This second post on presentation technology and presentation culture addresses some personal reflections on the role of presentations and performance in scholarly life. The first post can be found here.
Academic work and performance
Most of us know the challenges and fun of doing job talks, asking questions at a conference, defending arguments in a seminar situation, doing our first 20-minute conference talk and waiting for that positive comment or pat on your shoulder that would confirm that you did a good job. Some of us also know the feeling when you do not get that confirmation – it is a feeling that is not necessarily proportionate to the actual situation. A seminar talk that did not work out very well despite careful planning can really make you feel bad. It is the the empty feeling of not having connected or been successful in terms of narrative and performance. And conversely, the ‘high’ of getting an energizing response, feeling things coming together and being able to respond well to questions. In any case, a seminar or conference delivery is not evaluated in the same way as a journal article or your collective scholarship (e.g. in a tenure portfolio).
We know that many of these occasions are ritualistic, hierarchical, positional and performative, and not just about the “content” or pure argument (if such a thing is possible). Scholars make themselves to some degree through their performance in such situations. And it is something that people care about (although they may not say so). I have recently gone through some literature and sources on academic conferences and seminars for a project on academic events, and one thing that strikes me is how much we are embedded in such performative structures. They are a given in many ways and while academics care about them, but there are also many things that are taken for granted/not questioned. While we (and I am talking as a humanist now) are keen on looking critically at knowledge practices elsewhere, I think we are generally not as keen to look at our own embedding critically.
A few random observations from doing this reading: Senior scholars vary as how much support they give their Ph.D. candidates/junior scholars with respect to performance and managing academic events. Regardless, the literature points to how Ph.D. supervisors get concerned about their students if they are not seen as strong enough in seminar situations. Since public performance is a sensitive topic in some ways, I have a feeling that many supervisors do not go into (negative) details about their candidate’s performance – at least not in a Swedish context. There can be a structural sense of needing to help or allocate “talking space” for Ph.D. students, for instance through allocating a certain amount of time at the beginning of a seminar for Ph.D. students (a strategy that seems contrived and was not well evaluated in the case I read about, Tracy 1997). Another observation from the same book concerns how long-time seminar series are mainly remembered through people/participants rather than theme or arguments. The person(a) is important and unsurprisingly gets reiterated over time. The “how” (and “who”) is as important as the “what”.
Another useful example from the literature (Klineberg 1960) points to how a procedure that worked really well for a UNESCO conference – the first session being devoted to autobiographical statements by all the participants – did not work at all for another conference, where senior participants protested. They did not appreciate this process and having to something about themselves, and one might speculate that there are hierarchies at play here. Senior scholars may expect to be introduced by someone else and are probably also used to getting more recognition and presence than junior scholars. In the “Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production” conference we ran in HUMlab in December 2014, we experimented with introduction strategies. We tried not to make a difference between introducing world-famous scholars and graduate students. You obviously always need to host everyone well and if you get the best scholars in the world, you want to make sure that they are welcomed and that their status is recognized, but on the other hand, everyone is likely to know about the accomplishments of “stars” (or they can check the person out online). Through not giving much more introduction time to stars, you even things out a little bit, although some of the basic structures are still there.
My own experience from scholarly performance comes from giving many talks and presentations (bad ones and good ones), but also from hosting in the range of 150 seminars in different seminar series, organizing more than ten large curated events, imagining and making presentation infrastructure, and having a strong interest in performance, delivery and the texture of academic life. My own training included very little in terms of practical training or even giving perspective on the role of public speaking and performing in the academy. I do not remember anyone ever giving concrete advice (at least not people at my department). I know there are differences between countries here (my experience comes mostly from Sweden and the US), but I have felt for a long time that there is a way the performance is both not important and quite important at the same time. Not important in the sense that it is not given serious/formal attention when appointing positions, making tenure decisions or assessing the quality of scholarship. Important in the sense that it contributes to “making” you as a scholar and through creating a ritualistic arena where positions and hierarchies get established. Great skills in performing your work, thinking on your feet and enacting ongoing scholarship are admired and considered in many contexts, but often not explicitly and not necessarily talked about a great deal in more formal contexts. There is a tension here I think between something that on the one hand may seem subjective (and dependent on qualities such as charisma, presence, verbal quickness and ability to stimulate engagement) and the idea of “pure” scholarship.
