The Social Scientist Comes to the Conference

This year I'll be presenting, for the first time in my life, at a non-psychological conference. And I'm dreading it.


Did you know that people in disciplines like theology and biblical studies actually read papers to each other. Yes, you read that right. They stand up, pull out a manuscript, and then read it to you. Often never lifting their eyes from the paper. They just stand there. And read to you.

It's insane and madding. Why not just hand the damn paper to me so I can read it over a beer at the bar? Or in my room? Or at home?

You might not know this, but in the sciences and social sciences we actually don't read or present papers at our conferences. We speak extemporaneously. Without notes. There is no paper.

Historically, our talks have been built around visual displays of data and results. Before there was PowerPoint the talks were driven by slides. We took slides and overheads to conferences and showed data. That was the presentation. A title slide, some literature view slides, slides of methodology and the heart of the presentation, the results slides showing statistical analyses.

But there was no paper.

So now I've been invited to conferences like SBL and AAR. And I think they expect me to show up with a paper and read it to the audience. They don't understand that they've invited a social scientist.

We don't read papers to each other.

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23 thoughts on “The Social Scientist Comes to the Conference”

  1. Work from your strengths, while acknowledging and accommodating the audience's lack of familiarity with the social sciences.  Speak boldly -- or Power Point boldly ;-) -- from the position of your knowledge and expertise.  Be humble in your regard of those who possess expertise in the area that you lack (presumably theology and biblical scholarship).  The theologians and bible scholars seem interested in your perspective; they did invite you, after all.  Your social-scientist way of conferencing might just be a breath of fresh air in the standard SBL conference routine.  Besides being a social scientist, you are a gifted teacher.  Above that still, you have the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    What is at stake?  If God wants to use you in this forum, He will make it happen.  Do your best, share what you know, hold the outcome with open hands.  Pray for the patience to sit through all the paper-reading, without nodding off.  See what you can learn from the theologians.  Hopefully, you will have time for beers in between theological recitations.  :-)  You will do great.  People will love you.  I am among the cheering cloud of witnesses.  I've been praying for you too.  Never underestimate the power of prayer, I always say.  ~Peace~

  2. Maybe you could open with some comment about scientists having "mommy and daddy issues" because they weren't read to when they were little.... and that's why everyone goes to sleep when people read manuscripts at conferences.... :)

  3. I think if I had to read the paper at a conference, I would pre-record it and just lip sync. If it was for people that I didn't particularly get along with, I would do a 200+ page review article and then hit the play button. You can down a lot of beers during a 3 hour playback. Also a plus, they won't invite you back again.

  4. The first time I went to a theology conference like this I was flabbergasted that they read directly from the paper they were presenting. I wanted people to prsenr what they'd learned....not read a paper I could read myself. In fact, I couldn't understand why the papers were not given out Ina dance for us to read so we could then watch a short presentation and enter into a dialogue.

    I think, as a pastor and theologian, I still have the heart of a social scientist. (My first real loves before coming to faith were sociology and psychology.)

  5. Maybe you should invite them down to the bar to dine with the sinners and any tax collectors that are there.

  6. I'm assuming, unlike a few of the other commenters, that you actually want to do this to some extent? The reason that they don't give the papers in advance, by the way, is two-fold: 1. no one wants to read more than they have to, and 2. often the paper is written the night before. (Profs are worse for this than students!)
    I think they'll enjoy a social science style presentation. But I'd have notes, if I were you. Even just fake ones, as a prop, to lend an air of legitimacy. I wouldn't worry about all of that too much. What I would worry about is the questions they'll ask you. I don't know much of what theology's like, but in my department and in other humanities departments, people can and will ask really tough theoretical questions.

  7. qb's dying of boredom just thinking about it.  

