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From the Noteworthy column of the February 1996 Perspectives

Please Don't Read that Paper; or, Speaker, Spare that Audience

Michael C. Coleman, February 1996

One of the great occasions of my professional life took place in the mid‑1980s, when for the first time I attended and presented a paper at a major American historical conference. At last I, an Irishman teaching American studies in an English department in Finland, was in the Big League, and getting a few licks at the ball myself. More than that, I would see major scholars in my field of American Indian studies deliver papers. I found a seat at the packed session, and held my breath. The first scholar established the dominant pattern of that and many later conferences I attended. He introduced his subject informally, carrying me and the audience with him—then, word for written word, he read his paper. The first commentator rose. Now at last some liberated orality. But no, “In his provocative and stimulating paper Dr. X has shown . . . ” Even the commentators read their comments! I still remember the intense disappointment I felt. I left the long‑awaited session and wandered to the book exhibit. Although some speakers read their papers more engagingly than others, I realized then and still maintain that even a discourse on sex or soccer is close to unbearable when read to an audience. Some of the papers read to me during that and other conferences were loaded down with long, unnecessarily convoluted sentences and difficult reasoning, and were obviously written discourse. (They contained, for example, references like “as we have seen above,” clearly indicating an article or chapter of written text). At the other extreme, does a professional historian and teacher have to read out simple phrases such as, “Historians have long disagreed on the causes of the American Civil War”?

Yet “reading a paper” still appears to be widely accepted among the ranks of historians, and not only in America. I suppose I’m picking on Americans because I had expected so much back then. Also, I’ve often admired how easy on their feet American academics are. And yet not all will venture to freely present papers at academic conferences—despite encouragement from some organizers to do so. At that conference, for example, the organizers specifically asked speakers to deliver, not read papers, and to make the full texts of the papers available to commentators and to the general audience.

I’ve heard many defenses of “the read paper.” The theses of some papers are so complex, I’m told, or rely so much on linguistic precision that every word and sentence is vital; therefore, the scholar cannot trust his or her ability to faithfully communicate the argument except by reading it. Few of the papers read to me over the decades appeared that conceptually complex, despite often difficult language. Also, the more complex the paper, surely, the more the speaker will need to help the audience, even by interjecting explanations such as “What I mean by this is . . . ” (Oh, how I’ve often thirsted for such considerate asides.) Personality is also cited: not all feel equally confident before gatherings of peers. Yet university scholars and teachers form a self‑selected group, well used to addressing large audiences. They, above all, should be able to present their ideas from an outline. Other defenders claim that a well‑read paper, with the author making eye contact, can be as rivetting as a freely delivered one. I have occasionally enjoyed and learned from a read paper, but I would not need two hands to count the times. I’m left to wonder—could so many apparently confident academics be so afraid of their peers that they will not venture forth except girded with full textual armor? I find this explanation hard to accept, because the atmosphere at most of the conferences I’ve attended has generally been pleasant and the commentators and audiences anything but aggressive. Is it, perhaps, that “reading a paper” has become an almost unquestioned academic tradition?

Lending weight to this last point is Donald Fixico’s article, “Teaching College Teaching and the Professionalization of History,” which appeared in the September 1995 issue of Perspectives. Fixico describes a course at Western Michigan University in which graduate students are taught how to become professional historians. The course is a wonderfully worthwhile enterprise, and Fixico’s article in fact stimulated me to write this article. But, strangely enough, the author noted how, to help students prepare for conferences, “we videotape all students reading a part of a research paper written for another course.” Why? I almost shouted. Why not teach them not to read a paper, but to deliver it freely from notes?

Of course, a conference paper presents a more demanding challenge than a regular university lecture—but where is it laid down that we must teach students to do unto others as has been done unto us? I concede the difficulty of getting young scholars to trust themselves in front of large conference audiences—especially when many established scholars don’t. My colleague Markku Henriksson and I, on the board of the Finnish Graduate School for American Studies, have strongly encouraged our graduate students to forsake the written for the oral, so far with limited success. But the effort must go on! Even though I have taken issue with one of Donald Fixico’s points, I strongly concur on the need to actively teach students to practice what we believe to be important professional skills.

I often wonder why I have never read a paper to an audience: not to my own pupils here in Finland, nor to groups outside the university, nor even at major academic conferences in many different countries. Part of the reason is personality, I suppose. When oral fluency was given out I wasn’t “behind the door,” to use an Irish expression. I have always spoken like a machine gun, and I would find it extremely difficult to stick to a written text. I’d start jumping ahead, summarizing, making explanatory asides, cracking jokes even—the best of which, judging from audience response, often hit me spontaneously in the heat of a paper/lecture. Second, at University College Dublin, where I did my history B.A. in the late 1960s, almost no lecturer read his or her lectures—most of the lecturers were excellent speakers who delivered their ideas freely yet in an organized way, reading out only the longer quotations or specific pieces of information. Third, my one teaching experience before university lecturing in Finland was in the FCA (the Irish National Guard). As a corporal I had to teach various military arts to younger soldiers—no notes allowed. What would the “powers‑that‑were” have said if I’d taken a 10‑page text out of my ammunition pouch, and started reading “Dismantling the Bren Gun” in written discourse?

