Why Humanists Read Their Papers
Social scientist and scientists often ask me why humanists stand at the podium and read a written paper outloud. Admittedly, it is a perversion of everything we know about performance art since simply reading a written text, especially a text designed to be read, is the opposite of performative. Except for pacing and intonation, there is little about the form that interacts with the audience. When I make presentations to a general audience, I often just talk. Sometimes I have slides and I engage with those.
But yesterday, keynoting the delightful Mardi Gras Conference of English Graduate students at LSU, I had the option of either talking along with my 30 or 40 slides on humanities and technology or reading a paper. I chose to read the paper. But because of my time as Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies--where I attended talks in every imaginable field--and my time with HASTAC (ditto), I read self-consciously. As I prepared, I thought a lot about WHY we humanists read our work outloud to one another and here are some ideas. I'm making an assumption here that the paper being read is a good one. (I've heard my share of lousy read-to-the-dead style presentations just as I've heard my share of rotten see-the-bullet-points-read-the-bullet points disasters). I'm thinking about what in the humanities makes it sometimes appropriate to read a paper outloud. I'd love to hear more from anyone who has ideas about this. As it turns out, it isn't just habit but some deep epistemological assumptions about how we know and what is worth knowing.
First, what the scientific method is to scientists, what such things as standard deviation are to statisticians and quantifying social scientists, rhetoric and logic are to humanists. Scientists and social scientists are rhetorical and logical too, but there aren't formal rules in those fields, there isn't training in the subtleties of each. Every humanist endures years of writing long papers and having them corrected not just for their content but for the micro-logics of each new twist and turn of the argument. Critics who challenge one another often do so based on small differentiations among big ideas. Often, in our field, we seemingly agree with one another on a whole list of major convictions and assumptions--but that doesn't seem to prevent us from going at one another with both barrels over some logical mis-step. So we cringe at bullet points. One thing that typically is lost in presentations that follow bullet points are the logical connectors between those bullet points.
It's not a Zen koan to ask "what is the information between the bullet points"? If you list four main points, how are those linked? How are they related? What are the connections, the causalities, the generalizations, and the modifications to those generalizations? Typically the bullet points evacuate that subtler differentiation and, more to the point, differentiating context--the relationship not just of bullet point A to bullet point B but of A and B to C but not D. Those subtler nuances of argumentation are what count as "smart" in the humanities. In fact, every time I read a new pronouncement on behalf of evolutionary biology (yes, that field is my new whipping boy . . . I promise I'll give it up soon), my "A and B to C but not D" mental apparatus swings into play. I'm like a truffle pig on the hunt, sorting out where the generalization falters, where it is overextended without data to support that application. Why? Because, well, I'm trained as a humanist and that is what we do. As a literary person, I'm trained to read every line for all its possible meanings. As an archival historian, I am trained to look at the scrappiest of documents and find meaning in them: all those marks I found in eighteenth-century mass printed books in the bat-infested attics of historical societies were (when put together with other research on education, mass printing, lending and circulating library distribution, and methods for teaching reading and writing at the time) evidence for how people actually read at the advent of mass printing. And, as someone whose original training was philosophy of mathematics, logic was also prominent for me. The degree of certainty in a statement I make carries enormous weight for me, and for most humanists, especially when we are being most speculative. I want to repeat that. The issue isn't the fact, the certainty: the issue is the degree of certainty. Gradation sometimes is lost in the spontaneity of an oral, unwritten presentation.
In the question and answer period yesterday, I found myself really engaging with the audience (a fabulous audience, by the way) and realized I was answering questions in quite a different tone and form than the way I had given my written paper, with images behind me to underscore the text I was reading. I easily could have given the entire paper in that more conversational, interactive way. It might have been a better experience for most of the audience. It is, admittedly, very difficult to listen to a densely packed essay, with many twists and turns, with a thesis,and then a deliberate modification of that thesis, and then generalizations that account for both the thesis and its exemptions. Difficult. Maybe that was what I was after. Hmmmm. There is so much claptrap about new media, it is possible that not only was I aspiring to modeling for graduate students the way one makes a nuanced and careful argument but also the way one takes seriously an idea about which there is a lot of goofball overgeneralization. "Difficulty" isn't just an experience but a performative act of its own, one that says "Focus! Attend! Take this Seriously!"
I'm not sure whether or not I pulled it off last night, but I think that aspiration to underscore the seriousness of New Media as a topic was partly my motivation (I had a choice until the buzzer and wasn't entirely sure which I would do, read the paper or talk it more casually). And partly I wanted my paper to be an exemplification of what humanists do. Of course we can hand out our papers in advance but listening attentively is a practice. And when someone is reading a densely argued paper there are really only two things one, as a member of the audience, can do: listen atttentively (honing one's interpretive and critical skills) . . . or fall asleep! The kind and really lovely grad students and faculty at LSU who came to my Mardi Gras talk did the former. They really listened. A great audience. I could feel them paying attention. Really feel it.
Finally, one reason humanists read their papers is because reading itself is part of humanistic training. We are readers. We love to read. And the love is not just about the content of words but also the sound of words. Last night, at the opening of the stunning Barkley Hendricks exhibit at the Nasher Museum of Art, my friend Rick Powell, an eminent art historian, introduced the conversation by reading two or three pages about Hendricks from his forthcoming book on Black artists and fashion. His language was as lush, rich, thick, and soundful as a Mingus solo (lots of langurous low bass notes), a perfect score for a Hendricks exhibit. The rest of the evening was a conversation between Hendricks and Powell inspired by a series of slides that Powell displayed on a very large screen. It was a wonderful, engaged conversation but it was the Mingus-like intoning, the incantatory reading of actual sounded-out full and resonant words, that set the stage.
I don't know about anyone else, but on those occasions when I decide to read a paper rather than speak one, I work hard on the sequence of sounds that are part of orality, using the sound of words themselves to convey meanings and also a mood. I like to carve my sentences, short ones, long ones, building ones, enumerato, lists, adjectives, cadences--the textures of languages that are not the same as reading a written text and not the same as hearing spoken oratory but a genre--read words--all its own. Because that small bit level of literateness is part of being a humanist. Again, not always, but at its best, as it was when Rick read about Barkley.
I'm not sure that reading a written paper is the best practice or the only one--but next time a scientist asks me why we humanists do this, I will have a start on a better answer.