Off the script

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As time Marches along, and the CCCC gets closer, it's been a little surprising to me that I haven't heard more of our annual refrain: reading papers is so boring. Usually it's followed with a verse about the irony of academics (whose job it is to study and practice rhetoric in the case of CCCC) being so very bad at the very thing they study. Verily. Donna tips us over to Sean Carroll's Preposterous Universe where, among other things, you'll discover

Here's a simple way that academia could be greatly improved: humanities professors should stop reading their papers out loud, and start talking from notes like normal people. I will never understand why they do this in the first place. There is no reason why humanists, trained in the arts of rhetoric and communication, should be even worse at giving talks than scientists are.

I hadn't originally planned on responding to this, nor to some of the gems buried among the comments:

I think the reading-out-loud method is just objectively worse than extemporizing from notes.

but then I came across Scott McLemee's latest IHE column, about the dying art of the lecture. McLemee closes the column with an extended story about one of his professors at UT who was an engrossing lecturer, and while it's possible, I suppose, to blast the lecture as authoritarian, obsolete, blah blah blah, sage stage guide side, etc., I want to take a different tack here.

First, about understanding "why they do this in the first place." I was trained (and this was 15 years ago now) to believe that discussion was superior to lecture as a mode of instruction, and there were all sorts of arguments (about the social construction of knowledge, the empowerment of students, etc.) to support this move.

There is also the fact that teaching a writing class is substantially different from, say, a class in many other disciplines. There is no body of knowledge to impart. Writing is a practice that improves with writing and that depends so heavily on context that lectures are wildly out of place. When the decision was made on campuses across this country to make writing an official course, it was a category error. The traditional classroom is really not a very good space for learning to write, but insofar as that's what we've got, moving away from the lecture is one of the strategies we've used to make it marginally better.

Also, I taught my first class when I was 20. 20. I could. not. lecture. And this is where McLemee's essay comes in. The successful lecture is, in some ways, no different than the successful novel, play, or poem. It takes a lot of work, skill, and talent. The move in this country to deprofessionalize the academy and the turn towards non-tenureable, contingent faculty (including 20 year old grad students) makes it less likely that a given instructor will possess the confidence or experience to be able to lecture well.

Finally, follow the money. What are we rewarded for in our field? Publication. Writing. Not speaking. There's not a big market for 8-page papers, but double its length and send it out--that's what we tell our graduate students. We write seminar papers, comprehensive examinations, dissertations, journal articles, book chapters, and book manuscripts. At no point in our careers do we ever experience any sort of (a) training in how to speak well, (b) incentives for doing so, or (c) incentives against not doing so.

Now, having said all of that, I hate reading. But I experience tremendous stage fright, far more often and of far more intensity than anyone who's not me realizes. When I give a "talk," I'm scared to death. And so the presence of a script, something I can anchor myself to, is something of a relief. I like to think that I'm pretty good at writing in such a fashion that, when I read, it's not mind-numbing or sleep-inducing. I do asides sometimes, and I write for "talks" in short declarative sentences, signposting frequently and avoiding long quotes or excessive jargon. I like to think that I'm a pretty decent reader/talker, and I've heard from a lot of people that this is the case. And some of them weren't actually friends trying to make me feel better. Heh.

Having said that, though, this fall, when I went to that conference in NC, I didn't script my talk. It was more of an interactive session than a talk, and I did prep some slides to keep me organized, but no script. And somehow, I didn't die, not of fright nor of collision with hurled fruit.

And so, at CCCC this year, my plan is to speak from notes. Not read. And I'll still be nervous as all get out. And my hope is that my talk will be entertaining in the right way. But I'm "comfortable" doing this partly because I'm confident in my subject matter, and perhaps more confident in myself. We'll see.

Leaving aside the word "objectively," I guess I'd agree with Carroll to the degree that the upsides for giving an actual talk (that it can be as engrossing and energetic as the lectures that McLemee remembers) are indeed greater than the upsides for most papers that are read out loud. But they can both be done really poorly. Really. Enough so that I wouldn't say that one is necessarily better than the other, except maybe in the abstract.

