Monday, January 14, 2013

We Know You Can Read. So Can We

Today the Chronicle of Higher Education published a column that I wrote, "We Know You Can Read. So Can We: In Which I Sit through a Conference Panel and Do Not Obtain Enlightenment." Yes, standards at the Chronicle are really slipping--what can you do? Here is a bit of the piece:
I am so excited to be at Big Annual Conference in my discipline! And now here I am at Session With Very Interesting Title. I have read books and articles by these women and men, so to have them all sitting together is a buffet of scholarly brilliance. And now the woman who is doing research on the very thing I am most interested in is about to give her presentation. This is going to be great!
Wait. Why does she have all those papers? No need to panic. Most likely those are handouts, or at worst some notes. She wrote Really Awesome Book That Changed the Field, so she knows what she is doing. There, she is beginning. ... 
Oh, God, no. She is looking straight down and reading from her paper. I spent 10 hours on airplanes and all my professional-development money for this? Maybe she is just reading the introduction before she shifts to a more conversational presentation? ... No, she is forging into the second paragraph, reading the words out loud.
The rest is here.

I love the comments--over 130 so far, sharply divided between people who think I am absolutely right that reading papers is boring and folks who are outraged at my anti-intellectualism. The same discussions are going on in some Facebook threads started by friends. What do you think, Dear Reader, do you enjoy people reading papers out loud at academic conferences?

3 comments:

serge noiret said...

Larry thank you for this funny post and this shared experience! Academic conferences often are about reading papers and I totally share what you wrote in such a funny way. I myself experienced this so many times in Europe too. Imagine a non-English mother tongue speaker having to present in English his paper like me :-( …. Many panelists will opt for reading a paper in this case. But I personally always thought that in public, it is always better to make linguistic errors but to be able to better communicate your few thoughts. But if everybody is using the same mother tongue it is different and you may ask for more as part of the public. Reading your post I admit I was actually there in the “room” with you. It is exactly what happens too often in conferences: and people reading take more time and, at the end of a panel, there’s never space left for any discussion…. This is why we appreciate more public history -and digital history- conferences and boot camps where the word "public" means also thinking better about how best organising a "public" communication. But this is a specific part of our profession. But academic communication -reading or not some papers- in academic history "old style" big conferences is not always that bad or boring. Not everybody today proceeds the way you described so well. Sometimes it depends **how** you read your paper –not only with a loud voice- looking at your public to get their attention. There's no compulsory way or unique way to engage publics, I think it depends always on your own individual capacity to do so, from your caracter, etc., but also from who’s your public: your peers, young students, people that are knowing even more then you and will look at your new findings, etc.? If you are trained to teach and speak in conferences, -it’s a job- and you have specific skills, you use tricks: vocal ones, jokes and nowadays technologies which also could be boring, alreday well known and too simple for your arguments....
As you can see, your post engage a lot one of the most important professional skill of public historians I guess: being able to communicate professionaly to difefrent publics and communities of people, the main theme of the NCPH Ottawa conference....

Geschichte Grad said...

You're absolutely right, Larry, and you're clearly not the only one who thinks this! Although I'd support the AHA, etc. instituting a no-read-paper policy, I imagine it'll have to be a grassroots movement instead. I, for one, am going to try to stick to proposing panels in which all participants promise not to read their papers, but instead use their visuals as cues for discussion. We'll see how far that goes. Let the revolution begin!

Larry Cebula said...

Thanks, Serge and Geschichte Grad. As you see from some of the comments on the CHE page and elsewhere, not everyone is ready for the revolution! In fact they are damned pissed at me. People read their papers out of insecurity and fear, which they pretend is professionalism.