Friday, May 29, 2015


So that talk I gave last week had me spazzing out the way very few talks have ever made me spazz out. For at least ten days prior I did nothing but work on that paper: sleeping poorly, oppressed with an always-incipient but never-quite-present migraine (the symptoms of which vanished the second my talk was over).

This was only partly due to the stakes of the performance itself. Yes, it was a semi-plenary before an audience of unknown size, all specialists, and I sometimes feel myself to be only a fake Miltonist. (And Miltonists--I say it with love--have a reputation as hectoring pedants.) The real problem was that this was entirely new work, work that no one had seen or heard a word of two weeks before my talk. Including myself.

And that's not the way I write conference papers. Like most people, I'll certainly use a conference as an excuse to get cracking on a new project, and it's not uncommon for my abstracts--written 6-9 months in advance--to be a tissue of fictions and suppositions. But by the time the conference itself rolls around I've usually been working on the article or chapter for a few months; I just carve my paper out of that much larger body of work. Sometimes the carving is easier and sometimes it's harder, but it's never THAT hard. By that point both my writing and my argumentation are pretty polished, and I feel secure that I have some larger grounding in the material.

But a conference paper that's exactly coextensive with my research on the subject--where I basically haven't had a thought or read a work that isn't mentioned in the paper--that was a new experience. I was deathly afraid I'd be asked to expand on ideas I literally could not expand on, or talk about texts I've never considered. (I always have a version of this fear, but it was particularly acute this time.)

But it went fine. It went better than fine. In fact, some of the reasons it went well may have been directly related to how quickly I wrote the paper and how rough some of its edges were: it was talky and (I think) entertaining, with a strong argument but also a lot of open-ended and speculative bits; this facilitated what was, hands-down, the most genuinely useful Q&A I've ever participated in. Partly this was due to my presenting before true specialists, but being at an early stage also meant I was fully open to suggestions and interested in considering my topic from fresh angles.

Now the advantages of presenting early work are probably obvious to every single one of my readers; I'm on the rigid end of the spectrum when it comes to sharing material I haven't perfected or generating ideas on the fly. But for me it was a bit of a revelation.

But here's the really good news: for the first time ever, I'm starting the summer with a working draft of my new chapter.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I can totally relate on the fear of getting asked a question that involves a text I haven't read or something like that. The fear accompanies me at every SAA. One time, I got asked a question with a word in the question that I didn't know the definition of. I didn't handle that well.

Anyway, this sounds like a great experience. Congrats on getting some good work done early in the summer!!

Susan said...

I wish more people felt free to present material with open questions. Whenever I do, I get really helpful feedback. When I present stuff I think is more polished, I think I know all the answers, and am much less open to comments and suggestions.

And it's great to have a draft chapter at the beginning of the summer!

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Loosey goosey is very fun and rewarding!

One of the best conference talks I ever gave I was the chair of a session and not scheduled to give a talk at all. An hour before the session begins, I get a cellphone call from one of the speakers that she is very ill and can't speak. So I go running around the conference venue looking for the program chair, and finally find him and ask what to do. And he is all like, "I DON'T CARE!! BUT YOU BETTER FUCKEN FILL THAT SLOT!!! YOU GIVE A FUCKEN TALK!!!! HOW ABOUT THAT!?!?!?!?"

So during the first two talks of the session, when I'm not busy moderating, I'm looking around on my laptop for some interesting new data, and find some shittio that is totally not ready for prime time, but looks very intriguing, but we really don't even know how to begin thinking about it. So I basically put those data up on the screen, and ask the audience if they have any ideas what it might mean. Led to one of the best discussions I've ever experienced at a conference.

Unknown said...

A) I am doing this RIGHT NOW: writing a paper on the very edge of my research to give in three weeks. Like you, my previous efforts have usually been pulled from work that's much farther along. I worry that I'll still be writing on the train to the conference.

B) Perhaps we Miltonists are hectoring pedants because, primed as we are to see nobility of being on the losing side (whether of the Restoration in 1660 or the modern Shakespeare/Milton employment divide), Hector is our favorite character in the Iliad.

Flavia said...

I'm glad to hear others have had such positive experiences (and CPP, your story made me laugh out loud). I think that I'd seen unprepared/underbaked presentations enough that it didn't occur to me that preliminary work could not be like that, but that it could be well-organized and well-delivered, based in strong, interesting research, and have its audience's needs and interests in mind. (I'm sure I'd seen such presentations before, but just not recognized them as such!)

And Jason, I've given this a lot of thought--why Miltonists are more prone to retreating behind erudition (or playing "gotcha!" with small details). It's definitely not the majority who do this, but it's a much more visible minority than in other subfields: That Guy can appear in any conference panel on any subject but Milton panels/conferences always seem to have one, and sometimes several.

Some of it may be an attempt to live up to Milton's own self-depiction, but I agree that a bigger part may be a way of shoring up Milton's cultural authority: to be a real Miltonist, you need to have read all his works and know all the ins and outs of his biography (that's what justifies being a specialist, or having such a thing as a Milton specialist).

I actually saw almost none of that behavior at this conference, which was one of the warmest and loveliest I've attended (and I've never seen enough of it anywhere to put me off Miltonists). But I can't say I saw none.