up to the last minute, but you get the idea.  The most comprehensive site to find these CFPs (for English) is UPenn’s listserv, also linked at right.

So you’ve searched through the list and found an awesome conference you want to go attend?  The next step is to send a proposal of your paper topic.  Sometimes this may be to the conference organizers; it depends if you want to respond to a specific panel (which will have a more-focused theme) or the conference itself (which will organize panels based on the proposals received).  Please do not get overwhelmed!  If you have difficulty deciding which is the best choice, ask your advisor.

I would generally recommend choosing a topic that you have previously studied (and hopefully written about!).  It is generally much easier to talk about something you’ve already written about, and the presentations that stem from a long-term project tend to be stronger and more successful.  That said, I also believe conferences are about sharing ideas and collaboration.  Thus, I have not always followed my own advice.  I’ve presented two papers (and each of these twice) to two different conferences, and I still need work on writing a great presentation.  But I do believe that you shouldn’t come to the conference will a fully-formed idea because you will get feedback.  Rather, I believe conferences should be about exploring new ideas.  Are you polishing a paper for publication?  Bring it to the conference.  Dissertation chapter that you want to shop?  Bring it to the conference.  You get the idea.

Proposals themselves should only be 250 words.  This is not a lot.  This is only a paragraph, maybe an extra long paragraph, but a paragraph nonetheless.  It’s one page, double spaced, Times New Roman.  Think about that.  Don’t send them the entire paper (unless, of course, they ask for it).  Brevity and clarity are the order of the day.  Think of the proposal as a mapping paragraph.  You are sending the panel organizer a promissory agreement.  You want to write about x and y, and out of that will come z. 

If you plan to use a particular theory to get argue that, say something like, “Using Lacan’s theory of the real, I will say blah,” or, “My critique of posthumanism does blah.”  Don’t spend a lot of time talking about how you’re going to change the world (because no one has ever changed anything with a 10-page paper, not even at MLA).  Don’t spend a lot of time close reading anything.  Save that for the paper.  Get in, get out, demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about, and then leave.

When you send the proposal, either copy and paste it into the body of an email or send the .doc or PDF file as an attachment.  Always include a letter of introduction in the email.  This is the place to include your credentials and publishing history on the topic (if you have published.  I haven’t, it’s no big deal).  You also want to say something like, “I am responding to your conference call for papers on blah.”  Help the guy out by giving your email context; he gets a thousand emails a day and you don’t want your proposal to get lost in the shuffle.  Plus it demonstrates that you are a professional, which is a Good Thing.

Then, all you have to do is wait for a response.  Don’t let it ruin your life; conferences are usually annual, and if you miss this one, there’s always next year.  Keep it in perspective.

I hope this advice helps.  Let me know if I’ve left anything out.  Best of luck!