HPS 1702 Junior/Senior Seminar for HPS Majors
HPS 1703 Writing Workshop for HPS Majors

Spring term 2014

Research Assignments and Writing Exercises

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Policy on Late Submission of Research Assignments. Late submission of these assignments is strongly discouraged. The assignments are cumulative and late submission leads to delaying new work and so falling further behind. If an extension is sought, it should only be for a few days. The need for the extension should be explained in writing and a date nominated in writing for the time of submission.

This seminar is intended to be a "capstone" experience for majors in history and philosophy of science. So far, each of you have taken an array of courses that specialize in one of other aspect of HPS. This seminar will give you direct experience of how someone in HPS synthesizes their history of science and their philosophy of science. This will be done through a series of research assignments that you will carry out in the course of the term. They will have historical and philosophical components and lead up a term paper in which the historical and philosophical parts are synthesized. The exercises for the writing workshop are folded into the series, as are exercises intended to ease you into professionalization in HPS. They include some insight into scholarly publishing and the practicalities of giving talks.

See Schedule for deadlines.

A. Short history of science paper

Select some episode in history of science that interests you and prepare a short, roughly 500 word description of it.

Submit through http://courseweb.pitt.edu.

For this and subsequent research assignments, please submit the paper in text, Word or "rtf" (=rich text format) files, since I can easily edit them. Please do not send pdf's since I cannot edit the files.

The plan is that your analysis of this episode will be developed in the course of term through the remaining assignments. So you should pick an episode that you think may have interesting philosophical aspects for you to explore in your term project. (Do not be too concerned at this stage if you cannot specify precisely what those philosophical aspects may be. Figuring that out will be part of your project during the term.)

Note added after grading assignments: Too many of the papers I saw were troubled by neglect of some basic ideas in history of science:

1. For a small project like this to succeed, the episode must be as small and narrow as you can make it. If the history extends over hundreds of years, most likely it will only contain superficial generalities, poorly grounded in evidence from your historical sources.

2. History of science recounts specific people doing specific things at definite times and places. "It was noticed that..." is a scientist's locution that suppresses exactly the who/what/when/where that is the basis of all history.

3. Good history derives ultimately from primary sources. If your project does not connect with at least some of them, you have not gone deep enough. The requirement that you make good use of primary sources will also assist with the last two points. If you use them, it is hard to write a well-sourced history that spans long periods of time. Primary sources also force you to identify who/where/when.

Focus for HPS 1703 Writing Workshop.

(a) Good scholarly writing is simple, clear and direct; and it communicates well to the intended audience. Try to conform to these goals in the writing. Use short sentences, an active voice and simpler language wherever possible. Have some idea of who your reader is. Assume it is someone who works in history and philosophy of science but may not know your particular science or the historical example. The other students in the seminar fit this description.

(b) Good scholarly writing is spelled correctly, uses proper grammar and is laid out attractively on the page. Submissions not conforming to these standards will be returned for revision.

Wondering "how much can I copy and paste into my essay"? If you have to ask, you'd better look at my handout on the use of sources.

Here are some pitfalls that people writing in history of science should avoid.


It is tempting to mix modern day judgments of the science with the historical narrative. While these judgments are certainly important, they must not be allowed to take over the narrative. Our goal is to understand an historical episode in its own terms--the goals, methods, thoughts, analyses, etc. of the people in question and how they implemented them. We are not aided in that by remarking that we now agree or disagree with the person. Indeed we are obstructed if that later judgment replaces the historical analysis we should have given. (See further remarks on this question under Assignment B below.)


While the danger of anachronism is significant, efforts to avoid it can sometimes lead to the opposite problem. Our modern mechanics derives from Newton and not Descartes; our biology from Darwin and not Lamarck; our chemistry from Lavoisier and not Priestley. All is not of equal importance in history of science. In our zeal to avoid anachronism, we should not lose sight of these connections through time. It is now increasingly common for the fear of anachronism in writing in history of science to lead to narratives that are hermetically sealed from present interests. That sort of history of science risks the danger of irrelevance, that is, a history that gives us no reason to care about the work of Newton and Darwin.

The Default History.

