Professional presentations: can you recycle?

Hot off the presses!

Dr. Crazy is freaking the frack out because she needs to write a paper for a conference in June, and somehow finish the semester, pack up her apartment (and kitty cats), and move into her new house all by herself.  All of this must happen in the next month or so.  It’s times like this that it must be oh-so-tempting to reach into the drawer and present something that one has presented before at another conference or meeting, right?  (Dr. Crazy isn’t going to do this, of course, because on the panel is a Dr. Bigshot whom she wants to impress with her intellectual rigor, which is why she’s freaking out now.)

Her post got me thinking:  is it acceptable to present the same paper or give the same lecture twice at conferences, seminars, or invited lectures?  Is it ever cool to lecture on material you’ve already published?  I remember going to a conference as a graduate student and seeing someone who was then regarded as an up-and-comer who gave what seemed to me to be a lazy talk based on notes sketched on a cocktail napkin, and then at the end he gestured to a stack of copies of an article he had just published and announced “well, anyway, I’ve just published this all in this article in the Journal of the History of Blibbityblab, so feel free to take a copy on your way out.”

That seemed to me to be profoundly uncool.  Why the heck did I bother to show up at this panel and listen politely to this guy, when I could have just picked up a copy of the JHB?  I’m looking for spankin’-fresh ideas at professional conferences, not three-day-old leftovers from Dr. Ripoff.  Besides, how boring for the presenter to be rehashing stuff he had already worked out.  (That alone would seem to be reason enough to avoid this kind of performance!)  I vowed then and there never to present published material, and never to give the same talk twice–a vow I have adhered to (mostly) in my career so far.

Why only mostly?  Well, I will admit that I gave two different versions of the same conference paper once, at two different conferences five months apart.  But, I revised it in-between the two conferences, and then immediately after the second conference, it was accepted for publication.  So I worked on extending and revising it that summer, and it was published the following winter.  All in all, a speedy and enterprising journey for my little paper/s!  (And a singular one:  nothing in my career ever has gone from conference paper to publication as an article in a single year.)  I also gave the same invited lecture about my then just-published book twice in two days at two different (but nearly neighboring) universities, because when I called a friend to tell her that I’d be in town to give the lecture at the one university, she said, “let me see if we can bring you out here too to talk about your book.”  So, it was with the full knowledge of the other university inviting me to speak that I’d be giving the same talk at the first uni.  I’ve never, ever given talks based on material that was already published, in part because of my bad memory of Dr. Ripoff described above, but also because I can’t think of anything more boring (for me!  nevermind the audience) than talking about something I’ve already figured out and moved on. 

What do you all think?  Am I too exacting, or Slacky McSlackerson?  Does it make a difference if we’re talking about giving the same (or substantially the same) unpublished paper, versus published work?  Would you answer this question differently if we’re talking about professional conferences versus an invited lecture?  Are there different accepted standards in different disciplines?  (There are a lot of different variables at work.)  I realize that for some stars who get invited to deliver lectures all over the country several times a year that it’s probably not realistic to write something brilliantly and totally original for each outing.  But in those (rare!) cases, what are the rules?  There seems to me to be a good argument for giving something that’s polished and accessible to a wider audience rather than something that’s so fresh and new you haven’t worked out all of the details yet.  But–how many times can you shop the same old lecture?  (Or how many times would you want to?  You don’t want to be that person with a reputation for giving the same paper or lecture, over and over again.  And we all have heard they’re out there, right?)

0 thoughts on “Professional presentations: can you recycle?

  1. I would never present something that is published. I have, however, presented the same (or substantially the same) paper at more than one venue. My rule of thumb is audience–if you are going to have very different audiences at each venue then I think it is ok. Once you get to the point where the same people are hearing the same talk more than once then that is problematic, in my mind. (I am in History but I am not a historian of U.S. history, if that helps. Most people in my sub-discipline present papers more than once.)


  2. Nikki–I think that’s a good point. If you’re going to have a substantially different audience at one conference versus another, then that seems OK. (That was the case I describe above.) There is value in getting feedback from the different constituencies that may be interested in reading or publishing your work.


