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When Professors Profess Too Much

I recently spoke at a one-day interdisciplinary conference at which everyone attended everyone else’s presentations. It was a truly learned and edifying gathering of scholars and professionals from academe, government institutions, and nongovernmental organizations. All the speakers presumably had been told, as I was, to limit their talks to 15 minutes. As you might imagine, some wrapped up on time, while others went over—and over, and over.

I have been attending conferences for about two decades and have witnessed perhaps hundreds of presentations. Often I have sat in the audience or on a panel and watched as grad students or professors exceeded their allotted time. I have done it myself, though always felt guilty afterward.

So what explains the phenomenon of “speaker runover”? Why is it so common? What can be done to stop it? More perplexingly, should it be stopped?

No question, running over is inconsiderate to the audience and fellow presenters, and demonstrates a lack of professional discipline. Bad things all—especially from the point of view of someone like me, who grew up in Switzerland believing trains, restaurant cheese carts, and academic presentations should run by the clock.

But over the years, as I sat helplessly watching speakers dawdling at their intellectual stations, their mental chimneys leisurely puffing away, I have developed a more lenient perspective. There are some structural and psychographic reasons academic presentations can go long.

First, in other venues, such as during faculty meetings or in the classroom, the period allotted for us to speak is irregular or under our control. In class, for example, the college professor feels free to say, “We’ve run out of time today; I’ll just continue next week.”

Likewise, at conferences there are no penalties for “going over the clock.” Moderators are often reluctant to pull the plug on a speaker, and I’ve never heard an academic audience revolt and shout, “Shut up already!” Rather, we sit there in polite—although possibly increasingly restless—acquiescence.

Conference presentations are often completed at the last minute. Although we tell our grad students that they should rehearse and time themselves—and they should, especially for job interviews—few of us do so in practice. Thus the actual conference presentation is a prototype effort.

In addition, often-stated guidelines about time/page ratios, like “two minutes per slide,” fail because of the vagaries of human thinking and speech.

To take a more charitable view, professors love professing and assume everyone else loves what they have to profess. We are passionate about what we study, and think it absolutely vital to tell people about the important discoveries we’ve made, time be damned. As a result, we get into a zone where we just keep going, building fervor about our topic, and we are unwilling or unable to keep track of time.

Bad consequences, but good motive: Would we want professors not to be passionate about their work?

Indeed, I have become philosophical about speaker overrun. When facing it, I go into a Zen state, musing about my work or my family. (Discreet use of an iPad also helps.)

Furthermore, I believe in the compensatory-characteristics theory of academe. There are certain conditions that are not positive in themselves but allow for many more positive ones. Academic freedom, for example, allows in individual instances reprehensible and stupid things to be said in the classroom. But the principle helps bolster a much more productive and creative university than if it were curtailed.

Yes, going into overtime is sloppy and rude, but many original thinkers and creators in the arts and humanities, sciences, and social sciences are folk with fewer inhibitions and brain-mouth interlocutors than the general population.

That is a romantic view of academe that should not fade away. When professors become tightly drilled machines, the corporatization of our trade will be complete. I wish I could have it both ways: Great trains that always run on time, and creativity unfettered.

Still, moderators should attempt to keep panelists and presenters to their allotted time—then gently and progressively more sternly warn the wandering speaker.

Are there other solutions to the speaker-overrun issue? Please share.

My all-time favorite was related by a friend who was a leader of a Christian professional women’s association. The group found a real problem with speaker discipline because each testimonial of love, faith, and sisterhood would run significantly overtime. The preferred method of moving on was for event organizers to rush the stage, group-hug the speaker just as her time was expiring, and with cries of praise hustle her off to the side and introduce the next presenter.

Unfortunately, that approach would probably not work at academic conferences—although I would enjoy watching it tried.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. He writes the “Career Confidential” advice column for The Chronicle.

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