Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Presentation

This is going to be one of those tail-between-the-legs posts. I gave a presentation yesterday that fell completely flat on its face. It probably (maybe) wasn't as bad as it seemed from where I was sitting (at the head of a table that seems a lot longer from that perspective than from where I normally sit), but be that as it may, it got me thinking more about the state of the profession along the lines that I already have been.

This was a forum where the fellows get together once a week and somebody presents unfinished or unformed work and we sit and discuss for an hour. It's an institution called the "shadow seminar," and it's taken this form this year because we don't all have one language in common between us, so it wasn't like we could sit and read a text together or something along those lines. The disadvantage is that it's very disjointed and we're not mostly in a great position to offer feedback on subjects we don't know well that we haven't had a chance to think about in advance. I'm going to suggest strongly that in the spring we pick a few theoretical texts in history of religion and read them — even though people, perhaps rightly — don't want to create extra work for themselves. I'd rather do some extra reading than kill an hour a week; and if we do it the same way, I'm pretty much not going to attend.

Be that as it may, I was presenting something that was seriously unformed. I think that might have been my first mistake. I'm never believing people again when they say that something is a friendly opportunity to present unfinished work. It's going to be pretty damned close to finished in the future.

My presentation was of two manuscripts that, to me, seem to have a lot of similarities relating to a particular historical moment in the thirteenth century despite coming from radically different and later contexts. And so the problem that I was presenting was this: Is there a productive way to talk about these two manuscripts together?

The answer turned out to be a resounding no, which was actually helpful, because it sort of gives me permission to stop trying to untangle this problem, with which I was getting nowhere. But it felt like an hour's worth of torture on top of that, with all of my premises being picked apart, the earlier scholars I was referencing being challenged, pieces of my translation being called into question that weren't even relevant to the discussion at hand and that I didn't respond to well not because I haven't thought about this issues or don't realize I'm handling some of the material in an unconventional way but just because I wasn't expecting to have to talk about that and not being quicker on my toes, and everybody just generally not being on my page. I think it may have been karmic revenge for my giving the presenter two weeks ago a hard time when he presented something seriously unformed that juxtaposed texts that didn't belong together.

It was also a little strange because I got a lot of really useful feedback after the seminar had adjourned: One colleague gave me a reference to a book that I didn't know but that does a lot of what I was trying to do, which is to look at manuscripts with an odd assortment of contexts and argue that there is meaning there. (Admittedly, by that methodology, I still have to drop the comparison between the two MSS, but it means that I wasn't totally, totally out in left field and that yes, there is a methodology for doing what I was trying to do — which was my question to begin with); he also pointed out that if I had sort of owned the historical setup more, rather than relying so explicitly on the work of other scholars, that people would have had less to challenge and might have actually been more on board. Certainly something to keep in mind for the future. And another colleague was genuinely curious about what I was doing with the unconventional bit of my translation and I sat with him and walked through it and said all the intelligent things that I should have said when I was challenged during the seminar (like that yes, there is precedent for using this one particular verb with a variety of shades of meaning in a single sentence) and he had an interesting take on the whole thing. And another colleague pointed out that one of my most vociferous critics during the seminar was really trying to force the idea in a geographic direction that it doesn't make sense to go.

So the discussion after the seminar was interesting and helpful, but the actual time in the hot seat was kind of pointless and hugely disheartening and has me awake at 3 in the morning mentally shouting a list of expletives at the void of the universe.

The thing that's really bugging me about it all is this, though: I know when I'm pushing it in terms of plausibility, and this was a case where I was definitely pushing it. I needed a smackdown to get myself out of this rut, I deserved a smackdown for pushing it and for not articulating my ideas as clearly as I could have, and all in all, the smackdown was productive. This was wild-eyed and cosmically-big-picture and a long-shot. But I am getting the impression that even the nit-picky little points, where all the evidence lines up neatly and is painstaking and all of that — that even those points are hotly contested. This point wasn't one that I could "win" but I'm not sure that I can "win"on the little-picture points either. There are always going to be people who say that the things I'm sure of, that I know I'm not pushing it on at all, that those things are mere speculation. And how is there room for the huge leaps and the wild-eyed, prophetic progress when we're — not so much bogged down in the details, because I don't want to give the impression that I don't think that the details are important, but — mired in the minutiae to the point that even the possibility of a big picture gets lost?


  1. It sounds to me as if there need to be better ground rules for this group. Work-in-progress discussions are most useful when feedback is explicitly required to be helpful, to include a round of positive comments, to ask questions rather than making corrections, and to address questions explicitly posed by the presenter of the work; more, shall we say, challenging responses are better suited to work that is further along in the development cycle. The big picture is important, and it's splendid that you can see it. I've always struggled to get above minutiae, myself, because I am hopelessly myopic both literally and metaphorically.

  2. Dame E — First, apologies for the delay. A couple of comments got caught in the spam folder — not sure why — and I just found them now. The notion of ground rules is really helpful, and I think I'll try to incorporate it into my suggestions when we reconvene the "shadow seminar" in the spring. And perhaps it makes sense to have them both for presenters as well as for respondents, just to make the whole thing more structured and more productive for everyone. I've heard a few of the senior folks here say things to the effect of it seemed like everyone got a lot out of his or her own presentation but not out of sitting through other people's. So we'll see.