Thursday, December 16, 2004

More on how to read a scholarly paper

A couple of weeks ago, I offered some further reflections on the topic How to read a scholarly paper in dialogue with some of the other biblioblogs. I'd like to return to the topic again to comment on some of the subsequent comments. First, there were some excellent comments on my post. Ken Litwak noted that lectures and conference papers are different things in that one can control the expectations and knowledge-base of one's students, not so with the conference audience. I understand the point, though I would want to note that in my own experience the knowledge-base and expectations of the conference audience are in many ways clearer than those of my undergraduate audiences. Segments of the latter retain the capacity to surprise me over what they have not grasped on regular occasions. With an SBL audience, you can take for granted the key terms, the key authors, the consensus positions and so on. But Ken adds that his own SBL paper featured precise comparisons of the LXX and the Greek NT and that this would not have lent itself to powerpoint. Unfortunately, I missed Ken's paper and would certainly not presume to comment on what would work best for him and his topic. But I would add that in other cases, the precise detail is often the very thing that does lend itself to visual aids because it helps the listener to focus on the specific detail to which the speaker is drawing attention. As I mentioned before, my preference is for hand-outs over powerpoint because of the all too frequent technical anxieties and because, if I have understood correctly, it is the preferred option of some disabled members of the audience.

But John Poirier agrees completely with Ken and writes:
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.
I understand Jack's point here but disagree with it, at least as far as my own experience goes. For me, the very problem with the paper that is read-out, and especially the one that is "speed read", is that the fine details and precise nuances of the argument are lost. However much one thinks that one is putting together a persuasive, detailed argument when one is writing it in the privacy of one's study, the fact is that the nuances and the detail often gets lost in the reading out, especially in the absence of a hand-out or some powerpoint. The question I am asking myself here is how much of the read-out paper am I actually hearing? If I am "bored", to use Jack's word, don't I lose the detail and the nuances while I am daydreaming about Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

Larry (no surname) comments that in presiding at sessions, it is worse if your speakers have a non-read-out paper than if they have a read-out one. I am not so sure; as Tim Bulkeley says, there are offenders of both kinds. Tim has some useful advice:
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.
The comments here about staying at home and reading the paper get to the heart of my concern here. If all we do is to read out a proto-article, why not just distribute it at the session and let everyone read it in their own time, so picking up more of the detail and nuance, and then have more time for discussion?

For blog comment, see Stephen Carlson's updated entry on Hypotyposeis, Torrey Seland's update in Philo of Alexandria blog, David Meadows's comments in RogueClassicism and Edward Cook in Ralph the Sacred River. Responding to my point about the disjunction between our tendency not to read in everyday lectures against reading in conference presentations, Edward comments:
Part of the problem is (and I don't want to get too political here) the reversal of the power relations at a scholarly gathering. One's students are in a very real way in one's power; if they are lucky, you are a benign, charming, personable, just, and funny dictator. But at a scholarly presentation one is at best among equals, and at worst in front of those who may have something to say about how one's work or reputation may either grow or wither. In either case, the audience has to be won over. If they already know and like you, this will be easy; if not, the work will be harder.
This is an excellent point, and well made, and one I quite understand. I suppose I would add that I am not saying that it is an easy option to speak / present rather than to read aloud. But if our profession is about communication of ideas, then the highest challenge is indeed the coherent articulation and presentation of our ideas to our peers, and perhaps it is one that we would benefit from engaging in. Edward elaborates:
Therefore I wish to question the assumption of "friendly faces." In general, I think one can and should assume basic good will in the audience; however, many of us have seen, during the question period, the spectacle of self-important senior scholars skewering hapless grad students or young scholars just (as it seems) for the fun of it, or because one of their own pet ideas has been questioned. I think that first-time presenters are often intimidated by the presence in the audience of revered or venerable names previously known only from books or journals; and this fear can lead to nervously presented and feebly defended presentations, or to a dogged (and dull) effort to cover all the bases.
Also agreed, though I would say that an audience is sometimes the more generous when they perceive that the speaker is struggling; on good days, they will be tougher on the seasoned speakers who have that touch more confidence and enjoy the challenge of the battle. But I'd add too that the agonising scenario painted above is in any case related more to the question-and-answer session than to the paper proper. And the speed-reading of a ready-prepared proto-article is not a great way to lay the ground work for a successful question-and-answer session. Perhaps if the culture were to shift in favour of speaking / presenting, the question-and-answer session would not be so agonising.

And finally, Edward writes:
Two things are necessary to solve this problem; one is the growth of courtesy on the part of long-time practitioners of scholarship to those entering the guild. Perhaps we have already seen the last of the ritual disembowelings! I fervently hope so. The other thing is the growth in awareness of what we have been talking about: how to make a paper clear, interesting, and compelling.

Does the SBL offer any kind of advice to first-time presenters? It seems to me that this is something its Career Services department could fruitfully address. (Perhaps it already has; I'm coming late to the discussion.)
The latter point is a great idea. I know that there was a leaflet available at this year's SBL for first time attendees, but I don't think there was anything about first time presenters. The former point is a good one too. We need leadership from the "long-time practitioners of scholarship", the top brass. I might not have thought about presenting a paper rather than reading one if I had not heard one of the scholars I most admire presenting rather than reading papers, Michael Goulder. So an appeal to the top brass: set us an example on how to do it.

1 comment:

Whit said...

If I might make a comparison to preaching (which is more my area of expertise) - I find that people who are good without a text are good because if fits their personality. Others who use a text and read are successful for the same reason, i.e., it fits who they are. Perhaps the answer (as it applies to scholarly papers) has more to do with the personality of the one presenting rather that a single rule that should always be followed.