Saturday, December 18, 2004

THE "HOW TO READ A SCHOLARLY PAPER" DISCUSSION has been going on among Bibl- ..., uh, bibli- ..., er, you know, those guys, for some time. Mark Goodacre has a detailed roundup with lots of good links and thoughts. I keep meaning to write up a brief guide for our postgraduates on how to read a conference paper. Maybe if I ever get around to it I'll post it online. Here are a few random thoughts, some of which may already have been said, since I haven't been keeping up with the discussion.

[Damn Blogger! I wrote out this whole post from notes I had saved previously, and when I tried to save the complete post, Blogger ate it and left me with nothing but my old notes. Grrr. This is the reconstructed version - which, to be fair, is better than the lost one. But if you ever want to save a substantial post before posting, always copy it before you hit the Save button.]

1. I nearly always read a printed paper rather than presenting it from notes or memory. But I don't just read from the article manuscript: I go over the whole thing carefully to try to make sure the thought flows well for an oral presentation, that there isn't a lot of extraneous detail (isn't it annoying when someone keeps reading out lists of primary references?), that important footnote content is moved into the presentation, and that the paper is cut to fit the time available with an eye toward including the substance and the main arguments and dropping anything that isn't central. Sometimes I throw in a joke or two as well.

I don't like to give extemporaneous presentations because it's too easy to forget an important nuance or accidentally drop something I wanted to say. It's also harder to keep track of the time. But maybe that's just how my mind works. I used to be a professional actor but, rather than making me want to do spontaneous presentations, it makes me want to (and I hope better able to) give presentations of a written text which keep the audiences' attention.

2. I almost always pass out a paper handout that has an outline of the presentation with the main structural points and the main arguments, any necessary lists of primary references, and the full text of any critically important primary-text passages.

3. I don't like Power Point for a number of reasons. First, as I like to say to my students, a paper handout doesn't crash and have to be rebooted just as you're supposed to be starting your presentation. And its fonts always work. Second, a paper handout leaves the listener with the basic arguments and primary references in a permanent format that's easy to carry home and ponder later. Third, I just don't like the way the slide format of PowerPoint herds one in the direction of sound bites and a jumpy presentation. (For more on that, see the article PowerPoint is Evil.)

Granted, the papers I present usually aren't to huge audiences and I rarely need more than 50 copies of handouts, often fewer. If I gave papers on, say, the Synoptic Gospels which required hundreds of handouts, I might feel differently.

Also, some might object that PowerPoint allows one to include neat, and sometimes very useful, graphics. Fair enough, but neat graphics can also deteriorate all too easily into cute ones, and useful graphics can usually be accommodated on a paper handout. I've even been known to throw in a Dilbert cartoon or the like on mine once in a while.

Besides the paper handout, I normally post the full text of the oral versions of my conference papers online. If you're just starting to present at conferences, you probably shouldn't do this. But if you've been publishing and presenting papers for a while, it's a bonus for your audience (and anyone else) to have access to them after the presentations.

4. Very important: If you do read a printed text, make sure to read it aloud to yourself at least once before you present it. First, this will allow you to time it and find out if it's too short or (more likely) too long, so you can adjust accordingly. Few things at conferences irritate me more than a presenter who goes on so long that there's no time for questions or, worse, who goes into someone else's time slot. Sloppy, unprofessional, and too common.

Second, the first time or two you do a dry run reading, it's a good idea to have someone else, such as a spousal unit or patient friend listen to you, just to get feedback not on content, but on presentation. There's a strong temptation to speak too fast in order to fit everything in. Don't do this. You should feel as though you're speaking slightly uncomfortably slowly. That's the best speed for your audience to take it in. Also, don't mumble. Project your voice from your diaphragm, not your upper chest. If you don't know what that means, find a friend who knows something about public speaking and ask him or her to show you.

Third, reading aloud will alert you to infelicities, typos, gaps, poor grammatical constructions, thoughts that flow poorly, and bits that don't just make sense, all of which you would otherwise miss. Quite likely after doing this you will want to go back not only to the oral version, but even to the article to make a few corrections.

These are just my own rules for giving a paper and they may or may not work for you. If not, find an approach that fits your own style. But some of the above may well be useful.

Hmmm ... maybe I'll just refer our postgraduates to this post.

Oh and, Mark, I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only one who daydreams about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.