Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Culture of "Giving a Paper"

Further to my experiences of philosophical/theological conferences ("Postmodernism, Truth and Religious Pluralism," and "Towards a Philosophy of Life"), in contrast to more sociological conferences ("Gender and Religion," and "Religion, Media and Culture"), I found a copy of an article on academic presentations that we were given at a recent event for aspiring academics that I went to. It's called "How to Give an Academic Talk: Changing the Culture of Public Speaking in the Humanities," by Paul Edwards, and you can download it here.

I was reflecting (here) that the unfortunate norm at philosophical/theological conferences seems to be to read out pieces that have been written to be read, rather than written to be heard. This means that, even if you are familiar with the subject matter, it can be very hard to follow what is being said. Although there were some very well presented papers at the most recent conference I went to (Philip Goodchild, Jack Caputo, Don Cupitt, Neil Turnbull, John Milbank, Todd Mei, etc.), many others would have benefited from reading Edwards' short article.

Edwards notes two reasons academics resort to the literal meaning of "giving a paper," i.e. reading out an article rather than giving a presentation: fear - "it's easier to hide behind the armor of a written paper, which you've had plenty of time to work through, than simply to talk" and it's part of academic culture, which is "something we can deliberately change." Edwards continues by pointing his readers to what effective talks must do, by providing rules of thumb for how to make a presentation "usually better" and "usually worse", and by suggesting important principles for success.

I usually don't actually write a "paper" in the conventional sense until after I've done the presentation, so that's my tip: write a presentation, as a presentation (not as a paper) and then write the paper. Good pointers that Edwards gives and that I've found helpful include:
  • talk, rather than read;
  • stand up;
  • vary the pitch of your voice;
  • emphasise key words in your sentences;
  • make eye contact with the audience;
  • use visual aids (to highlight key points and main arguments, so your audience know where you are going and how you are going to get there)

Something else that I was taught was that you've only really ever got time to make three central points in twenty minutes. Try to do more than that and you'll lose people in details or move too fast.

Edwards makes another good point, too: emulate excellent speakers. I will always remember that Linda Woodhead gave the first academic paper (rather than lecture) I ever heard, in a small informal seminar series at Lancaster University. Her presentation style was friendly but focused and formal, with useful visual aids (okay, so it was Over Head Projector rather than PowerPoint, I'm not going to moan too much about that!). She had a slow but caring speed, and a clear structure. It was on the gender puzzle of the Kendal Project (why are 80% of people involved in the holistic milieu women?) and I was fascinated and enraptured. I wanted to be like her and I still do. I love the way she presents.

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