    I say, crank up your Mac's Keynote app and go to town.  That's what I'd do.  qb

  8. Some presentations at humanities conferences ARE done extemporaneously. Well, maybe not theology. But at least in English, where I am, a panel on teaching w/ the internet might be done with visual aids and so on as you describe. No one will think you're out of place if what you're saying sounds like an academic paper, however. Longer, complex sentence structure; high concepts and jargon; formal speaking tone; etc.

  9. Mark Goodacre has been going on about presenting rather than reading papers at SBL for several years ( So there will be some at the conference who will welcome your presence and your presentation.

  10. Granted, while that is the norm, I'm sure you would not be the first to show up with a PowerPoint presentation. And I gather that even those in attendance find papers boring, or as my theologian father puts it, "I have to sit near the end of the row, otherwise I'll get trapped in a lecture and feel the need to chew my foot off to escape the bear trap." So, have fun and stick to the aisles!

  11. Oh, I guess I should add: The reason (or at least my understanding of the reason) that humanities papers are presented in this way is that they are primarily analytical, narrowing in on specific uses of language and minute pieces of information. The goal is essentially teasing out and "multiplying" their possible meanings. The amount of theory, jargon, and fine attention to detail makes structure of the written word, with the features I mentioned above (such as complex syntax), preferable to a more conversational narration of an experiment.

  12. Some clarifications.

    This post isn't a reflection of my feelings about going to or presenting at SBL/AAR. I'm very excited to go to SBL/AAR and will happily submit a paper if I must (though I'll still speak extemporaneously about the paper).

    This post is intended to be a humorous observation about the norms governing various disciplines and the whiplash you experience when you jump from one sort of conference to another.

  13. I definitely think the practice evolved for just these reasons. In the humanities the argument is the "data." Thus, you'd want to take great care in making the argument, particularly if the argument is complex and nuanced. Thus the need for sticking close to a pre-prepared manuscript.

    Thinking out loud here. I'd think in the humanities there would be two sorts of presentations: argument-driven presentations and idea-driven presentations. If the presentation is idea-driven I think the social science model would work best: An extemporaneous style giving us the big idea/s. But if the presentation is argument-driven, and subtle, then the classic reading of the paper is preferred.

  14. It will be good for them to have things done not the way they're used to :)

    Richard, I tried to leave a comment in your marriage and homeless post, but evidently disqus did not like that I left links.  I wanted to acquaint you with Jordon Cooper's blog, and the entity that employs him, The Lighthouse in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  I'm sure if you Google them you'll be able to find them.  Jordon is a Canadian, licensed minister in the Free Methodist church, but has been working the last several years for the Salvation Army in Saskatoon and now The Lighthouse.  He has a lot of valuable insight, and I'm sure he would correspond with you.


  15. My first regional SBL I had no idea what to do. I used my "paper" the way a preacher uses a manuscript. Afterwards, I had all kinds of gushingly positive comments about the effectiveness of the presentation style.

    My funniest story is when I literally lost my paper. Left it at home. There I was at the conference, writing down my main points on the back of an envelope. Again, gushingly positive comments about the effectiveness of the presentation.

    I wonder if SBL types actually prefer to have papers read to them, or if they just never had the idea NOT to stand there and read a paper? Maybe you and I could start a new trend.

  16. Hmmm. So what about the many manuscript preachers over the centuries... or other speeches delivered via manuscript or memorized from manuscripts (a practice of many preachers these days)? I don't think the medium is a problem, per se, but that many are poor presenters whether by paper or notes.

  17. You need to have a damn beer at the damn bar and relax. Dammit.  This is what I tell all my patients

  18. I'm a philosopher, and I have long given my talks extemporaneously.  I'm in the minority among philosophers, I think, but others also work that way, and more & more seem to.  I like giving talks before I have written the paper -- So it's not just that I'm not in fact reading, but there is nothing to read.  (Sometimes I *have* to write it out first & so make an exception: when I'm talking with a commentator, who needs to know what she's commenting on beforehand.)   I find giving the talk often helps me think things through & aids the writing process.  Things may be different in theology, but I doubt anybody would freak out if you just got up there & talked to them.

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