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.
- 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.
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.
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.