Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Conference papers: the good, the bad, and the "don't even think about doing that"

To judge by their exposure on blogs and in the MSM, there are two kinds of articles about conferences, neither of which focuses on the true substance of the papers being presented. The first is the kind that runs in newspapers late December every year right alongside the perennial "Drive Safely--It's New Year's Eve!" articles. It's the "silly titles at the MLA" article in which the reporter shakes his head over the Death of Literary Study or the decline of western culture. There's one of those over at The Valve right now.

The second kind is the "why, oh why, are conference papers read so badly?" piece, and one of those is online at the Chronicle . William Major, the author, recounts his experiences of reading papers to small audiences and of seeing a panel chair fall asleep. Here's a memorable excerpt from the piece:

"Yet it was during one such sleepy lecture that I witnessed a moment of intellectual honesty as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky. The late eminent Guy Davenport -- writer, scholar, Renaissance man -- was in attendance at a reading and made his presence known by sprinting from the room in the middle of the proceedings, an exit so conspicuous and theatrical as to overshadow all that the poor lector had to say that evening. It was a night that I am certain lives on in the audience's memory, though the lecture itself has long been forgotten."

Major concludes in the usual way, by asking his readers to remember the audience, wondering why conferences are necessary, proposing stricter standards for accepting papers, suggesting that panels with small attendance sit in a circle and talk [which often happens, as far as I can tell], and so on. He also suggests that only completed papers be accepted, which I think will probably never happen because (take your pick) (1) people are too busy to write papers until just before the conference or (2) people enjoy the brinksmanship aspect of writing a paper at the last minute and being able to say that they wrote the paper on the plane.

As a conference veteran, I have a couple of examples to put in the mix.

The Good

1. A few years back at MLA, I saw an excellent presentation in which everything went wrong for the presenter, a major scholar. His paper had been lost with his luggage, so he announced that he'd read the paper from his laptop and turned the computer on. The computer refused to boot up. He tried again. Nothing. Tried again. Nothing. Instead of being shaken by this, he went on to present the ideas in his paper lucidly and brilliantly, periodically (and without comment) attempting to turn the computer on. It was the best paper I never had read to me.

2. At this past MLA, one roundtable session had rules that seemed beyond byzantine when they were explained to the audience: the presenters had to read their papers, ask a question of the next panelist, field a question, or something like that. The audience looked puzzled at first, and yet it worked beautifully. This format kept the basic structure of reading short papers, yet the questions and so on broke up the "listening to papers" trance and made the session a lively and thought-provoking experience.

The Bad

1. The "long-winded presenter" phenomenon is almost too common to mention. I love the touching faith implicit in general advice to chairs such as "keep track of the time" and "prepare a 5-minute warning card and pass it to the presenter." Once I saw a presenter handed such a card. She ignored it. The chair tugged at the presenter's coat. She ignored it. The chair cleared her throat. The presenter glanced at the chair, took another drink of water, and kept going. Some presenters just won't quit.

2. I've also seen panel chairs give an "introduction" to the session and its theme that's almost as long as a paper, thus crowding into the last panelist's time.

Don't even think about doing this

These should probably be under the heading of "the bad," but perhaps they don't bother everyone. They do bother me.

1. Situation: The speaker gets up and starts reading. She (or he) announces that the title has changed, that it's from a larger project, blah blah, the usual stuff. Okay. Now she begins to read, and after a few pages stops. You can see her reading ahead in the text. She flips a page. Flips another page. Scans some more text as though someone's just handed it to her off the AP wire and she's never seen it before. Flips another page. The audience members sit there, watching her, until they get bored and start leafing through the program. Finally she starts speaking again, having wasted what should be 2-3 minutes of her time but will probably end up being 2-3 minutes of the poor last panelist's time.

Comment: You have had from six to nine whole months to cut this paper down to size. Please, please get it into reading form and practice it the night before.

2. Situation: The speaker has heard all that advice about talking about rather than reading a paper. [Note: I don't agree, for the most part. Many of the "spoken" papers I've heard have been much more rambling and harder to follow than the "written and read" ones.] He decides to "talk" his paper in this fashion: He reads a sentence and then looks at the audience to deliver a comment about it--what he found, how this relates to something else, where it fits in his larger project, etc. He reads another sentence and talks about it. Over and over again.

Comment: If you want your audience to think that they are living in your paper for eternity, this is a good way to go.


Deb said...

Great post! It cracked me up in parts!

I've seen all the "bads" and "don't even think about its" you've mentioned. Like you, I'm one of those people who actually *likes* the "written-and-read" papers, especially if the presenter reads it with some liveliness and carefully works in some relevant asides.

My favorite kind of presentation to *give* is also the written-and-read kind. I feel much more confident when I've got the whole thing worked out on paper. But alas, that kind of presentation has become more and more of a luxury I can't afford--I just don't have time to write the whole thing out any more.

Anyway, thanks for posting this!

Deb said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
undine said...

(Blogger published your comment twice, which is why I deleted the second one.)

Thanks! Getting the time to write those "written and read" ones can be difficult, and if someone's a lively speaker, I'd just as soon hear a more spontaneous version.

Anonymous said...

Recently, after being subjected to some jerk droning on and on for nearly a half-hour on a panel that had four presenters *and* a respondent (all in a 1.5-hour session!), a number of us in attendance shared stories of past examples of such rudeness that produced the following gem:

An eminent literary scholar was chairing a panel on which one of the presenters went well over her allotted time. He tried the usual throat-clearing, glancing at his watch, then nudging, all to no effect. Exasperated, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a lighter (he was a smoker), and lit a corner of her paper on fire! The whole paper flared up, effectively bringing the talk to an end.

I only wish I could've been there to witness it.

undine said...

That is priceless! I wonder what happened after that; maybe the audience stood up and applauded?

It always amazes me that people go on and on, as though at 30 minutes into a 20-minute paper we're saying "You're so fascinating! Do go on!"