I'm off to a conference week after next – Louisville, in case you're interested; say hi, let's have a drink, etc. – & am going thru my usual "conference-in-12-days & I-haven't-written-the-paper" meltdown. Some people can talk from notes or an outline; some people, heroic adventurers, can improvise something worthwhile on the spot. Not me: I need a full-blown script. If I have a script, I can ad-lib a bit, I can insert the odd joke or dance move – but without a script, I'm dead meat.
I may have been scarified by a performance I witnessed many MLAs ago, when a guy my age, one of the most brilliant scholars of contemporary poetry I know, absolutely melted down into a puddle of embarrassed incoherence as he tried to improvise a talk from a handful of pages of notes. (Yes, Hugh Kenner I'm told regularly used to improvise his talks from notecards, but that falls in the "don't try this at home, kids" category.) Or I've been disgusted by big-name, big-bucks academic speakers who thought that they could bullshit their way thru their 40 minutes, take the check & go home, as if every disconnected observation that fell from their lips would somehow turn into gold before it hit our ears. So me, I stick to the script.
There're problems with the paper-delivery model of academic gatherings, I know. And I applaud meetings like the Shakespeare Association of America & the Modernist Studies Association, in which most of the meetings are gatherings to discuss papers that have already been shared among the participants – something more along the lines of what the hard scientists do, I believe. And I even have some admiration for the notion that Fritz Senn, the grand old man of Joyce criticism, has been promulgating for some time: that there's no point in hearing something we could read: instead, we need to see scholars thinking on their feet, improvising. Problem is, when I've heard Joyceans take up Senn's gauntlet & improvise their talks, most of the time the results are pretty incoherent, unimpressive.
I could probably fly up to Kentucky with the pages & pages of notes I have & talk thru something that my 4 auditors would find interesting, I guess. Or I could make a jackass of myself, as I tend to do whenever I don't have enough notes for my classes. Maybe I'm just feeling discouraged because of the general tepidness of my courses this semester. Getting tired of the sound of my own voice.