This is very interesting. It reminds me of Milena Kremakova’s notion of the ‘troll on the bridge’. Much as university leadership can be characterised by ‘Academic Caesars’, who demand internal loyalty in return for shielding their subordinates from the political context, the ‘troll on the bridge’ secures the autonomy of those within a research centre or research laboratory. Even if both figures are well-intentioned, they point towards a growing authoritarianism in the management culture of higher education.
An interesting talk by Steve Fuller on information overload. He starts with the academic context in which much of what’s published is not read, much of what’s read is not cited and yet academics are pressured to continually publish more. For whom is this a pathological condition? He argues that the implicit standpoint here is that of a decision maker i.e. this situation is pathological because it precludes the deployment of academic knowledge in informed decision making. Obesity metaphors obtain here, argues Fuller, because it’s a matter of having more information than you know what to do with, as opposed to more energy than you’re able to expand through activity.
The point he ends on is a really important one: is the concern for managing information actually one of managing free expression? Is the unstated problem one of there being too many authors? I assume he’s talking about this in relation solely to natural science, but I’m sure this can be generalised.
I really like Steve Fuller’s arguments about ‘improvisation’. He rehearsed them yesterday in a post for Sociological Imagination about the originality of conference keynotes:
For about ten years now, I’ve been arguing about the benefits of improvisational performance in academia, not simply as an experience for the audience but more importantly as a way of getting ‘experts’ and ‘luminaries’ to speak unguardedly on what they think about a topic on which they have established a reputation. Indeed, this is how I believe that academics might earn some entitlement to being called ‘intellectuals’. But increasingly I also think that this skill might be vital to the future of the university as a clearly branded institution in a world where just about anything is a ‘knowledge producer’ by default.
More specifically, public academic speaking might serve as a living moment of intellectual experimentation, not simply a reproduction of past thoughts. This means that improvisation should be taught to aspiring academics – and if you think that ‘teaching improvisation’ is an oxymoron, then you know nothing about performance, regardless of all the Judith Butler you’ve been force-fed. (Maybe I’m wrong but invocations of ‘performativity’ in an academic talk’s title is usually a dead zone for intellectual engagement – unless you like to hear about non-humans ‘performing’!)
It reminded me of this experience I had a couple of years ago. I had a talk planned for a conference (albeit only some bullet points in notes on my iPhone I wrote on the train to London) but decided to talk about something else because the talk prior to mine was so thought provoking. I’m not sure about the quality of the presentation but, at least subjectively, it was peculiarly enjoyable to get up and elaborate a line of thought on the fly:
I really dislike using slides. If someone has invited me to talk then I feel obliged to use slides. Much of my antipathy towards slides (beyond the fact that I’m bad at producing them) stems from how difficult I find it to improvise with them. I enjoy presenting most when I have the equivalent of index cards on my iPad – a short series of grouped bullet points. This reminds me what I’m intending to say but usually means I improvise about how and when I say it. On some occasions, it doesn’t work. If someone has gone a bit wrong prior to the event then the lack of planned structure amplifies my situational anxieties and incapacities. But when it does work, I’m a much better speaker if I just stand up and chat.
Blogging represents another form of improvisation. I thought earlier “I want to write something in response to Steve’s post yesterday”. I didn’t know until I started writing exactly what I would find myself writing. Reflecting on it, it’s not a particular surprise in this case. The influence of Fuller’s concept of ‘improvisation’ on me has largely been about public speaking, so it’s not unexpected that a blog post about it has turned into one considering public speaking. But many blog posts are a surprise. I discover a new idea or a new theme when writing. Or I find a new way of looking at a familiar idea. In this sense, I see ‘improvisation’ as intrinsically linked to what I think of as ‘non-linear creativity’:
Another example in a very specific area is given by a client in a follow-up interview as he explains the different quality that has come about in his creative work. It used to be that he tried to be orderly. “You begin at the beginning and you progress regularly through to the end.” Now he is aware that the process in himself is different. “When I’m working on an idea, the whole idea develops like the latent image coming out when you develop a photograph. It doesn’t start at one edge and fill in over to the other. It comes in all over. At first all you see is the hazy outine, and you wonder what it’s going to be; and then gradually something fits here and something fits there, and pretty soon it all becomes clear – all at once.”
Carl Rogers – On Becoming a Person Pg 152
So while I think Fuller’s argument could sound trivial to someone determined to be critical of it, such that it’s concerned primarily with entertaining audiences, it’s actually much more significant than that. There’s immense creative importance in the capacity to think on your feet or, as Nietzsche might put it, to write on your feet:
Not with my hand alone I write:
My foot wants to participate.
