Reprinted from the Spring 2012 MLA Newsletter
As executive director of the MLA, one of my constitutional duties is to chair the MLA Program Committee, which plays an important role in shaping our annual convention. The committee has led the way in addressing members’ complaints about the convention, from the dates to late-evening sessions, and has increased opportunities for members to interact. Its latest initiative, described on the front page of this issue, is to encourage more innovative types of sessions.
At the base of this initiative is a desire to make the convention more of a conversation, or rather a place to have many conversations, about our work and our ideas, our research and our classroom experiences. In my many years of attending conferences, I have heard scholars give some spectacular papers, papers that they have delivered in a way that was engaging and even memorable. I think we all recognize the value of such presentations, and most often they are conceived not as a written document to be read and contemplated in silence but with an audience of listeners in mind—listeners who can respond in real time and help shape the presenter’s project. But many scholars today are eager to take advantage of new mechanisms for sharing information. This trend may have begun with slide shows to accompany papers, but now has grown to include some very imaginative alternatives to a straightforward paper reading. Some sessions experiment with new presentation formats, such as the “lightning shorts” discussed on the front page; others stage a conversation between a scholar and an artist, author, or other creative practitioner. Electronic roundtables feature stations with computer demonstrations of each presenter’s material that allow for one-on-one interactions between presenters and attendees. Some presenters are showing brief videos and then taking questions from the audience and from the Twitter
stream; others use PowerPoint
to provide visual dimensions to their presentations (summarizing the material on their slides). New session formats might include hands-on workshops and pedagogical demonstrations.
But the most important thing is to hear what members want at the sessions. To that end, the Program Committee plans to develop ways for attendees to respond to sessions they attend. We can then track how well we’re doing collectively in our efforts to present material in ways that engage our audiences, for example, by having at least fifteen minutes for discussion at the end of every session (many session organizers are leading the way by communicating more with panelists before the convention and by enforcing the time limits). What we do at the convention is engage in part of an ongoing conversation, and, to reflect this, presenters will also be able to share their papers before or after the convention by adding a link to the work on the online Program (this feature offers a date-stamped record of one’s work that deters others from borrowing it without attribution). Since many of us have never received feedback on our delivery style, the Program Committee plans to produce materials to help participants explore new techniques for giving conference presentations. We envision a “paper makeover” that shows how to transform a dense written document into a dynamic talk that keeps listeners engaged. These materials could offer new possibilities for communicating our work in ways that extend beyond the potent but limited genre of the research paper and thus provide new ideas for training graduate students in how to think about and share their findings. Thus, as I see it, these changes give us an opportunity to think about how we will teach the next generation. This opportunity is especially important as we look to graduate work to prepare people for careers beyond the academy.
These changes also give us an opportunity to reconceptualize the ways we think about our work and present it to a public in accessible forms. How we present our work to the public is critical to our ability to effectively advance the study of languages, literatures, and cultures. Only if people understand—and are compelled by—what we have to say can we act as strong advocates for the humanities. And first we have to want to hear, and sometimes even feel inspired by, what we say to one another.