SCHOLARS are timid souls. I believe that every scholar feels more or less as I do about the ordeal of listening to learned papers. In their classrooms, where the audience is either docile, or afraid, or both, scholars let themselves go and perform with a certain amount of poise and, on occasion, with charm.
But once they appear at a philological, scientific, or idea club they feel inhibited and painfully awkward. When their turn comes to take the chair at the head of the table they turn pale or crimson, they perspire, they clear the throat as though they were about to utter news of an embarrassing nature. And most of them read their papers in a low, dull monotone which, in a crowded and smoke-filled room, is decidedly conducive to sleep.
There is, of course, ample justification for the trepidation with which scholars perform on such occasions. They know the habits of their colleagues; they know their own habits when they act as listeners.
Everybody presumably tolerates the paper for the delight of destroying it when the time comes for discussion. When the reader timidly raises his eyes and notices that Professor Meticulous has been jotting down something on the back of an envelope, he returns to his paper, but in the back of his mind is the demoralizing certainty that he must have committed some scholarly misdemeanor. Was it the date of Savonarola’s birth? He had written it from memory as 1452, but he should have checked it. It may very well be ‘51 or ‘53. Or w as it his reference to Pareto? He had not read all of Pareto, and if Meticulous should raise questions it might prove embarrassing.
But whatever the justifications on either side, the problem of how to undergo the ordeal of listening to scholarly papers remains. We all know that look of apprehension with which we appraise the manuscript in the hands of a speaker about to begin his performance. It isn’t always easy to estimate the number of pages it contains. For one thing, it may be onionskin paper. For another thing, what if the typing is single-space? No, it is never possible to estimate with any exactitude what we are in for.
But it is possible to adjust oneself to the inevitable. After all, the mind, we have been told, is its own place and is capable of accommodating itself to any situation. For myself, 1 have developed a technique which has made my attendance at scholarly meetings much less uncomfortable. In fact, each session has become somewhat of an adventure, so that, instead of dreading the approach of the speaker, I now anticipate it with delightful curiosity.
As the speaker ascends the platform, or deposits himself in the central chair, and pulls out his manuscript, I note carefully whether it is flat or folded. By now I know that if it is folded twice, like an advertising circular, it is likely to be short; if it is folded only once, it is lengthy but still not formidable; if it is flat, it; behooves me to settle down to doodling or other inconspicuous time-consuming occupation. Of course, there is always the possibility that the manuscript is an onionskin affair, so that even if it is folded twice it may still be too long for ease of mind. But then there is also the possibility that it has been typed triple-space with wide margins and short paragraphs.
Then 1 note how long it takes him to read the first page and what he does with it after reading. If he turns it over and lays it aside I feel a surge of elation, for I shall have little trouble in observing the approach of the end. If, however, he fails to turn it over, but merely slips it under the unread pages, my task will be complicated.
In either case I watch his hand as he lifts the first page. If it trembles, the speaker belongs to the cowed and nervous type and will probably not dare to raise his head to add extemporaneous comment which will prolong his performance. Sometimes he may be nervous at the beginning but will somehow acquire daring as he reads on. But you can always make him go back to his paper by a judicious cough, thus conveying to him the idea that he is not playing quite fairly. When the speaker t urns over his pages and lays them aside, there is the added fascination of watching him build a pile of discarded sheets and of comparing its size, from time to time, with that of the pile still in his hand.
Simple as this procedure may seem, it is effective in that it leaves no time for watching the clock on 1 he wall or, surreptitiously, your own wrist watch. Naturally, in being thus preoccupied, you lose the thread of the thesis and the evidence which supports it; but then, very likely you would have lost, it anyway after a while.