Monday, April 26, 2010

The Conference Paper, or The Emphasis in Some Disciplines on Reading Aloud

I read the comment thread to this post over at Historiann's with interest, and the conversation turned to the convention in many humanities disciplines to "read" our papers, as opposed to "talking" them. (See also this post by Jonathan Rees.) I thought that it might be worthwhile to do a post that actually addresses that issue explicitly, because this is not the first time I've seen this conversation happen online, and it's a conversation that I've had frequently with real life colleagues outside of my discipline.

The conversation typically goes something like this.

Non-humanities person: "OMG! You actually read to each other?!?! WTF!?!?"

And then the humanities-type person responds with one of the following:

a.) "[mumble, mumble] um, yeah [mumble, mumble]"
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!"
d.) "We do, and there are some benefits to it [and then the person enumerates the benefits]."
e.) "We like to rock it out old school in the way of monks! [hardy-har-har]"

So in order to move beyond the above responses (and I most frequently choose e, in case you were wondering), I want to talk a bit about why I think reading aloud is appropriate for the research that I present, and how the skill of reading aloud actually does translate into other parts of my professional life. (Because you know what? It totally does, contrary to what the haters of reading conference papers aloud say.)

1. I am not at all saying that reading aloud would be appropriate in all disciplines, or even that it is the most appropriate format for presenting all research in my own discipline.
2. I am not saying that sometimes listening to somebody read a paper doesn't suck.
3. I am not at all saying that a conference paper that is read should be written identically to something that one submits for publication.
4. Now, obviously, I'm coming from English, so my comments on the issue of reading conference papers is coming from that disciplinary perspective. I welcome my other humanities peeps to offer their insights in the comments about what their individual disciplines value and how that translates into what happens at conferences.

The Values and Substance of Scholarship in a Discipline

I think we need to begin by talking about what "research" means across and even within disciplines - what our primary motivations, our primary sources, and our methods are. Even within the broader discipline of English, there are times when it is less appropriate to read a paper, but this all depends on the primary motivations, sources, and methods that are being engaged. If one's research focuses on archival materials to which you are trying to introduce your audience, pedagogical research that engages some of the methodologies of social sciences fields, or research related to the field of rhetoric and composition that can also sometimes trend toward more social-science-y methods, then reading aloud for 15-20 minutes is not necessarily the best way to present the material. Why? Well, because the point of such a presentation is about introducing something to an audience that they've never seen before, and then "talking them through" the implications of this new discovery.


Let's say one is doing scholarship in literary studies that is not archival or pedagogical in nature, as mine generally isn't. When I present at a conference, my "primary source" material is generally quite familiar to my audience - or if it's not, all it would take would be a quick trip to the bookstore or library for an audience member to rectify that. I am not presenting "data" that I myself (or I in conjunction with a team) has generated to prove or disprove a hypothesis, nor am I presenting a brand new text that no one has ever seen before, nor am I presenting some practical innovation (in terms of pedagogy or in terms of technology). I am not modeling something that I discovered through experimentation, nor am I attempting to offer visuals that exemplify a particular phenomenon.

What I am offering, instead, is an interpretation. The source material isn't new, and typically the audience will have at least passing familiarity with the source material that I engage (whether we're talking about the literature itself, the theory that I use to read the literature, or the critical conversation that influences my reading of the literature), and so all that really matters, at the end of the day, is my argument about all of the above, how I bring it all together.

And this, I think, is where reading as a presentation method becomes essential. What my audience values is the interpretation that I put forward and the precise and specific structure of argument and analysis that I engage in order to make legitimate that interpretation. They don't come to see my panel so that I can teach them about the literature or introduce them to something that they've never encountered before. Instead, they come to my panel so that they can perhaps find a new way of seeing something with which they are already quite familiar (whether that familiarity is with the approach I take to an unfamiliar-to-them text or whether that familiarity is with the text itself and not with the approach).

In other words, the "new knowledge" that I offer as a result of my research is more about combination or approach than about "discovery," if that makes sense. And with that being the case, precision is all, and reading offers a pathway toward that precision. 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.

