Don’t give a paper

Studies of Indian philosophy often rightly call attention to the varied genres in which they are composed: the sparse pith of the Yoga Sūtras, Śaṅkara’s expositing his own views as commentary on someone else’s, the Milindapañhā’s dialogue evocative of Plato’s Socrates. Such differences call to mind Martha Nussbaum’s famous claim in Love’s Knowledge that “Style itself makes its claims, expresses its own sense of what matters.”

As is far too often the case, though, the gaze that modern Western academics apply to distant places and times is one they steadfastly avoid turning on themselves. We are far too reluctant to think about differences of genre in our own composition.

Most notably: the venues of scholarly productivity come in at least two completely different genres. There is the written article or book, subjected to peer review and editorship, with its hypertextual infrastructure of footnotes and its bibliography. And there is the oral presentation, at a conference or workshop, of a work-in-progress with that citation infrastructure omitted, delivered to a room at a single time and place who can then begin a Socratic and dialogical back-and-forth.

So why do we insist on acting as if these two venues are the same?

If there is one phrase I would like to see excised from the vocabulary of academic practice, it is the use of “giving a paper” to describe an oral presentation (as opposed to “giving a presentation” or “giving a talk”). I am giving a paper when I take my written document – my paper – and put it in someone else’s possession, in print or by email or by sharing a Google Doc. (The use of “paper” to describe a document that circulates primarily in electronic form is of course also outdated and inaccurate, but this quirky usage seems to me to have far fewer deleterious consequences.) An oral presentation, on the other hand, is not “giving a paper”. Or at the very least, it shouldn’t be.

At a typical academic conference, the audience of a presentation is composed almost entirely of people who either have a PhD or are in the process of getting one. I think it is therefore reasonably safe to assume that one’s audience is literate. Why, then, would we ever think it a helpful use of our scarce time together to read the paper to the audience, as if they were somehow incapable of doing that themselves?

As recently as the early 1990s, such an act could be justified by the great difficulty of circulating written papers. To give your paper – in the literal sense – to even a ten-person audience would require the drudgery and snail’s pace of printing out ten copies and mailing it to all of them. No such barrier remains when the same act can be accomplished with the Send button on an email (or even more easily, the Share option on a Google Doc).

Given that all this is the case, no purpose is served any longer by standing in front of the audience and reading the text of a paper. If you want to “give a paper” to your audience, just obtain their email addresses, press the Send button and call it a day. When an audience has taken considerable effort and expense to get in the same room as the presenter, they are owed something more than what they could have just received via email.

The ideal alternative is one that a few forward-thinking scholarly associations have already embraced. (Well done, ACLA, PCR and CURA!) That is: circulate the papers by email before an in-person presentation session, so that that session is then devoted entirely to the kind of dialogue that can only happen when people are together in a room.

That ideal is not always achievable for a couple of reasons – especially since it does add a time commitment for the audience, which they may well not be able to meet. But failing it, there is still a far better option than the futile exercise of reading a paper aloud: one can still rectify names and make one’s presentation be a presentation. That is, one treats it as the dramatic presentation it is – such that the text one has in front of oneself is not the verbatim text of the paper, but point-form reminder prompts from which one can speak spontaneously and explain the paper’s ideas from the heart, in a way that connects with the audience and makes the most of an oral format. And one does far better atall that, in turn, if one rehearses beforehand, running through the presentation to see what works and what doesn’t.

Is rehearsing a performance is more work than just reading a paper you’ve already written? Of course it is. Just like writing a paper with references is more work than writing a paper without them. You still have to do it. And I would argue that it is similarly the scholar’s responsibility to give a presentation in an engaging way designed as a presentation, if that scholar is bothering to give a presentation at all.

And under no circumstances should the moderator of a panel or the conveners tell panelists anything to the effect of “if you want questions you should wrap up shortly, but otherwise you can keep going – it’s up to you.” A question period is not optional! The questions are the point of collecting the audience in the room in the first place. Without them, you could have circulated the written paper and left it at that. Telling an academic presenter that questions are optional is like telling a commercial pilot that it’s optional to reach the destination. Without them, you have wasted everyone’s time. Ensuring the audience’s ability to ask questions is at the core of a moderator’s responsibility. (Naturally, if the moderator is pre-tenured or a graduate student, she may be justifiably terrified to enforce any rules on a more senior panelist – and this is a reason why pre-tenured people should never be moderators for panelists more senior than they are.)

It is notoriously difficult to change academic institutions, including conferences. That is not always a bad thing: given that most of the changes in academia in my lifetime have been for the worse, faculty have many reasons to be hidebound. Their conservatism often helps prevent the latest destructive fads promoted by managers who don’t know or care about humanistic learning. But some changes are for the good, and I think it inarguable that a move away from the read-a-paper model would be one. Fortunately, that move does not have to happen at an institutional level. As individuals, we have the ability to make our presentations rehearsed and engaging, and to ensure questions as moderators. In that way, we can begin this change with ourselves.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

2 Replies to “Don’t give a paper”

  1. Thanks for this Amod! I’m incredibly sympathetic to the promotion of non-paper reading practices at conferences. Maybe a middle path, for people who would still like to keep the precision of reading a paper, is to develop more of a spoken but not read introduction, contextualization and occasional emphasis throughout the talk.

    My own writing process works through a long period of note takings and outlining, and I don’t find writing early drafts very helpful to this process. So for my own development of ideas, its much more helpful if I’m not necessarily required to have a written paper to read from. (vs speaking off a powerpoint or outline).

  2. Thank you so much, Amod, for having told something that I have been trying to make academics understand for more than a decade now.
    Writing a paper and presenting it are two different acts and need different skills. Today, when technology tools help sharing of research any time and anywhere, it is ridiculous to waste money and time by making the participants of a conference hear dull monotonous readings instead of engaging them in a lively discussion on the topic.
    Even when a paper is “given,” how many read, hear, or understand it? So, it is definitely better to email it and while many might not read them, precious time is saved. The conference would become interesting and the participants would try to sincerely read the papers beforehand for the fear of missing out the discussion.
    I hate reading papers to an audience, and have never done that. In the beginning, some frowned upon this method, now most love my presentations. However, they themselves continue with drab readings saying that they are not skilled at presenting. And the worst are presenters, who read out from a ppt!
    Amod, I hope this method is taught to students and they are equipped with skills of paper writing and presentations or oratory.

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