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.