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2017-11 No2 Educating Rita

MONTHLY BLOG 83, SEX AND THE ACADEMICS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Appreciating sex means appreciating the spark of life. Educating numbers of bright, interesting, lively young adults is a sexy occupation. The challenge for academics therefore is to keep the appreciation suitably abstract, so that it doesn’t overwhelm normal University business – and absolutely without permitting it to escalate into sexual harassment of students who are the relatively powerless ones in the educational/power relationship.

It’s long been known that putting admiring young people with admirable academics, as many are, can generate erotic undertones. Having a crush on one’s best teacher is a common youthful experience; and at least a few academics have had secret yearnings to receive a wide-eyed look of rapt attention from some comely youngster.1 There is a spectrum of behaviour at University classes and social events, from banter, stimulating repartee and mild flirtation (ok as long as not misunderstood), all the way across to heavy power-plays and cases of outright harassment (indefensible).
2017-11 No1 Hogarth_lecture_1736

Fig.1 Hogarth’s Scholars at a Lecture (1736) satirises both don and students, demonstrating that bad teaching can have a positively anti-aphrodisiac effect.

If academics don’t have the glamour, wealth and power of successful film producers, an eminent ‘don’ can still have a potent intellectual authority. I have known cases of charismatic senior authority figures imposing themselves sexually upon the gullible young, although I believe (perhaps mistakenly – am I being too optimistic here?) that such scenarios are less common today. That change has taken place partly because University expansion and grade escalation has created so many professors that they no longer have the same rarity value that once they did. It’s also worth noting that single academics don’t hold supreme power over individual student’s careers. Examination grades, prizes, appointments, and so forth are all dealt with by boards or panels, and vetted by committees.

Moreover, there’s been a social change in the composition of the professoriat itself. It’s no longer exclusively a domain of older heterosexual men (or gay men pretending publicly to be heterosexual, before the law was liberalised). No doubt, the new breed of academics have their own faults. But the transformation of the profession during the past forty years has diluted the old sense of hierarchy and changed the everyday atmosphere.

For example, when I began teaching in the early 1970s, it was not uncommon to hear some older male profs (not the junior lecturers) commenting regularly on the physical attributes of the female students, even in business meetings. It was faintly embarrassing, rather than predatory. Perhaps it was an old-fashioned style of senior male bonding. But it was completely inappropriate. Eventually the advent of numerous female and gay academics stopped the practice.

Once in an examination meeting, when I was particularly annoyed by hearing lascivious comments about the ample breasts of a specific female student, I tried a bit of direct action by reversing the process. In a meaningful tone, I offered a frank appreciation of the physique of a handsome young male student, with reference specifically to his taut buttocks. (This comment was made in the era of tight trousers, not as a result of any personal exploration). My words produced a deep, appalled silence. It suggested that the senior male profs had not really thought about what they were saying. They were horrified at hearing such words from a ‘lady’ – words which struck them not as ‘harmless’ good fun (as they viewed their own comments) but as unpleasantly crude.

Needless to say, I don’t claim that my intervention on its own changed the course of history. Nonetheless, today academic meetings are much more businesslike, even more perfunctory. Less time is spent discussing individual students, who are anyway much more numerous – with the result that the passing commentary on students’ physiques seems also to have stopped. (That’s a social gain on the gender frontier; but there have been losses as well, as today’s bureaucratised meetings are – probably unavoidably – rather tedious).

One important reason for the changed atmosphere is that more specific thought has been given these days to the ethical questions raised by physical encounters between staff and students. It’s true that some relationships turn out to be sincere and meaningful. It’s not hard to find cases of colleagues who have embarked upon long, happy marriages with former students. (I know a few). And there is one high-profile example on the international scene today: Brigitte Trogneux, the wife of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, first met her husband, 25 years her junior, when she was a drama teacher and he was her 15-year old student. They later married, despite initial opposition from his parents, and seem happy together.