  3. During my graduate students days I attended an OAH session in which two Big-Name Gilded Age Historians were to speak. Each read from the introductions of their books (one a standard, the other published in the year before the meeting). We expect, I think, that new research and perspectives are “tested” in most of the sessions of our professional organizations’ annual meetings. There’s a sense of sharing ideas and engaging discussion and debate, not pronouncing them. You could feel the room deflate with disappointment that the BNGAH’s hadn’t thought, or taken the time, to offer some reflections about the responses to their books, the state of the field since publications, the application of their insights to other aspects of the Gilded Age. (And I say that now having many years of teaching heavier courseloads than those two historians could ever imagine.)

    Having just come off offering three papers in the last four weeks in three states (unplanned, really, but that’s the normal Spring Season in History), I am really feeling Dr. Crazy’s pain. Although there are situations in which I am tapped to offer up a presentation on my research (already “out there” via conferences, etc., but perhaps not yet published), I always feel the need to add something, changing something, offer another perspective or interpretation or piece of tantalizing evidence. That’s due in part to the opportunity to carve out some time to think and write–that is, conferences and lectures offer interim deadlines that compel me to keep going in a larger research project.

    More important, though, I enjoy the opportunity to think anew about a completed or ongoing project (or an aspect thereof) in relationship to a conference and/or panel theme, and in relationship with other panelists’ work. I feel I owe it to the organizer to frame my work for the larger purpose of a panel, meeting, or symposium. It’s why I, in my dotage, enjoy more smaller meetings and symposia in which scholars–both on stage and in the audience–have the time to engage each other.


  4. I don’t like presenting the same work more than once, even though I think others in my subfield do it. (I am judging partly on the basis of acknowledgments in published articles, which say that the work was presented at conferences X, Y, Z, etc.) If I am reusing material at all, I try hard to reconceptualize material or bring in different evidence, to present some kind of different twist. I am also careful not to commit myself to too many conferences a year–only as many as I think I can write something fresh for. I am not at a point in my career where I am invited to present, so I have control over whether and where I submit a paper.


  5. I have presented the same work to different audiences, as Nikki mentioned in her first comment. The first was a “geographic” conference (about the region), and the second was a gender roundtable with a completely different set of scholars. That seems fine in moderation.

    Also, I would never present an academic paper at a scholarly conference that was published, but at least at my university, many of the invited lectures that I see advertised are coming out of my colleagues’ dissertation or book projects. That only seems natural to me, since sometimes we don’t know what our colleagues are working on until they publish something (then it appears in our newsletter and people say, “hey! you should give a talk on that!”).


  6. Presenting something already published = waste of a conference presentation to me. Conferences for me are about developing new ideas and getting feedback that will help me to bring something to publication. Also, by the time that I’ve published something, I’ve usually moved on to other ideas. An invited talk seems like a different kettle of fish, depending on the audience, but I will say that the most interesting invited talks I’ve attended usually are a preview of something that is about to be published, or are talks developed from something that’s only come out very, very recently, so most of the audience wouldn’t have had the chance to read it yet.

    I *have* presented “variations on a theme” sort of conference papers, wherein after 2-3 conferences (either presenting different pieces of a big idea, or presenting heavily revised versions) I’ve been able to develop my thoughts enough to turn it into an article (or to get a chapter out of the idea). I think as long as there is substantial work on the idea from one conference to another, that’s actually the best way to use conferences to develop one’s cv. At a certain point, conference presentations offer diminishing returns in terms of professional development (does anyone really care whether somebody has 15 conference presentations vs. 25?), so if the conference presentations don’t lead to publication, what’s the point in giving them? (This is not to say that I haven’t given one-off sorts of conference papers that never went anywhere – obviously I have – but that isn’t usually the best use of a conference in terms of my cv, imho.) At least for me, I typically need a few conferences to get where I’m going in terms of polishing my argument and analysis, and having deadlines is essential for me in terms of moving beyond “hey, what a cool idea!” to “this is something I should share with the world!”


  7. I’ll chime in with the consensus here, although I’m not as experienced an academic. I would *never* present on something published unless asked to do so, and never at a conference period. However, I have and would present the same paper at more than one conference. First example: trying an idea out at a small local conference, then bringing it nationally. Second example: presenting at a national conference in X field as interdisciplinary work, presenting it at an interdisciplinary conference a year later. (In the second example, there was one person present at both talks.)

