Blog Post

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.



"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."

Well, this is a topic I've discussed with many a scientist (at least with the minority like me) who have gone to conferences and talks that are far out of their field.

As usual, I love your way of stating the problem (your humanities training, no doubt). I'm beginning to put the pieces together. My plan is to mull it over in my own sadly neglected HASTAC blog, so please ding me if I seem to have forgotten.

Today I'm taking two colleagues (a dean and a PI) into Second Life for a tour, with the hope that they will see the potential for their cohorts of high school biology teachers who are working on an MS in biology in a one-of-a-kind program. The teacjers are scattered geographically, and I think SL would be an ideal component for communication and community building during the school year.

We will be getting a private tour of The Tech Virtual from the director, Avi Marquez (RL Nina Simon), whom I met by chance the day their SL facility opened "in world" (it's based on the real Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose). Have I mentioned how much I love the SL corner of the Metaverse? Here is the SLURL if you haven't visited yet, and the Real Life web page describing The Tech virtual.

BTW, I'll be going to Metaverse U (heard about it here - thanks!), and Avi may drop by. She knows the organizer slightly from Real Life Bay Area interactions. The speed of networking in Second Life is truly amazing.

But I digress--I can't help slipping into Evangelist Mode when I start talking about the wonders of Second Life. :-)

I have a lot of thoughts about why bullet points are so valued by scientists (and not just in ppt, where I agree they are drastically overused and indicate laziness or lack of imagination). I think it has to do with our shared background of scientific training which makes filling in those logical gaps pretty much automatic. It's like scanning the table of contents of a book in your discipline before you read it, or a sort of linear concept map or outline. I never thought of them as forming a train of logical argument. Are we doing that (poorly) with the bullet points and don't realize? I don't think so, but this demands more analysis.

Dang it, this is why I don't get around to blog posts! I know that once I start writing I won't be able to stop. I've been accused (or thanked, depending on interest in the topic) for my email messages that one colleague described as more like "take home reading assignments." I've tried, but I'm not sure it's a habit I can break. My Teacher and Evangelist genes just take over my brain. Maybe I need a good editor...we scientists are sorely lacking in training in basic writing skills, humanities style. :-)

Back to my other natural personality--tour guide and travel evangelist. Got to get that Second Life itinerary worked out before 3 PM CST (1 PM SL time). What fun! Hahaha


I agree. But my humanist background tells me that whenever one is simply "filling in automatically," THAT is where the action is. That is, what is automatic is exactly the place we need to rethink. Scientists know this in their experiments--I have such admiration for the beauty of a well-constructed lab experiment--but often not in their conclusions and extrapolations. That is why we all need to work together. I often read scientific journals (as in several times a day these days) and feel my heart sink when I get to the conclusion and find a very poor statement of all the implications and the careful exemptions that are left out by leaving far, far much to the "automatic," to the gradations of causality happening between the bullet points (to use a metaphor). More to follow! Enjoy the metaverse conference. And thanks as always for writing.


To engage in this discussion fully we would have to go to the same science talk, one that used powerpoint with bullets, and then see whether we came to different conclusions about the value and appropriateness of their use. I strongly suspect we would agree, but of course I can't be sure without doing the experiment. :-)

Thanks for such an interesting discussion. By the way, I use power point lots of times and I like it for certain kinds of presentations. However, when I really want t be specific and precise about the relationship between different kinds of information, then I read a paper out loud. It's about the degree of granularity one desires for discussing process, implications, nuances, and very precise formulations about generalizability. An analogy: when mathematicians really want to get specific, they stop talking and start writing out the equations. Because the equations convey a precision needed at that time. At other times, such precision is irrelevant or even misses its mark if the audience is made up of non-mathematicians. Sometimes when humanists read a paper, the result is dreadful, truly. Nothing more excrutiating than hearing someone drone on when there are many better ways to present information. But a good paper with very subtle logical connctions may well still need that format. Not that one is better than another but the form has to fit the function. And the content in the space between the bullet points is one where I'm especially fixated right now because I think we are in an era of great and transformative science---and really sloppy scientific over-generalization. (By the way, obne of my good friends is an art advisor . . . I think he might say something similar about the art market right now. External historical conditions have a huge role in what we value and the over-valued can sometimes not meet our usual standards of rigor and judgment.)


Thanks for this wise comment. I do the same, change my format with my audience. Actually, I find academic humanists often do like to be read to . . . if the paper is designed for oral presentation. I work hard at an "oral written" form when I read my papers.


And, yes, I will remember to double space paragraphs so they show up in the final post with paragraphs. Thanks for the suggestion!


Hi Cathy.

This is something I think a lot about. When my wife, a molecular biologist, first started coming to my talks five years ago or so, she cringed at the sound of me reading. As a scientist, she was used to hearing and delivering disciplined presentations of data with clear summaries of conclusions. She asked me to give up the reading. I have, mostly.

Problem is, of course, much of what I have to offer has no data! You are correct to note that it is the flow, order, and construction of sentences and paragraphs that do much of the work in our presentations. Still, no audience would prefer to be read to. After all, they could just as me to fax it to them.

I don't always read from text. But I often do. It really depends on my subject, my audience and how complete the text is.

Last week I gave a talk to the Science and Technology Studies department at Virginia Tech. It was one of my best audiences ever. Everyone there was well versed in the rhetoric of STS and the issues at stake with Google, the subject of my talk. So I started out the talk with about 10 minutes of extemporaneous background and context. I had a few jokes and quips. It was lively and I got a good vibe from the audience.

Then I started reading. Now, sometimes that just kills a room. But in this case I prepared them by explaining that this was the draft of the introduction to my next book. So it would explain a lot of the questions I was asking and map out where I was going. I did this with a clear plea for their help in revising my questions and investigations.

At key points, I lifted my head and riffed on the text, background, and even some of the slides I presented.

In this case, the prose I read was pretty rhythmic. I had gone over it many times. I had presented it in other places. So I think it worked. If I do my job right, I write like I speak. That does not always happen. But I think that is the only time one should read a prepared text to a general audience (as opposed to, say, a scholarly meeting session).

The other thing I do when I can is memorize the text. If I have given the same talk a number of times I can just use slides to cue me to passages that I have committed to memory. The audience thinks I am speaking from my heart. I am confident because I am speaking from my pages. But I maintain eye contact and project my voice while standing up straight (very important to a big man).

Oh, BTW. Could you insert paragraph breaks in your posts? That would help us read better. Thanks!


Siva Vaidhyanathan

Associate Professor

Media Studies and Law

University of Virginia