Mar 21 2011

Humanities Presentations

I have heard that in some humanities disciplines, a seminar or conference presentation is generally some asshole standing up in front of the room and literally reading one of their published papers out loud. Is this true?


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  1. 1

    Yes. I’m a scientist, and occasionally as part of our regular colloquium series we’ve had presentations by historians on the history of the subject. They read a prepared talk, accompanied by slides as visual aids. Much more formal than the typical science talk.

  2. 2

    I’m a social scientist and this is NOT true of my discipline, but yes, it’s hella true for humanities (I have lots of friends in these areas). Totally unbelievable. Not only is a fuckton of work for them ahead of time, but it must be so horrid to listen to. We haven’t evolved to understand read academic speech.

  3. 3

    If you go to a poetry or fiction conference, wouldn’t you expect some people to stand up and read what they wrote? Or are all of the talks about stuff like, “repressed feminist symbolism in the botanical allusions of 18th century poetry?”

  4. 4
    Clio Bluestocking

    Yes, quite true. I’d be interested in seeing how other disciplines do it because, unless you have a dynamic reader or a subject so riveting as to defy a bad reader, you do have to drink lots of coffee.

  5. 5
    Bijan Parsia

    In philosophy it is very much true. Going back to to a philosophy conference (from compsci) I was very much struck from it. When I mentioned this to one of my professor (who gives great talks) he said that it made sense because of the extremely close and nuanced use of language philosophical arguments often use.

    I wasn’t terribly convinced that this was the median reason :)

  6. 6

    Some people in my discipline (English) do get up and read, but that’s usually beginners. The more experienced seem to get up there with a prepared talk and then proceed to ignore it and explain their research in a more survivable way.

  7. 7
    Isis the Scientist

    Yup. Yaaaaaaaaaaaawnnnnnnnnn.

  8. 8
    Comrade PhysioProf

    If this blogge is insufficiently stimulating to keep you awake, you’re certainly free to fucke offe and reade something else. MWUAH!!

  9. 9

    “some asshole standing up in front of the room and literally reading one of their published papers out loud. Is this true?”.

    CPP, I don’t know how you do it but I can’t help LOL really hard every time you pick up your plume to write about something. You’re a lot of fun.

    As per your statement above, I think that it can happen in humanities as well as in scientific presentations. I mean, sometimes people with powerpoint and all the technology you want do make presentations boring. And I think that the trick in any and every presentation is passion for what one does. In general, the thinking, preparation and delivery of any topic, as reflected in a presentation,says a lot about the identification and involvement of the presenter with the subject of interest… I think but of course I could be wrong.

  10. 10

    As a former artsy I can vouch that this is indeed true. Sadly, even in the discipline of theatre.

  11. 11

    sadly yes. At MFRU I would see HUGELY FAMOUS scholars do this. Derrida on the other hand was awesome and off the cuff (and handsome), so sometimes you score. The best part in humanities is the Q and A. You’ve never seen people so politely rip one another to shreds. AHHH GOOD TIMES

  12. 12

    Yes, totally true. Sometimes some people don’t read their paper verbatim and you’ll start to seriously reconsider ever attending such sessions, even well conferences. Worst of all its possible the paper is read in a monotone voice – then you pray for slides and how they don’t turn the light off (since you and the rest of the audience will fall asleep). It can be really bad when you realise there are various methods you know of staying awake once you realise escape is impossible. Yes, feMOMhist is correct that the best part of a Humanities conference is the Q and A. Just watch how many ways someone can rip someone’s paper apart while smiling.

  13. 13

    Oh, I dunno, the questions at the end of your average scientific conference talk can be pretty smilingly brutal, too. “Great talk, thanks for sharing that with us! Hey, Smith and Jones are well-known for their large body of work on this topic, which just happens to completely contradict everything in the series of experiments you shared with us today, but you didn’t really address their findings in your talk. You’re acquainted with their work, right? No? Oh. Well. You might want to look up the special issue of Cell that Smith edited in 2007.”

  14. 14
    Daniel S. Goldberg

    Yes. And as far as I am concerned, this is one of the truly great tragedies of humanities scholarship, and I say that with only mild hyperbole intended.

