An NCF student’s guide to presenting at national academic conferences
Qadira Locke’s Panel Presentation. Picture courtesy of Professor Kerrianne Gamache.

An NCF student’s guide to presenting at national academic conferences

Academic conferences are largely attended by graduate students and professors to share their findings and build community, but here at New College, we are required to participate in a minimum of three Independent Study Periods (ISP) where we get a headstart on doing research and hands-on projects. I took the opportunity New College provided me, and after submitting abstracts upon abstracts, I received an email notifying me I was accepted to present.

I went to the Asian Studies Development Program’s (ASDP) 30th National Conference in Kansas City, MO on Mar. 9 through 11 to present research I conducted during the 2023 ISP. This was the first of two research conferences I aim to attend in the Spring 2023 semester, the second of which is funded by the Student Research Travel Grant (SRTG), provided by New College’s Center for Career, Engagement and Opportunity office (CEO).

For funding, I received the maximum stipend of $2,000 to conduct research in Seoul, South Korea for a month, after submitting documents describing my research concept and detailing exactly how much money I needed to do the research. One question on the SRTG grant acts as a through-line for this entire process is how the money, if granted, aids in the future of my academic endeavors. Attending research conferences is one component that allows experience in networking, public speaking and engagement with the larger academic community.

The CEO office was an invaluable resource to discuss my options in meeting to discuss my goals and what financial aid New College could give me. But in order for me to receive funding, I needed a topic and a target conference.

My project was on the effect of neo-confucianism’s establishment in Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) Korea as the state ideology had on secular textile color connotations. Going into my ISP period, I didn’t want to limit my topic too much. Originally I decided to do research on women’s court fashion in general. However, the more research and discussions with my advisor, Associate Professor of History Xia Shi, the clearer the pattern I wanted to focus on was. In conferences everyone seems to have a niche, but I had to keep reminding myself that they fell into these topics after a lot of work and that the first idea I come up with doesn’t mean it will be the final topic.

After I knew what my topic was for this project, I started the search process for conferences I was interested in. One thing that really helped narrow my search was looking at the semester calendar for days when Thursdays and/or Fridays were no class days. I have a lot of classes where attendance is key, so not missing class was very crucial. I also looked at conference indexes that have category and tagging systems. My system is to look at organizations as specific as possible, then work my way out. 

There are many factors to consider like the level of education that the conference is aimed for or what theme the conference is set as this year. The conference I attended was largely geared towards undergraduate educators and the theme was “how Asian studies can help shape a more humane world.” I knew my topic was largely about textiles, but it was also largely about the function and interaction of religions in Joseon Dynasty, and so for my project I focused my discussion more on the religious motivations and cohabitation that affected the textiles more than I would’ve if I was presenting at a conference on fashion history.

Qadira Locke’s Zine Cover. Cover created via Canva.

During the conference, depending on the department, there’s a myriad of styles for how one might present their research. Across the board, the most popular option was using websites similar to SlidesGo, that allow a more attractive PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation. Some speakers were of the opinion that too much on the slides detracts from the content, so there’s no one way to format it. One advantage each student has is creativity. For my presentation, I went for a zine design because beyond admiring the zine booklet layout, my project was talking largely about Korean shamanism; uses of color and paper are instrumental to shamanistic practices in Korea. I also believed that the flip-book layout would provide the audience with two slides of complimentary supporting examples while each having a distinct theme.

The part of the conference that filled me with the most anxiety was the structure of the panel system. As an undergraduate student, I didn’t have the protocol to know how to make sure I wasn’t stepping on the toes of other presenters or how much time I was necessarily speaking for. Speaking time was 20–25 minutes per person with roughly a half hour left for questions. I would recommend arriving at your panel room early to greet the other panelists and talk about presentation order, and whether to take questions at the end of each presentation or all together at the end of the panel. 

During my panel, I was set to present last but at the very last second I was switched to present first. To me this was a blessing and a curse because it meant I was able to present before professors, so there was nothing to compare me to, but it also meant I was very aware of the amount of time I was taking up talking. It ended up being for the best since the other presenters had topics discussing things in the modern age. The questions at the end were something I was very self-conscious about because I did not want to be the only one that didn’t receive a question. That ended up being for the best, because one of the people attending the panel pointed out a pattern in dyes in mine and another panelist’s presentation and was able to ask about it.

Qadira Locke’s ASDP badge. Picture courtesy of Qadira Locke.

While at the conference, I asked presenters what formats they used for their presentations, both as visual aids and for supporting documents for their speeches. The consensus is that Humanities professors leaned towards reading their paper directly whereas researchers focused more on Social Sciences preferred to create an agenda of points they want to discuss during the allotted presentation time.

After presenting my panel, I met New College alumni Jessica Falcone (‘98)—Associate Professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University—with whom I had a discussion about advice for students looking to attend conferences and any pre-conference rituals. Out of all the people I spoke with, the comment that kept coming up was to “show up.” Especially for undergraduate students, a lot of professors said the most important thing is to be engaged with researchers by asking questions and speaking to people after the panels. I also met some graduate students who felt more comfortable speaking to other students rather than professors, so there will be a community at conferences everywhere if you take initiative to start conversations. 

When I asked about pre-conference rituals, everyone had an anecdote about the nervousness of attending conferences for the first time, and some had rituals to calm down away from work such as meditation. Other presenters I spoke to had more hands-on rituals. Falcone shared she likes to print out her agenda-plan for her speech to go through one last time and vet the details with a clearer mind. I created a ritual for myself to calm my nerves in which I went to a bookstore and bought myself a book to read the night before to prevent myself from thinking too hard about the presentation I had ahead of me.

Just like how every conference has a unique range of topics to hear about, I found there is no one-size-fits-all guide to make the most out of your conference experience. My first conference went incredibly positively because I went to panels that caught my attention and asked questions that came to mind. The most important thing to remember is everyone is there to learn and share, together.

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