    In grad school, we invited and paid for a scholar to come across the country to present. S/he read a paper that had been published years earlier, and out of order. The whole thing was a fiasco, and our chair actually brought it up at the next department meeting. It made a strong impression on me, and I think it was good mentoring.

    Of course, a friend just unknowingly submitted a writing sample for a job application without realizing that s/he couldn’t then present on the topic during an on campus interview. Major panic mode.


  8. My personal inclination is to always give seminars on new shit that is in the pipeline. Otherwise, I get too bored to keep my own attention, let alone that of the audience. However, to the extent that new shit frequently builds on old shit, any given talk always contains a mix of published and unpublished data.

    Some scientists, however, never talk about data unless they are–at a minimum–in press. This is because of the fear–sometimes well-founded–that some douchebag in the audience will leave the seminar and start sending e-mails to the personnel in her lab telling them to work the same shit right up ASAP, and try to rush it into publication. Every field has a few people who are know for this kind of douchebaggery, and those who have been burned once or twice learn not to present new data. My own personal calculation is that the benefits of getting immediate pre-submission feedback on our new shit outweighs the risk of some douchebag in the audience jumping all over our shit.

    In relation to the issue of giving “the same talk” multiple times, successful mid-career scientists can give as many as 15-20 talks per year. This makes it impossible to give a completely different talk every time. However, scientists do tune their talks to a greater or lesser extent to suit the inclinations of each audience.


  9. I’ve recycled some information in papers, but can honestly say that all of them have been substantially different. It’s always been my impression that, unless it is a completely different audience, one should not present the same paper twice. One should at least note that a paper is part of a larger work in progress, and that parts of it are new. I’m not so sure about invited and paid talks, though. I think that depends on the purpose of the talk and the audience. If it’s a flat-out academic presentation, then one treats it as a conference paper. If it’s open to the general public, and a talk on an Interesting Aspect of My Field, I think it’s okay to have a semi-canned talk.


  10. I agree that if the audience is different, there’s no reason not to reuse material, and that it might even been a good idea.

    I’ll also suggest that a good conference session is a conversation, and if what you have to contribute to the conversation is already published, then you should go ahead and use it. Ultimately, from the dialogue among the papers and between papers and audience, the session as a whole is what matters.


  11. I have recycled on two different occasions, each time in front of a different audience. They were two different animals, however. In one case, one was a precirculated paper that I gave in 2002, made major revisions to, and gave again in 2004; I also knew that there would be no one in the audience at the latter presentation who had seen the former. (They were small events.) Another time I presented two versions of a paper outlining the thesis of my book, in 2004 and 2008. Here I figured geography was an issue: if you were in England in 04 and Boston in 08, then you got to hear it twice, but I doubt many made the trip!

    One thing I find tremendously frustrating is being in the audience when I hear a presenter offer something that is either published or about to be published. In other words, no comment or question is going to change one word (or one substantive word, I suppose) in the final text. This has happened to me a couple of times and I always feel like I am wasting my time (or my time is being wasted). Why am I reading a precirculated paper, trying to formulate thoughtful questions, and listening to answers when I can just wait for the book/journal article? It’s not like my effort now matters.

    (I should note that I am not egotistical enough to think that my questions *always* make an author rethink a point of their work. But I hope a good question/comment does!)


  12. I think John S.’s comments suggest something important: the audience doesn’t really feel it’s part of a conversation if the work in question is published or in press. So, while I see Brian Ulrich’s point that tightly linked paeprs make for a good conversation, I also think that the audience has more of a stake in participating in that conversation if they’re not already published. (History Maven’s comment upthread seems to suggest the same thing as well.)

    Dr. Crazy’s comment here is key: “[I]f the conference presentations don’t lead to publication, what’s the point in giving them?” I think this is particularly true in the age of diminished (or non-existent) travel budgets. If you’re not making your conference invitations/presentations work for you, as the LOL cats would say: “UR doin’ it rong!”

    (Then again, far be it from me to cast aspersions on the strategy of writing a brief paper to have an excuse to meet up with friends at a conference! These too can lead to other professional opportunities aside from publication of a paper.)


