James McGrath has a post up entitled On Reading and Hearing Papers at SBL, in anticipation of SBL-New Orleans 2009, but he doesn’t note the recurrent problems that arise as soon as a paper designed for publication is delivered to a live audience. “Consuming” papers delivered at academic conferences is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. The presenter almost always engages in TMI (too much information), and at the same time – a paradox - so many gaps in the train of argument are left to the audience’s imagination, so much background knowledge is taken for granted, that many people are left to wonder as they wander and wander as they wonder.
Personally, when I begin to wander during a presentation, I start looking around for a pair of understanding eyes. They are rarely hard to find.
After ISBL-Rome 2009, I am more convinced than ever that most people do not understand what kind of content can be delivered and how to deliver it effectively before an audience which has sat through several presentations already whose point was barely intelligible or not intelligible at all.
Common errors in SBL sessions:
(1) The speed-reading of densely argued material, because “time is short.” Solution: Cut your paper in half. Make sure the content is a KISS (Keep It Short and Sweet). Read as little as possible. Work from notes, maintain eye contact, and adjust your delivery speed based on audience response.
(2) No handouts provided. So people forget your name, what text you are talking about, your thesis. Solution: provide handouts that highlight your thesis, provide text, and include information you take for granted in the presentation itself. Essential background information that is old to you is bound to be new to someone else.
(3) A monotone delivery in which you stumble over the written word and never look up. It reinforces the communication process if hearing, reading, laughing, storytelling, a dramatic gesture or two, converge to make a point. At ISBL-Rome, James Kugel, formerly of Harvard, was an excellent role model in this sense. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, he told a number of excellent jokes on Jesuits and on Orthodox Jews to illustrate his points, but also, just to put everyone in a lucid state of mind. Like the story of a Jesuit who is looking for a particular church in Paris. He asks a passerby, “How can I find St. So-and-so?” The answer, “You’ll never find it, Father. It’s right in front of you.” After pointing out a commonality between Jesuits and Orthodox Jews, their love of Jesuitical/Talmudic reasoning, he got everyone’s attention when he said that in terms of reading the Bible with intellectual honesty, Orthodox Judaism is stuck where Catholicism was 100 years ago.
(4) Not making your point clearly. You have to be creative about getting your point across. The acoustics in many rooms is terrible. It is often helpful to gather everyone together in a virtual huddle. One excellent presider of a session I presented in, Tova Forti, did just that. We were all far more attentive than we would otherwise have been thanks to her forethought.
(5) Wall-flower presiders. Presiders need to be proactive. A very short but interesting presentation of a presenter can be helpful. If a presentation bombs, it’s still possible to briefly reboot the discussion on the basis of the subject matter. It’s also a huge plus to have time at the end for a panel discussion in which the same question can be put to more than one presenter. If presenters are taking the scholarship of someone in the audience as their point of departure, by all means ask the audience member to join in the discussion. In a Wisdom session, Michael Fox was in the audience and presenters were engaging his scholarship in almost every paper. Forti rightly invited him to comment. What fun to see your paper cut down to size immediately!