Conference Paper Proposal Assignment


Your first professional scholarly activity will likely be a conference.  Conferences are wonderful opportunities to share your ongoing research, get feedback on your work, find out what other people in your field are working on, talk to peers, network with more senior people in the field, and talk to publishers at the book fair.  To give a paper at a conference, you first have to submit a proposal (also known as an abstract and sometimes a proposal abstract).  Dr. Karen Kelsky defines the proposal thus:  “Usually between 200 and 500 words long, it is a short abstract that describes research/a talk/a journal article that you are GOING to write.   This [genre] is in contrast to the abstract of the research/dissertation/article that you have already written” (  The conference proposal and subsequent conference paper are often steps along the way to a print publication.  I don’t wholly agree with Dr. Kelsky’s six-step formula – she is a social scientist while I am a humanist —  but you can compare our respective approaches and decide which one works best for your paper.

Learning Outcomes

  • To familiarize yourself with the genre of the conference proposal.
  • To refine your RQs and make your claim(s) with more certainty.
  • To start relating what you say to what other critics have said.


Submit a 250-500 word proposal for a 20-minute conference paper.  Follow my six-step formula or Dr. Kelsky’s formula.  Here’s my formula:

  1. Problem: State the problem, puzzle, new discovery, and/or critical oversight that inspired your question(s). [Since your question may well emerged from primary source(s) and/or from criticism, it’s often appropriate to mention names and titles right away.]
  2. Questions: State the question(s) that you will answer in this paper.
  3. Answer: Indicate your answer(s) to this question.  In the proposal, it’s okay to reverse your answer and methodology, depending on what works better for your material.
  4. Methodology: State your methodology.  Note that there are two simple ways to ensure that your work is new:  (1) Apply a new reading strategy[1] to an old text or an old problem; (2) Apply a familiar reading strategy to a new text or a new problem.  As you state your methodology, highlight what is new about your approach. [If your methodology depends on work done by other critics, cite them here.]
  5. Materials: Indicate which texts or which data you will examine.  What are your primary research subjects/materials?  Note that your primary texts may be critical texts if the critical texts themselves are the objects of your inquiry. [Here is another logical point to cite your primary sources.]
  6. Importance: Say why we need to answer this question, and how your answer changes scholarship.


  • Deploy concrete verbs. (See my list of active verbs.)
  • Use the first person judiciously. In our discipline, “I argue…” is often better than “This paper argues….”  Remember, however, that your paper is about ideas, not about you, so you shouldn’t need to begin every sentence with “I.”
  • Be assertive. “I argue that…” is always better than “I think that….”
  • Here’s a list of just a few reading strategies (i.e., methodologies), many of which are already very familiar to you:
    • compare two texts
    • locate a text within a tradition
    • bring new information to bear on something
    • read the text biographically as the utterance of a particular author
    • read the text socially as the product of a cultural moment
    • read the text as it would have been read and/or received by its first reader(s) or by particular readers at any particular point in the history of the transmission of the text
    • put the text/author into a new context (e.g., other works printed by the same printer, other works owned by a particular collector/library)

How does my Conference Proposal differ from my Research Question Assignment?

Research Question Assignment Conference Proposal
Statement of the research question or problem as you now see it.  Give enough context for me to help you. Refined statement of the research question.  Give enough context to engage your reader’s interest and curiosity.  Make the reader want an answer to this question as much as you do!


Tentative answering claim  or claims (thesis). State your answering claim with confidence.


Tentative methodology State your methodology with confidence.  “I look at X, Y, and Z.”  “I apply X’s notion of the spatial turn to two representative texts on each side of the year 1600.”


Bibliography (a list) with summary-style annotations (neutral). Explain how your claim relates to other claims made by prior scholars.  Not a list but a narrative.

Not a neutral summary but a “they say, I say” statement.