The overall experience was positive (more on this in the next post). But since negative experiences often leave a more firm impression in our minds than the positive ones, I'll start with the negatives. Plus, as an eternal pessimist, it's easier to start here!
Actually, the only negative that stands out comes down to one of the speakers at one of the talks I observed. This speaker is a professor at a major university on the East Coast. I do not wish to call him out by name, but I am quite familiar with his work even though I'd never heard him speak. In a nasal, kind of whiny voice typical of many East Coasters, he delivered a rambling speech heavy on theory and laden with esoteric jargon and complex vocabulary that I've neither read nor heard in many years. After his long speech, which seemed to go in about 100 different directions and lasted over 30 minutes, I thought to myself...what is this speech about? I had no idea. I didn't know the bottom line of what this guy was trying to say. And he's at a major university, with tenure; with a prize-winning book. When I told my friend and fellow historian about this, he said good writers and researchers don't always make good speakers. True, but it was more than this.
Academia often gets a bad rap. People say we only speak to ourselves; we live in an ivory tower, we are elite and out-of-touch with the so-called "real world," etc. Much of this characterization, I find, is ill informed and based on selective evidence. But I fear that this professor's speech only contributed to that reputation. I thought to myself...I have published and attained a doctorate at a top-rated university. If I can't understand this guy's speech at all, who is he really speaking to? Now, it's entirely possible, and even likely, that I don't belong in the upper echelons of academia. But it's also possible that there were many more people than me who were confused and baffled. My hunch is that he was speaking to about five other specialists in the room, casting aside about 95 others.
I've attended enough conferences to know that intelligence does not have to mean abstract and esoteric. Some of the smartest people I know can deliver straightforward, down-the-middle, and clear speeches. We hear much today about how academia needs to engage the public. Here is one place we can start...