Things have changed over the last decades with the emergence of what may be called presentation culture (Robles and Anderson forthcoming). There are differences between disciplines, but it would seem that slide-based presentations are becoming more common in many fields. This probably means that the practice of “reading” papers is getting decentered, or is at least more likely to be coupled with the use of slides and visuals. One of my colleagues at Umeå University once pointed out that what used to be talks, lectures and addresses seem to have become presentations. Presentation technology has played an important role in contributing to such standardisation of occasions of speech. An example: disputation defenses in Sweden used be very formal and ritualistic (and still are to some extent), but have changed as a result of the use of presentation software. When a specific point was brought up by the audience at a Ph.D. defense I recently attended, the defendant pulled up a couple of slides prepared in advance to respond to that anticipated question (I assume there might have been a range of such prepared “answers”/slide decks). The space was set up, as most such spaces are today, with a single screen and projection facilities. The opponent presented his main points using slides too.
When I presented a proposal for a major research foundation in the beginning of the 2000s I carried with me a projector and laptop (both clunky) to show slides. I had to move the chairperson of the committee in order to install the technology and it was very clear that the space (a stylish meeting/board room) had not been setup to allow for delegations to deliver their summary and argumentation using slides. It is very unlikely that this situation would arise now. I would not have to bring a mobile projector (I do not have one anymore) and it would almost certainly be the case that that there would be a presentation setup in the intended space. This infrastructural setup and the prevalent presentation culture would not only suggest the possibility of using digital slides, but strongly recommend the use of slides. Furthermore, it is likely that I would have been asked to submit a presentation file beforehand (for a smooth pre-staged presentation situation, but also possibly to give the committee members a look at the material beforehand). However, academic life (however much New Public Management and communication templates) has more freedom and flexibility here than the in parts of the commercial sector. I recently talked to a tax lawyer who said that he is given three slides (not negotiable) to present complex strategies and these have to fully conform to the company template.
Not having access to such technology is an exception. I was recently asked to do a brief (and important) presentation “without props”, and my understanding was that this is a way of making clear that slides were not permitted. I took it literally and did the presentation without any support from written notes. A useful learning experience, actually, as I found I could do something I normally do not do – carry out really important and time-constrained presentations without any notes or slides. This kind of delivery takes longer to prepare and is less “safe” (at least that is what I felt initially, but in actuality, I think I had a better sense of my argument as I had to structure it differently in terms of argument and rhetorical figures).
Good speakers are often also (but not always) good interlocutors. There are certain people I would never feel worried about in relation to the questions and answers session of a talk. They know what they are talking about, they are genuinely interested in feedback (I think this is a key aspect, and humbleness helps here too) and they can think quick on their feet. They also tend to have a strong presence (whatever that actually entails). All this (and other things to do with the delivery) is important, but of course they also will have content – high-quality work that that they enjoy talking about (whether a “finished” piece of work or work in progress-material). There is often also a quality of intensity and sharpness.
(two examples of strong speakers/interlocutors: Jonathan Sterne and Johanna Drucker, photo credit: Johan Gunséus)
As noted, it is not good enough to be a good performer. The best talks have both – they have genuinely strong content and they are well delivered. Also, I think the best talks often have something more. I will get back to what I think this is in a later posting in this series. The next post in this series, however, will be on angled screens.
Klineberg, Otto. 1961/2001. “The Appreciation of Individual Idiosyncrasies”. In Capes, Mary (ed.), Communication and Conflict. Routledge.
Robles-Anderson, Erica and Patrik Svensson. Under review. “One Damn Slide After Another: PowerPoint at Every Occasion for Speech”.
Tracy, Karen. 1997. Colloquium: Dilemmas of Academic Discourse. Ablex.
Svensson, Patrik. 2015. “Presentation|Tech (II): Performing Scholarship”, Published on September 21, 2015. http://patriksv.net/2015/09/presentationtech-ii-performing-scholarship/.