  13. I’m pretty much in agreement when it comes to published work. That just seems insulting to all involved. The speaker doesn’t respect your time enough, ze thinks ze’s hot enough sh*t to be worth hearing them speak on work we’ve already read (or could read in the comfort of our living room sofa), nor is ze viewing this as an interactive intellectual experience. Ze’s just talking at the audience, all of whom know that nothing substantive will be taken to heart because the work’s already complete.

    On conference papers, though, I’m much more lenient. It shouldn’t be a pattern (one whole year you trot out the same piece at ten different conferences) but I see nothing wrong with testing out material to a few different venues, especially for younger scholars (dissertation writers and young professors). I don’t have enough work yet to be presenting radically different material every time I give a conference paper, if that happens with any frequency.

    I’m somewhere in the middle, though, on invited lectures. If one’s being asked to do enough of them, it’s really impossible to expect that it’s going to be new work each time. But again, there’s something insulting about knowing that the lecturer wrote this thing ten months ago and has been trotting it out unchanged ever since.


  14. I have recycled — not conference presentations, but for invited lectures. And I have never presented something that is published. Partly it’s a matter of time — particularly for invited lectures, I don’t always have time to write something new. Usually, however, I do a bit of rejiggering for the purposes of the paper. The only time I’ve presented something that was substantially the same as something I had published was when I was giving a keynote at a conference in a European capital on a topic where I’d published an article. I was struggling to figure out what to say that was new, and a friend reminded me that they wanted what I’d already said. So I used what I’d written, substantially reshaped for this purpose.

    It seems to me that there are times when you have lots of stuff you can do, and other times when you don’t have lots of stuff….

    But even if something is in press when I give it as a talk, comments are always useful, unless I am never going back to that problem…..How do I move forward.


  15. CPP–most people at most conferences read their papers out loud, and only sometimes are there slides with data or evidence. (At least at the conferences I’ve attended.) PowerPoint slides are more common than they used to be, but IMHO there’s a lot of misuse of technology–most historians don’t seem to know how to use visual media.


  16. CPP – what Historiann says about history goes for English as well, though I can almost accept that in my discipline we want the paper to be read as opposed to talked because we care as much about the language of the criticism as about the argument (but that’s kind of a stretch). I do think that some specializations within English are more embracing of technology and other presentation formats (digital humanities, comp/rhet) but in the mainstream lit fields? Yeah, we like reading to our audience. It’s just like a bedtime story, only in public and if the people in the audience fall asleep it’s bad form for them and a bad sign for your presentation 😛


  17. Do you serve warm milk? lolz

    Seriously, that’s interesting. In the sciences, we actually aim to sound as extemporaneous as possible. Any trainee who tries to read a seminar talk from a written document or who memorizes their talk will be severely scolded and exhorted that they need to come across as conversational.

    Although we do also train them that they are trying to tell a story. I guess it’s more like the kind of story you would tell to your pals at the bar, than that you would tell to your child at bedtime.

    Obviously, a huge difference is that in the sciences we rely on complex slide shows to allow our audiences to see the information we are conveying with their own eyes. As a rule of thumb, a typical science talk would have between 0.5 and 1.25 slides per minute, depending on how complex each slide is and the rhetorical style of the speaker.


  18. I may be in the minority here but I prefer a read paper. I’ve found that there are very few people who can pull off extemporaneous speaking. Those who can, should. But conference papers have time limits (15-20, maybe 25 minutes). Historians are notorious for having anecdote after anecdote at the expense of argument. Extemporaneous speaking only encourages the worst tendencies of historians. Example: I went to a panel a few months back that was very sparsely attended and I think one of the members of the panel had dropped out. It was also the last time slot of the conference, right before noon on a Sunday; people wanted to get out of there. There was no reason we couldn’t have gotten out of there early. But no, one man spoke “extemporaneously”, which meant he rambled for forty-five minutes and then his response to the commentator also went long. Unacceptable.


  19. I’ve presented the same paper multiple times. In one case, 3x: once to the local archaeological society, which served as a dry run for a presentation at an international conference, that allowed me to beat out some of the weirdnesses. I was then asked to present on the topic again to a local special interest group. There was no overlap among the audience. It isn’t uncommon in archaeology-land to present the same or very similar talks at various conferences. It does get tiring to see the same damn talk over an over again; there are a few who are notorious for this, presenting exactly the same thing at multiple small local and medium-sized regional conferences before trotting it out at the biggies. AND they do it after their stuff’s been published. In these cases, I think the number of presentations on their cv is more important than pissing off their audiences or, you know, doing more work. People actually start to avoid them.