A Real Life Example
Once upon a time, I presented a paper of mine at MLA. This paper was on The Most Famous Book Ever by Author X, on a panel sponsored by the Author X Society. Every single person in the audience had likely read this Famous Book, as well as the attending scholarship on it, and most in the audience had published their own articles not only on MFBE but also on other works in Author X's oeuvre. If I had gotten up there and talked my way through the presentation, showing slides with evocative quotations from MFBE and conversationally described my understanding of the novel and the criticism of it, this would have contributed absolutely nothing to the 30-year-long critical conversation about the novel. Further, I think it would have irritated people who'd been working on the novel intensively. I mean, dude, they know the novel backwards and forwards, and they know the gist of the critical conversation because they started it and continue to participate in it. Most of them in the audience were there not because they gave a crap about my paper but rather because they just wanted to see their friends. My job was not to alert them to some new discovery I'd made about the novel, or to synthesize all of the conversations about it (that had already been done) but rather to offer a new interpretation that would make them sit up and take notice. A pretty daunting task, given the audience, right? And any missing step in my logic or analysis would have immediately given them permission to check out.

So imagine my surprise when I got an email from an editor (an Author X scholar from the early days of Author X scholarship) who was in the audience, asking me to submit a polished version of the paper for consideration for Very Good Journal. The email went something like this: "When I attended the panel, I really hadn't expected to hear anything new about MFBE, given the fact that I've worked on it for 30 years and written multiple books on it. I just wanted to see my old friends who would also be at the panel. But your paper made me see the book in a new way, and I'd really like it if you submitted a full-length version for VGJ to consider." (The email was actually a good deal longer than that, and went on a lot about how the editor really thought there was nothing new to be said about MFBE, and went on a lot less about my awesomeness than my redacted version above indicates.)

My point here is that in my scholarly world, since all that really matters is the interpretation and convincing an Audience Who Knows, extreme care in presentation really, really matters. I don't care how great of a talker one is (and I'm a pretty good talker, if I do say so myself), I don't believe that anyone can exercise that extreme care that my field requires in talking through a presentation. The time for talking through one's research is in the Q and A after the panel, or at the reception or cocktail party that evening. Not in the time allotted for one's formal presentation of research.

[Note: there are a lot of times when "talking through a presentation" is exactly what's called for even in terms of my own research - in the classroom, at an internal research colloquium to people outside of the field, etc. I'm not saying that this is a skill I don't need. Just that in my experience it's not the only skill I need.]

The Difference between a Written/Read Conference Presentation and Writing for Publication

All of the above being said, a conference presentation that one reads must be very, very different from writing that is of publishable quality, if it is to work effectively as a presentation. The conference paper is its own genre, and it needs to be treated as such. It's important to remember that your audience is "hearing" your paper - not seeing it on the page - and it's important to remember that, as Michael Berube reminded me once when I was whining about writing a conference paper on this blog, you only have time to fully develop maybe half of an idea in a conference paper.

An engaging conference paper that one reads, as far as I can tell, involves the following things:
  • A real attention to the specific audience whom one will address. Is the audience likely to be familiar with the literary text and author on which your paper focuses? If so, jettison most plot summary and extraneous background material about the author. Is the audience likely to be more general? If so, you've got to offer a good amount of sign-posting so that the audience doesn't get lost.
  • Clarity and simplicity in terms of use of language (both word choice and sentence construction) and the structure of argument. Since people don't have the paper in front of them, you can't expect them to remain engaged with the paper if it's weighed down with tons of jargon, convoluted sentence structure, or confusing organization of ideas.
  • Making sure that your paper doesn't feel "read" but rather that it feels "performed." Reading a conference paper should feel more like auditioning for a play than it should feel like being forced to read something aloud in class when you're in ninth grade. In other words, performing the paper requires animation and interaction with the audience (eye contact, pauses for effect or to allow the audience to react, and if one is comfortable a planned aside or two, and as one prepares to present the paper, one needs to allow time for those things to happen so that one doesn't go over time).
  • Understanding that your paper starts a conversation and that it's not a finished, polished nugget. One needs to leave room for questions, as well as to anticipate how one might address those questions should they come up. The audience should feel like they want to talk after listening to your paper, not like they can't wait to leave to go grab lunch or a coffee.
Reading Aloud as a Translatable Professional Skill

An argument that is often made against the reading of conference papers is that it is not a skill that we practice or need elsewhere in our professional lives. For example, we don't read off lectures in our courses, or we don't ever have cause to read aloud in the other work that is required of us professionally.

