Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Going long

My first semester of graduate school, I took a course taught by the woman who would eventually become my dissertation director. In our first class meeting, we signed up to do 10-minute presentations on certain contextual materials, one or two per week. My friend Ted volunteered to go first, at our very next meeting.

In what I would soon learn was characteristic fashion, Ted spent the intervening week reading his assigned text and an ad hoc collection of background materials, and he showed up for class with an armful of notes and photocopied images. He launched into a chatty but meandering presentation, pausing to share colorful anecdotes about the author's life, theories about the circumstances of the work's composition, and other more or less interesting digressions.

After several minutes, our professor interrupted him: "Ted, you've wasted five minutes. You have five more. Let's get to the text itself."

"Of course, of course," he said, agreeably--and he may have attempted to focus or speed himself up, but it wasn't apparent.

Our professor gave him another warning, at the two-minute mark, but when his ten minutes had expired without his having done more than allude to the work he was supposed to be presenting on, she cut him off mid-sentence.

"Well," she said, as she reclaimed the room. "I hope this will be a lesson to all of you. When you have ten minutes, you have ten minutes. You should prepare accordingly."

It was a fairly awful thing to do to a student in his second week of a Ph.D. program, in front of his entire cohort, but it had its intended effect: we learned that time and page limits were to be taken seriously--and that being smart and having lots to say didn't make us special or exempt us from the rules.

Whether it was my professor's doing or my own already-fierce ethic of responsibility, I now consider going long to be a pretty serious crime, at least when there's a captive audience of listeners or readers. My belief is that an extra 10% (which amounts to one extra page or two extra minutes on a conference paper) might be okay, depending on the circumstances, but anything more is a sign of astonishing disorganization, self-importance, and/or lack of regard for one's audience.

Recently, however, I was in a scholarly situation where more than half of the participants (all of them faculty) exceeded their time/page limits by an absolutely egregious amount--I'm talking about an extra 30%, 50% or in one shocking case a full 100%.

It's not that their work wasn't good; in some cases, it was very good. But when I (and you) sign up for the X-length version of your work, I don't want the Y-length version.

Some day, I'll have the balls to walk out, interrupt, or stop reading when time expires.


Carin said...

Oh, I sooooo agree with you. I have no patience at all for that kind of thing. I have definitely walked out of conference presentations that were going over and I have made my annoyance pretty clear in other situations, but I haven't quite had the nerve to walk out of a smaller-group setting.

(PS - Captcha is "Affectua", which would be a great bloggy pseudonym, if anyone's looking for one.)

Lucky Jane said...

Some day, I'll have the balls to walk out, interrupt, or stop reading when time expires.

I once did the last. I was third on a panel of four. The plan was to hold all questions to the end, after the respondent, a distinguished social scientist, weighed in. The first speaker went five minutes over; the second went fifteen minutes over. Had I read my entire paper, the last speaker would have had to hurry, and there would be no discussion, so I hurried through my presentation, speaking quickly and summarizing entire paragraphs. Several in the audience must have suffered whiplash as I hurtled through my powerpoints. I clocked in under ten minutes, though the paper was exactly twenty minutes when I had rehearsed it.

So what does speaker #4 do? That's right: speak glacially, rifling through pages of a much longer text, while audibly vacillating over whether or not to share stuff with the audience. People were trickling in for the next panel, and speaker #4 was still all "um" and "uh." Yet the respondent (who didn't get to share remarks synthesized from advance copies of our papers), and the panel's chair said nothing.

That was years ago, and I definitely felt my blood pressure rise when I typed that paragraph. People from the audience approached me for days afterward, in the bar and on the way to the airport, and complimented my consideration of others' time. To my surprise, they seemed to understand my argument pretty well. The experience made me wonder how much of our precious research is all that necessary, and how much is shaped by the conventions of the 20-minute presentation and the 7000-word article.

Anyhow, I don't see anything wrong with what your professor did—most likely because I'm "guilty" of similar offenses. My grad classes culminate in a conference, and I do indeed cut the presenters off—complete with the Hello Kitty placards indicating when they have 5-4-3-2-1 minutes left—if they go over. And they don't. For one thing, they prepare earlier in the term by presenting book reviews and other more exploratory stuff. When I did cut off one particularly desultory presentation, the student apologized to the class for wasting our time with her disorganization and poor time management. That was her apology almost verbatim, actually. Now you make me wonder how that incident affected the student's confidence, which seemed to decline sharply afterward.

thefrogprincess said...

