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MONTHLY BLOG 43, MIS-SPEAKING …AND HOW TO RESPOND

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

When we talk for a living and don’t do it to a written script, there’s always a chance of getting the words wrong. Mostly it doesn’t matter. Phrases can be rephrased, self-corrections swiftly made. The sentences flow on and listeners hardly notice. Yet sometimes a sudden silence tells the speaker that a blunder or infelicity has been noted. Funnily enough, I remember a few times when I’ve felt that sudden frigidity in the atmosphere, but can hardly remember exactly what I said wrong. So my attempt at a confessional is somewhat thwarted by the human capacity for benign forgetting.

For many years now, I have adopted the policy of giving all my lectures and talks from notes. They are sometimes written and detailed, sometimes just in my head. There’s always a structure, often threefold. I began that policy when one of my old friends protested that he was disappointed when I lectured from a fully written script. (Strangely, when I next heard him lecture, he too had a written text). But there’s no doubt that such a practice is much more boring than free-speech. So I threw away my scripts and launched into freedom. It was nerve-wracking at first but then became really good fun. I now positively enjoy lecturing, because free-speaking requires a great mix of relaxation and concentration, which really keeps one mentally on one’s toes. Talk about living in the here-and-now. But, as already admitted, there’s always a chance of mis-speaking.

The quickest response to a blunder is a quick admission, ‘No, that came out wrongly’ or ‘No, forget that: let me put the point a better way’. Another option is a self-deprecating joke. That’s generally the best way, thawing the atmosphere and making room for a revised statement. Alas, however, the appropriate quips don’t always come to mind immediately. How often does one wake in the middle of the night with the perfect riposte, which had proved elusive during the daylight hours?

(The answer to that rhetorical question is actually: not that much, since I generally sleep soundly. But sometimes …)

In fact, I often mull over conversations after the event, thinking of what was said or unsaid. It’s one way of understanding my partner in life, who is a keep-his-cards-close-to-his-chest sort of person. I appreciate that, since I have the same trait, under an outward show of chattiness.

Anyway, in the course of mulling over my contributions to asking questions in academic seminars, I am aware that there’s a fine line between jokes and jibes that work, and those that don’t. My aim is to make some genial general observation, which is intended to open up the wider implications of the question in hand, before honing in on a specific query. Doesn’t always work, but that’s my aim. It’s not a tactic that I recommend to beginners in academic life; but something that I require of myself as a comparative senior.

On one occasion, I made a sharp remark about the panel of speakers, who were enthusing over historic riots. My aim was to tease them about the contrast between their academic respectability and their admiration for lawlessness (if in a good cause). It was the precursor to my question, not the major point. But anyway, it went down like the proverbial lead balloon. Made me seem to be avoiding engagement with the issues at stake – just the reverse of my intention.

These particular panellists reminded me somewhat of my late uncle, Christopher Hill, the eminent Marxist historian.He loved historic outlaws, pirates, highwaymen, and vagrants, as well as earnest seventeenth-century Puritans, who challenged the unquestioning authority of traditional religious teaching in an era when it was difficult to do so. In fact, Hill wrote a book about them, entitled Liberty against the Law (1996) which aptly expressed his appreciation.2  The fact that the worthy Puritans of whom he wrote approvingly would have hated the irreligious and a-religious outlaws with whom they were yoked did not trouble him. From his virtuous life of laborious and enjoyable study, Hill enjoyed the raffish life of the outlaws vicariously. And why not? Many of us have mixtures of Puritanism and libertinage within us. I was too hard on him, in my thoughts; and needlessly sardonic with my colleagues.

Unlikely fellows in the cause of ‘Liberty’: (T) an ascetic Puritan divine, in this case the American theologian/evangelist Jonathan Edwards, from an engraving by R. Babson and J. Andrews; and (B) the highwayman Dick Turpin on his famous steed Black Bess (in a Victorian image).So what should I have done? Worded my point in a more felicitous way, which I would have done, if writing. Or deleted my little joke at their expense? Probably the latter. I was playing the footballers and not the ball. Breaking my own rules for seminar questions. (The point might not be amiss in a review where viewpoints can be explained more fully.) So the occasion – and the disapproving silence from the audience – has taught me something useful for the future.

Lastly, a chance to record a fine response to another example of mis-speaking, this time not by me. The occasion was the book launch of F.M.L. (Michael) Thompson’s urban history of Hampstead (1974). The Mayor of Camden had been asked by the publisher to make a suitable speech. That he did, before ending, ungraciously: ‘But I shan’t read this book’. Probably he didn’t mean to be so rude. Perhaps he really meant something like: ‘But I fear that this volume may be a bit too learned for me …’. Either way, his remark did not meet the moment. It seemed to express a traditional and unhelpful strand of anti-intellectualism in the working-class Labour movement. (Not the entire story, of course, since there is another strand that values engagement with learning and adult education).

Be that as it may, I still remember Mike Thompson’s lungeing riposte, at the end of his gracious speech in reply. Having thanked his wife, publisher and friends, he then thanked the Mayor in his civic capacity: ‘But I shan’t vote for you’.

Well done, Mike. I hope not to mis-speak again. Yet, if it happens accidentally, I hope that I get as neat a riposte.

For more on Christopher Hill (1912-2003) see P.J. Corfield, ‘“We are All One in the Eyes of the Lord”: Christopher Hill and the Historical Meanings of Radical Religion’, History Workshop Journal, 58 (2004), pp. 110-27; and within PJC website as Pdf/5.

