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Challenging the Presentation Paradigm: Publishing Scholarly Presentations

[This is a guest post by Amanda French (@amandafrench), THATCamp Coordinator at George Mason University's Center for History and New Media. You can read more about her (and by her) at AmandaFrench.net.]

For my day job, I support and promote a well-known unconference at which presentations with or without slides are frankly not allowed. At THATCamp (The Humanities And Technology Camp) sessions involve group discussion or group work, period, fini: We’re not here to read or be read to, as Tom Scheinfeldt notably wrote in his “THATCamp Ground Rules.” Nevertheless, I’m by no means anti-presentation. Presentations have their place, and I personally enjoy listening to a good lecture. Even at THATCamp, we make an exception to the no-presentations rule for instructors in the technology skills workshops called BootCamp, though we also ask that instructors then do in-class exercises with BootCamp students. Presentations with or without slides become a problem only when they’re the single available or accepted model for sharing information.

Or of course when, you know, they suck.

One important thing to realize about presentations these days, though, is that their potential audience is, well, everyone. (Remember the famous case of Brian Croxall’s The Absent Presence at the Modern Language Association in 2009?) When you’re giving a talk, your audience isn’t limited anymore to just the people in the room — one microblogger can transmit your ideas to the world. Wouldn’t you rather transmit them yourself? For this reason and several others, I think scholars should always publish their presentations. By publish, I happen to mean put online, for free, right away, but of course you could also publish in a peer-reviewed journal that’ll come out in two years and cost your organization hundreds of dollars and be unavailable to anyone not behind the paywall, if that’s the kind of thing you’re into. Many academics are kinky like that, to be sure. But publishing your presentation online near the time of the live event spreads knowledge in a usable, citable form at exactly the time it is most likely to be of interest, and it’s unlikely to prevent you from later expanding the talk for publication in a journal, should you so desire.

Recently, I’ve been giving a lot of invited talks (too many for optimal productivity, in fact, but that’s another story), and I think I’ve finally worked out to my own satisfaction how to build a talk that’s suitable both for in-person delivery and for online publication, one that marries the best features of the academic conference paper with the best features of the slideshow presentation.

Here’s the short version in the dreaded bullet points of how to create a scholarly presentation that is both personable and publishable:

  • Write your talk.
  • Use slides as visual aids.
  • Cite your sources.

And here’s the long version, plus some advice on where and how to publish a scholarly talk online:

Write your talk

Plenty of people will disagree with me on this. The advice even sounds almost oxymoronic: writing and talking are usually sorted into a nice binary opposition. Isn’t it better to talk a talk than to write it? Well, there are two reasons why I think it’s better to write a talk. First, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be better organized, more articulate, wittier, and better able to keep to a specified time limit if you write the whole talk beforehand. Second, even if you’re not anything like me, a written talk can be published, and an unwritten talk can’t (see above definition of published ). Even if your talk is recorded in audio or video that will be published on the Internet, it’s still a good idea to write it out and publish the written version adjacent to the multimedia version. Search engines are much better at finding text than they are at finding audio and video, for one thing; for another thing, people can use and cite a written text for their own work more easily than they can an audio or video recording.

This advice to write your talk, of course, only applies to quite formal situations: presentations and lectures, not discussions. One hopes (quite fervently!) that your conference or organization or course also allows plenty of less formal sessions where people can simply talk amongst themselves. For teaching small classes or for fairly informal presentations, as well — anything you don’t intend to publish — it may be sufficient just to work from an outline. You might also know your topic inside-out and have spoken about it many times to different audiences in different ways, in which case you surely don’t need to write it anew each time, though I’d still aver that there should be one written über-version available to the public. You should also strive to write in a way that sounds good when read aloud, of course, and you should try not to read in “Bueller” voice, but proper, in-person presentation style is a topic in and of itself.

Use slides as visual aids

Internet security expert Matt Blaze recently transgressed an unwritten rule of his field: No, You Can’t Have My Slides, he wrote. It’s not that he’s opposed to sharing his knowledge online for free — quite the opposite. But he shares his papers, not his slides, because he very rightly regards the slides as mere visual aids:

Many speakers these days make their visual aids available, but I don’t. I don’t always use any, but even when I do, they just aren’t intended to be comprehensible outside the context of my talk. Creating slides that can serve double duty as props for my talk and as a stand-alone summary of the content is, I must confess, a talent that lies beyond the limits of my ability. Fortunately, when I give a talk I’ve usually also written something about the subject too, and almost all my papers are freely available to all.

On Slideshare.net we can easily find examples of the two kinds of slides Blaze identifies: the good kind that serves as a set of visual “props” for the talk and the bad kind that serves as “a stand-alone summary of the content.” The former kind works in the room but not online, while the latter doesn’t work in the room but works online. No, I take it back: those all-too-common summary slides with a hail of bullet points don’t work online either, although at least they do tell us explicitly what the speaker said in the room.

I don’t go as far as Matt Blaze: as far as I’m concerned, Yes, you can have my slides, even though they’re just visual aids — but only if you take the text of my written talk along with them. Most slide software will have a place for “speaker notes,” and that’s where I put the text of my talk: I need it there anyway to read from when I’m presenting. The problem, however, is that slide sharing sites often don’t show the speaker notes along with the slides. In the last section, Where and How to Publish, I’ll make recommendations about how to ensure that your slides and your written talk are published online together.

