U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Life into Truth

In a comment on Ben’s recent post, LFC wrote, “As you know, different fields have different norms re conferences, and the conf paper in history probably remains more a purely oral medium than in some of the social sciences. Certainly no one reads his/her paper verbatim at a pol sci conference, they just do a summary.”

Wow, I thought, that is different. At every conference of historians I have attended, presenters invariably read their papers word for word — some with a more engaging style, and others, well, not so much. But the norms of our profession seem to dictate that we must stick to the text, not only in our writing but also in our presentation.

There are good reasons for hewing very closely to the paper one has written.  Chief among them is that one’s fellow panelists / commenters are prepared to respond to the text you gave them, not to some ex tempore riff on that text.

Another good reason to stick to the script is a consideration of time.  The first time I wrote a paper for a conference, my advisor told me that a good rule of thumb is to assume that each typed, double-spaced page takes about two minutes to read.  Then you need to read the paper through several times, out loud, and cut as necessary. His concern was that I edit for length, and he was right about that.  But I also find it crucial in these cases to edit for style.  Many the sentence that lives on the page only to die in the speaking.

Perhaps the biggest reason to stick to the text — to read aloud, word for word, rather than summarizing — is the fact that, well, that seems to be what historians expect of one another.  When giving a paper, that’s what historians do. When LFC commented that the history conference paper “probably remains more a purely oral medium,” I am wondering if “verbal” might be a better word there — meaning that historians do not generally rely on slides, visual aids, charts of data.  Instead, the history conference paper, like the profession, is heavily logocentric and thoroughly textual.  So perhaps it is precisely because history is avowedly not an oral medium that we generally read papers verbatim.

As I was mulling this over, and wondering just how much improvisation one could safely get away with in a conference presentation — not that I would do such a thing, heaven forfend; it’s all purely hypothetical — I began to wonder if this disciplinary practice of ours, this long stylistic tradition, might have its origins or antecedents (or at least its analogic corollary) in what I would call the “high homiletic style” of ecclesiastic practice.

There’s nothing wrong with that style — we wouldn’t have Emerson’s address to the Harvard Divinity students without it, and that text alone is worth all the sermons delivered on any given Sunday across America taken together.  Emerson’s address has to be one of the finest sermons ever written.  But it’s just that — the writtenness  — that is so characteristic of our secular sermonic practice as historians.  We try to balance exegesis, contextualization, and application, in prose that is polished and pleasing, sharing the insights we have gleaned from our study for the edification of those who hear.  Indeed, our addresses, our talks, our conference papers, probably differ more in aim than in form from homilies.

But even homilists can preach it once in a while — and none better than Emerson:

I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say I would go to church no more.  Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon.  A snow-storm was falling around us.  The snow-storm was real, the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him into the beautiful meteor of the snow.  He had lived in vain.  He had no one word intimating that he had laughed, or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined.  If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it.  The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned….The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life — life passed through the fire of thought.

We historians are supposed to be spectral, aren’t we?  It is not our life, our laughter, our love or commendation, that must come through upon the page.  Past lives, other lives — but not our life, surely.

Yet how will those past lives, those other lives, breathe and move and have their being again, except through the fire of our thought?  If we do not put our own lives into our work, no other life will come through either — though we speak in the tongues of men and of angels.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Having presented at both history and poly sci conferences, and having a background in both, I can corroborate LFC’s observation. I’m not sure where it got started, but the practice for historians is to write papers that fit the time-slot they have and then read the paper in that time slot. So, an 8-12 page paper (no one reads the notes, obviously, so that 12 is really 10) that can be read in fifteen minutes if there are four panelists and twenty if there are three.

    On the other hand, at poly sci conferences you are summarizing the long research article you wrote. The panel chair will have read the whole thing and will comment on it, but you only give the highlights, since obviously you can’t read thirty pages in twenty minutes. I don’t know how that practice got started, but that’s how it is. If you look at online repositories (say, where APSA papers get posted), they are all research papers. Indeed, one could say and with much justice that in poly sci there is no such thing as a conference paper per se.

    There are exceptions, of course; I once had a fellow panelist at a history conference read extracts of his forty-page paper. But for the most part these are the norms. And that’s what makes them norms. The question now to ask is what are the norms in other social sciences and humanities.

    p.s. I should add that as someone else pointed out, the increasingly popular practice of uploading conferences papers to various websites (be they departmental websites or sites like SSRN and Academia) is likely to change the informal and verbal/oral status of conference papers whatever the discipline.