Firm and free and bold, my feet
Run across the field – and sheet.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Prelude in Rhymes: 52
I don’t think ‘improvisation’ and ‘creativity’ are co-extensive. But I do think that an intellectual environment hostile to improvisation will tend to constraint creativity. If we don’t have space to experiment, to improvise on the spot, it’s unlikely that we’ll have much space for creativity. We may be perfectly free to create but the forms we produce will be familiar and routine. If we have room to improvise then we’ll be better able to cope with what Howard Becker describes as the ‘chaos’ involved in writing:
You can’t deal with the welter of thoughts that flash through your head when you sit at your keyboard trying to think where to begin. No one can. The fear of that chaos is one reason for the rituals that the students in my seminar described. First one thing, then another, comes into your head. By the time you have thought the fourth thought, the first one is gone. For all you know, the fifth thought is the same as the first. In a short time, certainly, you have gone through your whole repetoire. How many thoughts can we have on one topic?
Howard Becker, Writing for Social Scientists, Pg 55
Improvisation makes this chaos into a virtue. It licenses us to jump headfirst into the flux and see what has happened to us once we emerge from it. In the absence of improvisation, the creative flux becomes a problem. It becomes something to discipline through routine and repress through ritual. It means the most live moments of creative production are approached in a way which, to paraphrase Les Back, seeks to assassinate the life within them.
This presentation by Nick Hopwood seems to have circulated quite widely this morning. It’s a satirical presentation attached to this post, visually illustrating all the presentational mistakes he observes in the attached article. It makes a lot of useful points in a very effective way, though given Nick is presumably vaguely aiming this at PhDs and ECRs, it could perhaps have been framed a little more sympathetically given the anxieties which are often attached to presenting your work.
What I thought was a more substantive omission was the lack of any reflection on presenting without powerpoint. I don’t like slides. I never have. I struggle to synchronise myself with them, I’m bad at designing them and they completely preclude any extemporaneity on my part. I started to experiment with not using slides after reading a strange and thought-provoking plea for improvisation in academic life by Steve Fuller in this book. However I’ve recently started to feel less confident about not using slides, as I’ve become aware of quite how dramatically the quality of my resulting presentation varies. If I’m in the right mood for it, it goes brilliantly and the notes I have with me are something I use to remind myself of a vague structure (points I want to make and in what order) rather than my ‘content’ as such. But if I’m not then I struggle to get into ‘flow’ (i.e. lose myself in the process) and sometimes end up coming awfully close to just reading the bullet point notes I have on my iPad, which is the worst of both worlds really.
I want to persist without using slides unless there is a specific reason for me to actually use them. When it goes well I really enjoy presenting in this way to an extent I simply don’t if I have powerpoint slides on the wall. But I’m going to try and think more creatively about how to use slides as visual aides to accompany a presentation rather than display my argument. I saw Les Back do this really effectively earlier in the week, using images on slides to set the scene while nonetheless sustaining a genuinely conversational style of precisely the sort I aspire to – public speaking as a peculiarly asymmetric form of dialogue rather than monologuing at the audience: a strange style of conversation where the people you are talking to are nice enough to give you 20 mins or more for you to make your point. It’s an extension of those really wonderful kinds of discussions & debates where each is genuinely listening to the other and giving them time to articulate themselves, rather than simply waiting for the other to finish speaking.
However I’m a bit sceptical that I can learn to synchronise well enough to make this work for me and that the process of matching background images to particular aspects of my talk will cause me to over-think it and preclude the kind of ‘flow’ without which I struggle to relax when public speaking. It can’t hurt to try though.
Incidentally Steve Fuller offered some great advice about speaking in the blog post linked to below. One thing I particularly liked was his suggestion that you need to “integrate your academic message with your normal mode of being”. I’m not sure how to actively cultivate this but when I think back on talks I’ve done which have gone really well, this seems like a really apt description of what the experience felt like at the time.
If the audience is to get any value-added from an academic talk, then the academic should speak not read the talk. Reading the talk, at best, is good karaoke. To me it always suggests that the academic hasn’t mastered his/her material sufficiently to navigate without training wheels. Ditto for powerpoint presentations, unless one really needs to point to something for added epistemic power. A good academic talk should be more like a jazz improvisation – i.e. the speaker provides some novel riffs on themes familiar from his/her texts that allow the audience to join in, sometimes contributing some novelty of their own.
We live in economically stretched times. Why invite famous drones, whose appreciation you could more cheaply acknowledge by buying their books or citing their articles? Anyone who is in charge of a speaker schedule – be it a seminar series or international conference – should always bear in mind that, in the first instance, it is the speaker – not you – who most obviously benefits from an invitation. It is not unreasonable to request something more adventurous than boilerplate from the speaker. You might even – God forbid! – ask them to address a topic somewhat outside their comfort zone. (Youtube is beginning to provide a resource to make informed judgements about who you should (not) invite.)
The increasing specialisation of academic life is way too often used to condone a multitude of sins that hover around the concept of ‘competence’. I never ceased to be amazed how often academics are willing to speak to only a rather narrow sense of ‘what they have already prepared’, or how easily flummoxed they get when they’re told they have 20 instead of 30 (or 10 instead of 20) minutes to present. After all, we’re supposed to be in the business of conveying ideas not displaying powers of recitation.
In the first of this series for the BSA Digital Sociology group, Steve Fuller (Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick) talks about his experience of using Twitter. If you have ideas of how profile sociologists you’d like to see interviewed about their use of social media, or ideas about questions to ask them, please do get in touch.