A novice, but poor strategy for writing a term paper on some topic is to look up the definition of the term in the dictionary and make that the opening paragraph of the paper. It is poor because it is a mechanical, one-size-fits-all way to set up the paper. Only rarely is it appropriate. There is a corresponding strategy in writing history of science papers. The topic may be debates over the nature of combustion in the 18th century. Nonetheless, the paper starts out mechanically by reporting the earliest known human use of fire; then it traces ideas on fire through antiquity up to the 18th century. Unless there is a specific need for this sort of background, it should be avoided. It is quite legitimate to pick one episode and look just at that. Indeed, when you have only 500 words to write it is much better to do that. Otherwise you waste far too many words on bland generalization and do not have enough left to do justice to the real topic.


Historians of science don't just know things. They learn them from sources. It is fundamental in academic history that you tell your readers what your sources are. The principle is that a reader ought to be able to find and verify the source claimed for your major points. As a result, citing an entire book is inadequate. The reader should not be expected to read an entire book to find the material you used. You should say where in the book the material is found. That is usually done with page numbers. This general notion guides most citation conventions. You give enough information on a source so that the reader can find exactly what you read. Hence author and title are not enough. The publisher and edition should also be given. If you and the reader consult different editions, the pagination and text may be different. There is a danger at the opposite extreme. In practice you cannot cite everything, lest your text become a cluttered mess. So you have to decide what in your text can be taken as common knowledge and needs no citation. e.g. you could take it as common knowledge that Darwin wrote Origin of Species and traveled on the Beagle and so these claims need not be footnoted, but a particular quote from him would need a citation.

Philosophical focus. Narrowness of episode for this assignment.

You need to keep in mind how this assignment is to be developed. It will eventually be connected with some issue in philosophy of science. As a result, the episode must have philosophical or conceptual considerations playing some prominent role. Entire theories or sciences will raise numerous philosophical questions, whereas you need only one for your project. So keep your work simple and choose as narrow an episode as you can. Otherwise you will become overwhelmed by the volume of material and be able to say little beyond banalities. The analysis of one single experiment could well supply enough material, for example.

B. Long history of science paper

Expand your earlier short history into a longer case study of roughly 1500 words. While no explicit philosophical analysis is to be given yet, be sure that some philosophical or conceptual issue is lurking in your case study, so that it can be developed in the remaining assignments. Your account must incorporate material from at least one primary source.

Submit through http://courseweb.pitt.edu.

If this assignment is to be successfully developed by the remaining philosophical assignments, it will need some quite definite material of philosophical or conceptual interest. That material is likely to be most apparent if you keep your focus on as narrow a topic as you can. (See remarks above under Assignment A.)

Focus for HPS 1703 Writing Workshop.


The essence of good historical writing is sensitivity to context and the goal in this piece of writing is to locate the episode in its proper context. The danger in writing an historical episode is that we allow what we now know to overshadow what actually happened. For example, we now know that Einstein's special theory of relativity can be presented in terms of two principles and some clever thought experiments on light signals and clocks. That his original 1905 paper was full of electrodynamics is a matter often left for another day. While this attitude might be acceptable if our goal is to understand the theory in its own right, it is an anachronistic trap if our goal is to understand how special relativity emerged historically. It came from Einstein's resolute pursuit of problems in electrodynamics. Understanding those problems and Einstein's struggles with them is how we understand the discovery of the theory. (For my contribution to this literature, see http://www.pitt.edu/~jdnorton, under history of special relativity.) A common mistake made especially by scientists is to assume that they somehow know the history of a theory merely because they understand the theory itself.


Historical narratives must be grounded in the evidence of historical sources and the better the source the better the account. For this reason, historians put a premium on histories that draw directly on primary sources."Primary sources" are those written by the principal figures and are generally deemed more reliable the closer they are written in time to the events in question. Primary sources include scientific papers and books as well as archival materials, such as manuscripts, notebooks and correspondence. "Secondary sources" are written by others and recount the episode in question. They are an essential part of the history of science and for many purposes quite sufficient. Breaking new ground in history of science, however, requires analysis of primary sources.

Here are some further pitfalls that people writing in history of science should avoid.

Textbook histories.

