Friday, November 9, 2007

How to Give a Paper

With conference papers to deliver, and job talks coming up for many, Tenured Radical weighs in with her typically astute advice about how to deliver a paper, and links to great tips from Linda Kerber. Just a couple of highlights from both:

From LKK:
Dorothy Kenyon, a great feminist and civil rights activist, who spent much of her time speaking in public, once observed that a public talk must “always seem to be improvised, but it must never be improvised.” If you want to hold your audience you must plan ahead, and plan very carefully.
Observe time limits scrupulously. The usual rule of thumb is that a typewritten page [old fashioned courier, 12 point type] holds 250 words. It should take a minimum of 2 minutes to say 250 words out loud. If you have 20 minutes to speak your paper, it can be no longer than 10-12 pages. Do not think you can cheat by fixing the font. Begin with a paper that is 10 pages long.
Another “time limit” is the date when the paper is to be delivered to the commentator. This is a courtesy that gives the commentator time to read and reflect on your paper. Your own selfish interest dictates that you want the most thoughtful comments you can get, not comments that have been hastily thrown together. You will be greatly embarrassed should an annoyed commentator begin by announcing, as some have done, that Paper X arrived only two days before the deadline so the audience should not expect much wisdom on the subject....
Generally it is not wise to improvise during the paper presentation. The better you know what you are going to say, the less dependent you will be on your written text, and the more your planned talk will give the impression of informality and improvisation. (See Kenyon Principle). The more you improvise during the formal paper, the greater the dangers of rambling and going off on tangents. Save your improvisatory energy for the question period, when you will need it.
More good advice is here.

From TR:
Reading really fast to make up for the fact that your paper is too long is not an option. People just stop listening. It is perfectly fine -- and often useful -- if you find that you have no more to cut, to stop in the midst of the paper and gracefully summarize what you have cut, offering to address it in the question period (for which you have just left time.)
Display a sense of humor. Tell a funny story, say something amusing that happened during the research, or relate an odd misunderstanding that will get a laugh. Turn errors into an opportunity for a laugh. If you flub a word, or a sentence, rather than blushing, making a face that says "God, you must think I'm a dork," and rushing to correct yourself; pause, smile, and say -- if the error is some kind of Freudian slip -- "Well, wouldn't that be fun," or "Oh my goodness!" or "I'm sorry, I can't seem to read my own handwriting." But for Goddess's sake, don't encourage people to feel
sorry for you.
Interact. This means catching the eye of people in the audience, and speaking directly to them. It means that if you don't go first on the panel, making a gracious connection to the speakers who have preceded you; or picking up on a theme of the keynote. It can mean thanking the people who invited you to campus (a must! and include the departmental secretary who made all the arrangements), or the person who put together the panel in the first place. It can also mean acknowledging people in the audience whose work will be referred to directly or indirectly in your paper, and it means acknowledging the expertise of others in the room when you make a brief reference to something in their line. For example, "I can't get into this point now, but of course this phenomenon has its origins in the Truman administration -- something the students of Professor Y who are in the room can probably speak to in the Q & A."
If there is any general principle that all of this falls into, I would say it is this: giving Good Paper relies on enhancing the comfort of everyone in the room, starting with yourself but not ending there; and conveying your research to people in ways they can understand and respond to. Having a good paper -- one that is intelligent and well-written, and conveys the new things about your work without couching them in a lot of unnecessary jargon or too much context that we are familiar with already -- is important. But presentation is also important, and it is a learned skill. Watch people who do it well and ask yourself why; ask those people questions about the choices they made; and, as the apocryphal New Yorker once advised about how to get Carnegie Hall, practice, practice, practice.
More good advice is here.

The comments take up the question of reading papers or speaking from an outline. This is often discipline-specific. Historians usually read papers, but that means delivering a written text, not a pedantic reading. A challenge for legal historians is that law schools and law conferences (e.g. AALS & Law and Society Assn.) are cross-disciplinary, so you have to expect that some folks will be less receptive to someone reading a paper. What should a legal historian do?

For most legal history papers, a central feature is deep work with primary sources, which construct a narrative that informs your analysis. The talk should begin by setting your specific research within a broader literature, explaining briefly why your specific line of inquiry is so important, and what your scholarly contribution is.

At the transition from the beginning to the body of the talk, experienced speakers often say: "today I'm going to discuss (fill in one to three points from your work that you'll take up in your remarks)." This is helpful to your audience and gives them a roadmap for your talk. Setting up the talk well may allay concerns of non-historians that you are just storytelling with no analysis.

The body of the paper is often the historical narrative. At the end of the paper, you return to the broad themes outlined at the beginning and explain how your research supports your argument.
While some of this can be outlined -- the opening and closing parts -- it is usually difficult to convey the details of your historical narrative without reference to a text. The text includes choice (short!) quotations from your primary sources, and it enables you to weave the narrative together in an exacting way, rather than on your feet in front of an audience when you are feeling nervous.
Especially for newer scholars, even if the convention at the school or conference is to speak extemporaneously, it is usually a good idea to have at least the narrative part of your paper written down for you to deliver. The crucial point is that it must be delivered especially well.
For this, there's no substitute for practicing it over and over again, out loud, to whomever will listen, even if it is just your cat. When you do this, you'll find that -- often without trying -- you'll end up memorizing much of your paper, which will enable you to speak through it in a more polished way, with plenty of eye contact with your audience.