Conference Recap: Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature Annual Symposium 2013

After a brief hiatus to recover from my last blogging venture on the Reading Wars and knowledge structures, I hope this post will be the beginning of a productive summer of weekly blogging.

On May 9, I presented at the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature Annual Symposium. This was my first foray into literary criticism since my undergraduate work, which was over five years ago. Having studied linguistics for two years and then education another two, I found SSML, a humanities conference, to be quite different from my experiences at social science conferences. I was prepared for some of the differences, but others were a surprise. This information may be helpful especially for young scholars and grad students. Here are a few of the key differences:

  1. Presenters generally sit and read their papers aloud at humanities conferences. At social science conferences, presenters stand and explain their paper either from note cards or extemporaneously, often using presentation software like PowerPoint or Prezi.

    Most of the presenters at SSML that I saw read their papers aloud while sitting. A few either spoke extemporaneously or read from an outline. These latter presenters gave signals, usually explicitly, before their talk that they were breaking a norm in presentation style.

  2. Presenters observe a number of oral stylistic practices for particular situations in the paper. In social science presentations, these situations are often handled with visual practices.

    For example, in a situation where a presenter is quoting from another text, they may use the following practice of saying the word “quote” to signal where the quote begins and “end quote” to signal where the quote ends.

    PRESENTER: As Scholar A argues, quote: The work in question should be interpreted this way. End quote.

    Another practice I found common was the use of explicit signal phrases, such as “As Scholar A argues…” shown above, to indicate a speaker or reference other than the presenter. These situations in a social science presentation would be solved by showing the quotes on a PowerPoint slide or by using a traditional in-text citation on the PowerPoint respectively (although a signal phrase may also be used as well).

  3. Question and answer sessions in humanities conferences focus on theoretical concerns, authorial biography, clarifications of major claims, and connections to other texts and concepts. Social science conference Q&A’s may focus on methodological concerns more.

    This was a challenge for me; after sitting in a few sessions, I felt more comfortable asking questions, but at first I did not know what counted as a valid kind of question. I paid attention to the content, the intonation, and the nature of follow-ups. Only then was I able to ask, for example: “I agree with your analysis of some concept X in the text. Given your analytical framework, what role would you say a related concept Y played in the text?” Another important aspect not necessarily related to discipline differences was the geographical nature of the conference’s institutional sponsor. Regional conferences, by and large, seem to be forums of support rather than criticism; SSML was no exception.

Why are these conferences so different? There are likely historical reasons for these differences, and addressing this question adequately, I think, would require some serious archival research. But borrowing from Bernstein’s knowledge structure model, which I explained in my Reading Wars series, I might predict a few reasons for this phenomenon:

  • Presentations rely on visuals in social science conferences because they mimic the practices of natural science data presentation. Social sciences are closer to vertical knowledge structure than humanities. The humanities organize their knowledge as a set of distinct languages and theories. But, as Wignell (2007) argued, “The language of the social sciences evolved as a hybrid of the language of the physical sciences and the language of the humanities, there is always a kind of dynamic tension between the science and the social in the discourse” (“Vertical and horizontal discourse and the social sciences: Summary and conclusions”). Because of this tension, while horizontality is present in many social sciences, some of them have enough features of vertical knowledge structures that they are more likely to be classified as such–which Wignell does with Economics. They are, therefore, likely to observe the practices of the tradition with which they align–in this case, physical science.
  • Quoting text is better handled through oral presentation. Presenting large data sets is better handled through visual presentation. Data visualization in sciences can often better convey evidence for claims better than oral explanation. When large data sets become part of evidence for a claim, reading the data set orally does not convey the information in an effective way. Visualization allows the audience to see trends and patterns in the data that would be difficult to notice in an oral reading. In contrast, at a humanities conference, the data is usually in the form of specific quotes from texts, which are often better read aloud than visualized because of the ease of creating different kinds of emphasis through intonation.
  • Questions are determined by the kinds of ways knowledge is validly constructed. Methods and experimental design determine the validity of much social science knowledge. In humanities, analytical methods, argument structure, and “knower-code” (Maton & Muller, 2007) determine the validity of knowledge. Because of this, the content and nature of questions while be driven by what the members of the knowledge community deem valid evidence in supporting claims of knowledge.

    In short, the knowledge structure of the discipline might explain why different conferences observe different practices–although I defer to the historians for determining more accurate explanations.

    I want to thank all the presenters at SSML this year for an enlightening experience. As someone who has been inundated with the culture of social science, having found a theoretical home in post-positivism, it was refreshing to remember that the world is full of mysteries, and the work of the humanities and the scholars of SSML is important to exploring those mysteries in meaningful ways. I argued in my Reading Wars series that literacy studies might benefit from more verticality; I maintain that thesis so far as it extends to English Education and the writing that satisfies the conditions for what Grice (1975) called “bona-fide communication.” But the study of the written arts, I am beginning to believe, are rightly organized horizontally–if for no other reason that something inside of me feels distaste by suggesting we could ever consolidate knowledge enough to authoritatively answer the question: “What did the poet mean?” Keats’ enigmatic closing lines to “Ode on a Grecian Urn” seem appropriate to close:

    Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know


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