Monday, August 9, 2010

On Listening to Papers at Conferences

I enjoy listening to other legal historians present their scholarship in progress. But I must confess that I find some presentations difficult to follow. The papers I most enjoy are explicit about the argument being made and what the paper adds to (or how the paper differs from) the existing scholarship. I may agree, or not, with the author's argument, but the argument is there, up front.
Unfortunately, many papers I hear are coy on these matters. They contain, for example, a narrative of past events, but there is no explicit argument or hypothesis, nor an express statement of how the narrative differs from the conventional understanding.
Some of the manuscripts I encounter as a peer reviewer also have this drawback; but when I have the printed text in front of me, it is a bit easier to piece together what the author is offering as new. When listening to an oral presentation, it is extremely difficult for me to do this without any explicit "signposting" from the presenter.
It may be that my expectations have been shaped by the standard law school workshop presentation, which tends to be all about the author's argument and how it differs from the received wisdom. But I'm hoping that my reaction to these conference papers (and my preference for a clear statement of the author's thesis) is shared by legal historians of many different backgrounds and affiliations, whether in law schools, history departments, or elsewhere.
What are your thoughts? Please post in the comments.