But ethical issues have to take account of all possible scenarios; and can’t be sidelined by one or two happy outcomes. There’s an obvious risk academic/student sexual relationships (or solicitation for sexual relationships) can lead to harassment, abuse, exploitation and/or favouritism. Such outcomes are usually experienced very negatively by students, and can be positively traumatic. There’s also the possibility of anger and annoyance on the part of other students, who resent the existence of a ‘teacher’s pet’. In particular, if the senior lover is also marking examination papers written by the junior lover, there’s a risk that the impartial integrity of the academic process may be jeopardised and that student confidence in the system be undermined. (Secret lovers generally believe that their trysts remain unknown to those around them; but are often wrong in that belief).

As far as I know, many Universities don’t have official policies on these matters, though I have long thought they should. Now that current events, especially the shaming of Harvey Weinstein, have reopened the public debates, it’s time to institute proper professional protocols. The broad principles should include an absolute ban of all forms of sexual abuse, harassment or pressurising behaviour; plus, equally importantly, fair and robust procedures for dealing with accusations about such abusive behaviour, bearing in mind the possibility of false claims.

There should also be a very strong presumption that academic staff should avoid having consensual affairs with students (both undergraduate and postgraduate) while the students are registered within the same academic institution and particularly within the specific Department, Faculty or teaching unit, where the academic teaches.

Given human frailty, it must be expected that the ban on consensual affairs will sometimes be breached. It’s not feasible to expect all such encounters to be reported within each Department or Faculty (too hard to enforce). But it should become an absolute policy that academics should excuse themselves from examining students with whom they are having affairs. Or undertaking any roles where a secret partisan preference could cause injustice (such as making nominations for prizes). No doubt, Departments/Faculties will have to devise discreet mechanisms to operate such a policy; but so be it.

Since all institutions make great efforts to ensure that their examination processes are fairly and impartially operated, it’s wrong to risk secret sex warping the system. Ok, we are all flawed humans. But over the millennia humanity has learned – and is still learning – how to cope with our flaws. In these post-Weinstein days, all Universities now need a set of clear professional protocols with reference to sex and the academics.
2017-11 No2 Educating Rita

Fig.2 Advertising still for Educating Rita (play 1980; film 1983), which explores how a male don and his female student learn, non-amorously, from one another.

1 Campus novels almost invariably include illicit affairs: two witty exemplars include Alison Lurie’s The War between the Tates (1974) and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975). Two plays which also explore educational/personal tensions between a male academic and female student are Willy Russell’s wry but gentle Educating Rita (1990) and David Mamet’s darker Oleanna (1992).

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2017-10 No1 AUTHOR THINKING

MONTHLY BLOG 82, WRITING PERSONAL REFERENCES

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

2017-10 No1 AUTHOR THINKING

What do today’s academics spend their time doing? Next to marking essays and planning research applications, one of the most common tasks is writing personal references for past and present students (and sometimes for colleagues too). Happily, such evaluations are not presented anonymously.1 Yet that makes writing them all the more testing.

The aim is to do full justice to the person under consideration, whilst playing fair with the organisation which is receiving the recommendation. Sometimes those aims can be in conflict. Should you recommend someone for a job for which they are not suitable, even if the candidate pleads with you to do so? The answer must be: No.

Actually I can remember one example, some years ago, when an excellent postgraduate wanted to apply for a new post which demanded skills in quantitative economic history. Since she did not have those special skills, I hesitated. She implored me to write on her behalf – it was in an era when new academic posts were rare – and, reluctantly, I did so. However, I told her that my reference would explain that she did not have the required skills, although she would be a great appointment if the University in question decided to waive those preconditions. (It was theoretically possible). In the event, she did not get the job. For the future, I resolved not to waste everyone’s time by writing references in unsuitable cases. A polite refusal does sometimes upset applicants. But it’s best to be frank from the start – and certainly better than writing a thumbs-down reference. (I decline to act if I can’t find anything positive to say).

Truth with tact is the motto. When writing, it’s good to dwell on the candidate’s best qualities, in terms of past attainments and future potential. But it’s seriously unwise to go over the top. Referees who praise everyone unreservedly to the skies quickly lose credibility. What is written should strive to match the best qualities of the person under discussion. Candidates often get called for interview; and it undoubtedly helps interview panels if the candidates broadly resemble their references. (It is ok, by the way, to warn panels in advance in cases of exceptionally nervous interviewees, who may need help to ‘unfreeze’).

