We Know You Can Read. So Can We.

January 14, 2013

I am so excited to be at Big Annual Conference in my discipline! And now here I am at Session With Very Interesting Title. I have read books and articles by these women and men, so to have them all sitting together is a buffet of scholarly brilliance. And now the woman who is doing research on the very thing I am most interested in is about to give her presentation. This is going to be great!

Wait. Why does she have all those papers? No need to panic. Most likely those are handouts, or at worst some notes. She wrote Really Awesome Book That Changed the Field, so she knows what she is doing. There, she is beginning. ...

Oh, God, no. She is looking straight down and reading from her paper. I spent 10 hours on airplanes and all my professional-development money for this? Maybe she is just reading the introduction before she shifts to a more conversational presentation? ... No, she is forging into the second paragraph, reading the words out loud.

Why is she doing this? Surely she does not teach her courses this way, or write out her conversations with her family in advance. Maybe she does not know that we can read, and she thinks she needs to read out loud to us? That doesn't seem likely. Maybe she is on prescription medication of some kind. She does look a bit under the weather.

Trying to pay attention. Time has slowed to a crawl. I'll bet I can finish this sentence for her in my head. Ha, I was right. And again. OK, this game is getting old.

I would take out my phone and check Facebook if I weren't sitting in the front row. What if I hid my phone behind the conference program? Would anyone notice? It's not like she is looking up. Maybe some of my friends are at the beach or something. ...

Whoa—I just missed a long section. She was talking about the Jesuit mission and now she is on to the territorial government. Was the passage just descriptive, I wonder, or was there some new research? Oh, well, her new book will be out next year, and I will read it then. Because I can. Read, I mean. I think I just missed another bit while I was trying to figure out the first bit I missed.

That is a nice suit jacket the session chair has on. I should get one like that. It would go with my blue shirts and also with my green tie. Good cut, too. I need to pay more attention to that sort of thing. Are two-button jackets back in style? I wonder what the chair is thinking—he looks like a wax statue up there. They all do. My butt hurts.

She is stating her conclusion. Well, that is sort of interesting. It will be nice to ask her during the question period if she looked at the Governor Filibuster papers at the Huntington Library. That will also smoke out whether she has read my book or not. No one has read my book. The good news is, I am not bitter.

OK, next up, try to focus. This guy is pretty smart—and he was funny when we chatted in the elevator at the conference last year. This should be a better presentation. ... Damn, he is reading a paper out loud as well. At least he looks up twice per page. Probably he has written "Remember to look up!" in red pen at the bottom of each page. Friend, that does not count as engaging the audience.

If I were sitting near the door, I could slip out and browse the book stalls, but here I am. I wonder how this reading-out-loud thing even started. I guess Frederick Jackson Turner climbed on his horse, rode to the station, and got on the steam train to New York to attend the first meeting of this organization. In the Pullman car he wrote out his presentation while the porters brought him rum punches. They did not have the Internet or PowerPoint or photocopiers, so he read out loud. It was the only way.


I can tell from the change in his wheezing that the old guy behind me is falling asleep. A half-dozen people are falling asleep. Lucky.

Here is the third presenter, with a prepared paper to read us. Time to bust out the smartphone. Ha ha ha, the kitty has his head on the keyboard and is saying, "I'M ON UR INTERNETS DEGRADIN' UR LANGUAGE WITH MAI IGNORANCE AND APATHY." It is funny because it is a cat. And because it references several Internet memes. I click "like."

I should start a Tumblr with an academic version of They could be saying things like, "I CAN HAS TENURE FOR ARTICLES IN EDITED COLLECTIONS?" Maybe a cat sleeping on a keyboard saying, "TENURED CAT WILL NOT TYPE OR GET OFF THE KEYBOARD." Those aren't very funny.

One woman at the back just laughed. Is she looking at LOLcats, too? No, the presenter made a joke. It must have been a good one because she laughed loudly. It woke up everyone, and people are trying to pretend they had been paying attention and shared in the laugh, just not out loud. The presenter looks stricken—she knows no one was listening. I'll bet it was a good joke and she worked hard on it.

She just glanced over and spotted the phone in my hand. I feel terrible. Now her head is down and she is reading again. I hope she cannot read my name badge. I hope she is not a reviewer of my next manuscript.

Now the commenter is reading his typed comments out loud. There is not going to be time for questions, so this session is a total wash. At least for me. The presenters get lines on their CVs. Soon they will congratulate one another on what a good session it was. I have been in their shoes and done the same. I slip my name badge into my pocket.

Freedom! I slip out quickly into the hall. I probably imagined that dirty look from the third presenter. Outside, it is a beautiful day. That art museum on the next block is famous. And the international district is supposed to be fun. If I don't include my ticket stub in the expense report, no one will be the wiser.

Then there is the 3 p.m. session, related to my next possible book topic. And my friend Ted is on the panel; haven't seen him in years. I have read some things by another panelist that were good. My university spent scarce dollars to send me here—I can't start drinking just yet. I'll sit in the back this time.

Session starting already? The last one must have run over. No seats in the back, I'll just sit here in the front then. Ted sees me, smiles, nods hello. Then he takes a sheaf of papers out of a manila folder. And begins to read out loud.

Larry Cebula is assistant digital archivist at the Washington State Archives and an associate professor of history at Eastern Washington University. When not attending Big Annual Conference, he blogs at