conferential: November 2006 Archives

Reading v Talking

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I wonder if it wouldn't be possible to pull up all of the blog entries about the horrors of reading one's conference presentations, aggregate them, and thereby arrive at a pretty solid map of the major conferences in the humanities. Seems like there are pretty predictable times when such complaints make their way across the blogosphere. With NCTE, NCA, and MLA on the immediate horizon here in Rhetopia, perhaps I'm just more sensitive to these kinds of posts.

You see, I'm a reader, even though I've experimented in the past couple of years with actually talking in lieu of reading. But I'm also a writer who understands the difference between writing something to be heard and writing something to be read. Rather than the regular calls from converted science types (who express their utter astonishment at the dearth of presentational skills among their humanities colleagues) to be more like them and less like ourselves, it'd be refreshing to see more posts that plumbed the depths of that middle space between speed reading an essay intended for eye-not-ear on the one hand and stand-up scholarship on the other.

As snoozy as it can be to hear 3 20-minute reads from folk unprepared for listeners, it can be no less frustrating to hear a breezy talk that never dips below the level of PP slides, generalities, and sound bytes. There's a lot that is in between, and I think that we'd be better served in general by finding some happy medium.

I'm a big believer in trying to create opportunities for practice, particularly in our graduate program where some students may be attending conferences for the first time. It's not enough to just tell them to practice, practice, practice. Every year, we invite several of our current students to practice their presentations during a session that's part of annual recruiting weekend. That means that at least part of their audience is made up of strangers, that they have a deadline prior to the week of the conference, and that they have a head start on visualizing their presentations. I think of this as a program responsibility.

Sharing the best practices that we (who have been around the presentation block more than a few times) have discovered wouldn't be a bad thing either. I try really hard to restrict myself to 1 major claim support by 2-3 points in my talks. I generally don't spend time delivering evidence in presentations (saving it for followups). And I find real value in narrating the presentation as part of the presentation (aka signposting). In recent years, I've turned more towards visual aids (either Keynote or handouts), but that's partly because my interests have turned more towards visualizable work. In some cases, I use Keynote to compose, which helps me think in terms of pacing.

But I think the biggest cause of bad presentations has nothing to do with rhetorical skill or inexperience, and isn't addressed by advice like this. I think that there's very little space in our academic priorities for presentation zen, and so we tend to prepare at the last minute, and underprepare. Then, when we're mediocre (and believe me, that's more often than not for me), we engage in the kinds of distancing practices that our students do (like waiting until the last minute, so that we can "excuse" our mediocrity). It's a cycle, and I think it stems in large part from the disposability of conference presentation scholarship, from the way that "getting on" the program is more important than what one does once one is there, etc.

I have to admit that a turning point for me was when I attended CCCC in Denver. I wasn't on the program, and thus had to spend my own money to get there and hang out. Without someone else footing the bill, all of a sudden I was hyperconscious of the fact that I'd spent more than a thousand bucks to be there. When I went to a panel, I was paying for the experience. And when I saw a bad presentation, and I saw a few, I felt no guilt whatsoever about standing up and leaving. I'm not always perfect about this, but I try and write for the person who's spent hir own money to attend my session--that's what I try to live up to when I prepare a presentation. It's not a bad goal, all things considered.

If that ethic were instilled in us as part of our graduate training, to treat our audience as though they'd paid to see us, I bet conference presentations, read or spoken, would be less of a problem.

That's all.



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This page is a archive of entries in the conferential category from November 2006.

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