Wednesday, April 13, 2011

CCCC, Vol. 4: Putting the Paper Down?

Today a couple hundred UNC Asheville students took part in a longstanding school tradition, the Spring Undergraduate Research Symposium. I took in five of my students' talks, all skilfully prepared and delivered, in topics including health care in Bolivia, foraging of endangered spiraea shrubs by beavers, and the role of the anagram in constrained poetry. Love it!

The talks I attended reminded me of a phenomenon I wanted to blog about after my first Conference on College Composition and Communication a couple of weeks back. At this wonderful conference Amherst's Joseph Berenguel delivered his talk (about which I posted here), on markers of anxiety, in a manner that offered an explicit challenge to the dominant style of delivery in humanistic disciplines. Rather than read his paper verbatim from a hard copy held in front of his nose, Berenguel instead spoke extemporaneously, delivering his presentation in a manner much more akin to that found in the natural sciences (and mathematics!). His talk was very well-organized, engaging, and clear...and its delivery was fluid and dynamic.

Berenguel was aware of the distance between the expected and the actual; he comments on my previous post (by the way, thanks for reading, Joseph! I'm sorry that I've not yet had a chance to respond to you personally): "I was quite aware of the difference between my style and the expected style. I tried to work it to my advantage. All that stuff is mostly in my head anyway." No doubt this truly was the case, for the process of writing the paper in the first place surely seared most of the thoughts (his own in the first place) into his skull...and further practice in presenting his paper further propped up the permanence of those thoughts.

Given this familiarity, why bother reading straight from the page at all? I've wondered at the divergence between the delivery styles in different disciplines for quite some time now. One of my colleagues in the Language & Literature Department here speculated (though she didn't know for sure) that the practice of word-for-word reading stems from an allegiance to the very carefully-chosen words the presenter has taken the trouble to pen in the first place: why risk a few seconds' worth of brain farting deleting the hours of careful reflection that led to the precise phrasing contained in the paper itself?

If this is the case, though, why isn't it a sauce-for-the-goose-is-sauce-for-the-gander situation? That is, aren't word choice and phrasing equally important (and equally tenuous and susceptible to on-the-spot memory lapses) in the natural sciences? Or could it be that the relatively image- and graphic-dependent nature of presentation in these fields drive down the dominance of verbal discourse?

This last argument seems unlikely to me. I'm not sure I buy the "careful choice" claim. But there ought to be a better explanation than simply calling out all humanitarians as "traditionalists" and all natural scientists as "innovators." Does anyone out there have any idea why this divergence still exists?

Whatever the reason for its being, I'm not sure the divergence has much life left in it. Several of the other talks I attended at CCCC were of the extemporaneous variety, as was one of the three talks in humanities or social sciences I attended today. (This one was a talk in an economics session; the "traditional" talks today were in film studies and poetry.) Intrigued that I'd seen so many maverick ad libbers (I'd expected few, if any, before going to CCCC), I'd asked my Charleston college Bella if she felt the traditional approach had long to live. She couldn't say definitively, though she indicated she's noticed the trend in recent years towards a more on-the-spot style of delivery.

Time will tell, I suppose.

I'm not sure I have anything more meaningful to say about this topic, so I'll let it rest. If you have insights of your own, please feel free to bring them up in the comments.

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