Academic presentations: "The cure is a strong chairman and a system of lights"
"For those of us whose prime focus is advancing human knowledge, megaconferences are a waste of time and money." Don Moody agrees, but also criticizes my article in Anthropology Today august 2006 about weak presentations at the conference "Anthropology and Cosmopolitanism" at Keele University (UK).
The published article is a heavily edited version of my blog entry What's the point of anthropology conferences? and draws also on How To Present A Paper - - or Can Anthropologists Talk?.
Your piece in AT is rightly harsh about some speakers at the ASA conference, but quite wrong in targeting Brits and anthropology in particular. I have been to conferences on subjects as diverse as anthropology, chemistry, printing and safety in the UK, Europe and further afield. The utterly boring droning reader can be found at all of them. It only happens when there is a weak chairman.
The cure is a strong chairman and a system of lights. One minute before the presentation is due to end a yellow light is switched on by the chairman. On the dot a red light comes on and all projectors and microphone are switched off. Then the chairman announces there is X minutes for discussion and asks for the first question. As the questioner stands up he is handed a roving mike if the auditorium is large and that and the platform mike are then switched on.
Some self-important twit will attempt to override the system, The chairman simply switches off all media and declares the session at an end. Will everyone please vacate the stage. The twit disappears never to be seen again at a conference. Yes it is rough and yes it can destroy reputations. So what? The boring reader who over-runs is self-confessedly incompetent at his trade, impolite, inconsiderate of the value of the time of others, and doesn't give a damn what organisation of a complex conference is screwed up. Does one want such a person to appear again, however important he thinks he is? The short answer is NO!
So what you described was actually weak chairmanship and lack of organisational preparation. If those two doors are left open, the droners will walk through. Any subject. Any time. Any where.
But nevertheless, I asked him, reading one's paper seems to be a tradition in Britain - it's something that you're expected to do?
He replied that this a modern development and is related to specialisation and economisation: Earlier, when our compartmentalised subject divisions did not exist, one individual put forward a thesis, and all present debated it and - if they could - tore it to shreds. Gradually this got supplanted by the multiple papers rushed through with insufficient time for deep discussion and analysis. According to Don Moody, there were two drivers:
On was money. People do not get funded to go to conferences unless they are 'reading a paper' or at least and more recently, taking part in 'a poster session'. So there is enormous demand on conference organisers to produce more and more slots for people to qualify for funding.
The second driver is a combination of idleness and a lack of time because so much time is taken up with committees and admin in general. Belting through a boring script without deviation is the least possible effort. It also gives the funders (and their lawyers) opportunity to put favourable slants in the paper and avoid any possible legal contention.
He then compares a conference where "we were there for the sheer love and excitement of it" (no pre-written presentations!) to the ASA conference:
Now compare that to what you saw and heard at the ASA. As person after person droned through their script with insufficient time to take ideas to pieces in discussion, did any sparks fly? I doubt it. Did a gestalt form and take the subject one great leap forward? No. The megaconference at which dozens or hundreds of papers are read may have some other useful functions but does not contribute to major advance in its subject. For those of us whose prime focus is advancing human knowledge, megaconferences are a waste of time and money.