Look, yes, there are things wrong with conferences

…but you don’t have to be a dick about it. (Though at times honestly it’s not clear whether the object of derision is the narrator or the people he describes; nonetheless, since it’s the Chronicle, which specializes in columns about academia by unhappy academics, often playing to the anti-intellectualism of some crowd of people who the editors of the Chronicle presumably wish had liked them more in high school (none of whom actually read the Chronicle, naturally), I am inclined toward a harsher judgment.)

I agree that the conference paper format in literary and cultural studies ought to be rethought (as at ACL(x), here). In fact I would pay for an outright ban on the following:

  1. Going over your time limit.
  2. Reading aloud from your Powerpoint slide (unless it’s a quotation that you’re addressing

I personally no longer read written remarks aloud, either for conference papers or for 45-minute talks. I have discovered that I am not a good reader of my own work. What happens is that I get bored while I’m reading, since I already know what I’ve written; then I start worrying that the audience is bored; then I start reading faster and faster because I’m afraid it’s terrible.

So instead I extemporize from handwritten notes or hand-drawn Powerpoint slides. The adrenaline rush I get from being close to running out of things to say keeps me fully engaged with the presentation, and the energy level is as a result much better. The result looks a lot like my teaching (and has the same strengths and weaknesses–more on this below!).

But I have heard excellent readers (Homi Bhabha and Jane Gallop both read very well, for very different reasons). And I have heard lots of perfectly fine readers. I don’t think that, in general, listening to three people read papers is the best way to spend an hour, but it’s hard to see what the alternatives would be in a world where not everyone has an iPad. (In a world with universal iPads, one solution: everyone who walks into the room gets a copy of the papers, and everyone reads silently for 30 minutes; at the end of 30 minutes, discussion begins… voila! You’ve flipped the balance from 90 percent listening, 10 percent dialogue, to 40 percent reading, 60 percent dialogue… This is one way to take advantage of the fact that everyone’s in the room.)

In fact that little bit in parentheses expresses pretty clearly the ideologies of my preference, namely that if you’re going to get people in a room, then you ought to take advantage of that fact. One way to do so involves giving a fully embodied presentation (something more “live” than reading aloud something written to be read silently), and another involves maximizing discussion. So we should be thinking about ways to do both of those things.


p.s. On strengths and weaknesses: I strongly recommend that anyone trying to extemporize a full talk really work hard on two things:

  1. the first few sentences and
  2. the last paragraph

There’s an absolute ton of rhetorical pressure on both moments. When my extemporaneous talks go poorly it’s almost always because I screw up the ending.

When you’re teaching this is easier because you have about a 7-minute window at the end of class and so if you are feeling your way towards a close you can manage the problem either by quitting early or by adding another two minutes’ worth of stuff and finishing a bit late (that is, you’re managing the feel and tone, and judging your own finish relative to the crowd’s mood; the point is to call it quits at the right moment or to realize you need to do more before you can call it quits).

With talks the time pressure and the window (especially on the back end, where you don’t want to go over; when you extemporize everyone expects you to, so it’s imperative not to do so) is much tighter. The answer is to make sure that you have something that you can read at the very end (or, better, have something that you’ve rehearsed, so that you avoid the awkward transition to reading) so that you handle the close well. Otherwise you just trail off into a weird kind of blather (“…and so that’s all I have to say about that”), or, slightly less awkwardly, you end up producing a finish that would work if you had realized, as you were saying it, that it was a finish, but since you didn’t you didn’t give it the right inflection and so you end up having to do another paragraph at a moment when you don’t have too much to say.

The open is less crucial; as a result, you can usually just swing it with the right kind of energy, but it does sometimes help to have it written out.

One thought on “Look, yes, there are things wrong with conferences

  1. Eric, you capture perfectly something I’ve always felt– that it’s best to leave something still rough or undecided, so that you can do that last bit of polishing while onstage; the risk of failure keeps you awake and perhaps some of the nervous energy transfers to the public. There’s a proportion though. I can remember only once when I completely and utterly blacked out, had nothing to say but reiteration of the title. That time, I was speaking in Chinese, so I had a multiple excuse.

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