AKMA has some interesting (if unnecessarily self-deprecating) comments on his blog about the issue of presenting papers, Uh. . . No, And This Is. . . Uh. . . Why. I have been engaging in a little discussion in the comments thread there and I would like to expand those comments here in reintroducing one of the perennial topics of my blog, on presenting academic papers. As regular readers will know, I am an advocate of putting thought into the way that papers are presented at conferences. I favour presenting rather than reading, for the reasons often mentioned here. AKMA comments, however, that speaking from notes rather than a manuscript can generate too many "um"s and "ah"s with distracting consequences for the listener.
As I commented on AKMA's blog, I should add here that I have no problem in principle with people presenting from manuscripts; in fact, I have sometimes done so myself. The last time was a paper I read on the Gospel of Thomas at our NT and Early Judaism colloquium here at Duke two years ago. Then I felt that the most appropriate means of communicating was the read-aloud manuscript, with pauses for ad hoc comments, and a hand-out with the synopses and details.
My concerns are not about the use of manuscripts per se but rather about the manner of reading from manuscripts common in conferences in our field. Manuscripts are often read aloud as if the author is unfamiliar with the material. I am always amazed to hear people reading out their own words as if they are seeing them for the first time. What happens, I suspect, is that people spend so long writing the paper that they do not put any effort into thinking about how to present it. One way of tackling this problem is to avoid reading at all, which forces one instead to put effort into thinking how to present. In the case of some scholars who are skilled in the presentation of manuscripts, this kind of issue does not obtain. A good example of this is Tom Wright. Whatever you think of his theology, his presentation skills are superb, and he appears to present from a pre-written manuscript, with a lot of thought going into the rhetoric of the piece. AKMA is clearly in the same tradition. In a way, the format of the script is not the important thing; it is the presentation of that script, whatever form the script itself takes.
I don’t think I am interested in spontaneity or faux spontaneity so much as I am in attempting to find the best way of presenting the material. I don’t now think of my developing style as “extemporaneous” or “semi-extemporaneous” because I think those terms can be taken to imply that the approach involves little investment of effort in the presentation. On the contrary, the choice to present rather than to read aloud involves a huge additional investment of time and energy. What I like to attempt is to memorize the structure and content of the talk, to be so familiar with the material that it is possible to pace it without difficulty. As it happens, I always have a manuscript handy in case I crash and burn, and I know at any given point where I can pick it up in case I need to.
One of the advantages of presenting rather than reading is, for me, to be able to see the audience, to make eye contact and to communicate with them directly. We are all influenced by the teachers we most admired and in this, I know of no better teacher than Michael Goulder, who occasionally read-aloud (e.g. at sit-down colloquia) but usually presented from memory, all the time engaging directly and lucidly with the audience, who loved it.
But the element that I am keen to advocate is not any particular style of presentation, even if I remain convinced that reading-papers-aloud does not work for me. Rather, I am keen to continue to press for some consideration of the dynamics of presentation. I would like to see more scholars putting serious thought into how people will be most able to hear, understand and engage with what is being said.