Reading YA Fiction: A first conference experience (and a couple tips for next time)

Michelle Anya Anjirbag is a first year PhD student at the Children’s Literature Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.

It took a better part of the first year of the PhD for me to work up the courage to start presenting my research, but I finally ripped off the Band-aid (TM) and gave my first full presentation at the Reading YA Fiction conference hosted by the Centre of Contemporary Literature and Culture at the University of Birmingham

(Full disclosure: I have presented academic work previously, once in an completely overwhelming massive US regional conference while floating about between academic programs as an independent scholar trying desperately to maintain my legitimacy, and once in a five minute presentation on the subject of intergenerational solidarity in the context of my own research here at the university, which I found terrifying anyways for many reasons).

The conference itself was fascinating, with lively panels that explored topics from violence and empathy in stories featuring child murderers, to a look at the carnivalesque and the paranormal in relation to queer identities in YA fiction. The discussions probed subjects such as the use of the term “diverse” and what we mean by it, and what it means when it is commercialized, and even, how do we classify “YA literature” – is it dependent on the age of the intended audience? The age of the protagonist? The plot structure, as keynote Professor Maria Nikolajeva suggests? – and is it something new? Personally, though I recognize that in Anglo-centric fiction YA has witnessed a bit of an explosion over the past decade or so, I also recognize that this kind of fiction has been written in other languages and in other parts of the world since about the 1960s, and would problematize the assertion that “YA fiction” is some brand-new phenomenon; such a stance requires an ethnocentric and linguistically-centralized view of literature to be true rather than a transcultural one, but that is a discussion that might need to wait for another blog post...

Even more important than the information garnered through being present, for me, was the opportunity to test what I thought I knew about myself and my ability to speak coherently in front of a group of my peers. Learning to present research is just as important for apprentice-academics as learning to write chapters, or, dare I mention it, the PhD itself. And while I theoretically knew this going into this conference, I didn’t realize how shaky and underqualified I would feel in that room. And granted, not everyone will feel that way; different people are just more comfortable at different kinds of public speaking – and some people hate it altogether, which is fine, too. But when it is something that will be part of one’s job, indefinitely, it cannot be avoided just because it is disliked, or discomfiting. With that in mind, here are three lessons I learned that I will keep in mind for the next conference:

Go Short

I had, of course, timed everything out and thought I had given myself a little extra wiggle room. However, I underestimated how much I tend to ad lib, filling in all of the extra information that I had originally taken out. Two alternatives; control the nervous babble (probably unlikely without practice), or maybe plan on shortening my actual paper in order to give myself time to adjust and respond to the papers I had heard prior to mine. Also, though I had read through the paper many times, I didn’t remember to actually practice it with the PowerPoint, which, combined with the ad-libbing affected my use of time and the smoothness of the presentation.

shallow focus of clear hourglass
Photo by Jordan Benton on Pexels.com

A Conference Paper is not A Dissertation

It should go without saying, but there we are. As much as we all have a lot of amazing thoughts about all the things that we are interested in, we cannot actually fit them into a 20-minute talk. A complete, single point with multiple examples is possibly stronger than a complex point. I need to remember that while the logic makes sense to me, not everyone has been immersed in my topic to the extent I am.

brown toy box character
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

Body Fuel is Brain Fuel
I mentioned that academic public speaking makes me nervous. Well, so does travel. As a result, I was simultaneously wired and exhausted heading to Birmingham. What makes exhaustion and nerves even better? Not being hungry when you’re nervous. The result? Five cups of coffee and a small plate of potato salad before speaking. It’s really not a recipe for success. The jittering was out of control; academic brains can’t work without food any more than athletes bodies can. Eat breakfast. And lunch. Or by the time the keynote comes around, you’re going to not be able to take the intelligent notes or ask the intelligent questions that you want to.

bowl of vegetable salad and fruits
Photo by Trang Doan on Pexels.com

This is far from a comprehensive guide to surviving conferences; just a few thoughts about what I would do the next time around based on the this first experience.

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