I’m sitting in a dark room with 13 colleagues who’ve gathered to talk about pedagogy. Or so I was led to believe. But now I’m not sure, because the guy at the front has been meandering around … something … for over a half hour now, and shows no signs of wrapping up. Painfully, we can see that he is on slide 7 of 12. The slides are so packed you can hardly read them – but I suppose it doesn’t matter, because he can. And he does. Every word. Then he decides to show us something on the internet. When he opens safari, there’s the site for my presentation, primed and ready to go. He blithely closes it and then starts rummaging around for the URL he’s after.
It’s like watching a “How Not To” video, all the way through.
The kicker is that all conferences are like that. This summer I explored both ends of the rigor spectrum. One required a 2500-word proposal plus citations and generated four sets of feedback. Reviewers graded us out of 100 (range of marks: 35%-98%) and said things like, “Although it was helpful to have a list of works cited, I would have liked a more representative bibliography. I’m not convinced these scholars are acquainted with the full history of GIS-based scholarship.” Bibliography? Did I mention this was for the proposal? for a poster?
The other conference asked for a four-sentence summary and responded within 90 minutes of submission: You’re in!
Both conferences were equally bad, and bad in the same ways. By bad I mean, principally, boring. Let me get this out of the way: most academics are nicer – more tolerant, more polite, more attentive, more forgiving, more generous – than I am. Regrettably, this chronic condition shows no sign of improving. In fact, the older and busier I get, the less forgiving I am of having my time wasted.
For instance, by being read to. I have reached my lifetime limit of sitting in a room being read to. I learned to read when I was 5 and I have a PhD in English. Reading is something I can do for myself. So, please. Stop.
If you can’t stop, if for some reason you cannot imagine any other way to reach your audience (for instance, if you have spent your entire life in a media deprivation tank), then read. But for the love of all things holy, run through your presentation first, and if it takes longer than the 15 minutes allocated to you, it is too long. What to do? Shorten it. Yeah, that’s right: take some stuff out.
Being timely would meet my minimum standard for conference presentations. Not everybody can be brilliant, but everybody can read a clock. If you’re ticking that one off Ye Olde List of Lifetime Accomplishments, then I challenge you to the relevance test. Before you present a point-by-point elaboration of an obscure novel dredged from the depths of your field, stop and ask yourself this question: Who cares? Look, I’m sure the use of ellipses in pre-colonial Spanish poetry is fascinating, and I bet you’re right that you can only truly understand its implications by contrast with post-colonial Spanish poetry’s elimination of ellipses. I’m prepared to concede all of that. In fact, I insist: let me concede the technical details of your argument and give me the good stuff – the punch line, the implications, the reasons I should care.
Finally, a word to session moderators. Moderate! You are the only person in the room who can shut this gong show down. We rely on you to do so. No polite “2 minutes” signs passed along three times. Once: fine, even I can be that polite (or, I can try). But once those two minutes are up, clear your throat, stand up, and interrupt. Reach over and shut off the mic. Start to clap. Not only the other presenters, but every member of the audience will thank you for doing so.
Until that happy day, you can find me in the back row, where I’ll be checking my email.