Last week I paid a visit to the sections of the management courses I’m supporting this semester to introduce myself and explain the logistics of how I would help students prepare to deliver polished in-class presentations. The gimmick I came up with for this exercise was to parody an example of terrible public speaking: I stuck my nose up to the sheet I was holding and proceeded to read my one-paragraph introduction word for word from the script without ever looking up, and did so while speaking at a barely audible volume and nervously hurried pace. Every word I said was also projected upon the screen behind me, which I faced during most of the time I was talking—with my free hand shoved in my pocket. After confirming the students’ suspicions that I—a representative of the communication institute—was indeed pulling their leg, I asked them to dissect my poor presentation style and tell me what I did wrong. Unsurprisingly, they identified all of the obvious flaws in my performance (though I didn’t appreciate them ripping in to my attire), beginning with the fact that I was reading my speech. I, of course, reaffirmed that while it is fine to talk from notes, they should not read their entire presentations. As in other moments of my work at the BLSCI this year, though, my thoughts in the post-presentation reflection centered around the discrepancies between what I tell students to do and what I actually do in my own academic life. And this time the cause of my hypocrisy is… drum roll please… the read conference paper.
I know that criticism of the humanities conference presentation format in which scholars read their papers aloud to one another—maybe glancing up every few sentences to show “engagement” with their audience—is nothing new. This cheeky play-by-play account of the experience of being in the audience for such a paper surely resonates with many of us. But I’ve had to develop my personal disillusionment with conference presentation style on my own terms, and it has been brought into greater relief through the presentation coaching I’ve been doing. The first thing I ask students during a session is to tell me what their main arguments are. Well-prepared students usually proceed to convey their points enthusiastically and articulately without consulting their notes much; they’ve researched their topic thoroughly and have unconsciously internalized the pertinent information. Then, when I ask them to do a practice run of their presentation, in many cases these same students start reading a prepared script; the delivery is usually halting, stiff, and, quite frankly, boring. Now, I know that texts can be crafted and recited in ways that make them sound interesting and, conversely, that presentations that don’t rely primarily on reading are not automatically mind-blowing. Defenders of the read conference paper often point these things out. Obviously, any good presentation takes plenty of preparation and practice. But I’m going to go ahead and argue that, all other things being equal, reading a paper is an inherently less effective method of sharing knowledge orally than other approaches.
Don’t get me wrong: I too have perpetuated the read format in my conference talks. It’s hard to depart from deeply ingrained disciplinary practice, and the risks involved with breaking from the manuscript are high for graduate students looking to impress their scholarly seniors. Moreover, as Julia has written in this forum, preparing extemporaneous presentations is just plain harder. So here’s a challenge to myself first, and my colleagues secondly, for us to be more consistent with the standards we impose on our students. If we give lower grades to undergraduates who read through their presentations in class, why would we tolerate it from each other in professional contexts? I propose that conference applications should include, in addition to written abstracts, an evaluation of oral delivery. Indeed, this could be an interesting application of the BLSCI’s Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool (VOCAT). Preparing non-read presentations that are well-organized, compelling, and adhere to time limits will likely take more time than simply writing and reading. Maybe this would reduce the number of academic conference papers presented every year; those of us who have witnessed or participated in numerous panels at large conferences at which the panelists outnumber listeners would likely welcome this development. And for me, at least, the prospect of raised standards for oral presentation at academic conferences would make me more likely to spend my time and money to attend them.