    We do occasionally get whole sessions on a single site, with several papers dealing with various aspects, which can be very cool, if the presenters have coordinated their work to not overlap.

    Archaeologists use lots of visuals, though it can be a little nuts. 1-2 per minute is good — 1 a minute for general discussion, up to 2-3 per minute for artifact run throughs. More than 2 mins on a slide gets boring. Archaeologists will also read directly from their papers; it’s boring. The best speakers either speak off the cuff, or work from notes. The VERY best speakers to that, AND stay within their time!


  20. Regardless of discipline, I think we can all agree that any speaker who goes over their allotted time should be killed, painfully. In relation to extemporaneous speaking, in the sciences the idea is to sound extemporaneous, but be very organized and logical in your rhetorical progression. Having a detailed slide show keeps you on track.

    But yeah, every discipline has painful ramblers. My experience has been that they are almost always d00ds.


  21. Strangely, I was at a paper a couple weeks ago where the SPEAKER WAS SO LOUD that I had to hold my ears the whole time. This was without amplification, in a small seminar room. I would have said something, maybe, but it was a grad student and clearly his first presentation ever, so I just pressed my fingers into my ears. Good paper, though.


  22. Yes, almost always d00ds. When women go overtime, in my experience, it is new conference presenters.

    And also yes… speaking off the cuff /= aimless rambling, though that also happens. It can be painful; by god, if you might forget what your damn point was, work from notes!!


  23. It’s funny, the only time I have ever been completely okay with a presenter who went over time (by a fair bit) was a woman and she was so engaging (and her material so good), I didn’t mind. She wasn’t rambling, which was probably part of it.


  24. The post may faithfully reflect the History field. It doesn’t reflect areas in the more technical areas where duplication is multidimensional.

    Papers modified mainly cosmetically, i.e. minor rearrangements, change of figures and various other improvisational knife actions are quite common.

    There is also duplication of core issues. The best phrase demonstrating the issue is: “she/he proves in Chinese a theorem that was proven in English 30 years ago.” Here duplication is along the time scale.

    Another duplication is interdisciplinary: you present work that appears as spring chicken in your field while knowing that the work was done before in another field. This one is a relatively is modern thievery that started with the expansion of the research silos about a decade ago.


  25. Our department runs seminars at which we’re expected to present annually — I try to use this session as a dry run for a paper I’ll be giving elsewhere or at least as a preliminary “fishing expedition.”

    I’ve given two papers off of the same research base or topic area a few times now but there’s always been a substantial difference (one’s looked at only manuscript sources while the other paper compared those manuscripts with contemporaneous books, say).

    And when I’ve been asked to speak on something already published, I’ve tried to come up with some further material or insights that didn’t make it into print. There’s always got to be something “more” to make a personal presentation worth the audience’s while, no?


  26. It can be overdone, but in general there’s nothing wrong in having a “road” paper, especially on a fairly new project, that can be given in a variety of different places (I agree with John S. and/or Nikki that geography and audience are material here) to get a range of feedback and ideas. It would seem silly not to freshen the thing up improvisationally between iterations, if only not to fall asleep at one’s own lectern. But if you really want a range of comparative feedback, how do you correllate different reactions to what may become basically and sequentially different offerings, if you overly fetishize the need to originate every time out?

    Presenting something that’s already been published? A complete no-no, although if you’re asked to talk to a truly new audience *on* something you’ve already finished, that would be an invitation to extract a new angle, re-insert an “out-take,” or even rethink a once settled point. I did something of the sort just recently. In the emerging model of pre-circulated seminar papers, even presenting something that’s *near* publication is pretty much looked down on.

    Nobody’s raised the question of possibly moving into the same house a second time, which really breaks new ground. I think I saw something about this in the Sunday New York Times Real Estate section once! 🙂


  27. I consider reading papers off a script at conferences to be the most shameful thing connected to the historical profession. Maybe it’s hanging out at large urban hotels with business school professors and economists who make dull subjects sound interesting this way, but if they can get by without reading a script why can’t we? Indeed, a few years back I vowed never to do it again and I’ve done maybe three conferences since then and I’ve gotten lots of compliments for being more interesting than everyone else.

