Conference presentations, training wheels & learning how to do stuff

Megan McPherson is Project Manager and instructional designer in Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University in Melbourne. She is managing the research project ‘Contribute: peer learning for inclusive practice in Art and Design’. Megan is also a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education at Monash University.

Image also by Megan McPherson.

Apart from teaching students, another expectation of teaching in a university is attending and presenting at academic conferences. Last month I presented my first paper at an international conference. This post shares that experience with you and, in doing so, will hopefully help other novice academic presenters.

I decided to prepare for the IMPACT 7: Intersections & Counterpoints | International Multi-disciplinary Printmaking Conference in early 2010 as it is the major biannual conference for the discipline I teach in and it was coming to Monash University in Melbourne where I live. These are 2 factors that made it a fairly easy to commit to:

1. no travelling costs and

2. an international conference that had never been in Australia.

Of course the big third factor, conference paper equals research outcome, was a fairly big motivator as well. The planning and writing also fitted very neatly into non-teaching time and my other work commitments.

From writing the abstract and having it accepted, to writing the paper, then getting the peer review comments, to rewriting the paper and developing the presentation has been a year long journey. I have found some great resources to guide my academic writing, including development books about academic and PhD writing through the The Thesis Whisperer’s blog (for example, academics such as Pat Thomson, Barbara Kamler and Melanie Walker). I found Pat Thomson’s blog post about presenting and writing for conferences in July just in time for the presentation edit.

As an artist, I have presented at artist talks and in galleries but formal academic writing and presenting is new to me. A twenty minute conference presentation titled “Printmaking and learning in a notion of practice in the university studio”, is not like anything I had done before. As a novice conference presenter, the first hurdle was the abstract. Because you want your abstract to be included in the conference, Pat Thompson’s idea of focusing your abstract on the idea of “include me”  –  I have an idea, I can write about it and present it in an interesting way –  is a good way to frame your writing. For me, I also found it useful to look at abstracts from previous Impact conferences to see if my idea would be suitable, could continue a discussion from the last conference, as well as fit into the current conference theme.

The presentation I ended up developing (there were a few versions – I think I need to work on Mumford’s Method) explored the existing literature in the studio model of teaching in the field of art and design and how critique and the “crit” fits into learning in a notion of practice of an artist. My focus was on the space between where students and studio teachers interact in a creative and reflective process in the university studio.

Questions I used to focus my presentation included:

  • What makes this interaction or experience in the university studio educative?
  • What kind of reflective process is taking place?
  • How is the learning and teaching research in the art and design discipline areas about ‘learning in action’,
  • and how is it contextualized into the wider academic community?

This is a huge area to cover in 20 minutes. Probably too big. In fact what I presented was a just a taste of the research that I have done and the potential for the area of research. I used much of my the literature review chapter from my PhD thesis to help me prepare. However, the experience of adapting this idea from a formal argument (from the chapter) to a presentation that I was able to deliver in 20 minutes, has made me rethink how I structure argument and how I write academically. This is especially in terms of how a conference presentation forces you to strip ideas back into a very succinct ones (hopefully).

The practising and rehearsal of the paper was important in terms of the final presentation. I was on the first pedagogic panel at the conference with a highly experienced academic as convenor. This made the presentation experience very approachable. The two other presenters passionately knew their areas and had slides of some great art work. I had no slides but was reassured by a story about the Australian artist, ex de Medici who presented on her work for 90 minutes without images. ex refused to use images, saying that people get distracted by them and don’t think about the ideas behind the work. Luckily at my conference, 20 minutes is not that long for people who had probably seen images in almost every other presentation.

What I gained from doing the presentation was:

  • some good feedback and interest in the research,
  • others in my field introduced themselves,
  • some lovely people shared references with me, and
  • I was able to share references too!

However, next time I will:

  • probably use images/diagrams of some in my next presentation.
  • have business cards with my academic email address on them as well as my art practice cards.

The real learning for me is that presenting research as a part of what I do as an academic is not so frightening and it’s actually very useful for making contacts and networking in my field. And I’ve learned that there is potential for presenting further research (depending on conferences themes and funding). My conference alert is now primed up with keywords and research areas.

I owe many thanks to the conference peer reviewers for their time and effort and some apologies for the typos and bad structure. After this experience I think I have my conference presentation training wheels on now.

As a teacher, it can be humbling to put yourself into the role of a novice. It reminded me that we all continue to learn and that learning can be challenging and uncomfortable but with the right preparation and support the result is worth it.