Read or Just Talk? A Reflection on Conference Presentations


This week I attended the Learning with MOOCs III conference at Penn. I noticed two primary presentation styles used here and at most conferences:

 1) READ: stand behind the podium and read your paper (or slides)

 2) JUST TALK: talk to and with the audience about your paper, research, or project

I have asked colleagues, particularly those in the humanities, about the practice of READing papers at their conferences. Reading papers is a time-honored practice in academia, and one problem of a gathering of JUST TALK presentations is that it is difficult to determine rigor. Additionally, if the proceedings are published, there may be less written evidence about what actually happened during the presentation.

The READ or JUST TALK delivery conundrum isn’t limited to conferences. This weekend I’ll be officiating a wedding ceremony of two friends. I will be READing my remarks. My friends have carefully written the ceremony text, and to honor their work I will read rather than clumsily summarize their liturgy. Back in academia, I all but insist that faculty script and READ their lectures from a teleprompter when recording videos for a MOOC. We have a short amount of time to communicate key ideas, and it’s just too expensive in terms of time and energy to be trying out word choice with the cameras rolling. MOOCs are also a team sport, so scripting allows for collaboration among the learning team and for others to have input into the text before the editing suite.

There certainly is a place to READ text, and maybe it comes down to unilateral or multilateral communication. Researchers and scholars rely on the editing and peer review process to write, revise, and publish rigorous papers. That happens before or after the conference. What I want out of a conference is to embrace the moments in which we are all face to face in the same room as opportunities to unpack the paper. Have you ever attended a class where the teacher stood up at the lectern and READ aloud the assigned reading for that day? I hope not, because that would be an expensive waste of time.

I must admit that I have a bias on which method I prefer as a presenter, and as an audience member. I’m solidly in the JUST TALK camp. I recognize that this has roots in my comfort of speaking to groups, is accepted in my field that embraces and encourages disrupting norms, and is a privilege I have in presenting in my first language.

Here is my charge to presenters. At the conference, tell us something we can’t find in the paper. Go meta – what was it like to do this research, collaborate with others; tell us where you failed or met challenges, and leave room for people in the room to interact with you, your content, and each other. Your presentation should be a “value add” to your paper, not just your paper in another form. As for the published proceedings, publish various types of evidence, including papers, slide decks, videos, or web links. Presenters, the next time you walk into the session room, take advantage of the presence of your colleagues. Make us put our email and Twitter aside, listen to your ideas, and TALK with each other.

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