It’s always a good thing when something you write contributes to eloquent writing by others, and Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time has certainly done that in part due to what I wrote about reading papers at conferences earlier today. Given Dr. Crazy’s choices, I pick:
“b.) “I know! Isn’t it outrageous! I am ashamed of the conventions of my discipline and I think it’s all a bunch of old-fashioned hogwash!”“
Nevertheless, I’ll see what I can add here in response.
Reading Dr. Crazy and the supportive commentators in the comments there, it seems like the core of the pro-reading argument is this:
Every single word in that 15-20 minutes that comes out of my mouth counts to my audience because my primary agenda is not to communicate information but rather to demonstrate how my mind got to my particular interpretation and to convince the audience that how my mind works can assist their own engagement with a literary text.
Maybe it’s a disciplinary thing, but when I go to a conference I actually pick panels where I can get new information. It’s impossible to learn the history of absolutely everything, so I look forward to learning about new things that I don’t know about already. [Oddly enough, that’s why I read history outside my field as well.] Once the presenters slice of individual research has been presented, I look for connections to the whole overarching story of US History (I think those English Professors call that a meta-narrative) so I know how best to file that bit of information away for future use. I’ve seen plenty of great panels during which historians mimicked Dr. Crazy’s ideal of showing me how they think, but what I remember is their arguments in general, not the precise wording used to express them.
While I wish we academics were somehow more attentive than other people, the truth is that we are just as human as anyone else. Stick us in a room with a boring speaker at the podium and we will all reach for our iPhones and Blackberries, just like our students do. Personally, I pack mine away at conferences so that I won’t be tempted, but admit it: You’ve seen others do this in the last few years. Why am I going here? I’m going here because the rules of public speaking are not somehow suspended because the room is full of professors and grad students. We are all under an obligation to engage our audiences and reading your conference paper is like starting out with one hand tied behind your back.
There’s one other part of what Dr. Crazy wrote that’s worth a response here:
I’ll admit, I get kind of bored with claims that the way my field does things is wrong or out-of-touch, claims that are most typically made by people outside of my field who have no clue about what “research” or the presentation of it means in my field. And I also get bored with people in my or other humanities fields who think that they are in some way superior if they choose to present in another format that doesn’t involve reading aloud.
I’m guessing that includes me. I certainly don’t claim to be superior to people who read their scripts, because I only just started weaning myself away from the printed page and don’t do it that well yet. Indeed, I keep a few notes to keep myself on track, just like I do in lecture. I wish I spoke better this way than I do, but at least I’m trying and I know that my trying is already paying off.
I just started giving book talks (for this book, if anyone’s interested) to regular, plain-old people around Southern Colorado who are just interested in history. Talking through my research in a engaging way (at least I hope it’s an engaging way) for other academics has helped me explain my research to non-academics, and I think communicating with as many people as possible about history is a good thing. Don’t you?
If everyone else just wants to talk amongst themselves, then please be my guest. Just don’t expect anyone outside of Academia to ever listen attentively.