It is common in science textbooks to include sections, often introductory, on the historical background of the science. This is to be applauded; understanding the historical origins of the science can add greatly to the appreciation of the science. Sometimes this history is very well done. On other occasions, it is not. Then the history can be reduced to a quite misleading caricature of the what really happened. A famous example is the history of special relativity. In the older textbook tradition, the origins of the theory were routinely attributed to Einstein pondering the Michelson-Morley experiment. We soon learned, however, that this experiment had only a very indirect role in Einstein's discovery and that Einstein barely recalled if he even knew of the experiment at the time he discovered the theory. Two factors seem to have promoted this myth in the textbooks. One is that it is pedagogically easy to proceed from the experiment to a development of the theory. If only the theory had been discovered that way, the historical path would have been a great way to teach the theory! The other is that it fitted with the popular idea of a close link between theory and experiment. Special relativity was the theory and the Michelson-Morley experiment was the experiment that found expression in it.

The Passive Voice.

This possibility of science textbook histories running astray is widely recognized. There is another, more subtle problem that is not so widely recognized. In both textbooks and research articles, scientists are encouraged to write in a passive anonymous voice. The fiction is of a kind of disembodied scientific consciousness that is the repository of scientific knowledge: "It was known that..." New discoveries are stripped as much as possible of human form and motivation: "It was observed that..." This locution suppresses the human beings who made the discoveries, where and when they were done, the reasons they thought to observe where they did, their passions and aversions, the rivalries and feuds and the many dead ends. Writing in this style makes it very hard to pay proper attention to context.

C. Short philosophy of science paper

Prepare a short (500 word) discussion of a problem in the philosophy of science that is relevant to your historical case study. You should identify a definite thesis and an argument that supports it. Then supply some evaluation of the thesis and supporting argument. e.g. is the thesis properly supported by the argument?

Submit through http://courseweb.pitt.edu.

If you have been circumspect in choosing the historical episode in Assignments A and B, you should now have little trouble identifying a suitable philosophical problem. If you are having trouble delineating the problem, review the major topics in philosophy of science: induction, evidence and confirmation; explanation; causation; realism and antirealism; theory and experiment; models, approximations and idealizations; the nature of change in science; and so on. There must be something in these of relevance!

Focus for HPS 1703 Writing Workshop.

The essence of good philosophical writing is attention to thesis and argument. In this regard professional philosophy is quite distinct from the popular view of philosophy as a collection of clever but obscure remarks that no one really understands and the sad lament that we are surrounded by mysteries transcending our humble grasp. Save this for cocktail parties. Professional philosophers seek to state their claims--their theses--in as simple and clear a language as possible and then to establish them with cogent argumentation. This is your goal.

In the popular view, establishing something by argumentation is sometime taken to mean that it is established by colorful language or even rhetorical subterfuge. That is not what is intended here. A prerequisite for this seminar is a class in logic. The informal arguments you studied there are the sort intended here.

Here are two examples of a thesis and supporting argument. Both are given in a very condensed form, but they should be sufficient to indicate the style of analysis I am encouraging.

Thesis: No inductive argument scheme can be justified. ("Hume's problem," modernized)

Argument: A justification for an inductive argument scheme will either be deductive or inductive. A deductive justification would contradict the inductive character of the inductive argument. An inductive justification requires use of the either very inductive inference scheme under consideration, which is circular; or calling in another inductive inference scheme, which triggers an infinite regress.

Thesis: ("Grue") Inductive inference is powerless to support useful inferences; any inductive inference scheme that allows us to infer from the observation of green emeralds to the greenness of unobserved emeralds must also allow us to infer equally that they are any other color.

1. Assume that we have an inductive inference scheme that assures us that observation of green emeralds supports the hypothesis that unobserved emeralds are green.
2. Because of the symmetry of green and grue (under the standard definition of grue), the same inductive inference scheme must assure us that observation of grue emeralds supports equally the hypothesis that unobserved emeralds are grue.
3. Redescribing 2., we have that the inductive inference scheme must assure us that observation of green emeralds supports the hypothesis that unobserved emeralds are blue.
4. Thus the same observation of green emeralds, supports equally the hypothesis that unobserved emeralds are green and that they are blue (and, by duplication of the argument, any other color we care to name).