Equally, when writing in support of candidates, it’s seriously wrong to go not over but under the top. There used to be an old-fashioned style of wry deprecation. It had a certain period charm. Yet in recent decades there’s been a definite inflation of rhetoric. Wry self-deprecation is still ok, when used in front of those who understand the English art of meiosis or ironic understatement. But deprecatory assessments, or even deprecatory asides, about other people are distinctly unhelpful in today’s competitive climate. Even one passing put-down can harm a candidate, when competing against rivals who are described in completely flattering terms.

Again, I remember a case at my University, where the venerable referee – a punctilious scholar of the old school – was warm but could not resist adding a critical aside. The candidate in question was much the best. Yet she lost out in the final choice, on the grounds that even her friendly referee had doubts about her. Really annoying. She went on to have a distinguished career – but elsewhere. We lost a great colleague.

Some months later I had a chance to talk with the venerable referee, who expressed bafflement that his candidate did not get the job. He was blithely unaware that he had, unintentionally, stabbed her in the back. It was a complete conflict between different generational styles of writing references. Later, I advised the candidate not to press me for further details (since these things are all confidential) but simply to change her referees, which she did. Such stylistic inter-generational contrasts still continue to an extent, although they take a somewhat different form these days. Either way, the moral is that balanced assessments of candidates are fine; shafts of sardonic humour or any form of deprecatory remarks aimed at an absent candidate are not.

Then there’s the question of different international cultures of writing references. Academics in some countries prefer a lyrical rhetoric of flowery but imprecise praise which can be very hard to interpret. (Is it secret humour?) By contrast, other references from a different stylistic culture can be very terse and factual, saying little beyond the public record. (Do they reflect secret boredom or indifference?) My advice in all cases is for candidates to choose referees from their own linguistic/academic/cultural traditions, so that recipients will know how to decode the references. Or, in the case of international applications, then to choose a good range of referees from different countries, hoping to balance the contrasting styles.

So there we are. Refereeing is an art, not a precise science. Truth with tact. Every reference takes thought and time, trying to capture the special qualities of each individual candidate. But, a final thought: there’s always one exception to the rule. The hapless Philip Swallow in David Lodge’s brilliant campus novel Changing Places (1975) encounters this problem, in the form of the former student demanding references – who never goes away. The requests pile up relentlessly. ‘Sometimes he [the former student] aimed absurdly high, sometimes grotesquely low. … If [he] was appointed to any of these posts, he evidently failed to hold them for very long, for the stream of enquiries never ran dry’. Eventually, Swallow realises that he is facing a lifetime commitment. He therefore generates an ‘unblushing all-purpose panegyric’, which is kept on permanent file in the Departmental Office.2 It’s just what every referee secretly craves, for use in emergencies. Just make sure that there are no flowery passages, no hyperbole, no ambiguities, no accidental put-downs, no coded messages, no brusque indifference, no sardonic asides, no joking. Writing personal references, on the record, is utterly serious and time-consuming business. Thank goodness for deadlines.

1 For my comments on writing anonymous assessments, see BLOG/80 (Aug. 2017) and on receiving anonymous assessments of my own work, see BLOG/81 (Sept. 2017).

2 David Lodge, Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (1975), pp. 28-9.

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2017-09 No1 handshake diagram

MONTHLY BLOG 81, RESPONDING TO ANONYMOUS ACADEMIC ASSESSMENTS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

(*) This BLOG follows its matching BLOG/80 (Aug. 2017)
on ‘Writing Anonymous Academic Assessments’

2017-08 No3 handshake diagram

The first arrival of anonymous assessments of one’s own research is almost invariably annoying. There’s something about the format which gives the author-less verdict a quality of Olympian majesty. And, even if the verdict is favourable, there’s a lurking feeling that one is a mere minnow, being condescended to by a remote and all-wise deity. Ouch!

However, after recovering from one’s initial fury, it’s best to rally and to view the whole exercise as a free consultation. Instead of rushing into print, and getting a stinker of a review, the stinker is delivered in the form of an anonymous assessment before publication. The anonymous critic is, in fact, the best friend, lurking in disguise.

