Having something to say: priceless

Stanley Fish tells us about his various speaking engagements:

The event itself comes at the end of a lengthy process beginning with an invitation that is followed by negotiations, the fixing of a date, the making of travel arrangements and the setting up of a schedule. By the time the talk occurs all the parties to it have quite a bit at stake. The host institution must worry about getting up an audience, securing a room of the appropriate size, making sure that the sound system is working, coordinating transportation, finding venues for lunches and dinners.

And isn’t that a lot of trouble. The speaker, of course, must then worry about delivering a performance that’s worthy of all these preparations. The audience will parse all aspects of it – here Fish inserts standard political considerations and follows up with a list of questions that could have been borrowed from teaching evaluation modules. But Fish’s harshest critic is Fish himself:

If I have done badly, I feel bad. No surprise there. But if I’ve done well (at least in my estimation), I feel worse.

Why is that? I’m not quite sure, but I have a few notions. It may be a feeling that if I had stayed around for another 20 minutes, the jig would have been up; everyone would have seen through me; I got away just in the nick of time. It may be a feeling that my success was merely a piece of theater; there was nothing of substance in it. It may be a revulsion against hearing myself say the same old thing once again; someday — maybe tomorrow — I’ll run out of audiences. It may be a suspicion (actually more than that) that I am less interested in doing justice to my subject than in bringing glory to myself.

And here I was thinking that good public speaking begins with actually having something to say. If you care about the subject of your talk, you’ll probably focus on doing justice to it and not on pondering the relative importance of same compared to your other priorities. You won’t have to wonder afterwards what your point was. You’ll get tired of saying the same old things, then you’ll get invigorated all over again when you see the audience catch fire. Or disappointed if they don’t, and you’ll swear to do a better job next time. You’ll wish you had another 20 minutes because there’s so much more to tell. (No, I do not recommend going overtime. I hate it when people do that.)

Quite possibly it is a waste of time to respond to columns that just keep wandering aimlessly over quicksands without ever getting anywhere. If Professor Fish’s lectures are anything like this column, then, yes, I can understand why he feels the way he does.

You might remember, though, this Globe and Mail column where, among many other objectionable things, “research” and “conferences” are presented as sherry-lubricated social activities devoid of any actual point. A good number of commenters on that article were inclined to agree. (“Ephemeral amusements of cloistered eggheads and bluelegs”, anyone?) Now let’s see where such opinions might come from. Popular culture, perhaps? Remember the washed-up professor from The Visitor who only becomes a real human being when he takes an indefinite leave from his job?

Professor Fish, in this column, sounds a lot like that guy. And there’s a lot of people out there who read the New York Times. If I didn’t have any first-hand experience of academic research, and if my only glimpses of academia were based on popular movies and Professor Fish, chances are that I’d be applauding Margaret Wente for telling it like it is.

There are plenty of professors who care about their work, have a wide range of academic and non-academic interests, and are darn good writers to boot. Wouldn’t it be nice if one of them landed a gig at the NYT instead of Fish? We’d be treated to entertaining and informative columns that would also paint a much more accurate picture of academic life. Just like what happens on many academic blogs.

For now, I’m not holding my breath.


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