Friday, January 7, 2011

Thoughts on Listening to People Talk

I spent the day listening to archaeologists talk about their work, and I come away dismayed by the dismal standard of public speaking in our society. There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, our educational system no longer stresses speaking, and second, we are too polite. The standard of speaking was much higher 150 years ago because they made an effort to teach people rhetoric, and because lousy speakers were booed and bombarded with whatever missiles were handy. I think we should bring both of these things back. We should make all college students practice speaking, and when people at a venue like an archaeological conference mumble incomprehensible statistics at the lower threshold of audibility, we should throw overripe plums.

Conferences always inspire these thoughts in me. I still go because among archaeologists conference papers are an important mode of communication. Archaeologists are terrible at publishing their work, so often a conference is the only way to hear about what other people are digging up. I learned a lot today. Alas, a process that ought to be pleasant -- learning about archaeology through narrated slide shows -- is rendered exquisitely painful by presentations that great on every nerve from the ears to the toes.

It occurs to me that this problem may be worse in archaeology than in most academic fields, because at a conference about Roman history or Renaissance poetry most of the speakers will be professors. Academics, whatever their personal failings (disorganization, obsession with statistics, weakness for political ax grinding, general mousiness) have much experience at speaking to an audience. Archaeological businessmen and Department of Transportation bureaucrats have none. It shows.

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