Monthly Archives: May 2014

On listening to conference presentations

I’ve had this on my mind since the conference I went to last weekend. It’s not really a fully formed post but I thought it best to get it down and perhaps even post it before I forget entirely.
I think I mentioned in my last post that I kind of read my paper at the conference, and that reading papers is not something that feels comfortable for me. I prefer to speak to a set of slides, to have a rough script memorized, and to ad lib a bit too. However, what I want to write about today is the experience of watching and listening to others’ presentations.
I am a sucker for an engaging presentation style and a presenter who speaks to the audience about her work, rather than one who reads a paper. I really enjoy getting a look behind the curtain of the process of a research project, rather than at a slick veneer of completion and I find that a conversational tone and some visuals really helps with getting me engaged. I want details about the process: it’s challenges, frustrations, triumphs and, at the end of it all (or at least at the point at which the researcher has said ‘enough’), its findings…that is what I love. When I see someone settle in to read a paper (which seems to me to suggest a complete and ‘finished’ piece), head down, hands gripping the sides of the stack of papers, I sigh a bit and, to be honest, I find myself tuning out a bit. Of the presentations I saw last weekend, easily over half of them were read papers, and I started to think a bit more carefully about my response, and my practice as an audience member.
The time slot was about 15 or 20 minutes for each presentation. It’s not a lot of time. Surely I could listen for 20 minutes? I fought my urge to self-distract and really tried to tune-in. With some papers, it was a real struggle. I feel strongly that if you are going to lean on a complex arrangement of theory, or if you are going to talk about a fairly obscure text, that then slides of some kind really can help the audience to grasp concepts, or imagine a world. However, having said this, I also think that it is good to think about just how difficult listening can be at a conference. I guess I can only speak for myself here, but I freely admit that I struggle to just listen. Sure, I can put on an ‘interested’ face and nod and smile in all the right places, but that is not listening. Half the time, at least, I’m furtively trying to formulate some kind of clever question to ask, or suggestion to make. I try to take notes and that kills the listening too. I never re-read those notes so I have no idea why I take them. After thinking about this a bit more, I come to believe that part of my problem with listening at conferences is that I have a huge desire to make the presentations of other participants, in some way, about me. I get nervous at conferences, eager to make good impressions, to legitimize myself in some way, and my bloody ego gets all fragile and out there and bloated and clumsy, and I can’t settle myself enough to just sit and listen. I don’t have to make a comment, i don’t have to be smart. I just need to listen. Harder than it might seem. I’m going to really work on it this year.

Answer the question!

When I was teaching , my first piece of advice to students who were getting ready to write an exam or an essay was always to ‘answer the question’. With each class, I would go on at length about breaking down questions, making sure they understood what was being asked, and then putting together a clear response. Well, yesterday I completely dropped the ball when it came to taking my own advice.
I was co-presenting a paper with a friend at a conference. I think the paper was good and the presentation was not bad either (although I am not a huge fan of ‘reading’ at conferences, which is something I’m going to write about in more detail another time). Anyhow, then it was question time. I get excited at question time at conferences. I like asking questions and making comments, and I really like it when someone asks me a question. Anyhow, most of the questions were directed towards one of the other presenters, but finally there was one for us. I do not know what came over me but for some reason, my brain disconnected from ears at the moment the guy asked the question. D (my co-presenter) responded and then he repeated part of the question and she threw it to me. What I should have done, and what I usually have no problem doing, is to ask him to repeat and clarify what he was asking, but for some reason I just gave a big deer-in-headlights face and babbled something completely unrelated, and smiled. He shifted around uncomfortably, obviously decided to spare the fool any further torture and said ‘thank you’. Yikes! I was mortified.
I know that this is an inconsequential moment and probably means nothing to anyone but me but my mind is screaming out ‘fix it! fix it! make me smart again!’. Urg. I even have thoughts of submitting work to another conference just so I can have a do-over.
However, I cannot do this because it would suck at least a week of work-time away from the thesis and also because it is quite silly. My ego is bruised because a bunch of people got to witness me not being smart. Poor me.
So, it’s a reminder…answer the question, and if you don’t twig exactly what the question is, then don’t brain-fart and start babbling – ask for clarification, take a moment to think, and then respond. You can always offer to discuss the question after the session if you feel there is a lot more to be said/you are having trouble being succinct on the spot.