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.