In the first part I talked about how to decide which conferences to try and attend. But once you’ve decided you’re going to apply, how should you go about writing the actual abstract? Here are a few things to think about as you write:
a) Who put up the CFP? Google them, check out their CV, check out their faculty bio. Is what you’re submitting something they would seem interested in? Does it seem to fit what they asked for in their CFP? Nobody is saying that you need to gear everything towards them but a general idea of what makes them tick isn’t going to hurt you.
b) What sort of scholarship does a given professional organization promote? Are they theoretically engaged? Are they more conservative? The Renaissance Society of America isn’t always looking for stuff on Deleuzian rhizomes and the Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies isn’t as interested in New Critical close readings of John Donne. Make sure your abstract is appropriate for the given organization.
c) Don’t screw around with the parameters of the abstract requirements. Do they want 250 words? Give them 240. Do they want it sent as a Word attachment? Don’t send it as a PDF. I’ve organized four panels and I’ve rejected abstracts for less. It’s a convenient way for panel organizers to thin the herd.
d) Open with something pithy and memorable. It’s corny, but pithy and memorable things are pithy and memorable for a reason. Quotes can be good, anecdotes can be good, and observations can be good. It shouldn’t even be a third of the abstract but you should begin with a hook.
e) This should go without saying but an obvious argument should be clear and identifiable.
f) Good ol’ Pierre Bourdieu explained cultural capital to us and we’re no different. Name drop at least two scholars. “Diedrich Knickerbocker has argued in his seminal work on Washington Irving that blah, blah but I argue blah, blah, blah, blah.” It’s important to emphasize that you’re taking part in an ongoing conversation and that you’re not a neophyte, you’ve been paying attention to who is talking.
g) Again, use Theory according to the tastes of the organizers/organization.
h) Needless historical background or explanations of the plot points of canonical texts can be cut. Use your discretion with more obscure stuff, this needs to be evaluated based on the specific conference that you are attending.
i) Titles are important. From 1980 to maybe a few years ago the vogue seemed to be “Title (normally a quote): Three Things.” So “’I’ve Fallen and I can’t Get Up’: Disability, Commercialism, and American Conspicuous Consumption.” This is still pretty common, though the colon seems to be rarer in titles as of late. Again, you need to use your discretion when coming up with your title. Ask yourself how other papers at past conferences for your organization were titled.
Send abstracts early and send them often. As with many things the key is volume. And remember that the abstract is an advertisement for your thinking and the conference is an advertisement of yourself. And as the two great Whitmans taught us, nothing is more American than that.
“Guys, don’t forget to attend the grad student cocktail hour.”