As well as writing constant assessments, academics also read one anothers’ work in typescript. But, as researchers say, ‘good criticism is hard to get’. Many friends just respond loyally: ‘Darling, it’s wonderful; but there’s a typo on page 33’. Such a reaction is not much use. In the case of an anonymous assessment, by contrast, someone has gone to a lot of trouble to identify all your faults. And, what’s more, to give you a chance of remedying them before publication.

On balance, I would say that 80% of all the anonymous advice, which I’ve received over the years, has been invaluable. Another 10% is comparatively trivial, meaning either that the assessor has been sleeping on the job or (rarely) that there’s nothing major to criticise or discuss. But 10% of responses are positively unhelpful, either through being too crushing – or simply irrelevant.

One example of off-the-wall and unusable reflections concerned my editorial introduction to a book of essays entitled: Language, History & Class (1991).1 The anonymous assessor said firmly that I was wrong; and offered, at some length, his/her own philosophical alternative historical/linguistic theory as a variant. In one way, it was a very generous piece of writing. But, on the other hand, it was entirely wasted. I couldn’t use the alternative view, because I disagreed with it – and anyway, it wouldn’t be either right or politic to take someone else’s original thesis as my own, whether I agreed or disagreed. Something in my text had apparently rapped the assessor’s intellectual funny-bone, causing him/her to get distracted into inventing a new theory rather than reviewing a book proposal. The alternative approach was so off-the-wall that I never saw it appear anywhere in print. It was an intellectual kite that never flew.

2017-09 No2 kite in trees

Generally, however, after the first moment of silent fury at reading the anonymous assessor, I buckle down and enjoy the chance to revise in the light of a really in-depth analysis. Often, rewriting helps to strengthen my arguments, giving me a chance to rebut criticisms explicitly. And, simultaneously, the rewrite allows scope for clarification, if ideas were poorly or incompletely expressed first time round. Sometimes points have been made out of their logical order and need reshuffling. And finally, I sometimes (not too often!) change my mind, in the light of criticisms; and the process of rewriting allows me to push my argument into new directions.

In reporting subsequently to the publishers or editors, who have commissioned the anonymous assessment, there is one golden rule. The criticisms do not have to be adopted wholesale. But they must be acknowledged, not simply dismissed. I remember one former PhD student, when editing her first essay for a learned journal, miserably wondering whether she had to ditch her entire argument, in the light of a critical assessment. I was horrified at the prospect. Of course, she had to stand by her new interpretation. (She did). The essay would appear under her name and must therefore represent her considered views. An adverse anonymous assessment does not have the status of a royal command. Instead, the hostile cross-fire gives authors a chance, pre-publication, to decide whether to strengthen or to adapt their arguments.

Then it’s up to editors to decide. Usually they appreciate the chance to get new views into print, with the prospect of opening up further debates. But editors do like to be reassured that the revisionist piece has been submitted knowingly, with a full awareness of the potential controversies to follow, and that the study is well argued and substantiated. In comparatively rare cases, when challenging new views are rejected by one journal, there’s a reasonable chance that the ‘new look’ can find a home elsewhere. Since historical research relies upon debate and disagreement, it’s not such a big deal to find one (temporarily) prevalent view coming up for critique and/or complete refutation.

Only in very rare cases are anonymous assessors unduly harsh or vitriolic. I’ve had plenty of negative responses myself but never anything without some constructive aim or intention. One hostile case, however, occurred in response to a former student of mine who had written an excellent essay on the social history of nineteenth-century Sussex. Some element of the argument had apparently infuriated the anonymous assessor. He/she basically argued that the essay should not have been written. There was nothing constructive upon which the author could build. Fortunately in this case, the journal editor had asked for two anonymous assessments. The second was much more positive, enabling my former student to revise the essay into a stylish contribution. However, I advised her to write to the editor, explaining calmly that she had considered the negative assessment carefully before disregarding it. The fact that the angry assessor’s report had mis-named ‘Sussex’ throughout as ‘Suffolk’ suggested that the tirade was not based upon a very close reading. The editor took this strong hint on board; and the revised essay successfully appeared in print.2

