I had a professor in graduate school – a Big Name, highly respected in the field, and also a very nice man – who came to every department colloquium, every job talk, and frequently asked the same question at the end of every presentation:
It sounds terrifying, but he really wasn’t asking for the sake of being a jerk. Rather, he was holding the speaker to the bare minimum of what must be communicated in a presentation; why should anyone care about this?
Oftentimes when you’re working on a research project, it can seem like the most interesting topic in the world. There are so many things that are so cool, and you want everyone else to appreciate just how cool they are, and in this way it’s very, very easy to simply present the cool thing as if its intrinsic worth is self-evident.
Nothing in scholarship is self-evident – it’s all about explaining not just what, but why.
So, if you have your one thing that you want to talk about, your next job is to talk about what’s so interesting about it in terms of a given research issue or question. You then want to follow this with a short explanation of what your paper will do specifically – what are you going to cover in your 15-20 minutes? It’s critical that you include these three things. Depending on how much space you have to work with, you may want to conclude by explaining its broader relevance – to your field, to humanity, whatever. The main thing is that it have some relevance besides being the coolest thing ever.
To illustrate, here’s an example of one of my own successful paper proposals for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference. The requirements were for a proposal of no more than 2500 characters (yeah, characters), including between three and five bibliographic references.
So first, the thing I want to talk about:
In October 2016, the anime series Yuri!!! On Ice, broadcast on TV Asahi in Japan, began streamed global simulcasts through US-based Crunchyroll.com (with subtitles in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Italian, and German) and China’s Youku Tudou, joining a growing number of simulcast anime that together exemplify the spatiotemporal intensification characteristic of media convergence (Jenkins 2006). The show’s narrative focus on an evolving romantic relationship between Japanese ice skater Yuri Katsuki and Russian skater-turned-coach Victor Nikiforov aligned it generically with both Anglo-American fandoms centered on male/male character pairings and East Asian BL (boy’s love) culture.
Particularly since the proposal reviewers may or may not have been familiar with what I was looking at, this much explanation of the thing was necessary to get everyone up to speed.
Next, what’s so interesting about it:
This fostered, in turn, a ‘transfandom’ (Hills 2015) mélange of interpretative cultures that commingled and sometimes clashed within the online contact zones (Pratt 1991) of social media. This was particularly the case on Twitter, where such interpretative differences combined with the equally convergent fan-producer proximity engendered by series writer Mitsurou Kubo’s Twitter presence in an object lesson on the limitations of ‘flow’ as a conceptual framework for transnational media reception.
Here’s where I’m making the case for its relevance to broader issues that are current in my field – this is the answer to the ‘so what?’ question: the show and it’s Twitter-based fandom were an example of how ‘flow’ might not be an adequate framework to think about how media texts are consumed outside their ‘home’ countries.
Finally, I say what the paper itself will do, and it’s FINE to say that in so many words. The proposal is exactly that – a pitch – and you want it to be as clear and unambiguous as possible:
This paper considers the transcultural implications of such intensified media and fan cultural convergence through examination of interpretative conflicts that arose within globally-reaching online Yuri!!! On Ice fandom. I look specifically at some Anglo-American fans’ criticisms of ‘queerbaiting’ in the show, with particular attention to other fans’ strategies for countering such accusations, including – but, critically, not limited to – Japanese cultural contextualization.
If a shorter proposal was required, or if I was applying to a more specialized conference (say, in fan studies specifically, rather than for this film and media studies-wide national conference), what I’ve written to this point would be enough.
Here, being a larger conference with a far broader range of research concerns, and also having up to 2500 characters to work with, I give a bit of contextualization to make what I’m talking about clearer to readers who might not be familiar with it. You’ll notice that here, too, I’m gesturing in the direction of why it’s an argument worth getting out there:
Yuri!!! On Ice, with its consistently ambiguous visual depictions of Yuri and Victor’s developing relationship, appears at first glance to be the very definition of queerbaiting, as “a strategy by which writers … attempt to gain the attention of queer viewers via hints, jokes, gestures, and symbolism suggesting a queer relationship between two characters, and then emphatically denying and laughing off the possibility” (Fathallah 2015, 491). Yet not only does the idea of queerbaiting rely on specifically American concerns with queer representation in media, but it is grounded in certain, contested assumptions about what constitutes ‘visibility’ in such representation. It is this latter critique that I am particularly interested in here, for the ways it exceeds a Japanese national cultural habitus.
Obviously, different people approach proposal organization differently, but the one thing good proposals have in common is that they explain the stakes of what’s being proposed – they explain to the reader “so what?“