Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Presenting at an Autism Conference
I spent the day at an Autism conference sponsored by Ohio State's Nisonger Center, titled "Transition: The Challenges, Strategies and Models in School, Work and Health." It is great being back in Columbus for a few days and meeting up with friends. I, along another person from the Aspirations group, took part in a panel organized by Dr. Tom Fish. The panel was on the topic of transitioning from school to the work place for those on the spectrum. I admit that there is something ironic about having me speak about this since the Hebrew Academy let me go. My learning experiences this year as a high school teacher, including the fact that things did not work out as I had hoped, were among the major points I touched upon. I am not going to talk about any clinical neuro-supremacist (that neurotypical behavior is the standard against which we judge good and bad and the purpose of the professional is to "help" people on the spectrum to be more like neurotypicals) biases. Melanie was there and I leave the matter to her and her Twitter site. I do wish to speak about the manner of presentation. This was my first experience sitting in, as part of the audience, on a professional conference presentation for a non-humanities field. I have sat through quite a number of history conferences with presentations ranging from brilliant to horrible, but there was something strikingly boring about the presentations on autism I witnessed today. I certainly do not have a large enough sample to make any judgments on the matter and would love to hear from someone with more experiences with such conferences, particularly if they also have been to conferences in the humanities fields, but here are some of my explanations.
The humanities teach rhetoric – Overall you are going to get better public speakers with people from the humanities. The humanities encourage the sort of self expression necessary as the foundation for any explicit or implicit study of rhetoric.
The humanities are a labor of love – Say what you will about the humanities, but every single person at a graduate level has made a conscious decision to turn down going into a different field and making more money. If you are in the humanities you are there because you love what you are doing and find it interesting. Even if you cannot pass this on to someone else, it is there. Take a person with no speaking skills, reading off a page with a Ben Stein drawl and the love is going to come through somehow. Professional educators and clinical researchers are doing what they are doing because it is a job to them. They might truly love what they do, but there is no reason to go looking for it.
Length – At humanities conferences I am used to 1.5–2 hour sessions with 3-4 speakers going for 20-30 minutes each plus question and answer time. This conference had single speakers going for 1.5-2 hours. There are limits to my attention span, even with skilled speakers. I also think there is something to be said for the notion that if you have a specific message that is important you should be able to deliver that message in twenty minutes. Anything over that and you have to start asking yourself some hard questions as to whether you are speaking because you actually have something to say, you do not know how to organize your own thoughts or because you simply wish to kill time and hear yourself speak. If you cannot believe with complete faith in the importance of what you are saying, why should anyone believe in its importance enough to listen?
PowerPoint – I admit that I have come to use PowerPoint a lot in my own lectures. It organizes the material for me and makes it easier for students to write down the major points, which leads to more effective memorization. I have never seen people so enslaved to their PowerPoint as some of the presenters today. PowerPoint no longer simply served as an aid; it was the center of the presentation, without which there could be no presentation. If one can more easily imagine a presentation going on without the speaker than without the PowerPoint then we have a problem. It is bad enough when lectures cease to be actual speeches, just mere reading from a text; add a second printed source, this time for the audience, and there truly is no speech to present.
My panel went well and I will only take part of the credit. We had three real people on the dais, speaking about something important to them, with a message to impart. At the end we received one of the nicest compliments I have ever heard, one truly befitting our modern age. "Your panel was the only one today during which I did not send off a single text message."