Last week I attended the annual conference of the Western History Association. It was held at a beautiful resort in the Catalina Foothills northeast of Tucson. It was great to reconnect with friends and colleagues, meet new ones, and sample new scholarship being worked on. I also spent a day on the program committee, hashing out next year’s program (Newport Beach!) and that was a great experience as well. With all of that aside, its time to get down to business.
I think we need to have an intervention.
The primary feature of academic conferences like the WHA is panels featuring papers and roundtable discussions where young and veteran scholars share their work and receive feedback. In theory – its great. In practice, it is often painful.
Most panels feature “papers.” Academics are good at writing papers. Graduate students make a career out of it while earning degrees, and the rest of us (and some grad students) write articles for publication in journals or anthologies. Eventually, we write book chapters for our books. Historians like to write. We pride ourselves in careful and precise writing, this blog not withstanding. Our vocabularies are, at times, ungainly and challenging for the uninitiated, but we chose words carefully and construct prose purposefully. The written word proves an effective medium for conveying, analyzing, unpacking, contextualizing and ruminating on complex historical narratives. Hooray for the written word. But here is where I think we get in trouble. When we come to academic conferences, many of us rely on the written word as is, and simply READ our papers to each other.
Let me be the first to confess – this is how I was initiated into the conference scene and this is how I did a number of my first presentations. I had carefully written my paper and organized my thoughts deliberately – and reading my paper seemed like the least terrifying way to stand in front of a bunch of scowling professors and try to convince them of how smart I was. (Truth be told, there was very little scowling). While the feedback from those early papers was positive, the experience was not. I have been doing public speaking for a long time and I love it! I love being interactive with the audience, using humor, being generally enthusiastic, etc… Reading a paper is anything but interactive. Any “humor” comes off flat when planned and read. And, it is hard to read something with enthusiasm. Over the years as I have been on the other side of the podium – in the audience listening – I often find myself thinking, “Wow. This topic is fascinating, but listening to this paper is really tedious. I wish these papers would wrap up faster so there would be more time for Q&A and discussion!” And, often, the papers take up the entire allotted time, the commentator offers rushed comments, and there is no time for discussion. The written word is GREAT for reading, but often horrible for public speaking.
So what is to be done?
First, let me acknowledge that I am still a novice in the field and speak with little to no authority. I am in no position to critique much of anyone. So, please read the following less as critiques or suggestions, and more as things I have found successful in altering my own papers and panels.
1. If On a Traditional “Paper” Panel, Don’t READ the Paper
After reading my first few papers and being frustrated with how awkward it felt, I decided to take a different approach in 2010. I had organized a panel for the WHA in North Lake Tahoe on indigenous borderlands (A great panel, by the way, with papers by me, Andrae Marak, and David McCrady, chaired by Eric Meeks and amazing comments by Jeff Shepherd) and wanted to give a more dynamic presentation.
So here’s what I did: I wrote out my full 10-12 page paper with all of its complex prose, precise terminology and construction. Then, I chopped it up into bullet points. If there was a specific phrase or sentence I wanted to really highlight – I left it written out. Otherwise, I reduced it all to an outline of ideas, questions I was asking, and answers I was providing. I won’t speak to the quality of the content, but I was very pleased with how the presentation itself went. I didn’t get lost in deep paragraphs like I used to, I hit all of my major points without getting bogged down in unnecessarily complex prose or realizing halfway through a paragraph that I had provided way too much information on the given point and probably should have condensed it, and i stayed within my time allotment without having to rush at the end. My commenter had read the full-length version, and was able to give useful comments as I had covered all of the content in the written-out paper. I had simply changed the format by which I conveyed it.
2. Ditch the Paper Panel and Adopt a Roundtable, or Modified-Roundtable Format
I have been to good and bad roundtables. The bad ones lack focus and turn into a wandering conversation that doesn’t go anywhere. On occasion, by fortuitous combination of strong panelists and an engaged audience – the loosely organized roundtable proves fruitful. The best roundtables are carefully planned. I argue for a modified roundtable of sorts – where each panelist is given a set of central questions before hand and then presents (different than reading) 5-10 minutes of prepared remarks in succession, leaving a good 45 minutes for dialog between panelists and Q&A/discussion with the audience. Last year at the WHA in Denver I organized 2 panels – one of which adopted this format. James Brooks (then President and CEO of the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe), Cynthia Radding (Gussenhoven Distinguished Professor of Latin American Studies and Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Ted Binnema (Professor of History, University of Northern British Columbia), and Joshua Reid (Assistant Professor of History, University of Massachusetts, Boston). The panel was chewing on re-orienting borderlands and transnational studies to feature the landscapes and boundaries defined by Indigenous peoples, instead of Euro-American empires, and questioned how that may, or may not, alter our understandings of various historical narratives, trends, and events. Their short and informal (but carefully thought-out) presentations were enlightening. The real value, however, was the dynamic, robust, and exciting dialog and discussion that followed.
I stood at the podium, trying to direct the Q&A, but mostly thinking to myself, “Now THIS is why I come to conferences – for revelatory, exciting, unpredictable scholarly discussion!”
I guess that’s it. I really love conferences, but hope to see more roundtables. And, when papers are given, I hope to see less readings and more talks.
Not meandering, tangent-plagued, disorganized thoughts – but carefully constructed, but dynamic and engaging talks.
I believe it is customary in an intervention for me to pass the pillow or some other object to the next person in the room who wants to speak there peace. Please rant in the comment section below.