These examples indicate the intricacies of peer review and the publication process. They are socially imbedded – and far from purely impartial. But they strive for an interactive collegial process, which seeks to iron out individual rancour or prejudice. Personally, I take anonymous academic assessments of my embryonic work as seriously as I expect my own anonymous academic assessments to be taken by the anonymous recipients. The veil of secrecy strives to make the exchange of ideas a ‘pure’ intellectual exercise, without the formal courtesies and pleasantries. (Actually, if one wants, it’s usually possible to make a stab at identifying the critics, using one’s research-honed powers. But in my experience, that’s an unproductive distraction).

Scholars who are published in peer-reviewed outlets are thus in constant dialogue (or, preferably, ‘plurilogue’),3 not just generally with their peers, and patchily with their precursors in earlier generations but specifically with their specially recruited anonymised critics. Wrestling with obdurate drafts is often exasperating and lonely work, as Hogarth knew – as seen in a detail from his Distrest Poet (c.1736) below. Yet scholarly authors don’t work in isolation. A tribe of anonymous academic critics, friendly readers, and interventionist editors/publishers are looking over their shoulders. So it’s best to bite the bullet; to revise coolly; and then to publish and be damned/whatever.

2017-09 No3 Hogarth's distressed_poet

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Historians and Language’, in P.J. Corfield (ed.), Language, History and Class (Oxford, 1991), pp. 1-29; slightly amended text also transl. into Greek for publication in Histor, 12 (May 2001), pp. 5-43.

2 A. Warner, ‘Finding the Aristocracy: A Case Study of Rural Sussex, 1780-1880’, Southern History, 35 (2013), pp. 98-126.

3 For this usage, see P.J. Corfield, ‘Does the Study of History ‘Progress’? And does Plurilogue Help?’ BLOG/61 (Jan. 2016), in www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs.

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2017-08 No1 black mask

MONTHLY BLOG 80, WRITING ANONYMOUS ACADEMIC ASSESSMENTS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

(*) This BLOG will be partnered
in September 2017 by a matching BLOG
on ‘Responding to Anonymous Academic Assessments’

2017-08 No1 black mask 
Writing anonymously encourages a certain acidity to emerge. Instead of the conventional politeness (‘Does my bum look big in this?’ No … not really’), it seems at first that the unvarnished truth will break through (‘Yes, it does’). In fact, however, there are multiple reservations to be made about that first rush of apparent candour. It’s very like the caveats that need to be made to that drinker’s favourite maxim: ‘in vino veritas’. Well, yes, sometimes. But there is also scope for exaggeration, melodrama, and error, as well as anger, bile, and crudity, within every alcohol-fuelled tirade.

The psychological mechanism of anonymous writing is ‘release’ – release from the conventions of politeness and, especially when writing in a hurry, release from the normal constraints of prudence. It’s like a rush of blood to the head. And it can easily become addictive. Probably a considerable proportion of people who unleash a tide of vitriol anonymously via the new social media surprise even themselves by their ferocity and lack of inhibition. Thus when confronted with the real person behind their on-line target, a number of Twitter trolls have apologised abashedly.1 These anonymous critics have been living in a little bubble of self-created alternative reality. The power of expressing anger-at-a-distance, from a position of apparent immunity, seems hard to resist. It’s as though thousands of previously unknown madcap Mr Hydes have been electronically released from within thousands of normally conventional Dr Jekylls. Yet, as in Stevenson’s fable, the split isn’t real. Jekyll and Hyde are one, each persona having responsibility for the other.2

2017-08 No2 jekyll and hyde

Happily, very few academics have divided personalities that would score very highly on the Jeykll/Hyde range. Or at least they restrain themselves from going ape in their capacity as examiners. That’s no doubt because they are thoroughly trained in a degree of self-control through their regular experience of anonymous assessment. These days, it’s usual for the names of examiners to be anonymised, as are the examination scripts which they mark. That is rightly done in order to avoid cronyism, favouritism, and unconscious biases.

