academia: March 2005 Archives

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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