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."


Abacaxi Mamao said...

"Professional educators and clinical researchers are doing what they are doing because it is a job to them."

I realize that this is not the main point of your post, but I highly--very highly--doubt that this is true. Nobody goes into clinical research because "it's a job." There are much better-paying and fewer-years-of-school jobs out there for people smart enough to be doing clinical research.

I'm not sure what you mean by "professional educators" exactly, but I would venture a guess that nobody goes into any kind of education for the money, either.

There is a whole anti-PowerPoint movement that I feel certain you will find compelling:

Anonymous said...

When you said toward the end "one of the nicest complements" I believe you meant "one of the nicest compliments."

Adelaide Dupont said...

Yes to humanities and rhetoric.

"Pathos, ethos and logos" - all three work together.

Probably the outline part of PowerPoint is helpful.

Many of the presentations I have given are about 5-15 minutes long.

Nisonger Centre is an exciting place!

Izgad said...


Thank you

Melanie Yergeau said...

Definitely agree that most of the presentations were not rhetorically effective. I didn't get a clear sense of audience from the conference -- it seemed that many folks there were clinicians/clinical researchers, but then again, people like Amy Shuman and Brenda Brueggemann were there as well (English profs who teach disability studies).

I was dismayed that, out of 100-something people, only three were self-advocates. It also didn't seem like there were many parents there, either -- or, rather, the parents who *were* there also doubled as clinicians or professional advocates (for ASA, OCALI, etc.). It seems to me that, even if the primary audience for the conference *is* those in clinical fields, more self-advocates and family members should both 1) have more of a distinct presence in the audience and 2) have more of a presence in the presentations. The speakers kept emphasizing interdisciplinarity and connecting diverse stakeholders (parents, professionals, people with disabilities) -- yet that certainly did not play out in the attendance record, IMO. What's even worse was this conference was by invitation only -- so the organizers had control over who attended.

Also: what you mention about the length of the sessions... I completely, utterly agree. 90-120 minutes is far too long for a lecture. If the conference organizers insist on keeping things at that length, the presentations should be more workshop/audience-participation style than merely lecture upon lecture. (Which is why you, Patrick, and Dr. Fish did *so* well, I think -- the audience was very involved with Q&A. And, of course, your material was far more compelling than anyone else's.) (I was also really sad that Pat Cloppert's talk got sliced up so much with time constraints. Hers seemed very interesting to me.)

Having been to OCALI and NATTAP (two autism conferences that have more of a social science/hard science bent), I can say that this style doesn't seem to be the norm -- or, at least I hope it's not the norm.

I always find it sadly hilarious when disability conferences -- which preach accessibility -- are so darned inaccessible.

Abacaxi Mamao said...

Attending professional conferences is usually expensive, and unless your lab/university/other employer pays for it, or you're self-employed and can take it as a legitimate tax-deductible expense, it is often not possible to attend due to financial constraints. I wonder if that's why parents and self-advocates did not attend in greater numbers.

Or, it could just be that it was by invitation only, and the organizers did not invite those people.

Adelaide Dupont said...

I definitely support the workshop-type presentation, especially when it's not only in the first few minutes (icebreaking) and in the last few minutes (winding down), but when it's there with a spirit and an ethic.

(There are lots of those at Autreat and Autscape).

It is definitely a dynamic experience!

Thank you, too, for your point about the self-employed.