How to Conference: Writing the Paper Proposal 3

Where no one has gone before?

When you’re trying to make an argument for the importance and significance of your proposed paper, it’s tempting – so very tempting – to claim that what you’re doing has never been done before. If you find yourself writing words to that effect, stop, go to Google Scholar, and do a search for as many keywords related to your idea as you can think of.

I am NOT kidding about this.

It’s something that graduate students and early career researchers are susceptible to, particularly if what they’re proposing takes them in the direction of unfamiliar academic terrain – interdisciplinary work, a new area of their field, etc. But I’ve seen quite senior scholars succumb as well. It can happen to anyone, and if there’s anything that’s almost as certain as death and taxes it’s this: someone has written something about that thing no one has ever written about before.

This can strike fear in the hearts of people trying to distinguish themselves and their expertise, but here’s the thing (and you’ve probably heard it before): no one will have said exactly what you want to say in exactly the way you want to say it. Nine out of ten times, that’s your sweet spot – distinguishing yourself from/situating yourself within what’s already been said, not claiming that

Conference proposals are a good place to remember that most scholarship contributes to ongoing conversations, pushing them in new – maybe unexpected – directions, qualifying them, arguing against them in favor of something else. It very seldom (re)invents the wheel, and a conference proposal is the very last place you want to suggest it does.

In all (and this may sound very touchy-feely of me), be a gracious scholar. You don’t have to agree with everyone (and, indeed, 4/5 of my own work seems to be driven by irritation over someone else’s claims), but be professional in your disagreement and generous in your acknowledgement of existing work. If you want to use your paper to criticize someone else’s work, remember that academia is surprisingly small and if the author isn’t in the room, they may well have a friend who is, and what you say may easily get back to them – so make your criticism accurate and be absolutely sure you understand what they’re arguing before you argue against it. Do it well, and you may even have the author acknowledging that they hadn’t thought about it that way before!