Regardless of which option a body chooses, there's little question in my mind that the majority of "talks" I'll see in San Francisco will be underprepared, underpracticed, or both. And to my mind, that's more important than talking vs. reading...and why I've been working on my talk this week pretty steadily.

That is all. Get to work.

Addendum: Apropos of Mike's comments below, I found the following over at In the Shadow of Mt. Hollywood:

I've heard others say that the Army makes equivalent efforts at molding how its officers perform in front of a classroom -- the press briefings we see from Generals in Iraq suggest these efforts pay off; I would bet an Army officer's presentation skills are better evaluated in his promotion process than any professor's.

In this area, as in others like conflict of interest rules on nepotism or office love-affairs, it seems to me that private industry, and even the military, are far ahead of the academic world, even in an area, teaching, where we ought to expect the academic world to have something to tell the rest of us. Apparently it doesn't. And a big reason, in my opinion, is that the academic world is intent on avoiding merit-based hiring and promotion to any extent it can get away with.

I'd say: right diagnosis, wrong conclusions. I realize that I'm blurring the boundaries here between teaching and speaking, but John Bruce doesn't quite have it right. Academic hiring is extremely merit-based in its hiring and promotion, if and only if you define merit in terms almost exclusively focused on research. And despite a national trend towards an emphasis on teaching (often melded with crappy "customer service" styled rhetoric), the fact of the matter is still that having a book and mediocre speaking/teaching skills will get you tenure while being a great speaker/teacher who's not published will get you gone.

I'm not talking about my institution here--I'm talking about the entire profession. And it will take a tectonic shift for it to be otherwise. Me, I just want to give an actual talk...

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Wikilecture from Schenectady Synecdoche on March 14, 2005 7:19 AM

It's the distance-ed dream: Milad Doueihi, a communications and contemporary society instructor at Johns Hopkins, said that this summer, students will be able to listen to his lectures anytime: He will broadcast them on the class wiki using his iPod... Read More


I would really be interested to know if there is any kind of study that suggest correlations or disjuncts between those who enter rhetoric as speech and those who enter it as composition.

I learned the arts of public speaking over a 15 year period that began with a shaky voice, too rapid talking, incoherent thoughts, and some other problems. After the many years, I could do some pretty good quality speeches, lectures, and interactive sessions. Part of what I learned was from Toastmasters, an organization I recommend for anyone who will spend time speaking in front of other people. Part of it was just trial and error.

My point, however slowly I am getting to it, is that when it came time to write academic papers, I found it frustrating, and incredibly difficult and completely foreign. I can "talk" my way through any topic I've studied, but my papers, generally speaking, (IMHO) suck.

I never found reading a script worked for me. I lose my place the minute I make eye contact. A Powerpoint presentation with minimal bullets (say 10 slides, 3 bullets each) can get me easily through an hour. If I have to formally write that hour's information, I'm lost.

So do you think this is a product of how we begin our work with language and rhetoric? Or is it something else? I was just wondering.

Interesting. I came to public speaking via (1) giving instruction as a sergeant, where one had to memorize and recite the itemized Tasks, Conditions, and Standards before each block of instruction and (2) giving public readings as an MFA in fiction writing, where the whole point was to stay with the text. That said, I've always enjoyed hearing a good conference talk, but I've never had the guts to go it without the pre-written paper (see 1 and 2, above), althought I'd always repeatedly practice it and time it. This time, though, I think I'll try to speak from notes, although I'm sure there'll be that cold pit of dread and stage fright -- every time I do the presentation thing, I want to preface it with a Rodney Dangerfield "C'mon, I'm dyin' up heah!" Which was a feeling I never had as Sergeant Edwards, but that's probably because (1) I wasn't reading my own stuff, and (2) my authority in relation to my audience was very clearly defined.

But yes: practice practice practice.

PS - I agree with Carroll only to the extent that people using notes practice and practice some more. Speaking from notes too easily runs over time, gets off topic or otherwise disrupts a schedule if one hasn't really worked the material, as you mention above you are doing. (Yay, Collin!).

