In which I sit through a conference session (British version)

I've just come back from the Social History Society's annual conference, which this year took place at the University of Leeds. You can see the twitter feed here: storify.

It reminded me again of the wonderfully amusing rant written by Larry Cebula, originally on the Chronicle of Higher Education's 'conferences and academic travel' forum, and then reworked into a proper article in that paper.
Original forum post link 
Reworked article link

Larry's main point was about the tendency for historians to read their papers out loud, word for word, in conference sessions. When social scientists, and indeed scientists, hear that this is standard practice at history conferences, they usually throw their arms up in horror and confusion: 'what? you read out your paper word for word? you don't just extemporise from the powerpoint slides?' Larry also comments on the usual death by powerpoint, or other crummy presentation flaws.

However, I don't think he is saying that historians shouldn't read their papers out loud. There is much skill involved in phrasing a sentence *just so*, and structuring a paper cleverly to lead the hearer around a complex argument, that cannot be memorised, not least by a nervous presenter. Penelope Corfield, in a blog post about 'the best and worst academic lectures I have heard', suggests something similar.

So this is not a call to get rid of the papers and the notes. It is rather a plea for future conference paper presenters to write their papers as they speak, and not as they write.

There are two sorts of history conference papers on paper: the read-out journal article, and the presentation. Conference papers should be the latter not the former.

Journal articles are necessarily dense and complex and full of caveats and clauses and footnotes and are meant to be read and read again. Conference presentations are to be heard only once, and so should catch the audience's ear (and eye) easily and clearly, but without dumbing down or the hesitation of no script or just reading off a dull powerpoint.

This is also a call for the seasoned conference goers to reject the old convention of dry reading of written journal article style papers as normal and acceptable. Postgrad history students perhaps start reading their papers, eyes down, because that is what they see established academics doing. Postgrads might have presentation training where they are taught how to speak and project to an audience, but I suspect there is less emphasis on what goes in the paper itself. So they replicate that awful 'reading out of a journal article I wrote silently in a library, and have to skip a paragraph here and rush through a few pages there before the chair cuts me off' mode that unfortunately still can be seen in a history conference near you.

The key to writing a successful conference paper, I think, is that it shouldn't be written at first. Start with your thoughts and speaking out loud: introduce the topic broadly to a wide audience with a bit of historical context and historiography (and MAPS!), then cut to the chase, illustrated with a few clear examples. Add some rhetorical questions to make the audience think, or, even, some jokes. Some of the best papers I saw at Leeds were by postgrad students with a clear speaking style and a very clear structure. Less is more.

And practice the technology beforehand! Another tip for nervous presenters, as passed on to me by Ruth Mather from her supervisor Amanda Vickery, is to put your notes in a binder of clear plastic sleeves, so that you can easily turn the pages back and forth without dropping them all in a big pile on the floor. And smile!


  1. Thank you for this. Sadly I was unable to attend this conference, although I did go to the 40 years celebration ten years ago at IHR where, among others, I listened to Dorothy Thompson. Your report has given a flavour of what was no doubt a very interesting day.


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