“Just waiting for you to talk so that I can” – John Grant

Discussion, so it is said, is of key importance to the academic life. The debate, the flow of ideas, comparison and critique, amongst your peers, is the primary signifier of academia’s importance. Why then do so many academics sit through seminars with the single goal of waiting until they can talk themselves? Comments, less than the constructive development of ideas, are packing crates on which to stand and air one’s own agenda, ideas or approaches. This steering of discussion is not always done with malice: Often people are blinded by the narrative of their own publications and institutional years in defence of arguments. The ability to accept new approaches, or even opinions on old subjects, has been whittled down by the pugilistic stance that they themselves continue in seminars. Others are simply too tied up with their own egotistically driven focus to tear their minds away. At times such focus becomes so blinkered it is as if any divergence of thought away from their own interests would lead to feelings of insecurity that they normally equate to those who remain quiet.

All is not lost for the discussant. With careful balance of whit and respectful play to ego, the speaker can gain valuable reassurance that they have either covered the ground for critical responses, or at least have had their work reflected in the eye of someone else’s agenda: these can lead to valuable changes in perspective. The speaker’s expectation regarding the listeners is unlikely one of engagement with their topic, unless it suitably matches the schedule of those present: in which case the seminar is mere campaigning to those who are already signed-up. Rarely do you find the academic who sits and wonders ‘what is the speaker trying to say?’ – Instead they insist on focusing on correction: ‘What should they be saying?’. The performance of presenting amongst your peers requires skill in story telling: make sure that they sit comfortably, buff their ego cushions and speak softly; grasp their attention with something agreeable and lead them down the road of acceptability towards your slightly shocking, but now obvious, conclusion. Engagement is the key, will they ask questions that imply they have listened, will they want to clarify some aspects that appear vague or will their steel hard cage of academic institutional life keep the speakers own approach from truly being heard?

In this industry of knowledge manufacture and understanding there needs to be a greater focus on the power of iteration and failure. Standardised events for the display of framed arguments are illusions, hiding the real process that leads to the development of ideas. Within such power centred arenas the loudest voice is often the status quo and the new challenging developments can often be silenced with effort. Ideas, theories, approaches and methods all require a driving force to take them from inception to development and application. All great work requires commitment and defence for ‘there is no such thing as an immaculate conception’; but when this industry is driven by the systemic defence of such psychologically embedded projects, how do you remain committed to one idea, without being in some way closed to new ones.

Dave Yates is a PhD Candidate at the University of Kent. His research interests are the development of applicable theories in systemic meaning construction. He is interested in applying such work towards understanding place design and construction amongst urban planners and architects.

Categories: Sociological Craft

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  1. Heidegger thought that scholars should simply trade questions, but that would include the speaker first and foremost.

    I have watched conference presentations for more than three decades and never has a speaker offered a “new approach” that was in fact new (except in their own minds). Some approaches became, as you rightly identify, the latest thing because, as you also rightly identify, they were already part of a larger, already extant movement/meme (lots of heads nodding in agreement there). But I have also never heard a young person speak who was not persuaded that his or her ideas were not utterly unprecedented…

    What strikes me most (apart from the evident desire for non-reciprocity here — it seems that the desire is that discussants not discuss but ask what some youthful presenters imagine to be ‘real’ questions), is the conviction that simply because a conference resembles a classroom situation that the listeners are there to take instruction rather than to participate. Even those respondents who are genuinely confused and want clarification (does one really want a conference room full of such gratefully attentive respondents? would that not be a classroom? is the epitome of the conference encounter an ex cathedra address?) want that clarification only for their own agendas: they too are just planning to talk later or elsewhere or at their own conference…

    The idea should be to exchange ideas and if speakers seem to comment on their own ideas in response to your ideas, is that not a good thing? Not only might the speaker learn something but it is also the case that there is usually no difference in competencies between the person at the podium (the selection committee arranging the talk is a committee of one’s peers not arbiters of the truth) and, at an academic conference, it is usually the case that the persons in the audience who strike you as waiting to say what they seem hellbent on saying, do indeed have something to say and might have been speaking themselves.

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