Yesterday I gave my first presentation at a major professional conference. The Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies is taking place right now in Baltimore (it opened yesterday and concludes on Tuesday). It is an international and interdisciplinary gathering, and panel topics range from new interpretations of ancient texts to recent sociological changes in 21st century American Jewry.
As this is such a large conference, the AJS requests that graduate students participate in lightning sessions rather than presenting in a traditional panel format (where you and two or three other scholars deliver 20-minute papers and answer audience questions). Lightning session presentations are limited to 5-7 minutes, which is just enough time to introduce a project, discuss a question in the field, or propose a methodological problem. The goal is to familiarize grad students with the newest work being done in Jewish Studies, and to foster connections between grads at different universities.
My paper was titled "Jewish Adjustment and the Professionalization of Jewish Social Work," and in it I defined how a concept in mid-twentieth century social work was used by leaders of Jewish Community Centers to justify their authority as the providers of Jewish leisure-time activity.
This is not only the first major conference I have attended, it was also my first time trying to distill my work down into such a tight time limit. All academics know that more time is better, and that 20 minutes always seems to fly by before you manage to make your point. To condense an argument down to five minutes required a lot of trial and error! I began by carefully structuring my paper. I included a very brief introduction of my dissertation topic and the historiographical importance of the project. I offered my argument up front and provided and overview of what I would discuss. I briefly reviewed the theoretical background and answered the question I posed at the outset (what is Jewish adjustment?). I shared a case study from my research to demonstrate how the concept was used to defend the JCC's authority within Jewish communal life, and concluded by reiterating my argument. After all of that, I still barely cleared 7 minutes, and had to remove all but the most essential context.
I spent hours rehearsing over the past week, and the more I practiced the more nervous I became! I knew I was going to be the only historian on the panel, and the only one doing a topic on American Jewry. I was really worried that my paper was concise but not cogent, or that it flattened reality and made the past appear too simple, too pat.
In the end, it went well. The panel was more informal than I expected, and I was sufficiently prepared and stayed close to the time limit. My respondent--an academic whose work I really respect--gave me excellent feedback and made several valuable suggestions (my favorite was that I should explore the content taught to rabbis in American rabbinical schools during the mid-twentieth century and compare it to the Jewish training given to Jewish social workers). It was informative to hear the wide variety of topics being studied by my peers in Jewish studies, and I benefited from hearing about the various themes and questions they are exploring in their research.
I am relieved that I was able to present on the first day, and feel like I can now relax while other people present. Conferences are like a blitz of short classes, you learn or are reminded of interesting questions or themes or issues. Presenting was nerve wracking but such a valuable experience, and I feel that the lightning format prepared me to participate in a more traditional panel at a future conference. Twenty minutes will feel like such a luxury!