“To the casual observer, an academic conference must appear to be one of the strangest of modern rituals.”

13 12 2011

I believe that the anonymous author of the blog “100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School” is an absolute bloody genius, and certainly more deserving of higher education industry-wide fame than that Pannapacker dude. To me, this post on academic conferences (#74 for those of us who are counting) stands out as the crème de la crème of one of the great academic blogs of all time:

The ostensible purpose of an academic conference is to provide a forum in which scholars present and critique research. Rarely, however, is the emptiness of academe put on more public display than in the context of an academic conference.

To the casual observer, an academic conference must appear to be one of the strangest of modern rituals. At various sessions, speakers present their own research by reading aloud to an audience. Someone who has attended a full day of sessions will have listened to people reading for five or six hours. How well do you suppose the audience members are listening? They sit politely and at least pretend to listen, because when their own turn comes to stand up and read aloud, they would like others to extend the same courtesy to them. Sparks fly occasionally during question time, which can be mean-spirited or (less often) enlightening, but decorous boredom is typically the order of the day.

I have already come out against reading conference papers here and here. To me, the sort of bemused detachment present in reason #74 really drives home how stupid reading a script for twenty minutes would look to anyone but an academic. Indeed, as my brother the economist loves to point out, absolutely nobody in his profession ever does this. Therefore, it’s actually just a few of us academics from a limited number of disciplines who seem to like to torture one another. Seriously, would you ever consider teaching this way? Ever? Then why subject your colleagues to this kind of cruel and unusual punishment?

That said, as I’ve been not reading papers at a lot of conferences lately, I’ve noticed another really interesting development that has to do with technology. Powerpoint is now practically required at all the conference sessions I’ve attended lately. If you’re a participant in the session (or even if you just go in about ten minutes before start time) everybody will be dutifully loading their presentations onto someone’s laptop so that they too can seem as 21st century as possible.

Yet they still read their papers from a script. I am always part of that PowerPoint ritual when I do papers now, but I have resolved to do conference presentations the same way I teach lecture courses. The slides are almost entirely pictures (with the occasional film clip) and they serve as prompts for me to talk off the cuff about my topic. I do not read anything verbatim.

My colleagues who read their papers, on the other hand, have to stop their reading in the middle to advance the slideshow and talk about what’s on the slide. This seldom jibes with whatever they happen to be reading at that moment, making the entire exercise even more awkward than simply standing up and reading from your script. At least if you go totally old school, there’s no chance of getting lost. Clarity inevitably suffers otherwise.

The other funny thing about PowerPoint in conferences is how the whole layout of sessions has to change in order to accomodate the technology. If everyone is showing PowerPoints and the screen is at the front, then the entire panel has to sit in the audience in order to see them. Those waterglasses on the front table? Useless. And do we really need all those chairs up front for just ten minutes of questions?

Yet there the old setup remains, which should make the entire ritual of the academic conference seem even stranger to any casual non-academic observer who cared enough to visit. By the way, did I mention that I’m going to the AHA in Chicago this year? Just try to tell me that going to Chicago in January isn’t bizarre. I dare you.



6 responses

17 12 2011
Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

[…] “To the casual observer, an academic conference must appear to be one of the strangest of modern r… […]

17 12 2011

Hear hear! I couldn’t agree more. So many of the conventions of the conference act to prevent what they claim to promote. One of the most useful experiences I had, although it wasn’t much fun at the time, was when a bloke in the audience after one of my presentations said he disagreed with me and then outlined why. The chair rushed it to try and make him ask me a question. But he didn’t want to question me, he wanted to challenge the talk. That was a clarifying experience for me.

I just discovered this blog via the Zunguzungu Sunday Supplement. Look forward to reading more. And enjoy Chicago!

7 01 2012
A disaster of biblical proportions, ctd. « More or Less Bunk

[…] all the time and I’ll never defend reading anything at your students. [If I don't want you to read your conference papers, why would I want you to read your […]

18 04 2012
“Sclemeel, schlemazel, hasenfeffer incorporated.” « More or Less Bunk

[…] on the program. If you’re there, you can come say hello when I don’t read a paper about the origins of the American ice industry at 1:30PM on Friday. However, I wouldn’t blame […]

18 04 2012
Barbara Sullivan

You made me laugh! And thanks for this explanation–having just returned from my first academic conference, I was puzzling over why all these teachers were reading out loud to each other. It was like Twilight Zone! The most interesting ones abandoned script at some point, like getting rid of a tie or a pair of high heels, but I don’t think anyone came to the party in jeans.

6 05 2013
The “Down With MOOCs” World Tour, 2013-14. | More or Less Bunk

[…] a longstanding principle, I promise I will not read my speech/conference paper like a script. I do, however, need to write […]

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