Can I Give That Job Talk?

microphoneThe academic talk is on my mind as I sit here on the train back to Berlin, having spent the past three days in Poznań, Poland, at a conference on English linguistics.

September also marks the beginning of the academic job market, which means I am reviewing drafts of job letters and CVs and the like. In a few short months, we’ll be on to campus visits and job talks.

Linguists don’t typically read their talks at conferences. They work from slides — or handouts, although we see fewer and fewer of those these days — as well as perhaps a few notes. Talks are not scripted, which results in more conversational language and undoubtedly fewer clever rhetorical flourishes. Often the talks are driven by data, captured on slides or handouts, and presenters are talking the audience through the results and implications of the study. Of course, sometimes the slides get the better of the presenter — often if they contain too much material — and the presenter ends up reading the slides and looking more at the screen than at the audience.

As a linguist who resides in an English department, I also go to more “English-y” conferences, which can have a very different feel. Talks are often carefully written out and then read to the audience, with occasional off-script asides, and more or less eye contact depending on the speaker. These talks are sometimes beautifully written, and I appreciate it when the speaker has thought about how well the prose will work when read aloud, adapting the style appropriately. These talks don’t go as well when speakers try to read aloud the complex syntax of the typical academic article, haven’t thought through how to signal to the audience where a quote begins and ends, etc.

I myself prefer the more spoken talk, working from notes rather than a fully written script. At the same time, I understand why some speakers prefer and sometimes need a fully written talk in this setting; and as we all know, scripted talks — in politics, in the academy, and elsewhere — can be very powerful when written and delivered effectively for an audience.

What I’d like to make sure is that academics at all levels feel they have a choice when they’re preparing a talk, be that at conferences or at job talks, so that they can deliver their best talk.

As a faculty member in an English department, I find myself in a bind when it comes to advising advanced Ph.D. students about job talks during campus visits. I know that the expectation in some English (and other humanities) departments remains that candidates will read carefully prepared talks, and I don’t want any University of Michigan candidates disadvantaged by trying to break that mold while simultaneously trying to get a job. At the same time, I worry that I am thereby perpetuating a system that may not allow all speakers to be at their rhetorical best. We know that one goal of a job talk is to provide a glimpse of how someone teaches. In many departments, people pay special attention to the Q&A as a way to get a sense of someone’s teaching. Why not the whole talk for speakers who prefer to deliver a talk that way?

Should you agree, here’s a suggestion: When inviting candidates to campus for a job talk, consider providing guidance about whether it is OK for them to present thoughtful, well-developed arguments from their scholarly work in a less scripted way. These are high-stakes talks, and job candidates are understandably going to play it safe — which in English generally means reading a prepared talk. If we are going to create more flexibility in the expectations for talks on campus, those doing the inviting will need to take the lead.

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