D. Synthesis sketch

Give a short statement (250 words) of how you plan to combine the discussion of a problem in philosophy of science from Assignment C with the historical case study of Assignment B.

Submit through http://courseweb.pitt.edu.

It is likely that by now you have a good sense of how your will combine these two discussions. It is still worth sketching your plan. There is something about writing down ideas that forces you to think more clearly about them.

Exactly how this combination is to be done is up to you--that's the creative part in HPS! There are some obvious models to follow.

Let us say that your interest is in how scientists brought evidence to bear on some hypothesis or theory. So...

-- Does your case study provide an illustrative example of the use of a particular form of inductive inference?
-- Does the case study demonstrate the untenability of some particular account of induction?
-- There are well-known meta-level claims about induction: Hume's problem of induction, "grue," the underdetermination thesis. How does your case study bear on these meta-claims?
-- Does your case study manifest an approach to inductive inference that does not fit well with any of the standard accounts we reviewed? Can you learn a new approach to induction from it?

Whatever the topic may be, a sensible place to start is this question: Is there something in the case study that does not sit well with the received view of induction, evidence, explanation, causation and so on that you have seen in the philosophical literature?

E. First draft of term paper

Combine your historical case study with your philosophical analysis to produce a draft paper not to exceed 9,500 words. Your analysis should establish a definite thesis in philosophy of science that is grounded in your historical case study. The paper should conform to the style sheet of the journal Philosophy of Science, as described below.

Submit through http://courseweb.pitt.edu.

Focus for HPS 1703 Writing Workshop.

Part of preparing a manuscript in HPS is the appropriate formatting of the document and, most especially, the use of a consistent system of referencing your sources. The system used and the general layout of the document will generally be specified by the vehicle through which you will publish. Every journal has a house style and will ask you to submit manuscripts to it using that house style.

In order to gain experience in the consistent use of a particular system, I ask you to conform your term paper to the house style of the journal Philosophy of Science. Their style sheet is available at http://journal.philsci.org/submissions and http://journal.philsci.org/formatting-guidelines. I do expect your paper to conform to the requirement on the sheet that: "The manuscript should include an abstract of approximately 100 words. A paper may not exceed 9,500 words, including abstract, footnotes, and references." (Please include a word count in your manuscript for my reference.)

You should conform your paper to all their guidelines, including layout, margins, type and, most especially, the system for citing your sources and preparing a list of references. You should ignore obviously inappropriate requirements. (e.g. Do not send the paper to Philosophy of Science! I will not expect transfer of copyright.) Since the sheet mentions TeX, let me add that I cannot easily read papers sent to me in TeX, so please don't.

To get a sense of what is wanted by the style sheet, it is very helpful to look at sample issues of Philosophy of Science. If you do not have a recent article from Philosophy of Science at hand, you can look at it in the library, either on paper or through the library's digital library. If you are accessing the internet outside Pitt's network, the journal offers a free sample issue online at http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/journals/journal/phos.html although you will have to search for it on the page.

Editing the draft version of the term paper

You will be paired up with another student and each will be the other's editor. Your function as editor will be (i) to assist the author in perfecting the content of the paper and (ii) to assist the author in conforming the paper to the journal style sheet. You must return editorial comments to your author within seven days of receipt of the first draft.

You will make arrangements to swap papers with your editor in the class meeting of April 7. The exchange of editorial advice will take place during the seminar meeting of April 14. (Change of plans: no time left in class meeting.)

I am assigning 1/10th of the term paper grade to your editing (i.e. 3% of 30% in HPS 1702 and 6% of 60% in HPS 1703). You will get the full 1/10th credit as long as the student whose paper you edit inserts a sentence on the first page saying "This paper edited by [your name here]. Date first draft sent to editor: [date here]. Date editorial comments received from editor: [date here]." A priority in your editing, then, will be to assure that this sentence is added in the paper you edit! To get full credit, the two dates must show that the editor's comments were sent within seven days of the editor's receipt of the draft.

Focus for HPS 1703 Writing Workshop.

(i) It is important to get feedback from others whenever you undertake scholarly work. This routinely happens informally when we circulate manuscripts among friends. And it happens more formally when an editor, usually with the support of anonymous referee reports, asks for various changes to the content of a paper. Typically acceptance of the paper for publication depends upon completion of the changes to the editor's satisfaction.