    In a prior life, I worked as an appellate lawyer, which, when one is actually fortunate enough to do an oral argument, requires extensive training and understanding in the psychology of communication (among other skills, of course). One of the first and most basic lessons one learns here is that human cognitive structures generally do not work very well in directing concentration and absorption to someone reading a text. Of course, there are better and worse readers, but it is no accident that oral storytelling traditions were established thousands of years prior to written texts.

    It is somewhat challenging for me, because I absolutely, categorically refuse to read my papers, which means I end up flouting professional norms at some of the humanities conferences I attend, and I am generally quite risk-averse not to mention exceedingly junior. But I just cannot read a paper.

    Plus, I never understood the attraction; I mean, I can read your paper as well as you can. I’m interested — please do send it to me, or publish it and I will very much look forward to reading it when it comes out. But why would I travel thousands of miles to hear one read a paper I can read just as easily??

    (The subtext is concern that, without actually reading a paper, one has no assurances the paper truly exists. Thus, I have taken to sending the paper to the panel chair well in advance of the conference, so they may be comforted in the knowledge that the paper does in fact exist. And then I proceed to actually give a talk and try to have some kind of conversation, insofar as the format of the conference permits).

  15. 15
    Isis the Scientist

    If this blogge is insufficiently stimulating to keep you awake, you’re certainly free to fucke offe and reade something else. MWUAH!!

    My yawn was in reference to having to listen to said humanities presentations. You need to get a “fucken grippe”.

  16. 16

    Historians read their papers, but they’re not *usually* previously published. (It’s a truth nearly universally recognized by historians that giving a paper from a published paper or book is douchey.)

    I know many here are skeptical of the value of reading papers, but historians use this stuff called “evidence” in our work, and we can’t memorize verbatim eleventyjillion quotations from our historical sources (sometimes in other languages) in addition to the basic structure of our arguments.

    Artful historians also write text to be read out loud somewhat differently and more informally than text intended to be read. We also practice reading our papers in the hotel room beforehand so we don’t sound like robots (much.) People who are doing their jobs properly recognize that conference papers are performances, and we don’t aim to bore people to death. Those who are boring are insufficiently aware of the performative aspects of their jobs, and/or aren’t working hard enough.

  17. 17

    Re: ripping papers apart in Q&A… if the audience doesn’t do that in an economics session, it means the paper sucked and isn’t worth talking about. It’s kind of an insult to only ask nice questions, if even those. Our talks tend to make other folks uncomfortable.

  18. 18

    I really like listening to people read things like that. It sticks in my mind better when I hear it. I listen to long philosophy/politics presentations on youtube while I clean.

  19. 19
    Notorious Ph.D.

    What Historiann said. Yeah, I’d like to be able to do my upcoming 40-minute presentation off the cuff, and once or twice I’ve been able to pull it off (job talks are almost always expected to be off notes or outlines only), but that can only happen when you’re totally finished with a project, and most papers in my field are presented when the researcher is somewhere at the beginning or middle of a multi-year project. Throw in the occasional challenge of presenting in something other than your native language, and the printed page is a lifesaver for you and your listeners. And when an unscripted presentation goes wrong (and I’ve seen it a few times), it’s a freakin’ disaster.

    On the other hand (and again to underline one of H’ann’s points) a presentation paper is different from a paper meant to be read. A good presenter will take into account that a listening audience needs more structure, a well-modulated tone, and a good juicy anecdote every four minutes or so to keep them engaged. Anyone who doesn’t do this should expect to lose their listeners.

    In short: I agree that off-notes presentations are always more engaging, but in my field, you don’t do them unless you are very, very good at them.

  20. 20
    Brian Ogilvie

    Historian here. Like Historiann and Notorious said, I prepare my papers ahead of time–but they’re not previously published and I write them to be spoken. That’s how we cliophiles roll. I think it’s good for the style of our published work, too–keeps it from getting too abstruse and complex.

  21. 21

    Beaker wrote:
    Or are all of the talks about stuff like, “repressed feminist symbolism in the botanical allusions of 18th century poetry?”

    Yes, we read papers aloud. And Yes, they are all just like this.

    Some of us are working on it, and the subject comes up every year around the time of my own field’s professional conference.

    Frankly, I’d like to see a movement to more round-tables and workshops. Because, the fact is, even the papers themselves largely no longer represent “cutting edge new stuff”: you get that in the journals or, in raw form, in a very few blogs.

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