Dangerous Dan Thoughts and musings on the world

2/7/2005

Conference Papers

Filed under: Education — Dangerous Dan @ 11:50 pm

Professor Bainbridge brings up one of my personal academic pet peeves via this essay by Scott McLemee. Here's the good part:

At conferences, scholars would stand up and read their papers, one by one. Then the audience would "ask questions," as the exercise is formally called. What that often meant, in practice, was people standing up to deliver short lectures on the papers they would have liked to have heard, instead — and presumably would have delivered, had they been invited.

Hypothetically, if everyone on a panel read one another's papers beforehand, they might be able to get some lively cross-talk going. This does happen in some of the social sciences, but it seems never to occur among humanities scholars. The whole process seems curiously formal, and utterly divorced from any intent to communicate. A routine exercise, or rather perhaps an exercise in routinism. A process streamlined into grim efficiency, yielding one more line on the scholar's vita.

Is this unfair? No doubt it is. Over the years, I have heard some excellent and exciting papers at conferences. There have been whole sessions when everyone in the room was awake, and not just in the technical sense. But such occasions are the happy exceptions to the norm.

The inner dynamic of these gatherings is peculiar, but not especially difficult to understand. They are extremely well-regulated versions of what Erving Goffman called "face work" — an "interaction ritual" through which people lay claim to a given social identity. Thanks to the steady and perhaps irreversible drive to "professionalization," the obligation to perform that ritual now comes very early in a scholar's career.

And so the implicit content of many a conference paper is not, as one might think, "Here is my research." Rather, it is: "Here am I, qualified and capable, performing this role, which all of us here share, and none of us want to question too closely. So let's get it over with, then go out for a drink afterwards."

This is all too true. Personally, I can't stand paper presentations at conferences or when done by guest speakers. It's not that I don't find the topic, paper, or person each individually interesting, but when you combine them, it's just bad. I'm a visual learner type and with complicated papers, I've got to read the thing to really understand the content and the argument moves being made, but you don't get that chance to read papers before hearing them read to you. It's often too hard to follow and grasp from one listening to really feel like I get it well enough to pick at it. And then even normally good professors will become boring as can be as they just stand and lifelessly read a paper in an awkward monotone cadence. Occasionally somebody will try to add some inflection or liveliness, but it's not often enough. It's a challenge to keep the mind from drifting.

Despite this, though, it's still done in this fashion. I imagine there are those who don't find this nearly as irritating as I do. Also, as McLemee says, this is just the way things are done. It's a ritual people go through because it's what one needs to do to build up a CV and get a good academic rep. That's why, even though I generally don't like them, I still attend paper presentations. I need to experience the process and maybe even gain an appreciation of it. Before long, I'll be engaging in the process as well on a more professional level as one of the paper-readers. One thing is for sure… my paper readings will be far more… attention-grabbing. If nothing else, I like to use my voice for effect. Todd can testify to this.

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