(ii) Most documents need to be edited to weed out obvious typogr&*^aphical errors ("typos") and some that are harder too see. The traditional way of doing this is for an editor to work through the paper, pencil in hand, marking the text and putting explanations in the margins. (That is why style sheets want text double spaced with generous margins. It leaves rooms for these editorial marks.) The editing and printing industry has long used a standard set of marks that you should know about, since they are nearly universally used and understood. This is the system an author is asked to use, for example, when "proof pages"--the first attempt at the final published text--are sent to an author by the printer for approval. You are asked to indicate necessary changes using this system.

You will find the marks described in (big file!) US Government Printing Office Style Manual. Washington, 2008, Ch.1 See paragraph 1.22 on p.4-5 for a table of commonly used marks and a sample copy edited page illustrating how they are used. (Direct link to the table and illustration here.) Some marks are used in the margin and others in the text. You'll get a sense of the system most quickly by comparing the sample page with the table.

If you edit paper copies of each other's work, you might find it convenient to use this system. Times in publishing are changing and this system is ill-adapted to the editing of electronic documents. I have seen systems of electronic proofreader's marks devised, but I'm not sure if any are standard. Major word processing programs and pdf readers also provide the capacity for a reader to insert editorial remarks in the text. It will be interesting to see whether a new electronic standard for proofreader's marks emerges.

F. Final revised version of the term paper

Submit a final version of the paper whose content conforms to the material requested in E. and whose style conforms to the Philosophy of Science style sheet.

Submit through http://courseweb.pitt.edu.

While is it almost impossible to ensure that every comma is exactly as require in the style sheet, I will reduce the paper's grade for significant deviations from the style sheet. Learning the discipline of a style sheet is part of learning to be a scholar.

G. Seminar Presentation

In the closing weeks of term, each of you will make a presentation to the seminar on your research project. Those of you presenting in earlier weeks may not have completed your projects. In that case, you should report on your preliminary results and expectations.

As a warm up, on March 17 I will ask everyone to speak informally to the seminar for five minutes on any matter of relevance to their project (either the historical or philosophical aspects). (2% of presentation grade)

The longer presentation will be on March 24, March 31, April 7 and April 14 as indicated in the schedule. (8% of presentation grade) The available time slots will be filled on a first come-first served basis. So lock in your choice now, either by email or in class.

Both presentations will be made with you speaking to digitally projected slides.

An important part of scholarly work in any field is communicating your result and some of the most important communication occurs in the form of oral presentations. Being able to make a strong presentation will serve you well, no matter what field you work in.

Here's a checklist that can be used to assess a presentation.

Five minute warm up presentation.

This exercise is intended to get you comfortable talking to the seminar in a more formal mode. You will speak to a digitally projected slide. Bring ONE screen of material only on a USB stick to be loaded into my computer for presentation. The file format should be Powerpoint "ppt" or pdf. You will be restricted to one screen and five minutes of speaking time only. Do not read your text. Stand and speak to us. If this worries you, rehearse your speech; and rehearse it again.

The longer presentation.

It should last 20 minutes. A common problem with speakers--novice and expert--is that they go over time. It is important to learn how to keep to the allotted time. I will insist that you not go over time. If you try to speak beyond your alloted time at a conference, the session chair would stop you.

The keys to keeping to time are these:

1. Rehearse your talk before you give it. While you may feel that you have the talk in your head once the slides are prepared, I can assure you that it is not there until you have talked through the actual words you will say as each slide is projected. Only then do you have the talk. If you omit this step, you can easily find yourself lost for words, or that you need many more words than you expected, so that you run over time. The rehearsal will also let you know if you can really fit the talk into 20 minutes.

2. Calibrate yourself. While a full rehearsal is the surest way of finding how much time your talk needs, my own habit is to use a shortcut. My experience with many talks is that the amount of time each slides needs is relatively stable. In my case, for a leisurely talk, I spend about 1 min 40 sec on each slide. If I am very disciplined and economical, with some effort and rehearsal, I can reduce that to 1 min 10 sec per slide. Once I know my calibration factor, I know pretty well how long any talk will take. If I have 20 slides, I will need 20 x 1 min 30 sec = 30 minutes for the talk. We differ in how much material we put on each slide, so each of us has a different calibration factor. Once you know yours, you can do the same calculation.