2  C. Hill, Liberty against the Law: Some Seventeenth-Century Controversies (Penguin: London, 1996).

F.M.L. Thompson, Hampstead: Building a Borough, 1650-1964 (Routledge: London, 1974).

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MONTHLY BLOG 42, CHAIRING SEMINARS AND LECTURES

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

The aim is to get everyone involved in a really good discussion, aiding the speaker and the seminar/lecture participants alike. By ‘good’, I mean critical but supportive. Any criticisms, of course, should be directed at the paper, not at the speaker: as in football, kicking the ball, not the person.

Okay, that sounds pretty easy. How best to promote the desired result? At the start, it’s essential to open the proceedings in an open and genial manner, with a joke, or failing that, at least a humorous tone. Nothing like a murmur of laughter to weld a group together. Then the speaker should be introduced pithily, without notes. None of these lengthy recitations of everything that he or she has ever done, which makes everyone drowsy. And certainly no advance-guessing by the chair of the points that the speaker ought to make – thus stealing (or bodging) the thunder before the show has begun.

By the way, from the start the chair should make a point of visibly and fairly slowly looking all round the room, bringing everyone within an encompassing gaze. And do this more than once. I call it giving the lighthouse beam.

june007
During the paper or lecture, whether good or bad, the chair has to look alert and listen. It encourages the speaker and the audience; and it’s necessary, as from time to time the speaker refers to the chair (perhaps to ask how much time is left). Actually, that’s why I like chairing, as it keeps one wide-awake. Ideally, speakers should have been briefed before the meeting about the length of talk required. But chair should always confirm that at the start; and then gently halt speakers who go on for too long. On a formal occasion, a printed card saying TIME! can be passed to the speaker but, informally, a hand signal usually suffices. There’s always some leeway on these things. If the speaker is part of a panel, then strict timekeeping is essential. In other circumstances, it’s the chair’s judgement call. But don’t allow too much over-running, as the audience gets at first restive and then somnolent.

While the speaker is talking, I usually make a mental list of the key questions raised by the paper. A good seminar or lecture audience will usually spot them all; but it’s a useful backup. Immediately after the paper, it’s absolutely essential for the chair to make some suitable response while people gather their thoughts. It’s always bad news when the chair just says abruptly: ‘Any questions?’ And even worse when there’s a great silence and the chair adds dolefully: ‘Well, I can see it’s going to be a difficult session’. Lead balloons all round.

Instead, the chair should briefly thank the speaker (nothing over the top) and note the range of issues raised by the paper (that’s helpful for beginners). Followed by an ‘opening’ question, to get the discussion going. Not too detailed or heavy; but not a patsy either.

While the speaker answers, the chair should look intently round the room to encourage people to signal that they have questions. This is the really crucial bit. If at all possible, the chair should sit up, or semi-stand, leaning against a chair or table, to free the sightlines. Then the lighthouse beam can skim lightly over everyone there. Preferably with a smile. People usually give very imperceptible signals – a nod or lift of the hand. It’s rather like the sly nods and winks at an auction, though fortunately not quite as covert.

Usually, the questions are taken in the order that they come. But, if there’s a long list of respondents, then it’s helpful to call people from different parts of the room. That draws everyone into the discussion.

Very rarely indeed, there are rude or out-of-order questions. The chair should then intervene, extracting the element within the question that can be answered and telling the speaker to ignore the rest. Or, if the question is completely out of order, the chair should simply say so. That is more likely to happen in political meetings than in academic gatherings. And even then, it’s rare. Other problems sometimes occur with poorly phrased or incomprehensible questions. The speaker is entitled to look to the chair for help, so be ready to paraphrase the question into something answerable.

Discreetly, the chair is conducting the discussion; and should have a range of questions up his/her sleeve to throw into the pool, if the questioning flags. Difficult depth-chargescan be used especially against the good and the great, who shouldn’t be let off too easily.

Beginners, however, should not be given too hard a time – enough to test them but not to destroy. It’s good to intervene with some supportive words, if they are seriously floundering, though the debate must be allowed to flow.

In terms of manner, the chair should be genial; but not too ‘in’. It’s best to avoid calling people to speak by their first names or, even worse, by unfamiliar nicknames. Such references make the group seem too cliquey and seriously deter newcomers. When calling people, I refer to them by location: ‘A question at the back’ and ‘Now a question from this side of the room’ and so forth. Not the sartorial references favoured by TV chat-show hosts: ‘the person in the blue jumper’; ‘the woman with glasses’, which are too impersonal.

It should go without saying, in free-flowing academic events, that speakers should not be called in order of academic seniority. The old-style seminars, when the professors speak before everyone else, in rank order, can still be found and even appreciated as a rarity. But that’s what they should remain.

Lastly, the question of tone. The chair must be friendly but not over fulsome. That just sounds sycophantic. At the same time, the chair must be critical but not too sardonic. As an auto-critic, I wince at memories of the times when I’ve tried to be sharp but just come over as waspish. The sardonic remark that isn’t funny really isn’t funny. Luckily these moments (only few, I hope) get lost in the flow. It’s the paper or lecture that gets remembered. Where is the next academic gathering to chair? I’m ready with my lighthouse beam.
june0081 See PJC BLOG no 27, February 2013: ‘Asking Questions’.

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