Flipping Philosophy

Too many people at the Fontana di Trevi

Last week I went to the 6th International Conference in Critical Theory, based at The John Felice Rome Center of Loyola University Chicago in Rome.  I got some useful stuff out my my presentation, both in terms of some headspace to work on the essence of what I wanted to say in some of my PhD work and in that there were some useful comments to come out it too.  I’m newly confident that there’s a reasonable journal article in there somewhere.

It’s been a while since I spent a full three days listening to philosophy papers.  No doubt I’m a bit rusty in terms of my ability to listen, but I repeatedly found myself thinking that reading out from a prepared manuscript is rarely the most stimulating or pedagogically effective way to present material.

The idea that we should aspire to be innovative in how we present information is kind of a given in the environment I work in at present.  Experiments in form have value in themselves.  But philosophers tend to stick to a long-established way of doing things.  You write a paper in advance, print it out, and then read it out load for anywhere between 50% and 99% of the time available for the session with any leftover time devoted to discussion.

Not all philosophers do this, and for those that do the benefit is that you say exactly what you want to say, no matter how vexed or convoluted.  When you’re trying to explain something complicated, it’s easy to get it wrong especially when you’re presenting to a room full of people who are very keen to point out any mistakes.  For many presenters who are shy, a script to hide behind can be a comfort.

However, there are a few things that have come to irk me about this way of doing things.  Firstly, there aren’t many concessions being made to the audience when you are effectively asking them to digest something like a journal article or book chapter in one go, often without a paper copy of your own to follow.  It can be hard to keep a question in mind if you want to keep up with the presentation.  Perhaps this is exacerbated when you’re trying to listen in a language that is not your own; I was chairing at a conference recently and one audience member complained loudly to this effect.  A whole day of passively listening to people speak is fairly draining no matter how interesting the presentation, and it’s hard to think that people can sustain this for a number of days.

You have a great deal of collective intelligence in the room at seminars like these, but it’s hard to see how reading is a good use of that time.  At the conference in Rome there were academics and graduate students from around the world.  Lots of resources have gone into putting these people in the same room.  It’s a chance to have a really good discussion – or at least it would be if everyone had the materials in advance.

This got me thinking along the lines of the ‘flipped‘ classroom, where you do the information delivery (lecture, video, etc) outside of the class and keep the precious (expensive) contact time for discussion and activities.  Students can digest the material over time, through multiple viewings if need be.  If we were to do the same thing with conference sessions you could have all kinds of new formats, or work towards producing something tangible.  (It’s quite ironic that the complaint about technology creating barriers to human interaction is used to defend reading your paper at an audience.)  It also relies on people being organised enough to produce materials in advance but there’s no reason why it need be compulsory.

I’m coming out in favour of the flipped conference.  I understand that a similar call has been made by Alan Levine and Audrey Watters.   There are issues, though, especially to do with recording unfinished or progressing work.  I can’t see many people in the humanities going for that.

They’re a conservative (with a smal ‘c’) bunch, really, philosophers.  I imagine most of the humanities are the same, however:  they like the old ways of doing things and that’s partly how they ended up where they are.  It’s quite telling that when you are in an educational technology conference everybody is sitting on there devices, tweeting, checking things, looking things up and so on.  At a philosophy conference very few do this.  When I went on Twitter there was only one other person on there and we were both looking for some sort of hashtag or conversation to follow.  There’s a sense of defence of a sanctified space among these communities but I wonder how much of that is about the most effective use of that space.

Published by Rob Farrow


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  1. I couldn’t agree more. I’m pretty much over this kind of presentation, even though it’s common in philosophy. And I see why, for the reasons you mention–having written many a convoluted paper myself, I know it’s hard to explain it without, well, just reading the darn thing. But that is not a good use of the time, I think.

    Why not give out papers in advance and then use the time to discuss them? Perhaps the presenter could give a few minute overview of the argument to remind people, since the readers will likely have read a few papers by then, and then open it up for discussion? Maybe we could record ourselves reading the papers, but beyond providing audio for those with visual impairments, I don’t see what that accomplishes above having the papers available to read. So perhaps both, so that those who have trouble with visual reading can have the audio, and those that prefer reading the text themselves can do so.

    Now, the main problem I see with this approach is the sheer volume of papers one might end up reading/watching before conference meetings. It depends on how many sessions one is going to attend, of course, but if a person wants to attend sessions all day long (exhausting enough as it is), that’s a lot of papers to read or watch beforehand. So that’s a drawback.

    Another option is to encourage people to figure out how to present their arguments without reading them. It’s more challenging, but it’s certainly do-able. It’s like teaching, really–how many of us just sit and read our lecture notes to our students in class? (Though I have seen it done, and well, from a brilliant philosopher in grad school, it’s not the best approach for teaching.) If we can manage to create lecture/discussion formats for our class meetings, why not for our own research papers? I’ve been trying to do this myself; I haven’t read a paper at a conference since about 2005, I think. I find it helps to clarify my thinking even further when I can give out an outline or short notes and speak extemporaneously from that. But again, this takes more work than just reading!


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