You’ve done the hard part! Now you get to share what you’ve learned and ham it up a little.
The goal of a conference presentation is to convey the central insights of your research in ways that are interesting and engaging for your audience. You will want to distill the most exciting ideas of your thesis into an abridged form that is easy for you to read aloud.
Here’s a standard format and structure that you can use as a starting point. Feel free to deviate from it, too, as you like.
A standard format
- Identify the hypothesis that you test in your paper, or the interpretive question that you raise;
- Describe how you answered your question or pursued your line of inquiry in conversation with other critics;
- Give a textual example or two that illustrates your point and makes it concrete; and
- Conclude by summarizing what you learned as you also identify any questions that remain with you about this still. (If you were going to continue this research or pass it on to another critic, what would you like to know?)
A more detailed structure
Begin with a sentence that names the interpretive question you ask in your final paper. You might achieve that effect by:
- Posing a rhetorical question, e.g.: What can young Americans learn from Sophocles’ Antigone about the best ways to be a good citizen under the political threat of tyranny?
- Identifying a puzzle that you intend to solve: How does first-person narration work to control how the ways literary readers attend to fictional characters’ lives and deaths?
- Naming a literary interpretation that is surprising and counter-intuitive, with implications beyond the obvious: Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking looks like a memoir about grief, but it becomes more legible as a document of the American West.
Then provide some context for the question, showing why readers beyond this class would find it interesting. Frame the central questions of your research in the context of a wider debate—about the interpretation of the literary text you choose to read; or about the best ways and reasons to read literature in 2019. (It will probably help to refer to a secondary text to provide this context.)
Then cite a very brief example that illustrates how you analyze the textual evidence you have to support your thesis. This will have to be very brief indeed, and you may need to work hard to keep your essay concise enough to keep your audience’s attention. The example will have to be well chosen as well, and your analysis will have to be to the point.
Conclude by leaving your reader with the most intriguing idea you’ve discovered in your writing process so far. This might be a question that remains for you about the text—a question that you can’t answer, but that you think somebody should answer. Alternatively, it might be an observation that you think is genuinely revealing, or a quotation from the one of the texts that recasts your thesis in an interesting way. Try to engage with your audience, personally, in a moment of shared curiosity and intellectual work.
Here are some general tips for writing a paper to read aloud. Strive to:
- Capture the sound of the way you actually talk. Your sentences might be longer or shorter—or both, alternately—than you usually use in academic writing. Your voice should sound like your voice.
- Engage your audience with your intellectual interests by being yourself. You were interested in the idea of your thesis for a reason, and your audience will be interested in it, too, if you explain that reason as you perceive it. Show us what you found! Curiosity and engagement are infectious. Share them!
- Think about the language you use, and loosen up a little to describe your research as you would to a (smart and well-informed) friend. You can make jokes in your thesis, or use any kind of language you like as long as it helps you capture the spirit of your thesis. We’ll practice this.
- Use media to present quotations or share textual evidence that is interesting to you. Remember that your audience will be there to hear you, and to learn about what you did in your thesis. They will want to know what you learned. When you quote from the text, show your reader how you read it.
- Make strong use of your motive (in Gordon Harvey’s sense of the word). Everybody likes a paper that teaches them something they haven’t thought of before, or that shows them how to understand something better in a new light. That’s what motive is all about. Teach us something.
- Think creatively about the best ways to present your most interesting ideas. You’re graduating with honors, and you can do what you want.