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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

How to Give a Presentation in a Graduate Course

I took a course in Graduate School on the Theory of the Lyric. We all had to give a presentation, and I saw what happened to every single student before me. The poor student would start summarizing the article of the day in a dull way, struggling to grasp the material, and the professor, a brilliant guy but not a brilliant pedagogue, would eventually interrupt and just finish the presentation himself.

So I vowed this would not happen to me. I prepared my presentation in the form of a coherent argument. I didn't summarize the article, but used it for a new paper of my own. The professor did not interrupt me, because he wanted to know where my argument was going. I had something to say. I had trouble because I was talking about two critics named (Cleanth) "Brooks" and (Kenneth) "Burke" and I wasn't that articulate that particular day. I kept stumbling over their similar-sounding names, but then that became a joke that I used to my benefit to build a rapport with the audience. I still remember that I was arguing that Burke was refuting Brook's New Critical reading of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in the Well-Wrought Urn.

I also did another smart thing, which was to volunteer for my presentation based on my previous knowledge of Kenneth Burke. People wanted to hear what I said about Burke because they could tell I knew what I was talking about. The other students were, I'm sure, as bright as I was, but I was able to strategize my way toward a better presentation.

So to give a good presentation, observe the dynamic of the previous presentations in the course. How is the professor responding? What kind of presentations have been the most effective thus far? Most professors want a combination of information / summary and interpretation / critique. Don't give biographical information or use Wikipedia or powerpoint, unless you are specifically required to use the latter. Don't summarize an article point by point, but do an overview, picking out those points that are most relevant to YOUR argument.

When offering a critique of a theoretical or critical reading, don't just give a list of everything wrong with it. Instead, develop a coherent argument about its strengths and weaknesses. The listener should be able to discern two clear arguments: that of the author and that of the presenter, and know how they relate to each other.

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