    If we read scripts in class as our lectures we’d be killed on our teaching evaluations (by students and in review for tenure and promotion), and rightfully so. Why on Earth then do we want to do that in front of an audience of our peers?

    One additional advantage other than demonstrating the ability to think on your feet: If we didn’t read papers, recycling them wouldn’t even be an issue.


  28. Ooh, good question!

    I never had recycled before a few weeks ago, but I had three papers to deliver in 2 weeks. I gave one talk at a colloquium at Mothership University to the department. I was giving a talk in St. Louis at the PCA/ACA conference, and had brought all of my luggage to school to leave from there to the airport, when I got an email inviting me to give another talk while I was in St. Louis, this time at a private event. I can’t feel bad about recycling the first talk, which had only been seen by about 6 people in Atlanta, for the private event (retooling it for the audience, of course). The next week I had a poster presentation back in Atlanta, and I made a handout that used the opener of my PCA/ACA talk, because it just fit so damned well. Not completely original, but I’m not feeling bad about it. I thought I did fairly well with the quantity of original material for each talk, considering the rather extreme (for me) time constraints.

    Oh, and always, always there is something that I have had to cut out of an article or presentation that gets to be an article/presentation of its own. I love that, how research begets more research. Keeps me busy.



  29. Same paper at multiple conferences: OUT. People don’t want to hear the sane stuff over again. Unless it’s a totally different audience (eg a different discipline) and the paper is rewritten accordingly.

    Same paper at multiple invited lectures: OK. The audience will be different. You’ll get different feedback. When I invite someone to speak at my place ze will often say”here are three papers I have, which would you like to hear?”.

    Presenting something that’s already in print: BIG NO-NO unless they’ve specifically asked for it. And a waste of your effort too; why get feedback on something you can no longer change? OK to present a different aspect of something you’ve published about, of course.


  30. For the major conference in my field, you’re required to submit a complete paper (20+ pp., not something you could read if you wanted to) 8 months in advance of the conference. You’re not allowed to submit something that’s been accepted for publication, but you can submit it for publication before the conference happens. It’s stupid to wait 8 months to submit it if it’s otherwise ready, so it’s not uncommon (or, I think, unethical) for people to submit it to the conference, then submit for publication shortly after, and have it be somewhere in the publication pipeline by time the conference actually happens.

    I also don’t think it’s a problem to have an “invited” talk that you’ve given more than once (especially in a short time frame, and definitely to different audiences) or to give a talk at a workshop/informal seminar as preparation for a conference or other more formal talk.

    But, some people can and do cross the lines I think are fine (which apparently are much more lenient than many of the other commenters), and present the *same* paper at every conference, etc.


  31. I haven’t presented one paper at multiple venues, but I think I will be, and a lot. It should be quite a bit different every time, though. My master’s thesis is almost definitely going to be my dissertation (although, obviously, several hundred pages longer), but I was lucky enough to be able to present it at a regional area studies conference just after finishing my degree. I got a lot of great feedback from that conference, including the suggestion to use it as the basis for my dissertation.

    Making it my dissertation won’t necessarily change the argument (which is about the application of film theory), just expand it to cover the other items in a set. Consequently, the potential future presentations will be on the same overarching topic and have similar arguments, but be different in a variety of ways. It should be different enough to be interesting even if someone saw the first presentation (assuming it will be interesting to them at all, natch).

    For the question of reading off of papers, in Japanese Studies we go with whatever works for your paper. My presentation was theory laden, so I read straight off the paper. I was using quotes, bringing up small points of theories that have been established for decades, and I mentioned about a half-dozen different theorists and compared their works to each other. I worked really hard to not confuse anyone in the audience who didn’t happen to have a strong film theory background, but I was definitely juggling a lot and having it written down helped tremendously. On the other hand, I’ve gone to presentations on art where everyone – speaker included – focused on Powerpoints full of pictures. That worked fine too. I think it really depends on what kind of paper you’re giving.


  32. Jonathan: surely you can’t be serious that reading conference papers are “the most shameful thing” about History! In my experience, when people write and deliver well a 10-page paper, they’re more coherent, I get more and better evidence to follow, and (as Comrade PhysioProf notes above) they STAY ON TIME. When I’ve seen people give extemporaneous presentations they indulge in anecdotes and go over time.

