Thanks to Covid-19, I have been watching many video conferences and online presentations (both formal and not) in the humanities, specifically on printing, paleography, manuscripts, analysis of paper, libraries, etc.. Many, but not all, the presenters read their papers verbatim. Unless you are really experienced and talented, reading a paper sounds monotonous and tedious. It is a much better experience to listen to someone just discussing their topic, using the paper or slides as notes or a prompt if needed. My question is are academics expected, advised or required to read their conference papers verbatim?
This is a common method in the humanities, often in a lecture hall, they also sit down which adds to the "undynamics".
I have no idea where this comes from other than from a desire to always use perfectly polished and honed language - as is the case in a written article.
But I completely sympathize that this is a very annoying style and is beaten by a modestly interesting slide-based stand-up presentation in terms of excitement. Unfortunately, there is not much comfort I can offer, as this seems to be the norm in this topic group (although I have witnessed some excellent humanities talks, in different style, and yet perfectly polished).
As someone linked to the humanities as well as applied sciences, yes, it is very common for papers to be read, although the number of conferences that actually force you to read verbatim is fairly limited. In the large majority of conferences, speakers have as much freedom as they want to deviate from the written text, so long as they are able to successfully convey the key points included in it. I think most presenters in the Humanities would agree that just reading a text verbatim and doing nothing else to engage the audience is not a great look, but somewhat acceptable. It is possible to make good presentations, regardless of whether one reads a text, or speaks spontaneously. In the end, I would guess that Humanities scholars are more interested in debating the actual evidence, rather than focusing on the presentational skills of the speaker. So this answer is not intended to defend the practice of reading texts, just to explain why it happens.
Having cleared this up, there are a few reasons for reading a paper verbatim at (some) conferences.
- Tradition. There is a long-established tradition of reading one's research before an audience that goes back all the way to the 17th century (and in some places, all the way back to the Late Middle Ages!) at the time when the first official Societies and Academies of Science were established in France and other parts of Europe. The normal thing to do was for a speaker to read the text before an audience, and soon after the text would be published in the Bulletin of the Academy and sent to all of its members who could not attend the presentation. These printed speeches are now considered to be extremely precious historical documents, because they are the only remaining testimony of the research done by those researchers. After their death, their notes and personal documents were often lost. Many printed presentations have crucial research about long-lost tribes and languages which would be impossible to replicate today. Even today, many presentations are prepared in advance with the intent of getting them printed somewhere (more on this below).
- It helps to maintain overall time schedules (to some extent) in this current paradigm of large-scale international conferences: humanities scholars are famous for rambling endlessly, losing track of the key point, and going way beyond their allotted time. Therefore it has become more and more common to see reputed conferences demanding their presenters to submit beforehand to the session chairs not just the paper draft, but even the presentation slides as well (if they exist). These are then reviewed by the session chair(s) who will recommend edits and changes. Unsurprisingly, most of the proposed changes are for cutting down parts of the text and to tighten up things, in order to make sure that the spoken text can fit within the allotted time. Of course, this alone cannot guarantee that everything will go smoothly, and I do regularly see some delays with read texts. At the end of the day, we (the audience) are all at the mercy of the speaker's presentational skills, regardless of whether they read a text verbatim or speak freely.
EDIT: This section here is intended to refer to an interesting paper (from the 90's) posted by Szabolcs (included in this thread) about the frustrations of holding conferences, with time delays, bored, unenthusiastic people, and not all that interesting discussions. This paper is an opinion piece, and I'm sure that you can find just as many people who would agree as well as disagree. The key point I want to emphasize here is that the actual scale of conferences these days is much bigger now.
In the past, it was sufficient for a conference to simply use the lecture halls of a university, and even though time was wasted, it was not such a big problem. However, the largest humanities conferences today have reached such a scale that they often need to rent actual large-scale conference spaces, because not only are there more graduate students presenting now, but there are also many more people coming from abroad to attend and present as well. It should also be kept in mind that Humanities conferences don't usually have the same large budgets as some hard science fields. There are severe financial penalties for not closing the venue at the contracted time, so those conferences are much more strict about requesting texts in advance, reviewing/editing them in advance, and also preparing the session chair's response in advance.
All I can speak about is my personal experience: I have presented at three types of large-scale conferences (those that ask to read verbatim, those that give you complete freedom, and those that give you some freedom, but ask you to not deviate too much from the text). The scale of these conferences is approximately 100-140 speakers total, over 3-4 days. In the case of the conferences that ask speakers to stick closely to the written text, I do see some delays, but overall things tend to go more smoothly, without too many bumps. As for the conferences that had no restrictions (always held on university lecture halls), they were pretty much disasters from start to finish (although I did see a handful of excellent speakers).
