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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Déjà Vu: The Ethics of Workshops Presenting

While still a student I recall attending a workshop that partially overlapped with another event I was similarly interested in attending.  Seeing that I was sitting in the back and considering the large number of people in attendance, once the proceedings reached the Q&A I quickly and silently headed towards the exit.  Spotting me nearing the door, one of the senior professors also in attendance took the opportunity to duck out with me.  As the door shut behind us she turned to me saying “this was the third time I heard this person give this same talk!”  

That was about four years ago.  This past academic year, when in a different school, I heard the same talk once again.  I was mildly scandalized.  Is not the whole point of workshops to ‘workshop’ new work? To further projects ‘in progress’ and to foster academic excellence through the exchange of new ideas? What a waste of academic resources, I thought to myself.  Give others a chance!  Workshops, unlike invited lectures, are for either relatively new or significantly evolved papers.   

But are there reasons in favor of such syndication?  Is it ever permissible?  

For one thing, workshop attendees are better served hearing a tested and well-honed talk that is based on completed and well-vetted work rather than being subjected to half-baked ideas and embryonic undeveloped drafts, as is sometimes the case.  Given the choice, and all other things being equal, I would probably opt for the former.  Moreover, I can see how re-presenting a truly seminal idea could foster academic excellence.  Finally, one must acknowledge that the focus on the constant production of ‘new ideas’ does more to produce academic chatter than to develop quality scholarship.  Let’s face it, while papers are often new, the ideas seldom are. 

I do however think that serial re-presenting of the same paper over years suffers from a problem of diminishing returns, which probably justifies, in most cases, not accepting yet another speaking engagement.  The workshop format is most suitable to sharpening developed work but not for fine-grained perfecting.  It is hard to expect a (mostly) new audience to produce highly fine distinctions and critiques.  Moreover, workshops are not conducive to the dialectics of back and forth conversation, which are required for fine-grained discussion.  Workshops are usually a little erratic, jumping from issue to issue as the moderator moves down the queue.  I am not claiming that after years of presenting the same paper or idea in workshops across the country one will not obtain any new valuable feedback, but I do think that this becomes less likely as time goes by.  Chances are that unless the paper significantly evolves with time, mostly the same observations are raised again and again.  This gives the speaker the opportunity to play the superhero, defending the paper with great ease from familiar objections.  But it is not in line with academic excellence.                  

Posted by Ori Herstein on May 31, 2011 at 02:56 AM | Permalink


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Not to be excessively skeptical, but isn't it all about the asterisk footnote? Charlie Sullivan's wonderful article on it makes it clear that legal scholarship no longer is aimed at people who ought to be interested in a topic to a demonstration that everyone who ought to be interested, at least all those who really count, have already read the piece.

Posted by: Mike Zimmer | May 31, 2011 5:14:17 PM


Yes. Sounds sensible. Thanks.

Posted by: Ori | May 31, 2011 12:05:04 PM

Here's a slightly different scenario where presenting an "old" paper seems at least not unreasonable to me. Suppose you work on a paper and present it a few times, but then, for some reason, have to put it aside. Then, a year or two later, you want to return to it. The old comments are not longer fresh in your mind, and perhaps the wider context has changed some, making new replies more likely. In such a case, dusting off an older work that one wants to return to doesn't seem unreasonable to me. I can't say how often this is what's happening, of course.

Posted by: Matt | May 31, 2011 8:34:13 AM

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