When I became a lecturer at the University of Jyväskylä in 1970, I’d had no exposure to the read paper. Moreover, I arrived late for my first term and, with little time to write full texts, I lectured from a detailed summary of my notes. I have done so ever since. Since I’ve criticized the practice of reading a paper, and want to encourage scholars both to try a free delivery approach themselves and to teach such approaches to their own graduate students, I should explain how I go about preparing a conference paper for my scholarly peers or a lecture for my students. While I’m prepared to behave somewhat more formally and pace the floor less at a conference—where a different dimension of research is generally involved—I use essentially the same methods of paper preparation and delivery for both occasions.

I deliver all conference papers and lectures from a carefully organized plan, never from a written text. If I’m giving a conference paper based on an essay or article, I ignore the plan from which I’d written the piece. I break the essay back down into a new structure—a reversal of the usual process. This plan contains major headings, subheadings, and important details (dates of laws, etc). I may type out significant quotations in full or in part (if they are very long, I’ll duplicate them for the audience). I leave plenty of white space on each plan page because new research or ideas may have to be added by hand right up to the last moment. If the plan gets too messy I go back to the word processor to update it. A one‑hour paper would usually produce a five‑ to eight‑page plan. Significantly, the new plan often involves reorganizing the ideas of the written paper, which suggests to me that written discourse is meant to be read by readers, not to them. I familiarize myself with the plan, go over it line by line in my mind, making sure not to memorize any phrase taken into the plan from the written essay or article. Nothing is worse, in my view, than for a speaker to perform without a full text, but to appear to be reading from one in his mind.

With such an organized plan in front of me, I generally have to only glance at headings or subheadings to know where I’m going and to keep on track—and keeping on track is vital. Delivered papers should be as clearly and effectively organized as read papers. And as to time constraints, going beyond allotted time is, well, just plain unprofessional.

For example, I gave a paper for the History of Education Society conference in Birmingham, England, in December 1995: “The Symbiotic Embrace: American Indians, White Educators, and the School, 1820s–1920s.” I used a plan developed from a full essay of the same title, to be published by the society’s History of Education. Part of section two of my plan went like this:

II. Indian Schooling (c. 1800–c. 1900)

    1. Early 19c: many Americans desired immediate removal. Little concern for tribal rights.
    2. Other Americans: influential groups hoped to reconcile just treatment and removal. Drew on Colonial missionary examples.
    3. The “Christian Civilization”: missionaries, federal government officials, “Friends of Indians”—Indians must convert and “civilize” or face extinction. “Unused land” in exchange for Christianity and “civilization.” A fair bargain? Genuine concern and/or cynical rationalization? The school—crucial to program of “uplift” (ignorance of tribal educational practices).
    4. Federal government–missionary cooperation, early 19c. (Ironic, in light of Constitution?). After mid‑century, gov. began to dominate the relationship.
    5. Developments: 1819: Congress provided “Civilization Fund,” $10,000; 1824: 32 missionary schools being helped. c. 900 pupils. Office of Indian Affairs (War Department); 1832: Commissioner of Indian Affairs (CIA); 1870: $100,000 appropriation for Indian education.

Obviously, the speaker must be highly familiar with the subject matter to work from such a plan. But, if one has been researching in the field, it is not exceptionally difficult to turn the brief lines above into longer, freely spoken passages, and to link them to the broader issues of the section, and to “the red line” of the paper. Relying on visually clear headings and subheadings, I proceed from section to section. Occasionally I even read out quotations and statistics—no point in trying to memorize these when I can have them in front of me. If I lose a detail or forget an idea, I can check the notes and continue. If I lose my train of thought, I rely on honesty. I may even ask the audience, “Where was I?” I find the place in the notes, and continue.

Apart from allowing a more free delivery of ideas, such an approach has other advantages, for me at least. I can stretch or tighten my paper, according to the demands of the conference, or if a preceding speaker deprives me of some of my allotted time (which does happen). From the same plan I can give a two‑hour or a fifteen‑minute paper. I develop a good sense of the major elements in my argument, and I find it relatively easy to manipulate sections “on the spot.” I can drop certain details or even sections, summarizing them, without breaking the overall coherence. This would be more difficult to do, I feel, working from a fully written paper in which every idea is textually linked to the next, and if one feels dependent upon a full text.

Of course, such an approach requires confidence. And “effortless” confidence is actually based on hard work, on both adequate research and careful preparation—no winging it! Above all, no memorizing of written text. The speaker must be prepared to rely on his or her ability to freely articulate ideas, guided by the plan and familiarity with the field. Go on—take the plunge! And encourage rising generations of historians to do likewise.

Another vignette to end this somewhat preachy piece. At a European conference my friend and I sat with mounting interest as an American scholar introduced her subject. Eloquently and freely she brought us into her research methods and sources, and prepared us for what was shaping up to be a real intellectual treat. “Now,” she said, in complete change of tone, “I will read my paper.” My friend, an American who always freely delivers animated papers, looked at me and said, “Uh oh.” Just so.

—Michael C. Coleman is a lecturer in the Department of English, a docent in the Department of General History, and director of the North American Studies Program at the University of Jyväskylä, in Finland. He received his B.A. in history from University College Dublin in 1970 and his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1977. He has published American Indian Children at School, 1850–1930 (1993) and Presbyterian Missionary Attitudes toward American Indians, 1837–1893 (1985). His articles and reviews have appeared in journals in the United States, Canada, Scandinavia, Ireland, and England.