For those interested in building professional reputations, presenting at regional or national conferences is a great way to do so.  But pulling together a proposal and getting it approved is a daunting task.  So with the Call For Proposals for SAA 2019 out (and due November 16th), let me share what I learned from presenting at the recent SAA/CoSA/NAGARA meeting in Washington, DC.

First of all, do not assume that you can be a standalone session presenter.  I’ve been attending conferences for a number of years and can’t remember seeing one of these.  That means there are two styles of sessions: cohesive and complementary.

  • Complementary sessions are where people with similar interests coalesce into one session.  The SAA program committee facilitates this sort of collaboration by creating a Google doc where people can post their ideas and seek out others with similar ideas.
  • Cohesive sessions usually come out of preexisting relationships and/or work.  I’ve seen sessions where grant partners present their progress or co-authors discuss an upcoming book.

If you don’t have a preexisting group or you don’t work at an institution large enough to have various folks who’ve all contributed different parts to a project, it can be difficult to conjure up a plan for a cohesive session.  But by my nature, I like to learn from colleagues who are doing similar work, and this turned out to be a good foundational step to coordinating a cohesive session.

When I began working on a functional scheduling project at the State Archives of North Carolina, I reached out to the folks in Washington and Wyoming who had already completed their functional schedules.  Although cold calling folks can be a little intimidating, I’ve found that archives people are usually willing to share their knowledge.  With this connection in place, when I finished the project and started thinking about presenting my work, I contacted Russell Wood and Mike Strom again, and they graciously agreed to join me on a session proposal.  We had a conference call to talk through the elements of our proposal and shared a draft via email before we submitted.

After our proposal was approved, we stayed in communication via email and had several conference calls to hash out details for our presentation.  Because I’d taken the lead in creating the session, I also took on the responsibility of generating a slide deck template.  Based on our conversations, I laid out the common elements of our projects about which we could each provide perspective:

  • Motivations
  • Scope
  • Structure
  • Process
  • Impacts
  • Challenges

You can find these slides at  Several of our session attendees commented that they appreciated the unified visual appearance of our slides, so I think this effort was a worthwhile means of contributing to the cohesiveness of the session.  And I think presenting different perspectives on the same work was useful to our participants.

The format of our presentation was a panel discussion, so we allowed time after our individual presentations for questions from the audience.  Wanting to avoid the possibility of a deadly silent room, we prepared some questions ahead of time that we could use as conversation prompts in case our presentations didn’t generate any questions from the attendees (but luckily this was not the case).

Much of the advice that I’ve laid out about structuring a cohesive session could also be applied to a complementary session — it’ll just take a little more effort to coordinate folks who don’t have a preexisting relationship.  Good luck with your proposals!