- The "bread and butter" of the Humanities is the deep analysis of textual materials, leading therefore to a focus on describing minute details, rather than just summarizing one's results. Difficult fields such as Philosophy and Religious Studies require a very high level of precision in regards to the terminology employed, the definition of terms, and the method for exposing one's arguments. Otherwise, it will be very difficult for the audience to adequately apprehend the topic and its many nuances, or provide any meaningful discussion or debate around it. For example, on an average Humanities presentation the speaker is often required to quote numerous textual passages without any mistakes, and do what is called a "close reading" of those passages, which requires the use of very precise language. These two things alone tend to push people into reading texts, rather than talking more spontaneously. It's already challenging enough to talk about things such as Ontology, Proto-Indo European or Esoteric Buddhism, now try doing it on a strict 20-minute limit, without any text to guide you along the way. By reading a text verbatim, the speaker can have enough time to hone the text beforehand, and make it as clear and well-structured as possible. This helps everyone in the audience to stay on the same page. For instance, if you show a mathematical equation such as e=mc2, everyone in the audience will probably grasp the idea perfectly without any ambiguity. But if you mention a concept such as "Dasein", the whole audience will immediately produce 10-20 different meanings, because this term (and many others like this) has been interpreted in numerous ways by different authors. This kind of situation generally forces the speaker to be much more careful about what they say, and how they say it. Regarding disciplines that are more oriented towards the social sciences, and who do not engage all that much with textual materials (Archaeology, anthropology, sociology, etc.), there is less tendency to read written texts.
- To allow for adequate simultaneous translation and improve inclusivity of non-English native speakers. It has become more and more common to conduct conferences (both online and offline) that include speakers talking in different languages, thus requiring the temporary hiring of translators. Whenever translators are involved in a conference, having a prepared text can go a long way to reduce costs and make sure that the quality of the translation is at its best. This also makes conferences more inclusive for speakers and attendees coming from non-Anglophone regions.
- There is a desire for speakers to have their papers reviewed by experts and get them published in printed form as soon as possible. It is often the case that a presentation at a humanities conference is the first step towards writing a full paper and submitting it to a good journal. Since draft papers for popular conferences must be submitted and reviewed in detail by the session chairs, this provides a precious opportunity for getting valuable feedback from experts. I have often seen actual papers published in reputed journals, where the "Acknowledgements" section says something like this: "The contents that comprise this paper are significantly revised versions of two presentations made at Conference A and Conference B; I would like to thank the session chairs and the following attendees who provided valuable comments: (Person A); (Person B), etc." In addition, it is very common for the session chair to invite some of the speakers to publish their papers as book chapters (or as a special edition of a journal) within a book that they are currently editing. I myself have been invited by a session chair to publish my papers for a few times, after my presentation was over.
- Having detailed papers in advance allows for mutual discussion between session speakers. Before the session takes place, it is not rare for the session chair to distribute all papers among the presenters. In some conferences, the presenters are even expected to meet for breakfast with the session chair to talk about each other's papers, and then during the session itself, there might be a part where the session chair and presenters give comments or questions about each other's work in front of the audience. although not all conferences do this, it does help to build up friendship between presenters and sometimes leads to research collaborations.
Now, having said this, a skilled speaker will normally do various practice sessions in order to become familiar with the text, and allow for making direct eye contact with the audience while still reading from the text. Personally, I normally practice at least 5 times in order to test everything thoroughly: the flow of the spoken text, the flow of the slides and overall structure of the slides, etc. I also designate key moments where I stop looking at the text and point to key aspects of the slides with a mouse or a laser pointer. All of this preparation time pays off handsomely, as it helps to make the reading text feel much more natural, and to better engage with the audience. I often tend to get better response from attendees after the presentation is over, which leads to being more successful at networking.
By the way, here is a funny point: if you see someone (in a Humanities academic conference) who is apparently talking about a topic freely (NOTE: I regret the use of the word "freely", see comments below) in a skillful manner, it's more likely than not that they are reading from a pre-written text, although they are able to disguise it by adding several short remarks that give it the impression of being more "natural". Likewise, all of those TED presenters are actually reading from teleprompts, but they had to rehearse the whole thing 20 times or more, so it's easier to "disguise" the fact that they are reading a carefully-prepared text.
EDIT: I would like to clarify that my answer should be interpreted within the context of Humanities academic conferences, especially those that deal in detail with the analysis and interpretation of textual sources, such as Paleography, Literary Criticism, Ancient History/Global History, etc.
I'm sure that this isn't a general practice, though I don't know about the specific field. I agree that listening to someone read a technical paper is boring and a waste of time.
I once had a course in which the prof read verbatim from his notes while projecting some thing (art, actually) on a screen. At the end of the class a bell would ring and he would stop, even if in the middle of a sentence and put a mark in his notes. Next day he would take it up from the mark. One of the worst (not the worst) courses I ever had.
Unless it is specifically expected in your field, do something more spontaneous - more interesting.
