Beware the Casual Dissertation Talk

Originally posted April 18, 2018.

It took me only ten minutes to convert a small audience of attentive, engaged academics into a snoring heap yesterday.

The scene was the latest installment of a conversation series hosted by Ohio University's Contemporary History Institute, of which I am a graduate. I was invited to share my dissertation with a collection of students and a couple history professors, all members of the institute, most of whom I knew from past classes.

I started fairly strong, framing my introduction around recent turmoil at the Denver Post, that newspaper being a subject of my dissertation. My audience was engaged. I then turned to wander somewhat aimlessly through my 450-page dissertation, expanding on a few ideas (chosen seemingly at random to my audience, as it turns out) that I thought could interest them.

People really tried to stick with it for the first ten minutes. Then a professor with whom I'd worked fairly closely started dozing off (I'm telling myself the person hadn't slept well the night before). Another was visibly disinterested. Noticing this, I diverted my own attention to entertaining the two people in the room who were, either through sheer force of will or genuine interest, maintaining positive body language.

When I opened the floor to conversation once my 25 minutes of rambling came to a close, no one was forthcoming with questions, comments, or even yawns. My dissertation chair, who was kind enough to attend, rescued me by giving the group an idea it could sink its teeth into. The remaining 30 minutes of conversation was OK—I certainly enjoyed getting to play the part of expert and talk about a topic I'm passionate about—but it certainly wasn't the free-wheeling free-for-all on the state of modern journalism that I'd been hoping for.

So it goes. I'm not going to dwell on it, and, in honesty, it probably went a little better than I'm making it sound. But I think if I'd gone in with only three or four big ideas from my dissertation that I thought the group would enjoy, rather than trying to summarize the whole damn thing and let the audience work out what was interesting and what wasn't, the event would have gone much better.

Beware the "casual" talk. It's a rare chance to share big ideas with a motivated audience—not to drone about a topic in which it likely has no natural interest.