Monday, November 15, 2010

Here is your audience: now engage

I spent a fascinating day at the University of Oxford on Saturday, taking part in my first academic conference. The British Association of American Studies' 2010 Postgrad Conference - American Geographies - brought together probably 40 doctoral students from across the UK and beyond to present papers on a range of themes within anthropology, literature and history.

It was my first experience of this kind of event and I was struck by both the intellectual power on show - and by how unengaging so many academic papers are.

I sat through 11 papers before presenting my own and, I think, nine out of those 11 speakers read their prepared texts, hardly raising their eyes from the page, and taking virtually no account of the audience before them. In some cases, it was a very sterile experience, and I found my thoughts drifting far from the seminar room. In other cases it was frustrating: a really good subject with some nuggets of great information - but presented within an academic convention that clouds understanding with meaningless verbiage, and creates a barrier between the presenter and the audience by means of the academic 'do's and don'ts' of presenting.

I don't need the presenter to say 'end of quote' when they reach the end of the passage they're quoting. I don't want them to read in a monotone and make no effort to check for understanding. I want them to engage with me and work to ensure I can share their experience and be a part of whatever knowledge they have to bring to the room.

I tried to do that on Saturday - I had notes, but no fixed script. I expanded on points where people seemed interested and truncated material that was grabbing less attention. I used images to illustrate my points - but was very conscious to avoid reading my slides. I'm not sure how successful I was (I didn't cover everything I'd planned to say), but I got some great feedback after my session.

Walking away at the end of the day, one thing that struck me was how few presenters smiled or looked for a response from the audience. Maybe this was a one-off experience, but I suspect it's an area that academics should be working on more.

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