Make New Things Familiar: Presentation Pros and Cons (BAVS 2017)

Melissa Gustin is a third year PhD student at the University of York, working on new readings of American neoclassical sculpture by women working in Rome. She can be found on Twitter @Hosmeriana.

Rather than write about a specific panel or topic that caught my interest at the conference—too many to choose from—I want to make some broad strokes to clarify a few different paper types that I saw, and explore how they serve different discursive goals. Of course this won’t cover everything, and papers can use elements from multiple styles at different points, but I hope this will be helpful for anyone looking at a paper they aren’t sure how to approach! I find it helpful, when I’m writing a conference paper especially, to identify what kind of argument I’m making or what type of material I’m presenting, and what I want the audience to take away from it before I start writing. This allows me to structure the paper in advance and to make sure that the beginning, middle, and end work together to emphasize the argument.

I’ll break them down into three main categories, as follows:

  • New Readings of Old Favourites
  • Facts and Figures
  • Disciplinary Issues

The main issue at hand is clarity and relevance, for all three: making sure that your paper clearly states its relevance to not only your own work, but the broader scholarly community. In a recent meeting with my supervisor, I was reminded that external examiners—and audiences—love it when you make life easy for them and show them exactly where your contribution fits, what’s new and exciting, and how that can be useful for other people. Hopefully this overview will be helpful in suggesting ways that we as postgrads can make sure to do that in our papers!

New Readings of Old Favourites

This is probably one of the most common paper types I’ve seen from postgraduates, and it can be incredibly interesting and inspiring for scholars within your field. I have found that it’s one of the easiest papers to write out of my own previous research—a thesis chapter, for example—and can often be an excellent first conference paper. Many of your audience members will be familiar with the existing scholarly literature and can offer clear, intelligent feedback in the moment, and you won’t have to use too many of your precious 18 minutes (since we all try to finish under 20 minutes, don’t we!) to explaining background material or recent scholarship. Conversely, this can mean that you’re staring down an audience of your walking, talking footnotes, and risk insulting someone you may later come to need on your side by not citing them as much as you think. Victorianists might be some of the warmest, most welcoming and supportive scholars around, but you don’t want to alienate anyone, and that can mean having a very long list of citations to read before you can get to what we all want to hear: your new contribution.

Say I want to give a paper that completely reimagines scholarship’s reading of say, the Greek Slave (FIG 1) by Hiram Powers, about which much ink has been spilled. Here’s where this argument type can be great: I can demonstrate quickly a familiarity with the extant literature, broad-stroke its arguments and conclusions, and point to where I see myself fitting into this corpus. Here too is a chance to demonstrate familiarity with archival material. I can then transition into my evidence, emphasizing my own contribution to the scholarship on this. Where this can go wrong is underselling yourself: by relying too much on long quotes from the existing scholarship, and being over-cautious about the impact of your own ideas, you can leave the audience wondering what exactly your argument is.


Fig. 1 Hiram Powers, Model of the Greek Slave. Plaster and metal pins, 1843. Smithsonian American Art Museum, purchase in memory of Ralph Cross Johnson, 1968.155.8. Photo by author.

This is the major drawback of this presentation type at an interdisciplinary, wide-ranging conference—but it is easy to avoid succumbing to with some careful forethought and a few sentences. Don’t assume everyone in the room is familiar with The Greek Slave and why your research is breaking new ground, or how it can be used by people who aren’t nineteenth century American sculpture historians. Take a moment following your clear thesis statement to say what you want this paper to accomplish broadly. For example:

I will be arguing that Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave draws on not only the Venus de Medici, but a broader range of visual material in Florence and print culture. This will demonstrate not only Hiram Powers’ relationship with antique materials but his audiences’, and this material’s availability in popular literature for a wide range of readers.

This allows my audience, who may well be there to see someone else on the panel talk about Great Expectations and who may have no especial interest in classical receptions or American self-mythologizing sculptors, to recognize how this work relates to theirs. It also makes the paper easier to follow and signposts the importance of the evidence in advance—why, for example, I might be using periodicals that refer to the Venus de Medici rather than contemporary scholarly materials and manuscript letters from Powers. Repeat this at the end, and hey presto—your takeaway message is clear, your impact on the audience is improved, and people can ask productive questions about your evidence and broader implications. This is especially important if you’re reading an old favourite through a new theory or text, or one which doesn’t have a tradition of use in your area. If I was reading the Slave via David Getsy’s recent writings on trans theory in art history,[1] for example, I would want to make it very clear why and how this was productive to people who are not me or my examination panel!