Oh that advisor of yours sounds like a gem. The number of times I would silently beg a professor to step in as fellow grad students droned on and on. Ten minutes to set up discussion is just that. It's not twenty-five minutes to expound on whatever.

What's worse is that frequently those who stick to the listed guidelines (presentation time, paper length, etc) are often looked upon as deficient because how can a 7 minute presentation measure up to the 45 minute one before it? (Yes, that is a true story. I underprepared and only had 5 or so minutes of material for a 10 minute presentation and I went right after a colleague had gone on for 35 minutes longer than he was supposed to.) I've also had professors tell me my paper wasn't long enough when it came in at one page longer than what they listed in their syllabus. I did some asking around and it turned out my 26 page paper looked puny compared to the 75-er somebody else turned in.

So I heartily applaud this woman for sticking to her guns. Maybe it's just because I'm more likely to be brief than longwinded but it strikes me that poor habits with time and space that aren't addressed in grad school turn into trouble publishing book manuscripts that are too long, much to-do over the length of articles, and becoming "that presenter" that everyone hates. As scholars, we write and present in a number of genres, each of which has its own appropriate time or length and the job in grad school is to start writing these different forms of scholarship, not to expound on and on. The limits professors set are a matter of professional skills, not laziness on the part of the professor.

Flavia said...

Jane: my own blood pressure spiked just reading that story!

And of course I agree with you (and with FP) that the basic lesson my professor administered was an important and entirely appropriate one. However, it was not delivered gently, and we'd been given no direction on what our presentations were supposed to be like (as I recall, even the 10-minute part had sounded like just a general directive). Given that Ted had volunteered to go first, when everyone else was afraid to, and given that it was our very first month of grad school, it still seems to me like an unnecessary and opportunistic bit of Example Making.

Still, yeah. I'm in sympathy with the impulse, and I'm sure my students feel that I do essentially the same thing to them all the time (why, just the other week someone made an otherwise smart remark that included the phrase "tragic flaw"--and I took the opportunity to explain why no one was allowed to use that term in my class again, EVER). There's a reason I chose this woman as my advisor, after all!

Also, FP: I'm actively irritated whenever a student goes over the page or time limit. I don't mark them down for that specifically, but when I get a 20-page paper instead of a 15-page one my immediate response is, "SOMEONE doesn't understand the assignment!"

Partly that's temperamental. Like you, I tend to run short (and I accrete text only very very slowly, since I keep editing the orginal stuff down even as I add new material). But I do believe, very firmly, that one of the most important things one learns in grad school is the difference between a 40-page chapter vs. a 10-page conference paper, or an article versus an hour-long invited talk vs. an hour-long undergraduate lecture. Even when the material is the same, the form and genre differ in ways that it's one's professional responsibility to understand.

kfluff said...

Word UP. Part of the assignment (for both profs and students) is to take into account the kind of idea and support that are best served by a time limit. I toy with the idea, sometimes, of referring to poetry as a parallel. If a haiku had 22 lines instead of 17, it wouldn't be a haiku.

With students, I make a big show of taking out my timer when presentations begin. Would that I could do this at conference panels as well.

Carin said...

Coming back to say that this is one of those areas where I'm very grateful for my undergraduate education, which explicitly prepared us to give time-limited seminar papers. Seminar papers were due every week or every other week, were of a standard *written* length (6 single-spaced pages, which is basically a conference paper), and were read aloud - like tutorial essays. As a result, I arrived at grad school with a well-honed facility for writing 1) to that length, on short notice, and 2) for oral performance. I had very little patience with grad school colleagues who couldn't do that. I *did* make it a high priority to give my own undergraduates ample practice in that skill when the time came.

Susan said...

I have a colleague who once gave a seminar paper (supposed to be c. 50 minutes) that lasted 1 1/4 hours or so, and he was cutting as he went. Thirty years later and I still hold it against him!

Once I was chairing a session with someone who went over -- but the set up was such that I had to walk across a stage to get her to stop. And she still didn't.

Sigh. It's like you're the most important person in the world... our fragile egos, I guess.

undine said...

That's a good cautionary tale. I've learned that if someone shows up with a stack of books and scrapes of paper instead of a written paper, that means an overlength presentation is inevitable.

Anonymous said...

When I go to conferences, I really appreciate the session chairs who enforce the time limits. Those who don't are as annoying as the speakers they allow to take other people's time.