It is true that I don't read lectures to my students. Truth be told, I don't lecture all that much. My pedagogical style is more oriented around generating class discussion than around lecturing. However, just because I don't read off lectures to my students doesn't mean that I don't read aloud to my classes. I would venture to say that I read aloud in nearly every class period in which I teach. Because here's the thing: one of the primary ways of engaging with written texts is through listening - not just through seeing. On the one hand, this is the way that most of us first encounter literature - through "story time" in which grown-ups read to us. And I think that it's important to return to that initial pleasurable experience of being read to in the classroom. On the other hand, I think that listening to the literature is important because it forces us to slow down and to savor each word that is read, as opposed to just plowing through an assignment so that one is prepared for class. We can often "hear" things in literary texts that we miss when we read silently, and careful close reading depends on catching those nuances. And so yes, I will often read to my students in order to draw their attention to a pivotal passage or to start a conversation about form and style. Pausing to read aloud gives students time to think, and it gives them precise things about which to think, and it moves us beyond a discussion of plot into a deeper discussion of the many different facets of the literary text.

I've also had cause to read aloud outside of a classroom context. Most notably, one of my service tasks this year required that a working group of which I was a part put together a power point slide-show with a recorded voice-over. (There were other working groups with the same assignment.) I agreed to do the voice-over duties, in part because I was the only person in my working group who had the skills of writing something to read aloud and to read aloud in an engaging and performance-based way. At first, when I made the offer to handle this part of our work, the rest of my group was all, "OMG! You actually read to each other?!?! WTF!?!?" But at the end of the project, my group's offering was the only one that worked as a polished presentation, that didn't involve ums and ahs and weird pauses and shuffling of papers, that had a clear and easy-to-follow argument, and that really used the time we had to fill in as comprehensive and tight a way possible. (The voice-overs in the other working groups were handled by people outside the humanities who "talk" their conference presentations.) While the plan that we presented wasn't ultimately the one that was chosen, across the university my group was complimented on the presentation of our ideas, and I had a weirdly large number of people note their surprise that it was me who did the voice-over because, in contrast to my regular "talking" voice, I was in "presentation" mode, which apparently people hadn't realized was part of my professional repertoire.

So, To Conclude:

I think when we think about what presentation formats are appropriate, we really need to think about the following:
  • What is being presented.
  • The goals of the presentation.
  • The demands of the audience.
Reading a paper aloud isn't just some old-fashioned refusal to keep up with the times: sometimes it really is the best possible way to address the above needs. Further, "talking" a presentation isn't always more interesting, more engaging, or more advantageous for keeping an audience's attention or for presenting research. 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.

This isn't to say that people shouldn't have the freedom to experiment with different presentation formats - of course I think that they should - but rather to say that there is nothing inherently superior about rejecting one format in favor of another. I have attended excellent presentations in which the presenter did not read his/her paper, so I'm not arguing that it's always better to read rather than to present in another way. Reading is not superior to presenting in another way, necessarily, just as "talking" a presentation isn't. Sometimes, however, reading one's paper aloud is the best choice of format in a particular context, not because it is superior as a format but because, at the end of the day, I believe that the content of what we present should drive the presentation format that we choose.


annieem said...

Dr. C: Fabulous posting on the whys and hows of presenting at a conference. I hear the Chronicle or InsideHigherEd calling you or linking to you soon since it's a subject not often discussed. Beat them to it: offer to write the article (or maybe it's better as a presentation at MLA11?;-)

Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

Totally with you on the benefits of reading aloud, Dr. C. Just wish every member of the MLA were as clear as you are about the difference between writing for presentation and writing for publication. I'm also really glad to see the MLA becoming more open to other modes of presentation -- roundtables, etc. For all the benefits of rocking it out in the way of monks, other styles can often be more conducive to real conversation and exchange of ideas.

Great post.

joyeh said...

