Why you would read a paper…

I began writing this post at the Connected Past conference, which being someone not burdened with any real understanding of humanities, was astonishingly interesting to me. However this post is not really on the subject of networks. It is on the subject of scholarly discourse.

Until Connected Past I have only heard about and never witnessed, what in computer science, would be considered a phenomenon but in humanities, I am told, is much more common. I watched a person give a conference presentation by standing up and reading their conference paper. When I  have heard about this in the past reaction has been to dismiss it as a largely valueless and disengaging enterprise. Seeing it live really set me thinking in a number of ways I had not bothered to previously.

Let us suppose that the purpose of a conference is to disseminate your work. You put days of effort into preparing that paper and there is a very real danger that it will never be read. The data deluge is so vast that most people would not have time to read every paper from a single conference much less from all the conferences. The purpose of a presentation might be argued to be a summary of the work carried out. A paper is summary of your work already, but now you are summarizing that summary. The idea that a person could read their paper allowed in presentation time demonstrates that their work does not need further distillation.

Perhaps you might say the aim was to simplify the ideas. If you feel that, at an academic conference with an audience of academic discipline peers, you need to simplify your paper then you NEED to simplify it for everyone. Maybe the language you wrote your paper in does not transfer well to the spoken word. That undoubtedly means your paper does not read well.

From the plus side if someone reads you their paper you don’t need to read it until you refer back to it. Frequently conferences presentations are being captured on video. This means you have created is a multimedia version of your paper. I might start doing this because it is clearly of benefit. I have spent a lot of time looking at replacements to academic papers but until now my ideas have always been based on text. Imagine if your iPod on the walk to work was reading you the academic papers from a conference.

In conclusion I do not think that this is one presentation format to rule them all, but I think it serves its function as well if not better than some of the alternatives. I would definitely tell people like myself to shut up and think about the real practical of elements of the academic processes before dismissing an unfamiliar style out of xenophobia.

The first page of Google didn’t yield any supporting blog material for my argument but I did happen upon this interesting article:  http://thenoisychannel.com/2009/08/02/are-academic-conferences-broken-can-we-fix-them/ I think we have to go back to the drawing board of the academic model and build something which actually achieves our goals. As I constantly harp on the WAIS seminar series should be a seminar series not a lecture series…

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