And in cases where the examiners’ identities are known (for example when marking small specialist courses), it’s usual for scripts to be double-marked, before the two examiners meet to decide upon a joint mark – all subject to the controlling overview of a third external examiner (from another academic institution or at least another department), who is available to decide if the examiners can’t agree. Examinations are thus safeguarded against the handiwork of an impetuously unbalanced Mr Hyde.

It’s more tempting to let rip, however, when making individual anonymous assessments, for example when reviewing manuscripts for academic journals, or for publishers, or for the award of academic prizes/grants. There’s a whole behind-the-scenes world of what is known as ‘peer review’. Editors or publishers or prize-givers can make preliminary assessments of work submitted to them. There’s a lot of initial weeding. Yet they need specialist help to assess specialist research, especially in highly technical subjects. That’s where the anonymous assessors come in. Almost all academics spend a considerable amount of time on this sort of technical labour, often without any extra fee. It’s done pro bono, for the wider good of scholarship. Assessors are prodded with a series of questions: is this work original? is it properly substantiated? what changes are needed to make it publishable? But, at the same time, assessors are invited to write with freedom, hence risking a rush of blood to the head.

Interestingly, many early book reviews were written anonymously. The sting of a hostile notice was worsened by the author’s ignorance of the perpetrator of the barb. In the early nineteenth century, for example, when the astringent Edinburgh Review paid very high fees (up to 20 guineas a sheet) for strong opinions, one eminent literary victim characterised the journal’s anonymous reviewers as the ‘bloodhounds of Arthur’s Seat’.3

Since then, the fashion has swung decisively in favour of signed reviews when those appear in public. These days, academic authors who have laboured to draft an earnest encomium or a pointed critique need to get acknowledgment for their work, to show that they are not slacking. For many years, the major redoubt of anonymous reviews was the Times Literary Supplement (launched in 1902). An insider-academic game was trying to guess who had written which waspish put-down. I remember that, whenever anything particularly acerbic appeared, senior Oxford dons would murmur knowingly ‘Ah, Hugh Trevor-Roper again’,4 even if it wasn’t. Students were often impressed, while laughing secretly at all the fuss. In fact, the pages of the TLS were rarely dripping in authorial blood; and, when reviewer anonymity was dropped from 1974 onwards, the journal sailed onwards serenely without much change in tone.

That leaves anonymous assessment as the chief remaining terrain for academics to pontificate without acknowledging their handiwork. Supreme power at last? But no. Behind-the-scenes assessments are delivered within a range of unstated conventions requiring academic fairness and balanced judgment – especially when bearing in mind that all seeking to publish in a peer-reviewed outlet are equally liable themselves to be at the receiving end of one or more anonymous assessments. (See my next BLOG).

For me, writing such verdicts constitutes a specialist form of conversation-at-a-distance. Thus anonymous assessments are usually brisk and direct. There’s no need for the normal interpersonal courtesies of a face-to-face encounter. (Often indeed the original author’s name has also been anonymised). So there is no need for shared enquiries about mutual health and wellbeing. But the one-way conversation still entails the assumption that ideas have to be explained clearly to a willing listener. In the event of disagreement, it’s not enough to write: ‘Rubbish!’ Instead, it’s necessary to spell out why particular arguments and/or evidence fail to convince. Assessors are also invited to correct outright errors; and, if a piece of research is only marginally publishable, to provide suggestions for required revisions.

As those requirements imply, it’s much the easiest and quickest to express total praise. It then takes longer to reject a piece outright, because the reasons for rejection have to be fully elucidated. But the longest and trickiest task is to assess research that’s on the margins of being publishable. It’s helpful to strike an initially positive note, appreciating the choice of topic and the effort undertaken. Yet the negatives have to be explained frankly too, complete with constructive advice on transforming negatives into positives. That’s a challenging task to undertake at a distance, without being able to discuss the details with the recipients. (I knew one hyper-sensitive colleague who was so annoyed by one anonymous critique that she refused to revise and resubmit a potentially important essay, on the grounds that the editors were wasting her time by deferring to such an idiotic and ill-informed assessor.)