I'm a psycholinguist, and when I present I don't read. But I still view my primary job as convincing my audience that my interpretation of my data, that my precise argument, is correct, and language is absolutely important to that. Especially because my scientific materials need to be described in very precise way, in particular the linguistic stimuli that I use. So while I'd never dismiss professors of English or History because they read their presentations, I'm not sure your argument holds up on the grounds you give. Maybe you also don't have a full understanding of what a scientist has to convey in a presentation? It is completely possible to be very precise and careful in your language and still not read; it is just a different way of doing it. I used to have to memorize what I was going to say, and now I can know my script well enough and be well enough versed in my material that I don't have to memorize every word. But each word is still important.

Also, in a science audience the audience is intimately familiar with the work that has come before, just as your audience is familiar with the literature you are proposing an alternate interpretation for. My presentation is either expanding their understanding, confirming something they know, presenting a re-interpretation, or what have you, but I certainly wouldn't give them all the most detailed of backgrounds because they already have that knowledge.

JaneB said...

A fascinating post, which offered a real insight into what humanities people are doing (trying to do?) when they write and read a paper. And interesting to think about as I begin to work on developing online materials to support teaching this summer, which will probably need to include some scripted 'reading aloud' type smooth voiceover as well as some 'natural speaking'.

However, as Joyeh said, I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding about what a (good) presenter of scientific data is doing when they 'speak to their slides' rather than reading from a paper. In a good presentation, each slide is carefully constructed to build an argument whilst providing the audience either with some visual summary of information which captures their attention or can more easily be assimilated than a verbal description, or some other reference point (key words, image) for the audience. The engaging reader of a talk (or audition taker) does not continually look at and read from the words on the written page, since they have practiced the piece often enough to know some parts of it well enough to speak to the audience directly without looking down. Similarly, the scientist uses the slides as their cues - the talk often started as a written piece, constructed around the images, which serve as cues to the argument. The nervous or inexperienced speaker will usually have in their hand a full written paper, like the humanities scholar, which they supplement with images at appropriate points. The experienced speaker uses the cues of the presentation to ensure that they deliver the exact points and argument needed to communicate their contribution to the conversation, and will often have practiced repeatedly just as you describe to ensure that pauses, asides and key sentences are placed correctly.

Just like an author's major work, things such as 'the ecology of an oak tree' or 'the formation of the Burgess Shales' or 'genetic components of obesity' form ongoing conversations around a commonly understood core of literature and facts.

Your post actually helped me articulate what I have often felt instinctively to be so, but been told otherwise by 'the keepers of the mysteries' (practitioners of other disciplines in my multi-disciplinary department); that a good presentation has the same ingredients of thoughtful planning and construction, preparation and practice, regardless of whether it is a 'talk' or a 'paper', 'spoken' or 'read'.

thefrogprincess said...

I really like this post. I too am a firm believer in reading papers for similar reasons. In history, there is some degree of presenting new findings. If one works in one of the well-trodden fields (French Revolution, Enlightenment, etc), there aren't many new events that need narration. (Not that there aren't new interpretations to be shared but a conference paper on one of these subjects would not likely spend half the time describing events.) If a scholar works in a less well-known field, or is presenting to a non-specialty crowd, or has uncovered new events, then part of the task is presenting new information. But conference papers in history shouldn't just be about telling stories; the narrative elements should be there only as much as is necessary to advance that scholar's interpretation. So similar to you, Dr. Crazy, the structure of the presentation and the specific language used is vital.

I agree 100% that a conference paper is its own genre and I'd also note that reading a paper should not be a substitute for advanced preparation, which I think is how critics see it. (Oh how lazy you readers are for not bothering to memorize!) Reading still requires practice in order for it to be engaging.

And there is one additional use for reading aside from presentations: being a commentator, whether it's at a seminar or conference or workshop. Comments on pre-circulated papers are almost invariably read but they too can be done well.

Susan said...

I think the question is not so much what the evidence is and whether you are constructing the argument, but whether the evidence is easily digested into slides. So I do archival research in history, but I tend to read papers, mostly because the 20 minute frame is tight, and there is no time for wandering... But my evidence is textual. My argument is on some levels partly a narrative.

That said, I try to deliver a paper *as if* I am talking it, even when I am reading it.

Feminist Avatar said...

