Defending the form

If you are a professional academic like me, you know the complaints all too well:

This is boring!

Why do you have to talk for so long?

You’re out of time, so I’m outta here.

Can’t we just download the powerpoint?

Yes folks, you all know what I’m talking about: professors bitching and moaning about having sit listen to read conference papers.

What’s that? You thought I was talking about students complaining about our teaching? Funny you should mention that: when we’re the ones talking, they’re the ones who lack attention spans, are insufficiently focused on their research, and don’t value the importance of old-fashioned, pre-internet forms of Real Communication. But when we’re in the audience they’re the ones who are boring and under-rehearsed.

Now that AAAs are almost upon us, I think it is time to take up again the banner of the well-prepared, well-written, well-presented conference paper and defend it against the hordes of insurgent Pecha Kuchaologists and tenured, cynical silverbacks.

To be sure, lecturing is hardly the ideal form of pedagogy. And we get a lot less well-prepared, well-written, well-presented conference papers than we are entitled to. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that in principle reading out loud is one of the best communication tools we humans have.

Talking to someone face-to-face is an extraordinarily powerful way to communicate — it’s like we’ve spend thousands of years slowly engineering ourselves to be able to do it or something. And reading a prepared, rhetorically powerful document is in many respects the best way of talking face-to-face: a clear message, crafted phrases, no ifs ands or buts.

Listening to read texts — especially academic read texts — can be exhausting. The amount of information that can be crammed into a 20 minute paper is actually pretty enormous. It doesn’t have to be, but it can be. Academic papers are especially exhausting because we imagine our audiences are highly trained professionals who know how to think, listen, and pay attention. We ask more out of our audience because we believe they are capable of giving it to us. Those three seconds in the Matrix before Keanu Reeves opens his eyes and says “I know Kung Fu”? That’s what I’m talking about.

If you are an academic and you can fit everything you need to say about your into 20 slides in 20 seconds, then you need to learn to think longer thoughts. For truelies.

Let’s face it: the reason that read papers suck is that people suck at reading them. We don’t teach oral presentation the way we should, we don’t create opportunities for our students to practice speaking in public, and — amazingly — we don’t value or take seriously the important opportunity that conferences present. All scholarship is a dialogue, and conferences are literally so. They are the center, not the periphery, of our engagement with others.

So this AAA season, do everyone a favor:

write a killer 7 page paper that you have lavished love on.

read it out loud and make sure it takes 20 minutes to deliver.

edit it for clarity.

repeat those last two steps three more times.

If you are a shy speaker, get totally trashed on tequila before your talk so you’ll be more outgoing.

no just kidding about that last one.


good luck and… see you at Montreal!


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

7 thoughts on “Defending the form

  1. Thanks Rex for pointing out that reading out loud is a great communicative tool. I want to second that reading one’s paper does not have to be the worst thing ever: reading a paper can be done in effective ways in which the audience is engaged, and is also a good way to think anew about listening. What I love most though is the advice to “write a killer 7 page paper that you have lavished love on” and then to practice delivering it, i.e., read it out loud, not just silently in your head. Focus on writing a compelling paper, not on the images you’ll have scrolling in the background or the like (unless visual, video, or audio content is at the core of your paper or argument). Parallel visual material can be fantastic but not at the expense of substantive spoken content that is confidently read, performed, or otherwise delivered.

    Also, one other note:….AAA times slots are only 15 minutes not 20. Seven pages should still be fine though for paper length.

  2. “Let’s face it: the reason that read papers suck is that people suck at reading them.”

    So true! I used to teach a class that targeted education majors, and I would always tell them that their future classroom success would benefit more from a drama class than much of what they were getting upstairs in the Center for Teaching and Learning or whatever it was called at the time.

    Ah well, who listened?

  3. I have to admit that I lose track of the arguments of people who want to cut small, dicussion-based classes in the humanities and social sciences. What sort of white collar work do they envisage their students getting where they won’t be talking and writing to a group of about 30 people?

  4. I couldn’t agree more with a defense of a well constructed, well delivered paper! Bravo for speaking in its favor! Bravo for your defense against the often mindless visual imperative.

    But I couldn’t disagree with you more in making the likes of Pecha Kucha. Is there something natural or essential about the 15 minute paper format? They are all conventions, my friend, and working with their different constraints, and working with them well, simply helps us understand better what we have to say. I’d have not thought we find only a single form of narrative and argumentation defended by an anthropologist, I’ll admit. Sometimes a well spoken proverb or poem says more, no?

  5. I just wish my slot at the AAA was not 11 minutes!! That’s what our panel chair is sticking to. I think we got given a shorter timeslot that expected. Ouch.

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