With the AAA deadline more or less past and our minds are on the conference, it might be useful to talk a little bit about what makes a good AAA paper and how to make a good one. Here are my opinions on this subject:
AAA papers matter more than publications: AAA papers are the consommé of our academic inventory of soups and stocks. They are short, so it is easier for people to digest them than publications. Your presentation is not even mostly about the paper, but mostly about you as a person — whether you are ‘smart’ or ‘interesting’ or a ‘comer’ or not. Articles do not allow people to size you up in this way. And, realistically, even in very small sessions, more people may closely attend to your paper than ever get around the scrutinizing your articles. Above all, at AAA you make a flesh-and-blood on people, people who may later be interviewing you for jobs, evaluating you for tenure, or giving you research money. The bad news is that for some reason we treat these papers as the least important form of scholarly publication when, sociologically speaking, they are the most important. The good news is that you now know this while all the in the room do not, so now you have the advantage.
Take it seriously: don’t be a total moron and “write your paper on the plane”. You don’t get to be good at anything by doing it sloppily at the last minute, over and over again. Take the time you need to work on it. This will be easy because…
Seven pages, twenty minutes: AA papers are 20 minutes long, more or less. It takes three minutes to read a page of double-spaced 12 point Times New Roman. Your paper should be 7 pages long. Not 8 pages, and not 6 pages unless you then proceedeth to 7. Don’t come to the meetings with a 50 page dissertation chapter and expect the thing to magically cut itself down to 7 pages magically before your eyes as you stand at the podium during your session.
Think about your evidence: qualitative data takes time and space to layout, which is why anthropologists write long-form monographs. In most cases participant-observation is resistant to tabulation, and I can guarentee no one at AAAs is going to ask you what P is for your study. This means that you will have the freedom to make whatever claims you want in your paper regardless of the quality and amount of your evidence.
With 7 pages to work with, you have roughly 1.5 pages to introduce and conclude and 4 pages to make your case. This is a ridiculously compressed amount of space/time. The good news is that it focuses you to figure out what your point actually is and allows you to dwell on the broad relevance of your findings. The bad news is that you must resist spending four pages just describing where your fieldsite is. Remember: because of length, evidence in AAA papers is decorative and exemplary, a promissory note for the whole story.
I’d suggest either analyzing one single event or case study, or else focusing on three things/conclusions/themes and spending a page and change on each of them. Keep it tight, and remember to include only the details you need to make your point. This will probably be challenging because 1) it is too hard for you to be reductive due to your holistic, particularizing impulses or 2) you have no idea what you actually want to say. Regardless, remember that the evidence is there to make a point, and that your presentation must be point driven.
Read your paper out loud: Remember, a AAA paper is a performance the same way someone on stage doing The Vagina Monologues is a performance. The paper is your script. Read it aloud for twenty minutes, and make it as engaging as The Vagina Monologues except (probably) with less vaginas and more anthropology.
Many people — mostly those with no background in the performing arts — argue that you should never ‘read your paper’ because doing so is ‘boring’. This is just stupid talk. You know what’s boring? Someone going off script telling us what their paper says when it’s right there in front of them delivering an oral presentation full of “um”s and “I guess my point is”s. If you paid fifty bucks to go see Vagina Monologues and the actor stopped halfway through and decided to improvise their own monologue loosely based on the actual monologue, would you give them tenure?
Of course, when you read your paper you should not suck at doing it. Write the paper as if it were a monologue instead of dense academic prose — no one wants to read dense academic prose, much less listen to it. Read it as if it were a monologue. Project, stand up straight, make eye contact, read at a reasonable pace, all that kind of stuff. You could even try rehearsing before you perform if you were feeling really ambitious. In fact, the best way to present would be to just memorize your talk so that you don’t need a paper, but this is usually more trouble than it’s worth.
Revise: 7 pages is totally nothing. Revise constantly. In fact, why don’t you pound out your 7 page draft now, let it sit for a couple of months, and then pick it up a month or two before AAAs? I guarantee it will result in a better finished product. I’ve already written my first draft of my AAA paper.
In sum, AAA papers are so important, and yet so terrible that it should be easy to produce a good one: with the bar this low, how much trouble will you have jumping over it? Do the world a favor and reduce the suck quotient at AAA panels by following these simple pieces of advice today, so we can have a better world tomorrow.