The MAIN reason I (a historian) read a 20 minute paper is time- trying to catch up an audience on sources, context, and a sophisticated theoretical argument can necessitate that you stick quite tightly to a script. But, I definitely think about a talk as a spoken medium. I write is as I would speak- not as I write. I also include jokes, play on words- relevant pauses- and even, if appropriate, construct my narrative so that it builds towards a climax in the conclusion. So in a sense, the talk is not 'reading', it is an art form that involves reading- and also one that is a recognised part of the discipline.

thefrogprincess said...

Are we placing "reading" in opposition to "slides"? I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. It's perfectly possible to read and use slides just as it's possible to talk without reading and not use slides. So that feels like a false opposition.

Dr. Crazy said...

No time to comment substantively, but quickly:

Thanks to the sciences/soc. science people for stopping by. Although you wouldn't know it from my post, I actually am familiar with writing in the sciences/social sciences, and I didn't intend to imply that those disciplines don't make interpretations/arguments. I do think there is a difference between what formats we need for making arguments about things that are in some cases hundreds of years old and on which people without advanced degrees think they're experts and that don't lend themselves to any sort of visual representations or talking through "results.

Also, I think there is potentially a difference in what we're talking about when we talk about "precise language" and what can happen if one is imprecise in my field. I watched my diss director get slammed for changing from one word to another in a presentation without adequately accounting for the shift. Think about the difference between saying "school" and "university" as the difference between the words. Ultimately, he apologized for his "sloppiness" even though this sloppiness was ultimately not really central to his paper, nor did it hurt his point in any demonstrable way. And yet, still he got called out on it (in front of like 150 people) and it was an uncomfortable and embarrassing moment. That's what I mean by precision in literary studies.

FP - yes, it is totally possible to use slides and to read - I probably made that false opposition because it's just not something that my research calls for (slides full of text with no pretty pictures make the baby Jesus cry).

Gotta run! Thanks for the comments and I look forward to seeing what others have to say!

life_of_a_fool said...

I think that part of the "disagreement" is using different words to say something very similar.

When I first read "reading a paper," I thought "no, I don't do that." But, in my field, you must submit a complete paper for conference presentation consideration (but that is a really closer to an article to be submitted for publication, not something one could/would present in 20 minutes). So, you write a paper, then you give a presentation based on that paper. I don't read my paper, but I do write out a pretty extensive presentation. Maybe not verbatim (or entirely verbatim), but not just a rough sense of what I'll say. And then I practice it so that I can present it sounding conversational, etc., even though it's largely written out. But, I don't say that I am reading the paper, because I don't consider that a paper; but, it sounds a lot like what you call a conference paper (as distinct from a publishable paper).

(and which isn't to say that some people in my field -- to varying levels of success -- don't talk more off the cuff).

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I have often wondered about this issue in terms of job talks -- there seems to be a move towards more powerpoint and off-script job-talks, though that's not absolute. I think this may even vary by subfield. But I wonder if there's an emerging trend here, even in the humanities.

profacero said...

I went to a great talked presentation today and it was totally appropriate that it be talked.

That having been said, I do note that in many cases more can be gotten into a read (that is, written to be read) presentation than into a talked one. Writing it out, practicing reading and then reading it aloud allows one to condense and thus to give more.

Ink said...

I really like Powerpoint slides if they have pictures on them -- or evocative quotations. :)

Judy Redman said...

I am a Humanities person and I certainly don't work from a full manuscript when I teach, but I usually do when do a conference presentation. Because the 20 minutes that is normally allotted for panel papers is not a time I'm used to working in, I find having a manuscript keeps me within my allotted time but still able to make my points clearly. I think it is incredibly rude to take up time in a panel that has been allocated to other panellists and that's what often happens if you haven't written out more or less exactly what you want to say and timed it.

As so many others have said, though, it needs to be written to be read and reading it out loud before you present is essential. Recording it and playing it back is not a bad idea.

Dr. Virago said...

I'm coming late to this post, but I wanted to point out that one of the reasons I was so good in my recent TV gig, engagingly reading a text I'd written from a teleprompter, is all my years of practice writing conference papers in just the way you outline: thinking of audience; writing for the listener rather than the reader; and practice, practice, practice. The TV professionals were *rapturous* about how good I was, and if you've been to my FB page where I posted the first one, you'll see my friends (academic -- many disciplines -- and non-academic alike) are equally full of praise.

So yeah, reading a text aloud has real applications outside of humanities academic conferences.