Tuesday, November 27, 2007

More SBL Reflections, especially on Presenting Papers

Over on the Forbidden Gospels Blog, April DeConick weighs in with her SBL Odds and Ends. April's reflections are helpful and interesting, and I agree with many of them. Like her, "my experience of SBL is a communal one". On the perennial issue of reading papers, April makes the valuable point that predistributing papers can be problematic given that many in the audience will not have read the paper in question and suggests that "Predistributing only works if the group is very small - like a seminar - and the goal of the meeting is detailed discussion of the paper". This is the set up in the Mark Group, and I have had some good experiences there. Nevertheless, the group sometimes illustrates the problem that April discusses. Non-members of the group inevitably come along to the session, they will not have read the papers, and they are sat around the outside of the room as non-participants. On Evangelical Textual Criticism, Peter Head draws attention to the set up of the Mark Group this year. I can't help thinking that it is appropriate to a group studying Mark, with a group of "those around him with the twelve" and "those who are outside".

My feeling about presenting papers, though, is not so much about the benefits of predistributing over not predistributing. Rather it is a question of the style of delivery. If one is reading out a paper rather than presenting it, I think a great deal can get lost. People do not hear everything in a read-aloud paper. The question which I tend to ask is this: why do we not read aloud our lectures in class? The answer, presumably, is because we wish to communicate effectively with our students. Likewise at the conference, if we wish to communicate with our audience, it is preferable to present rather than to read. (I am assuming here that people do not read aloud undergraduate lectures, do they?). On this theme, in comments, James McGrath makes the interesting point that "I think I've become so used to papers, that the rare person who does a presentation makes me feel like they are 'teaching a class' and treating the audience like we are students!" Well, that's certainly one to watch, and I do know what James means. In fact, I went to a session this year where a presenter spoke as if he was talking to his class. Mind you, I heard every word he said, and I would not have done if he had read aloud. Here, I think, we need to adjust our presentation style to the audience. Being an academic is about communicating one's ideas, and engaging with others, and so one has to ask about the most effective means of doing that.

Also in comments, Jack Poirier continues to argue strongly in favour of reading papers:
I'll continue my theme of supporting the reading of papers: If someone "presents" their paper without reading it, and I happen to be really interested in what they have to say, then I'm in the unfortunate position of having to get a copy of the paper and read it for myself just to see all the stuff that was left out of the presentation. That's why I prefer a paper to be read: then you know that you're getting it all (except perhaps the footnotes). I would hate to go to a conference where everyone presented. The more I liked the papers, the more homework I would have after the conference.
I understand what Jack is saying here, and I have some sympathy with it. My guess is that Jack is far better at concentrating on academic papers than I am. I am afraid that I drift away very quickly when people read, so I hear much less when they read aloud than when they present. I have also noticed that I am much more likely to fall asleep in read papers than in presentations, so again I get to hear less of a read aloud paper. There is an assumption too in what Jack writes that papers are fuller than the presentations, that presentations leave things out. I don't think that that is necessarily the case. A presentation can sometimes provide more information than can a read-aloud paper because there are different ways of communicating information when one is not reading.

Back to April's post, there are some helpful reflections on the multiple sessions, arguing that they can help to hone research, with like-minded people meeting together on a given topic of interest. There is a lot in that, but I suppose that I am concerned about the over-specialisation in the discipline that ultimately detracts from research that goes across boundaries and encourages conversations between different sub-fields. To speak of my own interests, for example, I had to miss sessions on Jesus and film which I would have loved to have attended because I was in other sessions that touched on other areas of interest. This year I did manage to get to one session on Paul, but at the expense of the Synoptics section which was meeting at the same time, and I was the co-chair of that section. I missed all the meetings of the Mark Group because they were timetabled at the same time as other sessions that I needed to attend, and that in spite of being a member of the Mark Group. I can't even begin to think about getting to sessions on Luke-Acts, or on Matthew, or on, say, the Gospel of Judas, one of the sessions I would have liked to attend. And so on. I just use myself by way of illustration; I know others feel the same way. If nobody can get to a fraction of the sessions that they would like to get to, I think there are too many sessions.

I am glad to see that April agrees with me on the problem of extending the conference to 9am on Saturday morning. It's another case in point -- there were two sessions I wanted to get to at that time but I had two meetings to attend. April also echoes the point made elsewhere about room sizes:
Please judge room size better. I cannot believe that the panel on Judas where Elaine Pagels and Karen King were responding to Birger Pearson, Louis Painchaud, and me was put in a room that seated 75. People were sitting in the aisles, along the perimeter of the room, and hanging out the door. Those crammed in the doorway told me that at least 50 people tried to get into the room, but finally left exasperated.
I agree. In most cases, this is one for the session chairs (see my post on SBL Room Sizes).

Update (Wednesday, 21.21): April DeConick makes an excellent case for Why Speciality Units at SBL Are Important. I might perhaps add that my own concern relates not to speciality units per se but to extensively overlapping units, but I may be wrong about that.


Anonymous said...

Does the SBL confer the honorary Magister Divinitatis on those who deliver papers?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps there is a third option: write the paper with the intention that it is going to be read aloud. This may require re-writing that seminar paper that got accepted, in order to make sure it fits for time and works well as an aural presentation. I don't think its reading a paper that is necessarily the root of the problem, but the type of paper that is read. Putting a good paper through a revision meant to be read aloud would help a great deal.

Anonymous said...

I tried to send this before -- so am sorry if it comes through twice. I agree with Micah to a considerable degree and am tolerant of a written paper that betrays aural or oral origins. There is, however, a kind of middle way between pure presentation and dreary read paper. This is, very simply, the well read paper, in which the presenter reads her text and engages with the audience at the same time. I have sometimes experienced this and have always been stimulated by the experience. It seems to me that we could well put some energy into good presentation of written papers, backed up by audio-visual or wriiten material which makes sense of our role as scholars and communicators.

Bridget Gilfillan Upton