Monday, February 07, 2005

"To chop a tea kettle"

A while back, Lance and Ernie and I were discussing the relative lack of questions at theory talks (in conferences specially). Having just returned from SODA, I can confirm that questions were few and far between at talks (although the odd talk here and there generated fairly animated discussions).

Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed has an interesting column on modern academic interactions, and how they relate to the blogosphere. The article is worth reading in its entirety, (as is the Crooked Timber note that pointed me there), but I couldn't resist excerpting the following, on discussions at conferences:

At conferences, scholars would stand up and read their papers, one by one. Then the audience would "ask questions," as the exercise is formally called. What that often meant, in practice, was people standing up to deliver short lectures on the papers they would have liked to have heard, instead -- and presumably would have delivered, had they been invited.

Hypothetically, if everyone on a panel read one another's papers beforehand, they might be able to get some lively cross-talk going. This does happen in some of the social sciences, but it seems never to occur among humanities scholars. The whole process seems curiously formal, and utterly divorced from any intent to communicate. A routine exercise, or rather perhaps an exercise in routinism. A process streamlined into grim efficiency, yielding one more line on the scholar's vita.


The inner dynamic of these gatherings is peculiar, but not especially difficult to understand. They are extremely well-regulated versions of what Erving Goffman called "face work" -- an "interaction ritual" through which people lay claim to a given social identity. Thanks to the steady and perhaps irreversible drive to "professionalization," the obligation to perform that ritual now comes very early in a scholar's career.

And so the implicit content of many a conference paper is not, as one might think, "Here is my research." Rather, it is: "Here am I, qualified and capable, performing this role, which all of us here share, and none of us want to question too closely. So let's get it over with, then go out for a drink afterwards.

And the title of my post ? Read the whole article...


  1. Careful, you may get what you wish for. :)

    Stephon, a physicist at SLAC, has a blog which has an interesting entry about giving a talk at Harvard and how the person who gave a talk before him left the place in tears because he was slashed to threads by the physicists there. 

    Posted by Doppelganger

  2. Or, you could just ask one of these

    Posted by Moebius Stripper


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