Category Archives: Academics

Presenting the Perfect Conference Paper

Flashback. I’m reading my first paper at a national theology conference. I’m nervous. At least three people in the room are from schools with open teaching positions that I’ve applied for. Several others probably know more about the subject of my paper than I do. Although I drank at least five glasses of water before stepping to the podium, I already sound like an eight-year-old smacking away at a peanut butter sandwich every time I open my mouth. Good news: I don’t sweat much. Bad news: I already have to go to the bathroom.

Forcing myself to focus on the task at hand, I start plowing through the paper. I even breathe occasionally. I try looking up once, but that just makes me more nervous. What if I lose my place? Better just to keep my head down and get this over with.

There, I’m done. All 5,000 or so words pronounced correctly, no dropped pages, major heresies avoided, paper successfully presented.

Wrong.

What does it mean to present a successful conference paper? And, how exactly does one do that? With AAR just finishing and both ETS and SBL looming, this seems like a good time to reflect on the art of presenting a good conference paper. In The Art of the Conference Paper, Alessandro Angelini offers some good advice for preparing and delivering a conference paper. I would definitely encourage you to check it out. But, here are eight suggestions of my own.

  1. Write your paper. This sounds obvious, but I’ve attended several sessions where the person presented a “paper” that was really just a set of talking point. This can actually be very effective if you’re good at it. If not, it can easily become a rambling mess that goes too long and accomplishes exactly nothing. Until you’ve got a fair amount of experience under your belt, don’t even try.
  2. Write for your listeners. This one is a pet peeve of mine. For some reason, we think it’s important to write with your audience in mind for ever setting except an academic conference. I think it’s important to remember that your audience is hearing your paper, not reading it. Unless they are very talented, they simply won’t be able to follow the complex sentence structures that we think so necessary for academic writing. You’ll have a better discussion at the end of your presentation if they were able to follow the whole argument clearly. (And, by the way, this is true even if you hand out copies of your paper. Your audience still won’t have time to go back and re-read difficult sentences, or they’ll fall behind.)
  3. Minimize quotes and references. I personally find it very distracting when someone has to say “quote” and “end quote” a lot. In some kinds of papers, it’s unavoidable. But, try to keep it to a minimum.
  4. Practice reading your paper. It may sound silly, but reading a paper effectively is more difficult than it looks. You want to be comfortable enough with the paper that you don’t have to stand stiffly at the podium with your eyes glued on the page every second. Practicing your presentation (out loud) will increase your comfort level and lead to a more natural presentation when the time comes.
  5. Identify optional sections. No matter how much you practice reading your paper in advance, you’re like to read it either faster or slower when the time comes. Reading too fast will cause comprehension problems for your audience, but at least you’ll get through it. Reading too slow can be a problem since you don’t want to omit your conclusion. So, identify a couple of sections toward the end of the paper that you could skip if you needed to.
  6. Use PowerPoint carefully. If you’re going to use a PowerPoint presentation to supplement your paper, do a good job. Bad power point slides are horribly distracting and can kill even the best conference paper. If you’re not sure how to creative a good PowerPoint presentation, try Michael Hyatt’s 5 Rules for Better Presentations.
  7. Bring a handout. Unless you’re a bigwig, you’re not going to have so many people attending your paper that you can’t provide at least a simple handout. You wouldn’t present a paper to your students without something to help them follow along, why do it to your fellow conference-goers?
  8. Leave time for discussion. The most valuable part of presenting a paper (other than having something to put on your CV), can be the discussion and feedback that comes at the end. It’s common for beginning paper-presenters to fear this time and avoid it by presenting a paper that is too long and takes up all the discussion time. Don’t.

On choosing graduate theology programs

Once again, R. R. Reno has published a very nice article on where to study theology in America. And, I thought this year’s article was his best yet because of the good advice he offered at the beginning on how to choose a program.

He begins by noting how difficult it is to rank theology programs. But, he concludes that “certain qualities always matter: intellectual climate, commitment to students, corporate personality, and the atmosphere of faith at the institution.” I particularly liked his emphasis on “corporate personality.” Many people focus on the academic reputation or intellectual climate of a school, without considering the overall personality of the program that will by their academic home for several years. Understanding the personality of the program and whether it is a good “fit” for you is a critical part of the decision-making process.

He also offers a good warning about big-name professors who may have little-or-no actual contact with students, or even other faculty:

The same holds for professors in endowed chairs, who function as lofty aristocrats, removed from the faculty members who actually advise students and oversee dissertation research. Professors who won’t answer emails or meet with students are worse than useless. They encourage a selfish atmosphere that injures their less famous but more committed colleagues.”

So, he encourages you to consider the entire faculty and not just a single, big-name professor. (By the way, I think this is both more and less of an issue in the UK. Because you’ll be working very closely with just one person, the overall quality of the faculty is not quite as important. But, this also means that the quality and availability of your supervisor is even more important.)

One of his more interesting points was that a good theology programs “needs to stand for something.” I think his point here is that a quality program will not just have a hodgepodge of different professors, but will comprise a group of relatively like-minded individuals working from a common vision. Although you want enough difference to make it a lively place for discussion, a common stance facilitates the kind of creative cooperation that makes for a vibrant learning community.

Education in its fullest sense “will never issue,” as John Henry Newman wrote, “from the most strenuous efforts of a set of teachers with no mutual sympathies and no intercommunion.”

And, of course, he concludes with his ranking of theology programs.