Those who are truly interested in your paper/results will read it. Those who only want an overview should get enough to satisfy them from a less formal presentation.
Edited to add, as a service to Jon Custer:
The worst course was a "special studies" course in projective geometry where we two students met in an office. The prof would bring in his notes, place them in front of us and leave. We were expected to copy them verbatim for an hour. No questions, no interactions. Sort of like Medieval scribes, I guess.
I was thoroughly shocked to hear that such as thing as reading papers verbatim even exists, so I googled for the topic. The first hit was this very thread here on Academia.SE, but the second one was a paper from 1998 that seems interesting enough to warrant highlighting in an answer:
My question is are academics expected, advised or required to read their conference papers verbatim?
The paper mentions that some conferences require presenters to read their paper verbatim, so you might not have the choice.
You seem to be sceptical that this is a good presentation format. The very existence of this paper shows that you are not alone. As you can see, there are scholars in the humanities passionately arguing in favour of more dynamic presentation formats.
Since the article is paywalled, here's a short summary of what it covers (keep in mind that this was written in 1998, and I do not know if conference formats have changed since then):
Summarizes the various common presentation formats, but focuses mostly on the following one: "the papers are read verbatim from pieces of paper; a respondent may then read a prewritten response." This is said to be the required by many humanities conferences. Not all conferences have this requirement: some give the speaker a choice, and some even focus on discussing papers which were read in advance.
Something interesting I learned from this is that in some cases not only the presentation is pre-written, but also the response.
Another important point is that in many cases, the papers are distributed in advance. The audience can read them before the talks.
While the abstract promises to explain "how and why this method has come to be accepted", the paper does not actually do this, other than noting that it is done "primarily in the interest of verifiability and validity".
The rest of the paper argues against this rigid format and lists the benefits of "extemporaneous delivery". I believe that most people who frequent this QA site would find these arguments to be simply common sense. For example:
Written text is just harder to understand to listeners (as opposed to readers) than freely spoken text. Humanities professors speak freely in the classroom. They do not read from the textbook.
I am paraphrasing, but the author seems to be saying that such presentations are boring and cause the audience to lose attention and get fatigued early.
This format leads to less discussion. Discussion is the very purpose of a conference.
Speakers who read a pre-written text are more likely to run over time (or to be allowed to run over time), which again cuts into discussion time.
It is interesting to me that @djohn argues the opposite, i.e. that reading verbatim should help speakers keep within the allotted time.
The general theme is that the main purpose of a conference is discussion and dynamic exchange. A dynamic format is much more conductive to this.
are academics expected, advised or required to read their conference papers verbatim?
Academics are advised and expected (but not required) to give engaging, effective talks that add some value beyond what is already available to their audience in print form. This expectation is not compatible with reading your paper verbatim, which is about the most boring thing I can imagine having to listen to.*
Disclaimer: like everyone here I am only familiar with certain disciplines, so I cannot rule out the possibility that there are conferences that actually do require researchers to give bad talks (or that have more specific requirements that amount to the same thing).
* The only exception I can think of is in a creative writing reading event, where an author reads from their work. In that case one expects the added value to come from the author’s use of tone of voice to convey additional nuances of meaning - they are effectively playing the role of a voice actor, and since they are presumably very familiar with their own characters and the meaning of their text, they can probably give quite an engaging presentation in this way.
My main experience is with the social sciences, which are arguably as close to the humanities as to the hard/natural sciences (depending on the subfield). It's totally uncommon for a presentation to be read verbatim from a manuscript, and for the reasons you mention, it's widely regarded as bad practice in my field as well.
You are not required to stick to any of the guidelines for the talk. The only rule that can be enforced is the time limit. So, if you think that a different way of giving your talk is better than the way you are supposed to do it, then there is no reason why you should not do that.
I have deviated from the official script twice when I gave substantially different talks than the text submitted as the abstract in one case and as the article for the conference proceedings in another case.
Your observations here are correct --- a presentation that looks like excontemporaneous discussion is far better than reading a paper verbatim in the kind of monotonous tone you hear in some talks. Most good speakers are able to give a good presentation using their paper (or some bullet points) as a prompt, but they sound like they are speaking about the topic "off the cuff" and in a conversational style. When speakers read directly from a paper and sound monotone and dull, that is because they are bad speakers, not because of any required practice in academia. (Though one could be forgiven for forming the impression that there must be rules requiring bad speaking techniques in academia.)
As to whether people are advised to read from papers in this way, I have never heard of anyone giving such bad advice, and I certainly have never given this advice to any of my own graduate students. Some students are nervous speakers when they first start out, so perhaps people advise them to read from the paper as an initial method of keeping track of their presentation without losing where they are up to (i.e., walk before you run), but then the longer-term goal should be to develop the ability to speak extemporaneously about the topic and engage with the audience.