A Worrying Trend
I recently attended a conference. This, of course, is part of general academic life, but there are things about this particular aspect of academia which are becoming increasingly apparent to me with each conference I attend, and they potentially unveil a toxicity within academia which I am becoming more and more uncomfortable with: exclusivity and elitism.
Now, the conference in question was well enough, in fact it was not distinctly different from the many others I have attended. It isn’t that I have a complaint to make about any of the speakers, the quality of their scholarship, or the papers they presented. But it struck me yet again, how there is a problem within academia which effects all conferences, nationally and internationally.
My complaint is about the way (some) academics disregard the importance of performance and its role as a trigger for shared global academic conversation.
Now I don’t want to dedicate hours of my life writing this post attempting to cover all aspects of academia, swerving desperately to try and avoid all possible offence or misunderstanding, or wording everything so carefully and tentatively that I am not actually saying what I feel needs to be said. But nor do I wish to create toxicity myself.
But this is wherein lies the problem. We aren’t saying. People don’t say. And this is where problems start, not just in academia but in all works of life. Silence is, of course, a passive form of affirmation, endorsement, compliance, or yes, sometimes indifference or ignorance. But if we do know, and notice, then we should for the sake of all say something. So I believe and I am attempting to do with this piece of writing (albeit something small). Of course, how, when and precisely what to say are of course, questions answerable only to the individual.
What I wish to raise and put out there into the ether is a question about academics and academic performance – and I use this word ‘performance’ deliberately. I suspect academics may be uncomfortable with this word, perhaps in some grossly misinterpreted form this would feel like an attack or an undermining of the notion of scholarship – the gravity and sincerity of serious scholarship can hardly be diminished into a form of theatre surely? But in my mind, and I confess it is often simplistic and lacking in nuance, presentations by virtue of being one (or more) people presenting to one (or more) people in an audience constitute a form of performance. This here, is my view of the importance of performance within academia.
A Good Performance
Understanding what makes a good performance is perhaps necessary before we can highlight the pitfalls of poor or indifferent performance, and the necessity of this skill. There are basic things one needs to do in order to make one a good public speaker. In brief, we can suggest the following is part of a useful / necessary repertoire:
Tone, Clarity, Pace, Diction, Articulation, Projection, and Presence.
Now all but the last can be taught, and with some attention even the last can be overcome enough that a lack of personal presence or charisma will no longer feel like an absence or hamper the ‘show’.
So let us dig a little deeper. In order to give a strong public speaking performance, one should do what exactly?
A speaker should approach their subject naturally, as far as possible. This is most easily achieved if one is comfortable and knowledgeable about the subject in hand, which one would expect academics to be when presenting prepared papers. You should be confident, even if you feel nervous inside. Mask any nervousness, and concentrate on this being your moment to present to the world and your opportunity to encourage others to provide you with valuable feedback.
Your paper may be scripted, as is usual in the humanities, but you can still attempt to add a sense of spontaneity to your voice: a rising and shifting rather than monosyllabic tone is always preferable. In order to maintain good vocal authority and variety throughout, ensure you use pauses (stop at commas and stop slightly longer at full stops) and variety of tone. Standing, not slouching and keeping your airways open and allowing your diaphragm room to rise and fall will facilitate this. Slouch or hunch over and your voice will be lost. Making eye contact with various people in the room (or if this feels too difficult, look just above people’s heads) will ensure your voice is thrown forward and out, rather than down to the floor.
You may wish to modulate your tone or register when reading quotes out, and you should bear in mind that poetry and prose extracts will require appropriate but different shifts in your voice. Determining this before you present will help you to successfully communicate your message and enhance your listeners’ enjoyment, their engagement, and their ability to comprehend what it is you are arguing. You must observe the shape, form, and tone of your voice. Having a rhythmical flow will invite listeners along, and will give some colour to the message of your argument and scholarship. You must speak clearly and precisely, and if you do, your audience will listen to you throughout your presentation.
Clarity of diction will help all of these things happen, diction meaning the clarity of your speech. However, in order to have good diction, you must have good articulation. This means you mustn’t swallow your letters, or sounds, and allow each letter to be heard, and don’t run one word on to another. It doesn’t mean you can’t have an accent, and it certainly doesn’t mean we all have to master RP. But what it does mean is that you care about the words on your tongue, about how they form, and how you send them out into the air. A low strong voice is just as coherent and inviting to your audience as a refined soft one if spoken precisely and with projection.
Your talk should be structured with a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is, one hopes, seldom an issue for academics as there is typically a strong argument within their papers: although I have seen people freestyle for forty minutes with no agenda or point, merely excitable pleasure, and when asked to stop, they often reply with the comment “But we started late”. Yes, but not that late. This imbalance is alienating, it doesn’t matter how senior or self-important you (think you) are, if you have been given a time limit stick to it. No excuses, no pre-ambles, no exciting addendums or thinking aloud, just stick to the time limit. Your audience won’t thank you for your over-indulgence, and nor will any conference organisers. You are always one of many at a conference. And even if you are an Emeritus Professor Fantastico, you are not more important than other people – or their train home.