The one thing you should not do is guess how long it will take and then hope for the best. That rarely works.

Giving a talk using digitally projected slides. (Powerpoint, pdf, etc.)

This is now the standard mode for HPS presentations in conference and public lectures. This is the one I ask you to use.

How do you give a good presentation using digitally projected slides? The basic conception is simple. The full content of the talk comes in your spoken words, not in the slides. The slides present a convenient focal point and summary of what you say. It has to be that way. If you try to put all the content into the slides, then your presentation decays quickly into the unseemly spectacle of a speaker reading slides to the audience. That just does not work.

In order to serve as a useful summary function, it is essential that the slides are kept simple and uncluttered. A good discipline is to use a large point size for the your letters. I tend to work with 16 or 18 point as my main text and with much larger point sizes for headings and the like. Leaving white space on the slide is good. It gives the screen a free and open look. Appropriate graphics are also very effective. However you should resist the temptation to include imagery that serves no purpose.

Powerpoint provides a lot of ready-to-use templates, with colorful background images. My preference is to avoid them. These sorts of fancy templates look good for a moment. After they've been seen on 20 screens, they become annoying. The templates compete with your material. You can disguise a lack of content with a fancy layout. Or, if you have something to say, you can use the fancy layout and leave your audience suspecting that you don't have that much to say because of the distracting layout.

These few remarks are only the start of an ocean of advice that you can find on the internet for preparing effective talk slides. My sense of that advice is that a lot of it is good and helpful and a lot is just wrong. (e.g. you will sometime be told to use light letters on a dark background, since that is most legible. I don't know if it is most legible, but it is ugly and unappealing. We are used to dark letters on a light background and there is no need to discomfort an audience by switching. If legibility is a problem, use a larger point size and a clearer font.) So use your common sense. Do what you have found works in talks you have heard.

A new problem that comes with using digital projectors is that you need a lot of pieces of technology and all must function well. You need to bring your own computer with the presentation on it; or provide your host's computer with your file through the internet or a USB stick. You need your host to supply a digital projector. You need to have the cables necessary to connect your computer to the projector. And you need a host who knows how to switch on the digital projector and get all the parts to work together. (In one of my early, vivid memories of digital presentations at a conference, I was unable to use my Powerpoint presentation since the organizers did not know which of the many switches on the hidden panel to throw in order to activate the digital projector!)

How to Listen to a talk.

There is an abundance on advice on the web and elsewhere on how to give a talk. Curiously, there is very little advice on how to listen to a talk and how to engage in the discussion afterwards. Since a talk is an engagement between the speaker and the audience, it will be successful only if both sides play their part.

Be the audience that you would want to have listening to your talk.

That is the simple rule that covers pretty much everything. It means that you listen attentively, trying to grasp the point the speaker is making. Question time is the occasion to help the speaker get the talk's content across more clearly and to help develop it.

I find focus can be a problem, so I commonly take notes in a talk. They are not elaborate. Typically I write key words or claims, or if the speaker promises to cover three topics, I jot them down. Mostly the notes afterwards are incoherent and I rarely look at them again. However the act of creating them seems to activate other parts of my brain that enhances my listening.

In question time, two sorts of questions are most appropriate.

First are questions of clarification. You ask the speaker to clarify a point made that you may have had difficulty following.

Second are questions of elaboration. You try to engage with the speaker's project and think how to enhance it or improve it. Your question may involve suggestions for how the project could be developed in ways the presenter had not seen; or direction to a literature that is useful and relevant.

You may be unconvinced by the speaker's arguments. If you think it will be productive, you should say so, but do it in a way that you would like to hear if you were the speaker. That means express your disagreement gently. If you can, suggest ways that the speaker might modify things to escape the disagreement. Even if your suggestions do not work, it is encouraging to the speaker, since it indicates that you would like the talk to succeed and you are putting thought into helping the speaker.

Of course it will not always be sweetness and light. If your research agenda is in conflict with that of the speaker and especially if the speaker knows this, you can and often should engage in debate. If the speaker knows that your views differ, then the speaker likely expects the debate. That is now the business of academia.