    There is such a thing as delivering a paper in a relaxed, familiar fashion, versus reading it badly (no eye contact with the audience, reading too fast, reading in a monotone.) I always appreciate style, but even more important for me is substance. And I just think that that’s difficult to deliver without a nicely written and polished paper.

    (Now, my evidence is overwhelmingly linguistic–I use language as evidence, and it’s important to get those quotations and passages correct. That would be exceedingly difficult to do extemporaneously. I wonder if this is a cross-disciplinary issue–literature scholars might tend to agree with me because their evidence is language, whereas cliometricians and others with more crunchy social-sciencey data that can be summarized on slides might feel differently.)


  33. Great question, Historiann. I’ve certainly *heard* the same paper given at different conferences, frequently by Eminent Figures, so it’s not unusual to do so. I’ve also HistoryMaven’s experience of “let me read you the introduction of my new book” and have been disappointed.

    It depends on the material, really. If you’re reporting on documents from primary sources that no one else has seen or discussed, I think it’s all right to give different versions of the paper to conferences where you’ll have different audiences, so as to spread the word.


  34. H writes: “(Now, my evidence is overwhelmingly linguistic–I use language as evidence, and it’s important to get those quotations and passages correct. That would be exceedingly difficult to do extemporaneously. I wonder if this is a cross-disciplinary issue–literature scholars might tend to agree with me because their evidence is language, whereas cliometricians and others with more crunchy social-sciencey data that can be summarized on slides might feel differently.)”

    This is precisely the issue in literary studies. The fact is, if you’re trying to talk precisely and carefully about language, you’ve got to get the language right. Also, trying to talk extemporaneously with slides with the quotations in the background, or with handouts (and I’ve seen people try both) typically fails miserably and ends with sloppy analysis as well as people missing key points in the primary source material if the presenter barrels through too quickly.

    Here’s the thing: of COURSE we can think of examples of poorly presented “read” papers – just as I think we can think of examples of poorly presented “talked” papers. I suppose I wonder at the notion, though, that “talking” will always be more entertaining and interesting than reading. (But then, I’m a lady who loves to be read to and who thinks we understand the words on the page differently when we hear them aloud or when we speak them aloud, so maybe I’m in the minority on this one.)


  35. My presentation was theory laden, so I read straight off the paper. I was using quotes, bringing up small points of theories that have been established for decades, and I mentioned about a half-dozen different theorists and compared their works to each other. I worked really hard to not confuse anyone in the audience who didn’t happen to have a strong film theory background, but I was definitely juggling a lot and having it written down helped tremendously.

    If the speaker can barely keep the shit straight without reading it off the page, I am very skeptical that the audience could keep it straight hearing it read.

    Good science seminars present a much more streamlined and superficial version of an argument compared to how it would be presented in a published manuscript. This allows the audience to get the big picture of the argument and conclusions.

    Bad science seminars that proceed jot by tittle through an argument exactly as presented in a manuscript overwhelm the audience with material, and end up leaving the audience with nothing. Hence, less is more.

    My rule of thumb is that it takes 15-20 minutes to effectively justify a single conclusion and convey the strength of that conclusion to an audience. Thus, a 15-20 minute talk should be designed to leave the audience with one single take-home message, a 30-40 minute talk can provide two messages, and a 45-60 minute talk can provide three messages.

    I’ve never been to a history or literature seminar, but it would be pretty interesting to do a real comparative analysis of how humanities versus science peeps give good talks.


  36. Wow, an interesting conversation. First, it makes me think that I need to get out more. I have presented maybe a half dozen conference papers in the last decade. So presenting more would probably help my scholarship.

    Second, I don’t understand why you would present on something that is already in print, unless you are out on a book tour, or being asked to give an invited talk on the topic of said, book/article. Even then, it seems to me the History Maven has it right: the presenter should be willing to reflect on the critiques and reviews of the book, and explain what it was that you learned about the topic after committing the ideas and research to paper.

    If people are out there presenting on material they’ve already published, I am going to try and get on some more panels!


  37. Historiann:

    OK, I’ll grant you there are perhaps more shameful things about the historical profession (adjunct exploitation, for example), but this one is still really bad. If you can’t talk coherently off the cuff about your own research for twenty minutes, what on Earth can you talk about on the fly? What must the classes of someone who can’t do this for their own research be like?

