Friday, May 15, 2009

Presenting Papers Redux

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.


Peter M. Head said...

You really mean "putting thought into the way that papers are presented at conferences"? Wow. That is a new concept. Can't imagine that it will catch on though.

Mark Goodacre said...

You are quite right, Peter. What was I thinking? :)

Colin Toffelmire said...

I've been thining more about this since AKMA's initial post, and I wonder if the format of the conference isn't rather important as well. I'm presenting at CSBS next weekend,and because I only have 10 mins or so, with about 20-30 mins of Q&A afterwards, I really will have to think carefully about how to distill a relatively long paper into such a short presentation. I haven't been to SBL yet, but the perenial complaint I hear from friends is that the format is not conducive to good presentations or good discussions. I often get the sense that just getting the presentation over and done and onto the CV is the real point of the excercise. Is there maybe more that can be done at the level of conference format to encourage better presentations as well?

Of course, in the end it will always be the presenter's responsibility to do a good job.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for the interesting thoughts, Colin. I quite like the SBL style 20 minutes or so myself, not least because it forces scholars to distill what they would prefer to deliver in 45 minutes to something much shorter.

On timing, I find it easier to control in presenting a paper than in reading. I think the worst errors in timing papers that I have seen have all been down to reading aloud -- people thinking that they have a 20 minute paper and then finding out that it is actually 30 minutes. Unable to think on their feet, they resort to speed-reading to get through it all.

I think the signs are that SBL are doing things to encourage good presentations, though in the end it is up to the presenter to do a good job, as you say.

cryptotheology said...

I have to agree that academic papers are so often poorly presented. We have theology seminars with visiting speakers every couple of weeks here at Nottingham, in the 4pm-5:30pm shift, and unfortunately there's precious little eye contact or changes in tone.... It's a shame, as it means that good papers sometimes miss their mark - because as listeners, we're not helped along.

hoopsman said...
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kevinscull said...

I have always been stunned at SBL when a presenter is clearly in the middle of their paper and glances over at the moderator who lets them know they have 2 minutes remaining. Then the presenter gets frazzled, starts skipping around, and completely loses the audience. Perhaps I am in the minority, but I always practice reading my papers with a stopwatch. That way there is never a mystery as to the length of my paper.

Alfredo said...

Dr. Goodacre, I actually recommend highly that you speak to Dr. Michael Reed in the Maths department. I took a freshman seminar with him entitlted: Applications of Math to Physiology. What I didn't know at the time of signing up, however, was that an incredible amount of time and effort was going to be placed on our class presentations and speaking styles. He managed to get me to almost completely eliminate "um", "like", and long "and"s that pop up in speech. His side goal of the course was to teach us to present science effectively and succinctly, a skill that has direct parallels to what you're speaking about here.

I really think that academics would benefit from taking speech lessons. Sounds ridiculous to say, since they often spend their careers lecturing to an audience. But there is a difference between speaking AT an audience rather than TO an audience. Once the speaking skills are learned, moreover, less time will be spent in preparing presentations.

Mark Goodacre said...

Kevin: I agree; always remarkable when that happens. Alfredo: thanks for the recommendation. Quite agree that academics would benefit from taking speech lessons, or at the very least doing some practice.

Opus Imperfectum said...

Good comments, both by you and AKMA.

Of course, even reading from a manuscript is no guarantee of avoiding blunders -- as I discovered last weekend when in what appears to have been a Freudian slip I identified Ambrose as chastising those who denied Christ's impotence (... should have been "omnipotence". Ouch.)