After-dinner indigestibles

March 28, 1997

Half-baked, insubstantial conference papers provide poor fare for busy academics. Gavin Fairbairn wants something more to chew on

Why do so many contributors at academic conferences abuse the privilege of the platform by failing to deliver cogent contributions which lead to coherent conclusions? This phenomenon is now so common that I find myself questioning the value of attending conferences at which I am not myself offering a paper.

A year or so ago, I attended a conference at which two out of three of the invited speakers confessed that they had not quite worked out what they wanted to say. One invited the audience to choose between a paper which had already been published and one that he was still working on; the other talked his way through ideas for the first half of a paper then ended: "Well, I've probably said enough to get a discussion going so I'll sit down now."

Many speakers seem to believe that the idea is simply to have a chat about things they have been thinking about which they find interesting. In some disciplines contributions of this kind are quite common and are often accompanied by ill-conceived overheads. Some of those who present papers of this kind do little more than read their overheads.

I am neither against the use of overheads, nor the informal delivery of ideas. I am only opposed to speakers who take advantage of the good humour and generosity of colleagues to present ill-prepared presentations that seem to have more to do with enhancing their CVs than communicating their ideas.

Inexperienced speakers sometimes offer papers that are less than well-prepared, but inexperience is excusable. The worst offenders are those with well-established reputations, as if, having attained national or international standing, it is no longer necessary for them to put any effort into public appearances. They simply restate ideas that are readily available elsewhere. They give a display of intellectual creativity - taking the audience on a stroll around a wilderness of ideas for which they have as yet to construct a conceptual map, in the hope that something of interest might turn up. Very few speakers can pull off a session of this kind successfully, and those who can are usually not academics.

The keynote address by an eminent academic at an international conference last year was criticised by many participants as disgracefully ill-organised, although no one said as much during the question time following his paper.

Another presentation last year by two leading professionals had apparently been concocted by fax, so badly that they were unsure who was to say what. Glued together by jokes, it was entertaining in an after-dinner way, but a disgrace as a plenary address to an academic/professional conference.

Perhaps what is most interesting is that in each case the audience did not object. It would be ungenerous to be too tough on those who fail to demonstrate commitment by arguing forcefully in favour of their chosen position. It is sometimes legitimate for a paper to report ongoing work or interim results; it is sensible at times to be cagey about conclusions. The real sin is to fail to at least try to give one's audience a decent return for the time they are putting in. Tentative conclusions may be a worthwhile finale to a conference presentation, but the paper must have been worked out well enough to show an identifiable thread of argument which leads to some sort of conjecture.

Half-baked contributions do not deserve to be listened to. Unless, that is, the slot they occupy on the programme is aimed at allowing contributors to discuss ideas in progress. To expect colleagues to listen to work that is not ready to be aired in public is to waste their time. It calls into question the use of public funds to underpin the scholarly activities of those privileged to work in higher education.

Gavin Fairbairn is senior lecturer in education at North East Wales Instituteof Higher Education.

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