Every year I attend two or three academic conferences, mostly to keep up with friends and sneak-preview new research. Usually the best material (about friends and research) emerges from conversations in bars and hotel lobbies rather than in the faux-walled conference rooms where panelists deliver their papers. I know many colleagues who avoid the panels all together, afraid of being caught in a boring session from which they cannot (politely) escape.
Why is this? Most of the historians I know are diligent and innovative teachers, people who care about communicating with their students, who allow a great deal of back and forth in the classroom. But something strange happens when they go to conferences. Suddenly the vibrant professor is transformed into the paper-reading scholastic, delivering his/her monotone lecture as if s/he were a medieval instructor in front of young, suffering novitiates.
It makes me think that we overstate the divide between scholarly and popular audiences. Is the public all that different from the Academy in what it wants from a lecture? I want to hear talks that are well developed and delivered, talks that do not assume too much about my knowledge of the subject, talks that keep to their allotted time, talks that make a point. Isn’t this what everyone wants?
If academic and popular audiences are more similar than we think, perhaps we should also reconsider our assumptions about lecture content. Academics often make distinctions about subjects appropriate for their peers and those appropriate for everyone else. Sometimes these distinctions are warranted, particularly for talks that require a lot of theoretical knowledge at the outset. But theory is not the Iron Curtain separating scholars from public that we make it out to be. Often a quick tutorial in theory can be developed within the talk if the point is important enough.
My experience giving public lectures over the past two months have convinced me of this. While I have had to limit some of the details of my work, the structure and arguments of my talks has closely followed my scholarly writings. My talks begin with anecdote, some context, an argument, and then pieces of evidence to defend the argument. They end with a short conclusion about “why all of this matters.” Overall, I’ve gotten a good response.
What would happen if academics wrote papers for their peers as if they were addressing the general public?
Maybe things are already getting better. In the last conference I attended — the History of Science Society Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh — the papers were terrific. I chaired a panel that was focused and snappy. Everyone used images to illustrate their points. The panels I attended held their own against the meetings of peers in bars and lobbies…except, perhaps, for the drinks.