Author's Note: I write this piece in partial penance for all the times I have held colleagues to my standard of pre-determined "must know" information. (E.g. "Surely, you must know Symphony No. XYZ of Joe Blow").
What We Know
A discussion with one of my advisers prompted me to consider a problem all scholars face: how much background?
What can we "assume" of our audience? Of course a conference paper and a pre-concert talk are going to be very different creatures in that regard. If I give a paper at an American Music conference can I assume a different basic set of knowledge than if I'm giving the paper at a larger American Musicological Society conference? The canon is always shifting depending on the context.
My adviser thought it was better to err of the safe side. Even if there are ten people in the audience who think you are an absolute idiot for "explaining the basics" the likelihood is there are more people who will be grateful (especially if their interest in your paper was only peripheral or limited to one aspect of your topic).
Of course, one must be careful about "the basics." If I'm giving a paper titled "A Schenkerian Analysis of Haydn's Symphony 104" (which, thankfully, I'm not!) I don't need to explain terms like "Urlinie," for example. However, as scholarship gets more and more interdisciplinary, we are likely to run into fields about which we have little knowledge. So the trick, especially in a 20-40 minute conference paper, is to treat it like an hors d'oeuvres sampler. The audience can enjoy just enough stuffed mushrooms and prosciutto-wrapped melon to fend off their hunger, even if they haven't indulged in an entrée.
That brings me to the dissertation. Who is my readership? Well, my committee, for starters. And then the handful of people (probably also writing their own dissertations) who will order it through ILL (interlibrary loan) as it pertains to their own topic in some way. My suspicion is that most of these people will a) be specialists in a similar field or b) interested in one particular chapter. Therefore, it may not be necessary to get into the nitty-gritty of Paul Tillich's fundamental aesthetic theories (which are somewhat important, but not crucial, to understanding my topic).
However, since we are all supposed to think about turning our dissertation into a book, that changes things substantially. My feeling about scholarly books, articles and conference papers is that they should draw you in even if you have little interest in the topic. I've read articles that I thought were "very good" even though I could have cared less about a little-known 15th-century Spanish composer's connection to Heinrich Isaac (this topic has been completely fabricated to protect the innocent). What I enjoyed about these articles was the sense that the author approached her topic with vigor, used sound research and reasoning, and came to an interesting conclusion. I guess I'm saying I enjoy scholarship in general.
So, my conclusion, friends, is to play it safe. There are ways of sharing information without being patronizing. Help those people who won't ever dare to raise their hand and say "What the heck are you talking about?" because they are surrounded by 65-year old scholars nodding their heads in that "knowing way." We don't have to give in to academic pretension. Let it be ok to say "For those of you who may not know..." Maybe it would be healthy for some people to realize that no, not EVERYONE is familiar with the basics of hermeneutics or Adorno's more obscure theories.
In written formats, we can be thankful for footnotes! In spoken formats, we've just got to adjust to our audience.
In the end, I think it really comes down to the idea of sharing knowledge, not simply demonstrating your own.
Copyright 2007 Rebcamuse's Musings
(Cross-posted at LiveJournal)