    My brother is an economist at CU Denver and he just kills me on this every time a historian shows up at one of his conferences. While I hate to admit he’s right about anything, I think he’s right on this one. If they can do it, we can do it.


  38. Off the cuff is for out in the corridor. As has been noted above, this mode encourages and/or lends itself to anecdotalism, to the impulsive intrusion of “breaking insights,” and to other things that are best left for the receptions. Panel presentations are for the actual transmission of research results–albeit often in progress–and since in this era at least most research doesn’t lend itself to charts and graphs, and since the inclusion of the actual language of historical actors and agents is often desired, a text is often the best method. Admittedly, this ceremony is a subgenre of its own and a performance–like having afternoon tea–and it’s learned behavior for the listeners as much as for presenters that can seem silly if you look right at it.

    But recent alternatives like “poster sessions” at humanities meetings end up looking forlorn at best, and electronically pre-circulated papers often don’t get read. For that reason, presenters feel bound to begin with summaries made “off the cuff,” which often get off-track.


  39. I second Indyanna. I would actually find watching a scholar give me his/her “off the cuff” comments as much a violation of the implied speaker-audience contract as reading work that is already published. I mean, can you really engage in a serious give and take of an off the cuff? Is the presenter likely to make any revisions to the paper as a result of the conversation?

    Moreover, I hope that the classroom model doesn’t quite fit. I would like to think that I have a better ability to listen to scholarly work and process it than a 20 year old undergrad.


  40. A lot depends on HOW people read their papers. Any experienced classroom teacher should be able to read through his/her draft a few times in the 24 hours before the session or talk takes place and then present it pretty much verbatim, but as one speaking rather than reading. I’ve seen many dazzling presentations that took this form–Natalie Zemon Davis is a dab hand at it, for example, and though the rest of us aren’t going to reach her level, it’s one more way in which we can learn by imitating her (I’ve had the good fortune to spend much of my career doing that).


  41. Pingback: Please stop reading your conference papers. « More or Less Bunk

  42. Sorry, Jonathan–I agree with Indyanna, Tony, and John S., above. I think Tony makes a great point about presentation: we’ve all seen people “read” their papers well and poorly. I’ve seen scholars read two or three pages from a 50-page paper, and then extemporize randomly, then flip through the paper to locate another two or three pages to read. That seemed to me to be an especially ineffective combination of the two speaking styles. (All of the randomness and lack of rigor of “off the cuff” remarks, mixed with some dull verbatim readings in-between.)

    Perhaps where we can agree is on the value of performing well, however one goes about presenting one’s work. But in the end, I’m with John S.’s and Indyanna’s point about sufficient scholarly rigor in conference presentations being part of the compact between presenters and our audiences at conferences. When I lecture to students, I speak much more informally and return and return again to a couple of key themes. But, I expect my conference audiences already to have sufficient background to follow a more complex argument and/or collection of evidence.

    And, we could all do worse than to imitate NZD, in every conceivable way.


  43. OK, I’m late into this discussion. But I wanted to admit having recycled versions of a paper for different audiences, with different tilts; AND having given a conference talk which condensed my recently published book into 15 minutes (think that’s easy???). I was unsure (and felt slightly cheap) about the recap, but as it turned out, hardly anyone even KNEW the book had been published, let alone knew what it was about, and the paper was warmly received (and fit extremely well with the panel). So despite all the “rules” rambling around in my head about what we should and should not do, ever, I find myself straying beyond the boundaries–and not to ill effect. I hope.


  44. Comrade PhysioProf:

    My conclusion was, basically, that the established theory on a given issue was insufficient when applied to a certain class of media. To make that argument, I had to go through each of the applicable major works of theory, with a focus on the relevant subsections and points. Also, since most of the theorists were reacting to each other, I had to proceed in a particular order. The problem was not keeping things straight so much as keeping the order of things straight. For example, in a science (or at least a science fair) presentation, you wouldn’t state the procedure before outlining the problem.

    It was definitely a tight paper, but it worked out really well. My next paper won’t necessarily be directly read, but that strategy fit with this paper.


  45. Pingback: Reading-from-the-Page in Presentation: Crazy’s Defense « Anumma

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