Friday, December 03, 2004

How to Read a Scholarly Paper

The past week or so we have read both Torrey Seland and Mark Goodacre talking about the perennial problems they have witnessed in listening to scholarly papers at conventions such as the annual meetings of the SBL. I couldn't agree more that most of the papers that I hear are infallible cures for sleeplessness. It still amazes me that many scholars, even those who are senior and experienced, still apparently have no idea how to present a paper in a clear and interesting manner.

Mark's solution was to present ex tempore. I think that's actually an excellent idea, if you can do it; but I think few people will be able to. Torrey also suggests that handouts, outlines, and Power Point help a lot. I agree with that. If you have a complicated idea to put over, and don't have any handouts or slides, then you might as well just read your paper in Esperanto, because no one is going to follow it.

I read my first paper in 1982, at a regional SBL meeting. I think I tried to squeeze a 40-page paper into 20 minutes; I think even I fell asleep, not to mention my audience. Since then, I've learned a few things, so I'll put in my two cents on this topic.

First of all, it's too scary to present without anything written at all. Mark, good for you, but this is going to be beyond most of us. There's always the possibility that you may dry up or space out in the middle of your talk, and you've got to have something in front of you to help out. HOWEVER: Don't bring an entire paper that you're planning to have published somewhere. Prepare a reading script instead. I always do this now; a reading script is different than a full-blown scholarly treatment, in that it's shorter, hopefully clearer, and leaves out subsidiary and supporting material that is inessential for oral presentation. I've learned that for a 20-25 minute presentation, a script of 10-15 pages is ample.

Second, as Torrey suggested, always have something for your audience to look at. Personally, I enjoy Power Point slides, but I don't use them: it's just one more thing that could go wrong if your laptop crashes, or a cord is missing, or the room isn't set up right. Have a handout instead, one page if possible.

Needless to say, none of this will help if you mutter inaudibly or never look at the audience. It's your chance to shine, so get up there and blow them away with the full force of your brilliance. See you all at the next SBL!

UPDATE: Stephen Carlson weighs in here with some apt comments.

1 comment:

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Danuta Schanzer has a great advice page at the Kalamazoo site.