This time around, ACRL was a better experience than last time, thanks in a large part to those of you who introduced yourselves to me, and to several of my LSW friends who spent a great evening together on Saturday. As I sat in the closing keynote (with IRA GLASS, people!!! Now that’s how to close out a conference!), Ira’s performance reinforced what I love about this profession, what made the sessions that worked work, and what had been missing from the sessions that failed to live up to my expectations.
He sat on that stage, surrounded by drapery, potted trees, two giant screens, an ACRL logo-bedecked podium, and stage lights. He sat there in a hoodie behind a tangle of cords, a mixing board, two high-powered CD players, and a large microphone. And in the midst of all this, there in that stark contrast of the majestic and the mundane, he explained that facts and their presentation can either be surprising and joyful, or they can be confining and boring. Story telling depends on suspense and on the story-teller’s ability to couple facts with ideas. Plot isn’t enough to hold our interest. Plots become stories when the story-teller can zoom out, so to speak, and show the broader landscape that gives these factual details their context. Story is all about how facts — so local, so specific — apply to something larger, something more meaningful.
Most of the sessions I attended were chock-full of facts. Several had organized those facts into a cohesive plot. Only a couple, though, managed to make those facts interesting and broadly applicable. Only a couple managed to zoom out and perform that first level of abstraction that would lodge in their listeners’ minds, prime them for that level of anticipation and surprise that makes learning enjoyable.
Even beyond explicating my own enjoyment and my own learning at this particular conference (or lack thereof), I hope I can work a healthy respect for surprise, suspense, joy — story — into my teaching. Research is the quintessential environment for coupling facts and ideas, and it can be presented in ways that either stifle interest or expand it, ways that either bore or surprise. If my students learn nothing more than that what they find can interest people, I will consider that they have learned something important (and that they should come back to me to learn how to actually go about mimicking the research habits of scholars in their fields).
Ira may have covered this in the 20 minutes after I had to leave to catch my flight home, but I think the musical pauses he works into his show (and which he worked into his performance at ACRL) are also key elements of story telling. If his structure is plot, plot, plot, plot, idea, plot, plot, idea, then I think the pauses exist to give people space to comprehend. It’s the serious version of comic timing, and it’s just as important to the overall effect. And if there’s one thing that I learned from watching both Ira and Sherman Alexie (another incredible speaker that I truly enjoyed listening to at this conference), it is that these pauses are carefully planned. There is nothing accidental about them, just as there’s nothing accidental about the ideas that these story-tellers present to give their plots meaning.
I am very bad at pausing.
Little by little I will become a better teacher and presenter. And in a strange way, both the successful presentations at this conference and the presentations that failed to deliver served to illustrate just where I want to concentrate my efforts this coming term.