Re: to read or not to read...

Marcy Bauman (
Mon, 24 Mar 1997 05:50:42 -0600

On Mon, 24 Mar 1997, Cynthia Haynes wrote:

> I know this issue comes up cyclically on lots of lists, and each time it
> seems to polarize quickly. I would like to see us 'slow' it down with
> some examinations of our assumptions. I would like to see more debate
> about 'delivery' as affected by technology, 'delivery' of services in
> academia, 'delivery' of research as experimental scholarship and
> publications create new forums.

Okay, well, let's start by considering the technology used to
deliver conference presentations, be they read papers or other kinds of
sessions. (I'm talking about "reading" as what the audience does, not as
what the presenter does: If the presenter reads, she's speaking.) The
advantages of reading over hearing are that when you read, you can go
back over material, you can mark specific parts of a paper essay,
you can search for specific parts and skip others, you can write
elaborations and commentaries in the margin, and so forth. The
disadvantage of reading (one potential disadvantage, anyway) is that the
writer and reader are usually at some remove from each other, so that
immediate (oral) conversation between them is not possible. The
disadvantages of hearing are that hearing (unless it's mediated by some
sort of recording technology) is necessarily linear, it usually takes
longer than reading, and it is ephemeral: once the words are spoken,
they're gone. We only have what we remember being said, which may -- and
probably will -- differ from what was *actually* said, because we
automatically "translate" what was said into our own idiosyncratic idiom,
so that we can retrieve it and use it later. (If this were not the case,
memorization wouldn't require such effort.)

I'd have been tempted to assume that, given the differences in the
teachnology of reading and the technology of hearing, we'd all agree that
texts which are meant to be heard must necessarily be different from texts
which are meant to be read. But Cynthia's example, which uses a reviewer's
comments on a written text to problematize our notions of appropriate
expectations of an audience for spoken texts, leads me to think
otherwise. What I heard people on this list saying was *not* that they
wanted conference presentations to be "easy" (in the sense of
intellectually unchallenging), I heard them saying that they wanted the
texts to be appropriate for the technology by which they were delivered.
And I don't think people have been uniformly weighing in against
texts which are read aloud; one of the texts which was offered as an
example of a presentation that was thought-provoking was Eric Crump's --
which was a written text read aloud.

> I
> think conference attendees might profit from a semester of critical theory
> which includes problematizing the hegemony of didactic email discussions.

I'm sorry; I feel I've been admonished when I read this. One of
the difficulties I have with the assumptions underlying words like
"problematize" and "hegemony" is that it seems to me that mostly it's
the "hegemonic" that's "problematized" -- and the hegemonic so often
seems to be defined as whatever the theorist is arguing against. (Who,
for example, has ever said -- using those terms -- that hegemony is just
fine; it's a natural part of life and not something to be
"problematized"? I'm not sure I'd say that, myself, but my point is that
*those* words are never used to express *that* viewpoint.) I don't see
compelling evidence to suggest that didactic email discussions are
hegemonic. The first question I want to ask is, hegemonic compared to

And suppose for a second that didactic e-mail *is* hegemonic?
What's to be gained by problematizing it? Will we thereby come to
appreciate the value of dense theoretical texts which are delivered as
speeches? Will we thereby become better listeners of such texts? Do we
have to decide that something else is "hegemonic" for that to happen?
Isn't the underlying assumption here that there's something superior
about long, theoretically dense texts, and if it weren't for that darned
didactic e-mail, we'd all agree?

OK, that's extreme. But at the least, Cynthia, I hear you saying
very strongly that audiences need to educate themselves so that they *will*
understand such texts, and that if they don't understand, perhaps the
fault lies with them and not with the speaker. Fair enough. But I think
speakers need to realize that if they're going to read papers that depend
on familiarity with specific ideas that are expressed in specialized
terms at a conference where their audiences are going to be composed of
hearers who may not have the specialized knowledge to follow their
arguments, they're going to frustrate a lot of people. Perhaps large
major conferences where the audiences are so mixed are *not* the best
place to test-drive highly specialized ideas, no matter what discipline
those ideas derive from.


Marcy Bauman
Writing Program, University of Michigan-Dearborn
4901 Evergreen Rd, Dearborn, MI 48128
fax: 313-593-5552



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