Thursday, November 30, 2006

Report on my Presentation

I gave my presentation on Quakerism and Science yesterday. It went well.

Several people told me that they would not be able to come because of meetings scheduled during the time of my presentation. So I expected about three people.

But it turned out a good number of people came, including Friends from my Meeting, a lot of my students, a number of my faculty colleagues from a variety of academic disciplines, some other staff members, and some community members. Then the president of my university came in too! Only then did a wave of nervousness break over me. But it didn't undo me.

The organizer of the series introduced me.

I got up and read my paper that I had only really finished about an hour before the presentation.

We tell our students when they prepare for oral presentations that it is really better to speak from notes than to read. In my teaching, I do this all the time. Very often I don't even have to refer to the notes. For many other kinds of presentations as well I often speak from an outline.

But when I present more historical work, I do write it out, in part in order to ensure that the sequence of events lines up correctly, and in part because I include more quotations in historical writing and it is important to think carefully about the wording in setting up (and of course in presenting) the quotations.

Besides, in watching many presentations over time, I have come to see that while the common wisdom is true enough, there are also exceptions. When people do a good job of speaking from notes, that is certainly more effective than when people mumble through reading a paper. But some people do not do a terribly good job of speaking from notes, and those occasions can be painful to watch! And others are just fabulous at reading papers. If the papers are written to be spoken, and if the speaker knows how to read well out loud, those can be the very best talks of all.

I gave a fifteen-minute talk a few weeks ago as part of a Teach-In my university held, and I was last on the last panel, and for that occasion, I had simply three items on an outline. I listened to all the presentations before me, and took mental notes about how to make connections with what I planned to say. Everyone else read from written-out papers (and did a nice job, but oddly , almost everyone went over time!). When my turn came up, I took a deep breath, said to myself "gee, I hope I can pull this off!" looked out at the audience, and spoke. I never glanced down at my notes. And I ended exactly 15 minutes later. It was an amazing experience. I felt centered, focused, gathered. I felt connected to the audience, trying to end the series of presentations with tangible hope that everyone could participate in.

But yesterday's talk was a very different kind of setting. It was just me, to speak for an hour and then field questions for another half-hour. I teach all the time in hour-and-a-half blocks. This shouldn't be so hard then, should it? But it felt very different: much more formal; much more pressure.

So I got up there, and looked at the audience, and thanked them for coming, and started reading. Really, my task was simple: trust in this paper I so loved writing, and just focus on reading it to communicate. Emphasize what needed emphasizing. Slow down for the more important parts -- maybe even repeat them. Pause just before dramatic moments. Pause just after the funny bits to give people a moment to "get it" and laugh. (And they did laugh!)

It was fun.

Everyone seemed tuned in throughout.

A lot of people asked questions, excellent questions. They kept going for the full half-hour, and when the person who introduced me closed things, lots of people came up afterwards to continue the conversation. Clearly I had succeeded in getting people to think about things in new and exciting ways.

To be honest, I was amazed.

But best of all was how many people commented to me how impressed they were that (a) so many of my students came (and brought friends), (b) how tuned in they were throughout, and (c) what excellent questions they asked.

And the president, who also asked excellent questions during the question and answer period, wrote me a wonderful follow-up e-mail saying that he really appreciates how I zero in on the really important questions and problems and propose striking and bold solutions. He invited me to have a follow-up discussion with him about these ideas.

I feel very fortunate to be at such a wonderful university. To be supported in coming out with bold ideas is really wonderful.

For so much of my life, I have felt alone and misunderstood. Then I found the Quakers, and felt I had found a community that was supportive, but my work "in the world" was still meeting with a lot of resistance.

This talk was a turning point for me, because I was bringing Quaker ideas more explicitly to a non-Quaker school, expecting to be regarded with some suspicion -- but was met instead with enthusiasm and support!

So, I think I am finally finding my way to language that works, language that connects. (This too was why I had to write out this paper -- I knew that how I put things mattered very much.) I think I am succeeding in thinking my way past the patterned uses of language that reinforce problematic dichotomies, and speaking a new language that catches people by surprise, holds their attention, and gets them thinking. Speaking in new ways runs the risk of losing people -- and I used to lose people all the time -- but my years of teaching have taught me how to connect just well enough with how most people think and speak that I've gotten better at not losing people so much any more.

Yet I've been struggling mightily in my personal life, still going through something like the dark night of the soul I wrote about last summer. So I've picked up Thomas Moore's book, Dark Nights of the Soul, again, especially this afternoon when the glow of happiness wore off and I lapsed into the fatigue of post-high let-down. Picking up that book was exactly the right thing to do. I found his reassuring advice: the dark night of the soul is a time of transformation. I used to be shy and fearful; now I'm coming out as an effective speaker. Moments like yesterday show me glimpses of the transformation that is underway.

I must continue to have faith.


  1. What a tease! You tell us you have proposed bold and innovative solutions but then don't tell us what they are. Come on! Let's see the paper.

  2. Ah, but really what I said was that someone else interpreted me as proposing bold and innovative solutions...not that I really had!


    But, seriously, I will be sharing at least some of the ideas I wrote about!

  3. But of course it can be bold and innovative simply to dare to reframe reality and zero in on the really important questions, not just those secondhand issues whose constant reprocessing constitutes some of what academics do for a living. No wonder the energy in the room was so high. Congratulations!

    (Thanks also for your follow-up post!)

    Another thing I enjoyed noticing in what you wrote: you not only have benefited from the support you've experienced among Friends, you've actually drawn on it, depended on it, and found that you are, as Paul might put it, "more than conquerors" in standing straight up in a risky public situation and simply drawing what you authentically have within you--not just in terms of content and preparation, but also in stature and grace.

  4. Wow! Thanks so much, Johan, for sharing your observations! What wonderful images!