Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rhetoric of presentations at the SBL

In pedagogy training as teachers we are taught not to rely on a manuscript. We are taught to know our material and to talk normally. We are taught not to use jargon, but to translate our ideas into readily intelligible phrases. Yet, you arrive at the SBL expecting the opposite.
Speakers reading from a manuscript filled with jargon is the norm. Sometimes, if your mind slips and you miss a definition, the remaining minutes of a paper become an endless stream of meaningless words.

Few people can actually read from a prepared manuscript well. Bruce McCormack at Princeton Seminary is one of the only few that I have seen do this well on a regular basis. Most of the presenters at SBL don't do this well.

So, why is this necessary? I think it is a result of an unfortunate ethos at SBL. Namely an ethos of oneupmanship. Some members in the audience are like vultures ready to go in for the kill on the slightest mistake of the presenter. Therefore, to avoid any opportunity for the vultures, presenters carefully prepare their manuscripts and fill them with jargon and definitions to avoid being taken to task by members of the audience. Yet, is this the best way to move scholarship forward? I am not sure that there is an easy answer.

I do not see the ethos at SBL changing any time soon. Perhaps the answer is to take a page out of the ancient rhetorical handbooks. First, stylistically, do not fill your papers with jargon, learn to communicate with "normal" words. Second, perhaps a little practice with the rhetorical tasks of memory and delivery might be of help. Trying to memorize a paper full of jargon will immediately signal the presenter that he or she should work some more on the manuscript, to learn to communicate their ideas in a more rhetorically effective manner.

1 comment:

  1. Preach it brother! I try and present papers like I do sermons, as conversational as posible with only the barest outline to follow. In a 30 min paper you can only make few points and one main argument, especially if people have been subjected to a number of other papers that day. Then having got peoples' attention you can deal with the fine detail in the questions when the questioners can guide you as to what they need. That way you don't have to painstakingly argue every little point in your original paper and you don't have to talk so fast! :-)