Friday, May 18, 2007

Public speaking, speaking public

I'm in the process of trying to write something for a talk to a general-but-educated audience on Sunday. The audience will be non-academic, but the kind of people who go to hear academics talk. It's the first time I've done such a thing and I'm having a difficult time 'translating' parts of my work. But it's a good and important difficult, I think. It's good for my writing process -- getting me out of knee-jerk habits, finding new turns of phrase -- and it's good in the sense that my obscure work on sometimes obscure texts and manuscripts (not the book project, for those who know me -- new stuff) is getting a hearing before a non-academic audience, because it gives me a chance to talk about why it matters.

I'm lifting part of my talk from my "Speaking for the Dead" post, but since the substance of my talk is about the meaning (and meaningfulness) of an ownership inscription in a manuscript of literary texts (and not really about the texts themselves, though it's a little bit about them in relation to their readers) I'm starting the whole thing with a couple of childhood books with inscriptions from my mother in them and talking about what book historians and literary/cultural critics of the future might say about them. It's a little corny, but I think it will cement the connection between the here and now, and the then and there, and the importance of speaking for the dead.

I'm worried both about the general framing move taking over the substance of the talk (it's about 1/2 frame and 1/2 substance!) and also about the substantive part going over the audience's head. But as Bullock just said to me, "Won't they expect you to go over their heads a little bit?" Otherwise, he suggested, they might think I'm a "fraud" of an academic. Hmm. But I don't want them to walk away saying "Typical academics -- don't know how to talk to 'normal' people." I want them to feel that there's something at stake in the humanities, even in the work done on long dead people, writers, and their texts. I want them to walk away saying, "That was fascinating -- more people should care about this." And then I want them to go read the texts I'm talking about (some of which are available in student friendly editions) and assign them to their book clubs, and then think about why they read what they read. And I want them to write to their representatives and senators and say, "It's really important to fund the humanities, because this is what it means to be human -- to read and to remember and to memorialize the dead and the past." Are my goals too lofty? Yeah, probably. I'll be happy if I don't hear crickets chirping after my talk.

Argh. This is hard.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Wow, it IS hard. But I think it's among the most important things we can do as academics: make people outside the academy comprehend what moves us so much in our research.

The frame to content ratio sounds about tight to me for a general public talk. Lots of times for me the eggheaded stuff is what gets most drawn out in the Q&A.

Also, don't forget that the kinds of people who show up for these kinds of talks are typically predisposed to admire your work ... that's why they are there instead of watching TV or jogging or whatever.

Jarod said...

As a museum curator, a sizable percentage of my work involves translating academic data into mainstream narrative for public exhibition. This can be a difficult process, but fun. For example, I could have said the first sentence of this comment as - "As a curator, part of my job is making boring things fun for Uncle Cletus and the kids."

At any rate, with public lectures I find humor to be a useful tool to bridge the gap. Not overboard, but just enough to keep them from saying "typical academics," as you mentioned.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Sounds very cool, though!

Bardiac said...

I agree with JJ Cohen that this is indeed some of the very most important work academics do. When I do such things (a couple times now), I find handouts super important; I want the audience to get a chance to see and hold information as well as to hear it.

I'm looking forward to hearing more about your presentation!

TheCrankyProfessor said...

This is hard, and it deserves more credit; of course I think so because I do a good bit of it - everything from the faculty works in progress lunch talk (physicists ask great questions!) to church groups who want to know more about medieval art

Horace said...

In addition to what others have said about the importance of making our work accessible to a broader audience, I also think it underscores the udefulness of academic blogs and the academic blogossphere: writing for one another in disparate fields, in ways that do and do not reveal our "expertise" is always useful for me to teach my research to undergrads or when I do get to the point where I'm presenting to these kinds of audiences, for that too.

In fact, I think it's awesome that you're able to dip into a great post from your archives to facilitate this translation process...