Facts and Figures

We all love new discoveries. The serendipity of the archive or the culmination of months or years or hardscrabble detective work makes our discovery precious to us and usually instrumental in our research. This kind of paper can be great for sharing our hard-won discoveries with an audience who understands how exciting these new materials can be, and who are always looking for the new archive to use or letter to parse. However, like the previous paper, it’s important to make it very clear why and/or how this material is beneficial to a wider scholarly field. It’s also an opportunity to talk about scholarly process in an open way: acknowledging the ups and downs of research, explaining how this source was found, what roadblocks you encountered—these are interesting to your audience, and talking about where research went wrong can be a learning experience for everyone in the room. As an audience member, I love hearing about people’s new discoveries and new materials, but I find it easier to follow these papers and catch their impact when they have some structure. Presenting an argument about why this material is important, especially if it’s fairly niche, can strengthen our appreciation of its impact and keep our attention, as opposed to a list of things in the archive or broader stroke topics included.

This goes also for papers primarily driven by data the audience doesn’t have access to: say you’ve calculated the increased price of tea in China over a set period. This is very interesting, demonstrates your acuity with figures and careful archival research—very good things indeed—and underpins your larger research project in vital ways. You’ve got lots of easy-to-follow charts—good! However, the drawback is that this can be like a data explosion, and the audience may drown in digits, and wonder what the point of all this math has been. Focusing on one or two of your key examples, and making it very clear what the price of tea in China has to do with, say, changing consumer habits in Britain and America, may keep heads from spinning and leave people with a clearer takeaway:

I will demonstrate the fluctuating price of tea in China is linked to changing consumer habits in Britain and America, through my own calculations and archival work. I will point out how this enriches our understanding of social mobility and accessibility, providing new materials for scholars of Empire, commerce, and fashionable consumption as well as tea historians.


Fig. 2 Minton, cup and saucer. Bone china, transfer-printed, with enamel painting and gilding, 1869 (designed, produced 1897). Victoria and Albert Museum, CIRC.67&A-1970.

Disciplinary Issues

This is my personal favourite, because it can be disguised as another type of paper at first. Say I have an issue with a commonly used approach, or a settled conclusion, or the absence of a corpus of available material in the scholarship—why haven’t we questioned the price of tea in China, for example, as a broader disciplinary question. This opens up a chance for a one-two punch: I can present my new reading, but instead of focusing on the nuances of its evidence, I can problematize why no one has noticed this, or questioned it before, and point to new ways of approaching this. Perhaps a new theoretical field has opened which suggests these reconsiderations, or shifting social mores and politics have developed to allow a previously unmentionable topic to be openly discussed. This can be intimidating for students, I know, especially when there’s every possibility one of your footnotes will be sitting in the front row, but it’s important to be bold! There is a reason you have recognized this as a problem, and this is your time to shine!

It is key with this kind of paper not to disregard the quality of your evidence and your primary argument. This is the major weakness in this kind of argument: it is easy to get caught up in the grand argument, and not fully make your case for the subject at hand. However, this can also allow you to show how your awareness of the existing material and your own creative research made you the right person to draw attention to this disciplinary problem, and to offer new areas for people to follow you. This is especially great if you can submit a panel idea with two or three papers on similar themes; it shows that more than one person has recognized this as a disciplinary issue, and you can work together to show the audience that this is serious stuff. A downside of this kind of paper can be that people who are looking for a hefty fact-fest can be disappointed—they wanted the price of tea in China and sales figures and you’ve given them pie in the sky. But if you do a solid job of explaining how and why this matters, you’re also likely to get great feedback and start a substantial discussion!


Not to belabour the point, but I’m going to belabour the point: your paper benefits from clarity of argument and purpose, no matter what kind of information or argument you’re presenting! When we submit our abstracts to conferences, especially thematic interdisciplinary conferences, we have to be clear and concise about our subject, our arguments, and how we fit into the theme: don’t let that go to the wayside when it comes to writing the paper! I often send my papers to a trusted friend or two outside my discipline to read, to make sure that the material and argument are clearly presented to someone who hasn’t spent three years eating and sleeping American neoclassicism. If they (hi, Liz and Sarah!) can identify the takeaway and major points, I’m in a good position to step up to the podium. If you have friends at whom you can practice reading your paper, ask them to note if and where they lost track of what your bigger picture was, or if they weren’t sure why something had been included.

I didn’t see any bad papers at BAVS, and the postgraduate papers were some of the strongest of the conference in my opinion—bold, original, and dynamic! Rather than calling on anything in particular from the conference, this is intended to be helpful to people staring down their first conference, or looking at next year’s topic already. And remember, everyone in the room wants you to succeed—so go for it!


Works Cited:

[1] David Getsy, Abstract Bodies. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.


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