1. (tie) Duke and Notre Dame

3. Princeton Seminary

4. Wycliff College (Toronto School of Theology)

5. Catholic University of America

6. Marquette University

7. Boston College

8. Yale University

9. Perkins School of Theology (Southern Methodist University)

10. Up-and-coming programs (Wheaton College, Ave Maria University, University of Dayton)

Do schools have an obligation to make sure there’s a job market?

I was intrigued by a recent Inside Higher Ed article discussing a Boston College law student with an unusual proposal.

An anonymous Boston College law student has published an open letter asking his dean to let him leave the law school without a diploma this semester (two and a half years into the program) in return for getting his tuition money back. The student writes that he was convinced to go to law school by “empty promises of a fulfilling and remunerative career,” and that now he faces the likely prospect of huge debts and no decent job.

My initial reaction was to think that it’s really the student’s responsibility to check out the job market and understand whether the cost of the education is justified given the education received (which surely has at least some value by itself) and the vocational prospects.

But, as I reflected just  bit further, I started to see it rather differently. I’m not sure how many people graduate every year with their PhDs in Bible or theology, but I do know that they far outstrip the number of teaching positions that are available to them. (That may change in the future with the impending retirements of a large percentage of Bible/theology faculty and the long hoped for economic recovery; but those changes may also be outweighed by technological advances and the changing economic models for many schools.) That means that there are quite a few doctoral programs out there who know full well that the job market cannot sustain the number of graduates that they’re producing. Yet, those same doctoral programs don’t seem to be reducing the number of applicants they accept as a result. Instead, these doctoral programs continue and new ones crop up with some regularity.

What do you think? Do schools have any obligation to adjust their admissions practices based on the likelihood that their graduates will find a job? Or, do they at least have an obligation to make the reality of the job market clear to prospects and/or make job-placement data publicly available? Or, is the responsibility entirely on the student?

The Rise and Fall of Accreditation in America

One of the first things that I had to learn about when I became an academic dean was the world of accreditation. What is it? What’s it for? Why do I seem to spend so much time on it? A recent position paper by The Center for College Affordability and Productivity does a very nice job of summarizing the history and purpose of accreditation in America, along with its greatest challenges, most troubling failures, and the likelihood of significant changes in the future. The report, “The Inmates Running the Asylum: An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation,” is worth at least a quick skim if you want to understand the accreditation world better. And, if you’re involved (or would like to be involved) in higher education, accreditation is something you should know at least something about.

The authors begin with a pretty pointed summary of their view on modern accreditation.

If the nation were starting afresh on accreditation, we predict it would devise a radically different system than the one it has become over the past century. Would we have multiple regional accrediting agencies? We doubt it. Would the accreditors be private entities largely controlled by individuals themselves affiliated with the institutions that they certify? We doubt it. Would accreditation largely be “an-all-ornothing”proposition, where institutions are simply “accredited” or “non-accredited” with few distinctions in between? We doubt it. Would an accrediting mechanism be permitted where key elements of the assessment are not available for public review? We doubt it. Would accrediting that sometimes emphasizes inputs rather than outcomes be permitted? Again, we doubt it. In short, there are numerous characteristics of today’s system of accreditation that are subject to questioning and criticism. (1)

The authors do a nice job explaining the four eras in the historical development of accreditation (pre-1936, 1936-1952, 1952-1985, and 1085-present). The most helpful part here was their explanation of how accreditation shifted from being a largely voluntary, self-governing process in the early years, to one focused on meeting certain standards in order to be eligible for government funding after the passage of the GI Bill (1944, 1952) and the Higher Education Act (1965). The authors then assess how successful accreditation has been in each era with regard to a number of factors:

  • Quality Improvement
  • Quality Assurance (defining appropriate measures of quality, certifying minimum quality, informing the public)
  • Promoting the Health and Efficiency of Higher Education (preserving historical strengths, promoting efficiency)

In each case, they argue that accreditation practices were generally more effective in the earlier years when accreditation was voluntary and not connected to federal funding.

One of the more interesting aspects of the article was their contention that modern accreditation largely fails because it’s trying to serve two, mutually exclusive purposes. First, accreditation tries to promote institutional development. Having just been through an accreditation visit not too long ago, I can attest to the fact that one of the primary emphases is on helping the institution improve at what the institution claims it is trying to do. And, given the diversity of educational institutions, these purposes and goals are determined by each school. So, the school determines the target and the accreditors come along side to help the school get better at hitting its target. Indeed, one of the reasons that the accreditation process is largely confidential is because accreditors want/need to the schools to disclose candidly their areas of weakness so they can facilitate improvement.

That’s all well and good until you realize that a second purpose of accreditation is supposed to be quality control. Quality control isn’t about helping a school improve; it’s about measuring whether a school is performing up to some minimal level of expectation. And, quality control isn’t for the benefit of the institution (primarily), but for the benefit of the public. Quality control serves to determine which institutions are performing satisfactorily so that they should continue receiving government funds for the benefit of society. For quality control to work in this sense, though, it would seem that you need clear standards of acceptable performance that transcend institutional differences and are publicly available.

Somewhat surprisingly (to me), the authors end up arguing that the second function, quality control, is the one that needs to remain the primary emphasis for accreditation moving forward. They make this argument partly from a rather pragmatic perspective. Federal funding for higher education isn’t going away, and as long as it’s around, there will be a need for some kind of quality control mechanism. Since modern accreditation is simply incapable of handling that task, they argue that it needs to be jettisoned and a completely new system put in its place. But, they also think that higher education needs to focus much more on measuring student learning and performance as the primary indicator of success. So, they argue for the creation of clearer, discipline-specific standards for learning that could be used to measure quality across institutions.