Overall, the initial attractions of anonymity quickly disappear. Whatever the medium, communications don’t take place in a vacuum. They have social/legal/cultural contexts and they have consequences. So whenever I tap my keyboard, the best short motto remains the one that I and a group of frank-speaking friends chose for ourselves, one merry evening years ago: truth, yes; but, fundamentally, Truth with Tact. Note: Not tact instead of truth; but both. Fusion rather than Jekyll/Hyde-type fission.

2017-08 No3 handshake diagram

1 For an example, see Daily Mail on-line, ‘Shamed Twitter Troll makes Humbling Apology Live on TV to Professional Boxer he Abused for Eight Months after the Fighter Tracked him Down’, 14 March 2013: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2293235/Curtis-Woodhouse-Shamed-Twitter-troll-James-OBrien-makes-humbling-apology-live-TV-professional-boxer.html

2 R.L. Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and My Hyde (1886).

3 R. Watson, The Literature of Scotland, Vol. 1: The Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke, 2006), p. 253.

4 For H. Trevor-Roper (1914-2003), historian, polemicist and sometime anonymous author, see A. Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (2010).

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MONTHLY BLOG 48, THE ART OF PUBLIC PRESENTATION – WITH STRUCTURED CONTENT AND A FINAL SNAPPY DICTUM

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

The art of public presentation in the academic world and beyond has improved no end, during my working lifetime. But still there are some who do it badly. Often noted personalities think that their notability will suffice, in lieu of a structured talk. They give voice to a meandering stream of consciousness, which is completely forgettable once the flow stops. People are generally polite, in such circumstances, but secretly disappointed. So here are some hi-speed tips for better impact, with warm thanks to many friends and former students for good discussions on these matters.1 To follow my own advice about providing a clear structure to my contents, I’ve cut my recommendations down to nine (the magical number 3×3): the first three about preparation; the next three about modes of presentation; and the final three about the contents.

1/ Know the scheduled timing for your presentation and stick to it. Even inspirational speakers pall if they run on for too long. And it’s especially unforgiveable to over-run if you are on a panel with other speakers. By the way, if you bodge the timing by mistake, the chair should call you to a halt. In those circumstances, don’t gabble the rest of the talk at high speed; but switch immediately into your conclusion with good grace (and do better next time).

2/ Check the level at which your presentation should be pitched and present your material accordingly. If addressing beginners on a subject, then give them clear framework information and definitions. But, with experts, aim high, because they’ll quickly become bored if you tell them at length things which they already know well. A mixed audience of experts and non-experts is the most difficult to handle. You must cover the basics, or otherwise the beginners will be stranded. But try to impart the basics in a sharp and interesting way, to keep the experts happy. Phrases like ‘as you know’ or ‘as you will recall’ or ‘it’s worth repeating’ help to soothe experts in the audience that you are not patronising them.

3/ Speak freely, rather than read from a script. Above all, don’t read aloud from Powerpoint. It’s fine to work from prompt notes on cards, paper or Powerpoint, as academics often need precise data and quotations. It’s also excellent to use illustrations as well as words on Powerpoint, especially if the illustrations have the quality of surprise – and can be used as counterpoint to the talk rather than a literal visualisation. For beginners in academic life, it’s ok to read from complete scripts in the early days, as a learning process. But even then it’s helpful to include short sections of free-speaking (for example, when switching from one section of the talk to another). Any break into free-speaking renders the voice more natural and makes it much easier for audiences to follow alertly. Over time, the proportion of free-speaking should be increased and reading from script decreased.
2014-12 No 1 Hogarth_lecture_1736

Hogarth’s Scholars at a Lecture (1736) satirises both the boring tutor and the sleepy students.

4/ Vary your vocal register: ring the changes as you talk, in terms of pitch, pace, vocabulary, gesture – and use of pauses. The aim is to avoid a droning monotone, which numbs the listeners’ brains. Fortunately, the human voice is a tremendous instrument for communication. Very few people use their full vocal range. Women in particular are often socialised to talk in light, high voices. But we all have great potential for variation. Try a few vocal exercises to discover your own vocal range and then use its pitch to the full, with an associated diversity of pace, terminology and gesture – and, now and then, some good strategic pauses.