These sorts of debates are generally carried out quite civilly. A standard opening move is to feign incomprehension. "I didn't understand what you meant when you said...?" It is a polite way of saying that the claim they made is obviously wrong (so you are giving them the benefit of the doubt and suggesting that they must have intended something else).

An audience that behaves this way is a good audience.

What a bad audience does.

Unfortunately, there are many bad audiences. This is most evident in question time. Here are things you should not do:


You don't really have a question at all, but you just want to show off how much you know or how clever you are. Grandstanding commonly manifests as long-winded speeches of dubious relevance to the talk. The speaker stands at the front listening, with an increasingly puzzled expression, as speech proceeds without making much contact with the talk, let alone yielding a helpful question. The audience sits patiently waiting for the windbag to run out of wind.


You don't really want to engage with the speaker or the talk. Rather you have your own research agenda and you want to use the occasion of the talk to advertise your ideas or papers. Advertisers can be quite artful in disguising their advertisements. They may not even mention the work, but devise a line of questioning that they think will lead the speaker inexorably to the wisdom of the advertiser's view. That, at least, is the advertiser's plan. More commonly, the speaker and the rest of the audience just find the question tangential and of unclear relevance.

"Putting the speaker through his/her paces."

You don't have any real disagreement with the speaker and may even be quite convinced. But you dispute nonetheless, with challenges, cleverly set traps and so on. You are treating question time as if it were a debating club, where disputes are held for the sake of disputes. You are putting the speaker through his or her paces as if the speaker is a racehorse who had just taken too lazy a turn round the course and needs to be made to work and sweat.

This is a tremendous disservice to the speaker. At a serious academic event, speakers are describing work that they have undertaken over a long period and they have put a lot of effort into presenting it. The event means a lot to a speaker. This sort of disputation can be dispiriting, especially to younger scholars who are still learning the mores of conferences. Do you really want the speaker to leave feeling that the talk was a failure? Is that the audience you want for your talks?

Older styles of presentation

The following lists the styles that were commonly used and some of my views on them. They are no longer appropriate for conference presentations.

Reading a paper.

This is a style that was more commonly seen in straight philosophy or straight history. It is the weakest form of presentation. Most people are unable to write in a style that can be read well. The result is too often a kind of academic ritual in which a speaker goes through the motions of reading the words and the audience sits politely, grasping only parts here and there, waiting for it to be over. Commonly, some audience members may be given the manuscript in advance and they are able to prepare by reading the paper in advance or they may be reading along. The style is virtually unknown in scientific circles, where the very idea that someone might read a paper at a presentation is sources of bemused bafflement. The tradition in HPS has moved almost completely away from reading papers.

The major failing of reading a paper as a mode of presentation of information is that the audience can only hear one or two words at any one moment. People are much better at absorbing information visually. A large amount of material can be seen at once and it is easy to move backwards and forwards in the material on display. All the the alternatives rely to some extent on presenting material visually.

Chalk and talk.

This is the traditional form of presenting material in classroom. The speaker--usually an instructor--stands at the blackboard, speaking from notes, and writing key points on the blackboard. This is an effective means of communication for teaching. Time is lost while the instructor writes on the blackboard. But that pacing ensures students have time to copy down the blackboard notes and think about them. Chalk and talk is generally not used for conferences and other major speaking events, since the amount of material that can be communicated is smaller than in the other methods. If you use this method, you should try to be at the blackboard in advance of the audience so you can start to write up the material. You are strongly advised to use a handout as well.

Overhead projector transparencies.

For a long time this was the standard for scientific presentations. The transparencies provide a summary snapshot of the point being made by the speaker. The speaker speaks to the transparency, filling in the details. It makes presentation of graphical and photographic material easy, although reproduction of photographs onto transparencies is often of poor quality. In the older tradition, you would write onto transparencies using colored pens. That yielded to computer generated transparencies. They are easy to prepare since laser printers can print directly onto transparencies. The most common misuse of transparencies is to cram them with small print. Make sure you use large point sizes, e.g. 16-18 point, so that the transparencies remain uncluttered and easy to read, even from the back of the room. The temptation to cram more stuff in is great; resist it!

John D. Norton, Spring 2014