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August 30, 2011
If the audience is to get any value-added from an academic talk, then the academic should speak not read the talk. Reading the talk, at best, is good karaoke. To me it always suggests that the academic hasn’t mastered his/her material sufficiently to navigate without training wheels. Ditto for powerpoint presentations, unless one really needs to point to something for added epistemic power. A good academic talk should be more like a jazz improvisation – i.e. the speaker provides some novel riffs on themes familiar from his/her texts that allow the audience to join in, sometimes contributing some novelty of their own.
We live in economically stretched times. Why invite famous drones, whose appreciation you could more cheaply acknowledge by buying their books or citing their articles? Anyone who is in charge of a speaker schedule – be it a seminar series or international conference – should always bear in mind that, in the first instance, it is the speaker – not you – who most obviously benefits from an invitation. It is not unreasonable to request something more adventurous than boilerplate from the speaker. You might even – God forbid! – ask them to address a topic somewhat outside their comfort zone. (Youtube is beginning to provide a resource to make informed judgements about who you should (not) invite.)
The increasing specialisation of academic life is way too often used to condone a multitude of sins that hover around the concept of ‘competence’. I never ceased to be amazed how often academics are willing to speak to only a rather narrow sense of ‘what they have already prepared’, or how easily flummoxed they get when they’re told they have 20 instead of 30 (or 10 instead of 20) minutes to present. After all, we’re supposed to be in the business of conveying ideas not displaying powers of recitation.
Of course, academics are worried about saying something wrong in public. Putting aside assaults to one’s vanity, academics sometimes suggest that the public might be at risk if they misspoke. Well, we should be so lucky! In fact, academics misspeak all the time (even when think they’ve adequately prepared) and either no one is paying attention or it doesn’t matter. I do not wish to counsel complacency but simply to demystify a cheap excuse for not having to speak one’s mind in public.
And let’s say you’re caught in an outright error – you should respond graciously. There is nothing wrong with learning in public. Often the blows can be softened by retaining enough wit to realize that your fault-finder is probably overreaching because they’re motivated to find fault in what you said. In other words, they’re interested in advancing their own agenda as they curtail yours. But you can concede a specific error without conceding an entire agenda. In short, make sure you’ve got the wherewithal to do a wheat-and-chaff job on the fault-finder’s comment. (And also do try to correct the error in future presentations!)
Younger academics may think that my advice applies only to more seasoned professionals. But truth be told, we are already pretty cynical about young people. Your word-perfect presentations are taken to be a prosthetic channel for your supervisor’s thoughts – but you might still get credit (if only for academic survival skills!) if you fend off criticism effectively. What’s harder to judge – and therefore places more of the burden on us who judge you – is if you appear to be a normal person making a novel argument. Once we’re able to engage with you at that level, my advice starts to make sense. But what this means is that you need to integrate your academic message with your normal mode of being, so that you can shift with relative ease from banalities to profundities, without losing a sense of the difference between the two!
I have closed off the comments part to this blogpost. But you can respond on twitter, where I can also be found and where this blogpost has been announced: @profstevefuller.