5/ Use humour when appropriate but don’t force things if the subject doesn’t lend itself to joking. Shared laughter is a great way of binding an audience together. But don’t worry if your topic (say: long-term trends in the price of grain) is not a natural rib-tickler. It’s enough to be pleasant, cheerful, and smiling. While doing that, avoid all facetious remarks, such as ‘of course, we’d all rather be in the pub’. Such would-be matey comments are annoying and suggest a lack of confidence. If your audience really wants to be in the pub, it probably will be.

6/ Look all round the room regularly, sweeping people lightly with your gaze: this exercise indicates that you are addressing everyone – not just talking to those in the front row – or to your own shoes. It’s called the ‘lighthouse beam’.2 Of course, the gaze must not turn into a rude or pointed stare. But the round-room gaze is an excellent way of ‘collecting’ a roomful of disparate people into one meeting. There is always an unspoken compact of reciprocity between speakers and audiences. The speaker has to offer something approximating to the advertised topic, in a competent manner. The audience in turn has to be prepared to listen and to respond. In politics, an unwilling audience may respond with heckling, boos or more active forms of rejection.3 In academic life, unhappy audiences rarely heckle. They merely don’t pay attention – and play games on their laptops. A lighthouse beam around the room, impersonal but penetrating, checks that you have everyone’s attention – and signals that’s what you want.
2014-6 No 1 Lighthouse beam7/ Structure your contents. This is one of the most important arts of public presentation, and one of the most unduly neglected. Structuring, also known as ‘framing’, conveys immediately to the audience that you know what you are doing. And it allows them to follow your train of thought and simultaneously to understand how the specific details fit into the bigger picture. That way, audiences have much better chance of remembering your message. They can log your points under the headings, which you should announce as you go through the presentation. By contrast, a stream-of-consciousness speech, without any declared framework, is like a soufflé – it quickly flops. There are lots of ways of structuring, depending upon the material. Every presentation should have an Introduction and a Conclusion, with the contents grouped into meaningful sections. At very least, a list of numbered points will help. But that can be rather mechanical. One strong option is a binary division: ‘on the one hand’ … ‘on the other’. That’s the classic structure of a lawsuit, testing prosecution against defence. Another favourite is a threefold division. Three main heads let the argument develop some complexity (not everything is either black or white) whilst still offering a manageable structure that the audience can recollect. But it’s enough to group your material in a manner that makes sense to you – and then to convey that message to the audience.

8/ Start with something striking (an event, a quotation, an illustration) to get people’s attention and ensure that the Conclusion responds to the Introduction. Rounds out the discussion and recaps the main points. Incidentally, having a good conclusion ready means that, should you have to stop suddenly, you can quickly cut to the conclusion and still end with a clear message.

9/ End the conclusion with a final snappy dictum, rather than a meek ‘Thank You’. Thanking the audience for listening may seem polite, even rather cute. These days, it seems to have become almost de rigueur. At least, it does tell the audience when to clap. But it’s better to end with a pithy dictum. Something memorable, not meek. Ok, there may be a brief silence while people realise that you have come to a halt. But that’s good. It gives time to digest and to recollect.

Incidentally, how did Churchill end his ‘Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat’ speech to the Commons on 13 May 1940? 4 Not with thanks but with a summons. It was a bit clichéd but it was unmistakeable: ‘Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength’. We can’t all be Churchills on such a stage. Yet we all have scope for improvement. Excelsior!

1 Especially to Tony Belton, Margaret Bird, Lissi Corfield and the international array of colleagues who attended the International Society for C18 Studies (ISECS) Seminar for Early Career Scholars at Manchester in September 2014.

2 For the use of the lighthouse beam when chairing a discussion, see PJC BLOG no. 42: Chairing Seminars and Lectures (June 2014).

3 For the sometimes violent opposition to women speaking in public, see PJC BLOG no. 47, Women and Public Speaking: And Why It has Taken So Long to get There (Nov. 2014).

4 http://www.winstonchurchill.org/learn/speeches/speeches-of-winston-churchill/92-blood-toil-tears-and-sweat

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