Friday, December 03, 2004

How to read a scholarly paper

On new blog Ralph the Sacred River, Edward Cook has some interesting comments on "How to read a scholarly paper", following on from Torrey Seland's comments and mine, and see now also Stephen Carlson in Hyptoposeis. Let me second Stephen's and Torrey's pleas for handouts. I must admit to finding a well structured outline on a handout a real boon to listening to a paper. What worries me about preparing handouts for conference papers, and this is reflected also in Stephen's comments, is the concern about numbers. It is so difficult to guess the audience you are going to get, especially at the SBL. And do you take a sheet and hope to goodness that you can find reasonably priced photocopying facilities at your destination, and the time to use them? If you're coming from the UK, you then have to make sure you've prepared it in American letter size rather than A4. Well, down that route lies too much anxiety. So you do it before you go and you end up with your suitcase half-full of handouts which, in your neurosis, you think might be needed for your session. Well, for all the stress, I'd encourage people to go for the handout solution as far as possible. I'm a big user of handouts in everyday undergraduate lecturing. One additional advantage is that it is the preferred option of some disabled users. In fact I recall sitting next to someone with poor eyesight at a conference paper where OHTs (Overhead projector Transparencies) were used and he could not see anything on screen at all, and was not able to follow the paper.

Ed writes:
First of all, it's too scary to present without anything written at all. Mark, good for you, but this is going to be beyond most of us. There's always the possibility that you may dry up or space out in the middle of your talk, and you've got to have something in front of you to help out. HOWEVER: Don't bring an entire paper that you're planning to have published somewhere. Prepare a reading script instead. I always do this now; a reading script is different than a full-blown scholarly treatment, in that it's shorter, hopefully clearer, and leaves out subsidiary and supporting material that is inessential for oral presentation. I've learned that for a 20-25 minute presentation, a script of 10-15 pages is ample.
I agree with this absolutely. I should add here that I am not personally in favour of presenting "without anything written at all". I think it is worth taking a script, as a kind of security blanket, or to take a card with some headings and some key-words on it, or whatever prompt might be useful. For myself, I take written bits and bobs and have them ready in case needed, but aim to be familiar enough with the material and the structure of what I want to say that I will only refer to those if necessary.

The reason for my bringing this up in the first place is the idea that there is something necessarily superior, something more academically appropriate about reading a paper. This is the thing that I am struggling with. What I remain bothered about is the disjunction between the way we all work in our day-to-day lecturing and the way we behave at conferences. What I suspect is that one has simply not caught up with the other. We are in the habit of reading out papers not because we have thought it through and have decided that it is the best way to communicate with other scholars but because it is an academic convention, something we have all inherited, that we assume is the way to do things without question. A hundred years ago, I'd bet you'd hear most of your undergraduate lectures read-out by your lecturers. Under such circumstances, it was natural to read-out conference papers too. But now none of us read out lectures to undergraduates, do we? So this is how I am beginning to see it, with apologies if I am overstating the case. If we are comfortable lecturing ex tempore on a day-by-day basis, over a much longer time period (hour long lectures), on topics that are not always intimately related to our research (we all lecture on stuff we have never written on), to people less patient than scholars (undergraduate students), then surely it is a more straightforward thing to talk for 20-25 minutes to friendly faces on material we know intimately?


Anonymous said...

Aren't lectures and conference presentations quite different things, that require different rules of engagement? In a class lecture, you can control what students should have read previously, and have some level of expectation about what they know and don't know.

In a conference paper, you have twenty-twenty-five minutes to argue compellingly for something that no one in your audience may have background in. Plus, at least in the paper I read a couple of weeks ago at SBL, my argument was based on precise comparisons of the LXX and NT in Greek in a whole bunch of texts. That does not lend itself well to simply using PowerPoint slides. Certainly, a presenter may be more lively if not reading from a paper, but I'm not sure that all topics allow readily for such an approach.

Ken Litwak

John C. Poirier said...

I agree with Ken completely. For many papers I've heard at conferences, I would have felt cheated if they had been merely presented as lectures, without all the fine details and precise nuances of the argument being given. I'd rather be bored than short-changed: READ the paper.

theswain said...

I used to have feelings more along the lines of Mark: a conference paper shouldn't be "read" but rather "spoken"--more entertaining etc etc. That is, until I presided over a session in which a couple of speakers did just that....oi, never again will I encourage people to do this. One speaker after repeated signals to end and wrap up, I finally had to stand up and declare that he was done and started introducing the next speaker. So I'm now for MOST speakers READING a paper....of course there are ways of reading a paper that make it seem more like the speaker is conversing but that takes practice of reading the paper, having a "reading script" (as one comment put it) that is different than the paper in process for publication, and confidence in self and in the material presented. And some personality!

Tim said...

Isn't it (always) "both and". Yes, you are presenting complex arguments that need the solidity of well prepared (and probably read) text, but if you do not engage with the audience they might as well stay at home and READ the paper when it is published. That way they avoid quite a few duds ;)

So... read the complex detailed bits, but speak to the body.

On timing some of the worst offenders, over the years, are those who read and have too much to gabble through. And they seem to be even more resistant to hints than the rare speaker has been.

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