Going into Rooms and Saying Things: Academic Presentations

Giving presentations is a vital part of academic life. Yet the functioning of the academic presentation is little explored. A presentation can mark the beginning or the end of a piece of research and any level of polished analysis between. Sometimes presentations function as an extended job interview and at other times as group therapy. They can be singular or they can flock together in a workshop or conference. They can be ephemeral, living on only in spiral bound notes, or they can ripple, as live blogging and tweeting spark new conversations reverberating beyond the presentation and questions happening in the room.

Since joining the CONSCICOM project I’ve given several presentations but March was a particularly busy month, with three presentations in just three weeks. Now my head has stopped spinning, I thought it would be worth capturing some of that activity.

At the start of the month, I was in Leeds for Scientific Lives: Oliver Lodge and the History of Science in the Digital Age. This was the fourth in a series of AHRC sponsored workshops organised by Jim Mussell and Graeme Gooday. It turns out, Oliver Lodge was a very strange scientist, deeply committed to aether theory and psychical research. Or maybe early twentieth-century science was strange through and through? Lodge is possibly the greatest scientist no one today has ever heard of. You can get a feel for the breadth of his interests in Pioneers of Science, Lodge’s own foray into the history and philosophy of science, available as an audio-book from the nice people at LibriVox.


Lodge never achieved ‘Pioneer’ status in the popular historical imagination. Tremendously well-known in his own time, today he is hardly remembered at all. This is surprising, partly because he penned a popular autobiography. This was the key theme behind the workshop: why do scientists write autobiographies? And how should historians of science use these documents?

You can have a listen in to my own efforts to address these issues using the life, work and autobiography of Eleanor Anne Ormerod as an example.

Ormerod is proving to be a fascinating character for our project’s purposes. Her entomological work, which involved wide collaboration with all sorts of bug-focused Victorians, is a great context in which to explore participation and communication as features of scientific communities. For the purposes of the workshop, Ormerod’s autobiography, published posthumously and in collaboration with her friend Robert Wallace, points up a series of issues around who should write an autobiography, how it should be done and what it should include. Ormerod’s autobiography is available from the ever-dependable archive.org.

Next up was the inaugural workshop of the Academic Entrepreneurship network. The workshop page is hosted on U. Gent’s server space but a new network website is now under construction. This is a group largely composed of historians of science and STS folk with an interest in economic history plus a few economic historians; an increasingly rare breed. There was much talk of Schumpeter and a great keynote from business historian Daniel Wadhwani.

My own paper was on the entrepreneurial activities of agricultural scientists in and around Cambridge University’s Agricultural Department and the Trinidad-based Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture. In the early 20th century agricultural scientists riding on the coat-tails of Joseph Chamberlain’s calls for a more efficient agricultural empire, sought to offer their services for training a new generation of estate managers. What is more, their research aimed to create new markets – through improvements in cold storage and transport – and found new crops in new areas – wheat in Kenya, Sea Island Cotton in the West Indies.

Some of this entrepreneurial activity occurred outside of academia. Consultation and patenting enhanced academic salaries and proved relations with the world of business. Inside academia, agricultural scientists were in the vanguard of the professional science movement. They created new departments, courses and diplomas, established new in-house journals and programs of research. Of course, all of this activity involved a general sidelining of non-scientific expertise. One – slightly cynical – way of thinking about the history of agricultural science is as a process of getting farmers out of fields (and into temperature-controlled tractor cabs). You can listen in here:


At this workshop I also began playing with Storify. This is an online platform that allows you to bring together all the tweets relating to #aparticularhashtag. Given the recent trend for every workshop to have a hashtag, this is a brilliant way of bringing together the second conversation in the room occurring through twitter, and linking to useful resources. I’ve published a series of storifys, which you can view at the IPBio Network’s storify page (unfortunately Storify’s embed codes won’t play nicely with our wordpress install so I can only point and shout).

The most viewed of these storifys capture discussions around the Royal Society’s Future of Scientific Scholarly Communication event (click through for audio recordings and a detailed report, see also, Mike Taylor’s live blog of the event). This was a workshop spread over four days to mark the 350th anniversary of the Philosophical Transactions, and look to future directions. My final March (-not quite Madness) presentation was also at the Royal Society at another event in the 350 celebrations, Publish or Perish? The past, present and future of the scientific journal. This time instead of representing the project on my own, I was presenting work as part of a panel (all of the project’s own), with Sally Frampton and Geoffrey Belknap. Our hosts were sister-project, Publishing the Philosophical Transactions the economic, social and cultural history of a learned journal, 1665-2015.

The results from that session are likely to appear in print at some point, so you’ll have to wait on to listen in to that conversation. However, there will be lots more presentations in the future and further attempts to represent them in blogs. You can follow our adventures through the @conscicom project twitter account, or through @IPbio (Berris), @GeoffreyBelknap (Geoffrey Belknap) and @SalsyFrampton (Sally Frampton). In the meantime let us know your thoughts on academic presentations and what we should do with them. Is it worth collecting tweets? Does anyone ever listen to audio recordings? And what about that time, when eminent scholar X, did THAT thing. Would it have mattered 20, or even 10 years ago, when there was no one there to tweet?

--Berris Charnley