A refreshing interdisciplinary experience

By Juliana Adelman

A few weeks ago I was called on to replace a panel speaker at a conference on ecocriticism (Literature and conservation: responsibilities).  Having plenty of conference organising experience I was sympathetic to the organiser’s attempt to patch a hole in the programme and the topics for discussion looked interesting to me.  Nevertheless, I felt a mounting sense of trepidation as the day drew closer.  Did I really have anything to say that someone from English literature might want to listen to?  Did I really GET the questions I had been sent or was I missing the point completely?  I silently prayed that no one would ask a question about literary theory and wondered if I should try to cram in some reading of the novels that other speakers were talking about.

The day of the conference arrived and I spent an enjoyable few hours listening to a great diversity of papers.  (With thanks to the organisers, Alison Lacivita and Megan Kuster).  My contribution to the panel session seemed to go down ok (although no one boos or throws things in academia these days) and no one asked me a question about literary theory.  It was truly refreshing to listen to people outside my own discipline.  I came away with an enormous reading list, a commitment to paying more attention to ecocriticism as part of my interest in environmental history and a renewed distaste for jargon.

I am not making a groundbreaking observation here, but jargon is the true barrier between disciplines.  Yes, there are different methodologies, different texts, different aims.  But the real problem when approaching academic work outside your discipline is vocabulary.  If someone would provide a dictionary of literary criticism and theory (perhaps there is one) then I might stand a chance.  It wasn’t that the papers were dominated by jargon, because many of them were relatively free of it.  Even a few words that you don’t know the meaning of can throw off your appreciation of a paper, however.  I am committed to removing such words from all of my future papers, written and spoken.  There is usually a simpler way to say what you mean, you just have to work harder to get there.

When you are not frantically taking notes at a conference you are also more free to observe style and form.  All of the speakers read their papers, as is standard for most humanities conferences.  I never read because I actually find it more difficult than speaking from notes.  I also often find it difficult to follow a paper that is read: it is easy to accidentally tune it out.  I know I am in the minority here.  Anyway, at this conference I heard a paper that made me understand how reading a paper is supposed to go.  There was absolute silence in the room.  I looked around to see adults transfixed like children listening to a story.  I never wanted the talk to end.  So what did the speaker do right?  For starters, she had a fantastic voice which is an advantage that many of us cannot imitate.  She changed speed, volume, pitch along with the points of her talk.  She did not use one single word of jargon.  She did not assume that anyone knew the plot of the novels that she spoke about but she did not over explain either.  She used a different tone of voice for reading out quotes.  She spoke relatively slowly and she did not try to cover too much.  Most of all, her talk had a narrative which she had flagged from the start so the listeners were both waiting for and anticipating her next point. In essence, she told us a story and we were sorry to hear it end.

7 Responses to “A refreshing interdisciplinary experience”

  1. bjg Says:

    I am delighted to see the virtues of the story recognised here. I’d link this, though, to your earlier piece “The writing is the hardest part”. To me, much of the difficulty in writing lies in working out what exactly the story is, how much readers already know about it and how the different levels of story are to be worked in to the narrative. [I could go on, but I must leave for Leitrim.] bjg

  2. Póló Says:

    Great post. Should make the text books.

    I can empathise with all of it.

    I tune out when people read stuff, unless they are exceptional. When people read a text at a talk they usually end up in a monotone, at best, accompanied by a few misreads, at worst, and the listener tunes out. The extreme example of this sort of tuning out for me is when a delegate at a meeting is foaming at the mouth while the interpreter drones on.

    But it is not just reading text. There is a widespread misuse of visuals around. I see things like Powerpoint as underscoring points, not reproducing the text on screen, and using pictures to add to the meaning of what is being said or to act as an anchor for putting points across.

    My “delivery system” for what it’s worth is as follows:

    I make sure I have a good, even footnoted, text containing all I want to say and more. I then do a two column table with the points I want to make in the left cells and the visuals I’m using referenced in the parallel right cells. I then compile the visual sequence and practice talking my way through it, using the images and table as cues. I repeat this, making changes as I get the duration down to the time alloted to me and as presentational points strike me. This can sometimes involve a complete revamp of the order as I realise I’m not getting the sequence right from an audience perspective.

    I then make sure I have a short handout which includes links to my website where I put up the longer (footnoted) text, the Powerpoint presentation, and links to all sorts of backup documents and images.

    It seems to work for me anyway, and, most important, if frees you up to just tell the story.

    Mind you I have been disappointed at the relative lack of questions at the end, despite the inclusion in the talks, of, in my view, some fairly original work both in terms of content and presentation. (Maybe the audience was just stunned into silence :))

    But, at the end of the day, I have been satisfied, so far at any rate, that I have done the talk I wanted to do at the outset, and the rest just has to be history.

  3. Tina Says:

    Great piece, Juliana, and well done for stepping out of your comfort zone and truly engaging in interdisciplinary effort – so much easier said than done, I find! I’m with you on the importance of delivery at conferences and, to be honest, I’m very attracted to the science-based model (I’ve really only heard of it used in sciences anyway), where papers are circulated a week or two in advance, allowing for a more direct engagement with the subject matter at the conference itself. Again, easier said than done, especially when preparations are last minute!

    Polo – sounds like a great system, though possibly much more involved than the preparation I generally put into conference papers! I might have to try something like it next time I’m presenting. If so, I’ll let you know how I get on.


  4. Póló Says:

    Thanks Tina.

    I have to admit that I am a rare speaker and seldom at short notice so I can afford to let the whole thing brew/stew fir a goodwhile.

    And my stuff is not strictly academic. I would certainly advocate the advance firculation part of the scientific method. I would also go further, and I think I mentioned it here before.

    Even with advance circulation you can’t rely on everyone, or even a majority, having read the paper.

    An approach I found very successful, as a member of the audience, was where, having previously circulated the paper, the writer does a 5-10 minute presentation of the contents and a second speaker is on hand to [do a critical evaluation][tear it to pieces] in a further 5-10 minutes. Then when it’s opened to the floor it is hard to stem the tide of interventions.

  5. Felix Larkin Says:

    Excellent post, Juliana – thanks. Regarding literary theory, isn’t most of it simply an attempt to invent some kind of academic discipline for the study of literature? In this regard, Humphrey Carpenter writes in his book on J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (THE INKLINGS) that “the English faculty had always been embarrassed by those in the university [Oxford] – and there were many – who alleged that undergraduates could read English literature in their baths, and did not need dons to teach it to them any more than they needed nursemaids to wipe their noses”. I suspect much of the literary theory nonsense is a reaction to that sort of thinking – which is, of course, grossly unfair to literary scholars of the traditional kind.

  6. Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » A refreshing interdisciplinary experience Says:

    […] “… I am not making a groundbreaking observation here, but jargon is the true barrier between disciplines. Yes, there are different methodologies, different texts, different aims. But the real problem when approaching academic work outside your discipline is vocabulary. If someone would provide a dictionary of literary criticism and theory perhaps there is one then I might stand a chance …” (more) […]

  7. Frank Says:

    I was at a philosophy conference years ago where one of the papers being read was full of incomprehensible jargon. My lecturer who was sitting beside me asked me what I thought. I replied that while the paper was quite challenging, the q & a had cleared up most of my concerns. The lecturer agreed and to this day I wonder whether his response was as much of a bluff as was my reply.

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