Meanwhile, how can you make sure that your slides are sufficiently visual? My personal rule is never to put my own words on the slide unless for my title or my thesis: something I really, really want to emphasize. I put pictures on the slides, I put screenshots of websites on the slides, I even put text on the slides — those of us in English are, after all, in the business of close reading, and it’s about as easy to put a poem or quotation up on a slide as it is to put a poem or quotation on a handout and make copies to distribute. (Yes, people still do this, and I’m grateful when they do; a visual aid is a visual aid, digital or not.) A visually-oriented slideshow adds a welcome dimension to the traditional read-aloud scholarly paper, and slideshow software allows you to add audio and video as well. Another great model for scholarly paper slideshows, however, is quite different from mine: in the Lessig method popularized by law professor Lawrence Lessig, important phrases of the written talk appear on the slides as a kind of visual punctuation. If you’re really l33t, you could even try to incorporate a little kinetic typography into your slides.

Cite your sources

I do not regret in the least to inform you that I have hereby declared that the era in which you did not need to create a bibliography or Works Cited list for a presentation is over. Over! If you are going to publish a paper and/or slides online (and I am arguing that you are), then I say that you must cite your sources, including the images, video, and audio in your slides. No more the voiced quote and end quote in the room: your audience will be able to see where the quote begins and ends, because it will be before their eyes on a slide. No more the mysterious image that haunts the brain of your audience member for a month afterward: she will be able to look up your presentation online and discover whence came that image and reuse it in a properly referenced presentation of her own.

If you are simply writing a slideless scholarly paper in the usual way, you can use your normal methods of quoting and citing — MLA style, Chicago, what have you. And no, I am not suggesting that you read the list of Works Cited aloud. Merely let your audience know that the Works Cited list is to be found online with the paper itself. If you are a bit more advanced and/or dedicated, you can even put links in the text of your online paper to the relevant sources when possible, and in informal pieces I think such linking is even an acceptable substitute for a Works Cited list.

If you have gone beyond the talk to the presentation, however, and this takes the form of slides with embedded media, then the situation is a bit more complicated. I’ve only just begun to be vigilant about this myself, so if you go through my past slideshows and find their images uncredited, well, mea culpa. Part of the trouble is that slide software is simply not footnote-friendly, and another part of the trouble is that footnotes are visually distracting. It detracts from the visual impact of a terrific image to have a boring footnote at the bottom of the slide, and if you’ve got more than about ten slides it’s difficult to fit a Works Cited list onto a single final slide. You can of course put a Works Cited list into the speaker notes of your the last slide, and indeed I recommend this. But I have also decided that it’s a good idea to use Zotero for my presentation’s “media credits” (i.e., where my images and such came from) as well as for the print works I’ve cited. Zotero makes it easy to generate a list of Works Cited, and even easier to put that list online. The works I’ve linked to in this piece, for instance, can be found in my Publishing Scholarly Presentations collection on zotero.org, and that link will continue to work even if I rename or rearrange my Zotero collections. Moreover, I can attach image files and .pdf files directly to my sources in Zotero and store them on zotero.org: it’s convenient to have a repository of files associated with my presentation, although those attachments aren’t published to the open web for copyright reasons.

And, speaking of copyright, if you’re intending to publish your slides online, you might want to be a bit more careful than usual about whether or not you have the right to use media and texts. For texts, you shouldn’t worry: anything published in the U.S. before 1923 is fair game, and probably any amount of post-1923 quoted prose you can fit on a single slide (or even a few slides) in text large enough to be seen in the back row is a small enough proportion of the whole text to be considered fair use. Many post-1923 poems, however, might fit in their entirety on a single slide, and it is therefore extremely convenient that the Poetry Foundation has just released a “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry,” which states among other things that for purposes of criticism “the extent of quotation should be appropriate to the purpose of the use” and that “Critics, commentators, and artists should provide conventional attribution for their chosen quotations.” (So you’re fine, as long as you cite.) For images, audio, and video you’re free to reproduce online, the best one-stop shop is the Creative Commons search portal.

Where and how to publish

So, you’ve created a web-friendly and room-friendly talk and slideshow that adheres to scholarly standards. Now, how do you put it online? If you have your own website, then of course you can post your text and slides there, perhaps as files that you link to from an online CV. If you have a blog at a site such as WordPress.com, then you can put the whole text of your talk up as a blog post and put the slides up either as a file or embedded in the post itself. If you have neither website nor blog, or even if you do, all the following sites will allow you to upload presentations and generate code to embed them on other sites. Scribd is a popular “social publishing” site that will accept both text documents and slide presentations, though it’s difficult to associate the two except with tags. If you have an account on Academia.edu, you can use that: the site uses Scribd for file upload and conversion. I suggest you avoid Slideshare, for the simple reason that there’s no good way to publish a written text alongside the slides, which will lead to the kind of unscholarly and irritating decontextualization Matt Blaze deplores. Slideshare claims to publish speaker notes as comments, but I’ve yet to see it actually work. Google Presentations is a somewhat better bet than Slideshare for slides that contain a written text in the speaker notes, but only somewhat, since it’s possible but difficult to see the speaker notes along with the slides in full (not embedded) view. I’m not too familiar with alternatives to PowerPoint such as Prezi and Sliderocket, which are really slide creation sites rather than slide sharing sites, so you might want to check those out yourselves. A final choice might be your college or university’s institutional repository: check with your friendly local librarian to see if your organization has one and how you can use it to store and publish your work online.

I’m not going to deny that it’s more work to write and publish a scholarly talk with accompanying slides than it is simply to write the talk. But your audience, which, I will remind you, is not only the world but also posterity, will be grateful.

How about you? Do you have a method for publishing online your scholarly presentations? Let’s hear from you in the comments!

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Ted Ollikkala]

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