Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

The Myth of the Popular Audience


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.


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  ArchAsa wrote @

True words. By now I almost fear going to conferences bc one usually gets stuck listening to a number of non-descript papers by colleagues who spend 15 out of 20 minutes giving an over long introduction showing that they’ve thought of everything and know all the trendy words and references. Then have to break off just as they get to the “good” part. And then I do the exact same thing myself…

Everyone knows that it is the pub-talk and lunch-talk that is the reason for going (and getting something to put on the CV). Personally I am lobbying quite hard for alternative ways of doing this. Having small round-table discussions regarding certain themes, questions and texts for instance. Not really focusing so hard on this 20-minutes monologue with 1-2 short and rather pointless questions afterwards, that for some reason has become The One Way.

Also, most researchers would really benefit from taking Presenation as a subject, learning how to structure a talk and making a powerpoint. That’s a science too in a way, and we keep thinking its just something that should come “naturally”. There are few things that are more unnatural than standing up in front of a group of people and speaking uninterrupted for 15-20 minutes…

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Asa: I hope your efforts pay off. My friend Helen Rozwadowski at University of Connecticut has found a nice way around this problem: she puts together small workshops where papers are pre-circulated. The author never gives a paper to the group (since everyone, hopefully, has read it) but gives a few words of introduction after which everyone pipes in with discussion, questions, criticisms, commentary. She keeps the workshops relatively small (and contained in one place) for a few days, thereby allowing plenty of time for informal conversation that everyone finds so fruitful. At one of her workshops in 2004, she had the participants stay in one dorm and cook dinner together. An excellent experience for all involved.

  Amanda Graham wrote @

The tragedy of the gawd-awful academic paper presentation is that it is just so entirely unnecessary. In most cases, the person presenting the paper knows enough about the topic that it should roll off the tongue trippingly and with enthusiasm. What has become of academia if the scholars aren’t excited by their research findings? Surely the boring ones know they’re boring. An audience of snoozers, note-passers and email-checkers has got to look the same whether they’ve paid tuition or registration.

Maybe a slide and word-count maximum would be a challenge likely to make presenters rethink their approaches.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Amanda: I agree it’s strange. I chalk some of it up to nervousness. In my experience, academics can really tense up when speaking to their peers. The speaker imagines a critical, learned audience that will be combing the talk for errors, gaps, and over-simplifications. As a result, speakers err in the other direction, producing talks that are too narrow, dense, and complicated. In truth, most academics in the audience need help too in getting into a particular subject. I’ve been criticized for many things in my talks, but never for pitching the talk ‘too low’ or for not providing enough information. I agree – most of us need a good communications course.

  the grumpy academic wrote @

You should read William Major’s piece in the Chronicle on conference papers in the humanities:

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Grumpy: Yes, good link! Major’s got it exactly right.

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