  2. Factoid: And today, by coincidence, we celebrate the 131st anniversary of Emerson’s passing! – TL

  3. Thanks for the input, Varad.

    I try to avoid making grand claims based on hunches, so I’ll save my spitball-idea for the comments here — I think the homiletical style of historians’ conference papers matches historians’ professional profile / respectability as a kind of “secular clerisy.” The move to more informal — or, shall we say, more “charismatic” — forms of delivery might track (even though it trails by a good 50 years?) the move into the profession of more “low-church” types. That’s my hypothesis, which I suppose would have been okay to put in the post itself. But, for a written sermon, it’s all right as it stands.

    Tim, thanks for the Emerson factoid. Here’s the best thing Emerson ever wrote, IMHO, also from the “Address”:

    We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had, in the dreary years of routine and of sin, with souls that made our souls wiser, that spoke what we thought; that told us what we knew; that gave us leave to be what we inly were. Discharge to men the priestly office, and, present or absent, you shall be followed with their love as by an angel.

    Words to live by.

  4. Love the connection you make between Emerson’s preacher and the idea that historians are “supposed to be spectral.” The historians I study, who themselves studied Emerson, seemed to believe that they couldn’t be spectral on the subject of the Concord Sage– they revealed in their writing and often explicitly admitted that they felt a living connection with their historical subject. The fields of American Studies and American intellectual history were born from these historians and this Emersonian attitude toward the past. On the other side of the Atlantic, R.G. Collingwood firmly endorsed the historian as Emerson’s ideal preacher. He even envisioned the historian as “host” for path thought and past thinkers!! And what about Thoreau, the other Concord Transcendentalist? Thoreau said of the poet-naturalist: “he does not give speech to nature so much as let nature speak through him,” and he explained that the poet and nature “publish each other’s truths.” Perhaps this is what historians and their historical subjects do, too….

  5. And thanks for pointing out the date, Tim! If we get to post Emerson quotes in honor of the anniversary of his death, here’s mine:

    When a thought of Plato becomes a thought to me, — when a truth that fired the soul of Pindar fires mine, time is no more. When I feel that we two meet in a perception, that our two souls are tinged with the same hue, and do, as it were, run into one, why should I measure degrees of latitude, why should I count Egyptian years?

  6. Rivka,

    Yes, yes, and yes! My question about whether historians are “supposed” to be spectral was a little tongue-in-cheek, and I had Collingwood very much in view. Here is a meditation I wrote along those lines, on the camaraderie of historians with their subjects and with each other:

    The Company We Keep

    History as an act of moral inquiry is something that historians sometimes have difficulty discussing, or so it seems to me. The sacral origins of our secular practices are shrouded in (willful?) oblivion. Ironically, I think this leaves history dangerously open to the designs of the “confessing historians” (or a certain sinister segment thereof, she writes, sounding more and more like Sidney Hook by the day).

  7. I have a friend, a Civil War historian, who once started off his history conference presentation by singing a hymn.

  8. LD,

    I can’t speak to Emerson or homiletical style of historians. Immediately I’d say the diversity in conference paper styles owes most to professional norms and expectations. Beyond that, who’s to say? Though I do think there’s something to be said for the idea of historians (or scholars generally) preaching. I mean, don’t we all proselytize at least a little?

    Getting back to the more prosaic (or is that profane?) stuff, I wonder if there aren’t practical considerations at work here. To wit, poly sci folks expect to publish their research papers so write them with that in mind. That will make them longer, naturally. On the other hand, historians don’t expect to publish their conference papers as written, so don’t write them that way. That’s a gross generalization, I don’t hesitate to add. At the same time, you’ll see in acknowledgments to articles the author note that “earlier versions of this article were presented to conferences X, Y, and Z.” So clearly the conference paper was bulked up later.

    Another practical consideration: it’s easier to craft a 10-pager by cutting down something longer than writing it to order. At least, I think it’s easier to remove things than put them in later. The first few conference papers I did derived from my dissertation, so they were mostly cut and paste jobs; no problem whittling them down to size. The recent ones, though, which haven’t had as much to do with it have been longer; this includes the poly sci one, which clocked in at a full article-length 30+. I’ve got a conference coming up in early June. I’m not sure how I’ll write that one: short or long? Probably long, since there’s a lot of new stuff in it and that material has to go somewhere besides floating around as a bunch of disembodied notes.

    Another consideration: I’ve found conferences are very idiosyncratic about enforcing the requirement to submit papers to commentators. In fact, the only one that took it seriously was USIH, when I presented there in 2010. The rest it never came up. The poly sci one might have been an exception if the panel had actually had a commentator assigned. In the end, that one not only had no commentator but two of the four panelists didn’t show up. Anyway, the point is that if it’s expected in poly sci circles that everyone will have read the paper in advance you can write a long one and then summarize it; everyone else on the panel will have read it and know what you’re leaving out. But if in history no one else has read it, then you have to write a short one since you’ll have to read the whole thing for an audience that will be hearing it for the first time.

    But maybe that’s how it should be. After all, I don’t think most worshipers read homilies and sermons before they hear them.

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