Chris, I'm sure that there is some difference, but my earliest training with rhetoric was actually through public speaking, debate, student congress, etc. I've got plaques and trophies to prove it!

And yet, much of that (for me, at least) was performative in a way that academia wasn't, at least at the time. Yes, I know that we're no less performative in every way, but at the time, it seemed so much more serious and so much more important to "get the words right" that it's taken me years to get back any sort of facility with speaking in front of a group. I wonder too if it doesn't have to do partly with what Mike's talking about--I still feel as though I have to "earn" that authority in a talk, and the currency by which we do so is a written one.

I'd be curious, too, to hear if the panels and papers at NCA, for example, are on average better than the ones at CCCC from the perspective of delivery...


Those are really excellent points about the demise of lecturing and its connection to the increasing reliance on graduate student labor and the increasing emphasis on research production.

I really like having a script, too. With a script, I feel fine. Without one, I feel less than fine. I'm impressed that you're forging ahead and doing without one at this Cs.

I recall having this conversation last year. (Great googly moogly, time flies.) But I think it bears repeating.

Notes or not, the biggest problem at CCCC and humanities conferences in general is that 95% of the presentations or papers or whatever emerge within two weeks of the conference in question. If we'd get serious and require prior submission and print proceedings, we'd have a lot less crap to sit through (or walk out of), and a lot more to talk about.

I have to agree with Dilger here. The problem really is that the presentations (scripted or not) are slapped together at the last minute. So, whereas the papers are deadly dull (mostly because it's only, like, the second time the speaker has even READ it all the way through), at least they stay are somewhat fenced in. The slapped together "notes" model tends to be not quite as dull, but they wonder off and run in excess of their time. Both suck, IMO.

Your talk at NC was good b/c you had given it a lot of thought and preparation. I think a lot of people probably treat "notes" like I used to treat "group work" my first semester of teaching so many years ago. I thought group work = less work for me. Wrongo. It actually takes *more* work, setting up the right conditions for productivity. Same with unscripted talks, I think. The worst thing someone can do to an audience is to "wing it." I don't mind hearing unscripted talks, but, for the love of Pete, PLAN your talk!

I get too nervous to go off script. That's because I tend to ramble. As Clint Eastwood said, "A man's gotta know his limitations." I know mine. So I make up for a reading/script presentation with animated deliveries. Speaking is a performance, and I think that's what is usually missing in panel talks.

Give us a friggin' performance!

Hell, I recall having this conversation next year, too.

And here's what we were saying back in September. The theme that I keep repeating? Incentives. And there are so many different ways to do this, that I think that we just need to keep talking about it and pushing pushing pushing.


When I apply for a travel grant to go to a conference, I have to turn in the application--with a more-or-less finished draft of the paper--6 weeks before the conference. Would something like that work with travel grant applications in the States?

I think it would, Jon, but that would only provide local incentive. What I'm hoping for, I suppose, is that we might provide some national incentives that reward those who prepare. Some of them would cost money, to be sure, but I'd be willing to pay a little more each year in membership fees if it would help raise the quality of presentations at the conference...

Have you seen Million Dollar baby yet, C?

No tie to the current thread. I'm just wondering.

Nope. I haven't been to the theater in I don't know how long. I did finally see Huckabees, though, and may blog it soon...

For the love of Pete, go see it! Seriously! Run, Collin, run!

Really? Is it good? I think I've heard of it--didn't it win some kind of award recently?

I'm sticking my tongue out. :)

Even though it won an award, I was skeptical. Don't know why. The whole premise just sounded dull or cheesy--maybe both. So I was amazed that I really enjoyed it as much as I did.

I think Collin has it here: incentives. Really the main incentive to go to a conference is to get the line on the vita. As Steven Johnson notes about the link, the line has no necessary evalutive element. The only evaluation in most cases is the acceptance of a 250 word abstract. After that, you really only need to show up, and for most some random notes or riffs on the plane suffice. I'm feeling particularly guilty for slacking on my current Cs paper.

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