Of course, there are problems sometimes as well as nerves to take into account. You may genuinely find public speaking terrifying or be a very introverted person, but being prepared, having practiced, as well as gaining hard-won experience will help you overcome any of the potential problems you may encounter. For example, having your notes printed and organising your slides prior to getting up on stage will help. Establishing whether there is a microphone and checking how to use it before your panel or the conference commences will also help any nerves. And checking as you start to see if people can hear you is always a good idea. It is far better to check, than allow things to go unchecked and potentially have embarrassing interruptions in the middle of your talk (there have been numerous times where microphones are brought up in the middle of the speakers flow, or even watched people heckle speakers to speak louder, and it always unnerves people, particularly those with less experience. None of this needs to ever happen, if you take control at the start and pre-empt these issues.
Hold your notes below your face, and if possibly slightly to the side whilst maintaining an upward gaze. Keep one hand free for using any pc equipment, to move your slides on etc. If you do have slides, plan them carefully and make a note as to when to move them on. And please, always have slides. You don’t have to have millions of them, but not everyone learns aurally, some people also learn visually. And don’t assume your listeners know the date of every monarch, manifesto, riot, law, novel, or painting. And sometimes, listeners like to read the quote or note it down whilst you are talking. By not having slides you take away these possibilities and limit the reception of your own work, and thereby the all-important responses to your work.
Now I can already feel some of you drifting off, after all we all know this. Don’t we? Well no, it seems we don’t.
Ask yourself how many conferences you have attended where speakers can’t be heard, where they talk to their feet, or mumble, where they speak at such a fast pace you can’t keep up with what they are saying or make notes, where their slides are wrong or not labelled, or where they forget their slides (and then apologise and fiddle about whilst furiously stressed), where speakers’ bits of paper are all out of order, or where speakers don’t project their voice, or pause for air, or worse, where they go on and on and on seemingly oblivious to the fact their entire audience is now looking at their phones, yawning, and eyeing up the wine reception being arranged in the next room.
So why in so many academic conferences are there people who don’t seem to care about their performance? Why do academics consistently ignore the importance of performance, and shy away from it to the point where they are pretending it isn’t an integral part of their (paid) job. And for those who aren’t paid (often a fair few), but are often those who want to secure tenure in an academic job, why aren’t they even more conscious of the need and imperative for putting on a good show? And why, does this matter?
The Purpose of Performance
Let us consider the purpose of a conference for a moment.
Conferences are an opportunity to share information, to learn from others, to share ideas, conversations, experience, and make contacts whilst widening your own network of resources, people, and to broaden the framework of your understanding (emotionally, socially, intellectually, and professionally). And by virtue of you doing these things, others are also doing the same.
This is why it is important to ask questions. pay attention, not talk throughout other people’s presentations, or moan about them, but engage (that wonderful ‘buzzword’ that plagues so many institutions these days). By watching, listening, and looking you have an opportunity to learn what works and what does not. You can refine your own abilities, and learn about all sorts of things: new books, new fellowships, new exhibitions, funding opportunities, journals etc. etc. etc. The list is endless. These are all the possibilities to be found within conferences.
But if you’ve just sat through an hour’s worth of papers by various people and couldn’t hear what was being said, how are you going to ask questions? And if you can’t ask questions, how will you all have a meaningful conversation about the subject/s in hand? How will the speakers be able to refine their ideas if they don’t get feedback? And how will you learn anything if you can’t hear the content of the presentations?
And if you can’t hear anything, and they don’t get to hear anything either, then what is the point?
Well as far as I can work out in that case, the point is moot. There is no point.
Problems of Indifference to the Art of Performing
This sounds rather glib or cynical, or reactionary. But let us dwell on it for a moment. What is being revealed by people who don’t take time to consider how they perform? If people aren’t interested in how they perform, then they aren’t interested in how they are being received. So, what does it mean if they aren’t concerned by or adhering to any of the above approaches to ‘performing’ their papers coherently and successfully? It says they aren’t concerned about the conversation.
And this is what worries me. This is fundamentally, dangerously worrying. It makes the purpose, the value, and the meaning of academia vulnerable, and it makes academia self-indulgent, and self-reflective. This sort of indifferent approach is about the self, about the ego, about C.V. improvement, or quiet academic validation, or fulfilling a brief or objective from a funding or paying institution. But what it is not about is the scholarship. Or the conversation.
And more, it means that ‘ego’ (even if it may be fragile and, no doubt, burdened with imposter syndrome anxiety) is the overriding concern. Poor or silent, or half heard scholarship is about the individual. The Academic Self. Not, the reception of the scholarship.
This worries me. This is niche, self-indulgent, territorial and ultimately self-defeating, and this is precisely why I think more people need to learn to care about their audience and remember they are putting on a performance. No, not everyone finds public speaking easy. Nor should everyone be RSC trained, and expect to deliver a performance worthy of Nigel Hawthorne. But if you genuinely care about your work, you need to share it and let the world respond to it. And if you can’t rise to the challenge, then perhaps don’t. But don’t do a poor job at public speaker, no-one benefits from that.
The more open the world becomes to ideas, the greater number of intelligent conversations will occur, and the more likelihood there will be of intellectual advancement. If you can’t create a form of ‘open access’ in a room of highly-educated sympathetic, listening scholars how on earth are you going to make your contribution to the world beyond that academic ivory tower a meaningful one? Don’t fulfil the parody of the exclusive academics who have little of value to say to the greater majority of the public. Let others see the value of what you work on, and they will then share that knowledge with people outside of academia and that openness will grow, like a plant reaching for the sunshine.
So relax your shoulders, let your diaphragm move and your lungs fill, and look at your audience next time. Let them love your work too. Add to the conversation, don’t keep it private and elite.