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Reading v Talking

I wonder if it wouldn't be possible to pull up all of the blog entries about the horrors of reading one's conference presentations, aggregate them, and thereby arrive at a pretty solid map of the major conferences in the humanities. Seems like there are pretty predictable times when such complaints make their way across the blogosphere. With NCTE, NCA, and MLA on the immediate horizon here in Rhetopia, perhaps I'm just more sensitive to these kinds of posts.

You see, I'm a reader, even though I've experimented in the past couple of years with actually talking in lieu of reading. But I'm also a writer who understands the difference between writing something to be heard and writing something to be read. Rather than the regular calls from converted science types (who express their utter astonishment at the dearth of presentational skills among their humanities colleagues) to be more like them and less like ourselves, it'd be refreshing to see more posts that plumbed the depths of that middle space between speed reading an essay intended for eye-not-ear on the one hand and stand-up scholarship on the other.

As snoozy as it can be to hear 3 20-minute reads from folk unprepared for listeners, it can be no less frustrating to hear a breezy talk that never dips below the level of PP slides, generalities, and sound bytes. There's a lot that is in between, and I think that we'd be better served in general by finding some happy medium.

I'm a big believer in trying to create opportunities for practice, particularly in our graduate program where some students may be attending conferences for the first time. It's not enough to just tell them to practice, practice, practice. Every year, we invite several of our current students to practice their presentations during a session that's part of annual recruiting weekend. That means that at least part of their audience is made up of strangers, that they have a deadline prior to the week of the conference, and that they have a head start on visualizing their presentations. I think of this as a program responsibility.

Sharing the best practices that we (who have been around the presentation block more than a few times) have discovered wouldn't be a bad thing either. I try really hard to restrict myself to 1 major claim support by 2-3 points in my talks. I generally don't spend time delivering evidence in presentations (saving it for followups). And I find real value in narrating the presentation as part of the presentation (aka signposting). In recent years, I've turned more towards visual aids (either Keynote or handouts), but that's partly because my interests have turned more towards visualizable work. In some cases, I use Keynote to compose, which helps me think in terms of pacing.

But I think the biggest cause of bad presentations has nothing to do with rhetorical skill or inexperience, and isn't addressed by advice like this. I think that there's very little space in our academic priorities for presentation zen, and so we tend to prepare at the last minute, and underprepare. Then, when we're mediocre (and believe me, that's more often than not for me), we engage in the kinds of distancing practices that our students do (like waiting until the last minute, so that we can "excuse" our mediocrity). It's a cycle, and I think it stems in large part from the disposability of conference presentation scholarship, from the way that "getting on" the program is more important than what one does once one is there, etc.

I have to admit that a turning point for me was when I attended CCCC in Denver. I wasn't on the program, and thus had to spend my own money to get there and hang out. Without someone else footing the bill, all of a sudden I was hyperconscious of the fact that I'd spent more than a thousand bucks to be there. When I went to a panel, I was paying for the experience. And when I saw a bad presentation, and I saw a few, I felt no guilt whatsoever about standing up and leaving. I'm not always perfect about this, but I try and write for the person who's spent hir own money to attend my session--that's what I try to live up to when I prepare a presentation. It's not a bad goal, all things considered.

If that ethic were instilled in us as part of our graduate training, to treat our audience as though they'd paid to see us, I bet conference presentations, read or spoken, would be less of a problem.

That's all.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Reading v Talking:

» What he said... from DawgNotes
Thanks to Collin for a great post about papers at conferences. I'm at NCA this week, about which I will have more to say, but for now let me just comment that the paper deliveries I've seen here were refreshing... [Read More]

» It must be conference season from New Kid on the Hallway
Because people are talking about conference presentations. Recently, Dr. Free-Ride/Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science wrote a post asking philosophers to stop reading papers at conferences, and Collin Brooke of Collin vs. Blog defended... [Read More]


This is an interesting post to think about with impending job visits too (for me, both listening & giving), not only conferences.

Well put, Collin. I know that I have been guilty of cutting corners with presentations once in a while, especially if I have taken on too may speaking engagements. I'll prepare too many slides, have too many points to convey, and end up with not enough time to pull them together as cogently or as coherently as they deserve. Your post makes me vow to take on fewer talks and to devote more time to each one and to limit myself to a few good points rather than trying to take on the world.

Excellent post indeed, and one I intend to share with my students.

You may have seen this Valve post. While I think it's kind of overblown generally, I do agree wholeheartedly with this part:

"Nothing is more deadly that someone devoting 15 of their 20 minutes to intellectual throat-clearing and scene-setting and then cramming the 15-page core of their argument into the last five minutes. It doesn’t work. I repeat: I doesn’t work."

Totally. I just got back from SAMLA, and I saw more than I wanted to of this.


I've always been dependent on reading aloud from a prepared script. I find myself more and more, though, moving to a prepared outline that guides me through PPT slides that present a strong argument. It's working well for me—and, I think, for the audience. But to pull that off means you really have to know your stuff. Which means that I wouldn't really recommend it to inexperienced speakers or inexperienced scholars.

Do you all see any connection to the act of teaching? I'm someone who prepares by writing a draft and then an outline and then using the outline to guide, rather than control, the talk. I teach best by moving around the classroom and engaging the students in a dialogue, so it's second nature for me to talk with a group of people, move around and scan the room to see if everyone's getting it. I like to present what I know in the context of bringing in other people's ideas.
But I teach at a CC not a research university, so that may color my style.

So here is the BIG question: are there times (or topics)when one style is more appropriate than the other?

I think so, J. I think that there are times, esp in the humanities, where we do textual work that can't easily be translated to the "talk." We can thin out the quotes, or put em on a handout, but there's a certain amount of our work that's precise enough to warrant scripting, I think. But I may just be rationalizing.

Re the connection with teaching, bc I think there is one, I tend to move away from strict planning (and/or scripting) the further along I get--that's one of the ways I deal with my perpetual stage fright, by scripting. So while it's easy for people to say "just talk!" in a conference setting, it runs counter to my speaking and teaching style to a pretty high degree. The folk who dismiss us readers rarely take into account those questions of personal style and confidence that affect both classroom presence and conference presentations (at least for me)...


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