I awoke early to write a long-ish post on Rawls on Moral Theory and economics (with nods to Gaus), but I recognized that rather than using the draft to discover what I really think, the writing turned into a way not to feel. I dislike this most about my scholarship; when it becomes a form of emotional escapism. Digressions is not meant to be that.
Today I give my inaugural lecture, Barbarism, Politics, and Uncertainty (here's the lecture sans slides: Download Oratie7). In Dutch universities an inaugural is surrounded with some pomp & ceremony. I am nervous about this. (I have been sleeping badly and waking up early, etc.)
At first I thought my nerves had to be due to the fact that I want to impress my new colleagues and make them feel they made the right decision in hiring me (a philosopher) into their political science department. But this could not be the explanation; I gave a job lecture a year ago to the department, and so I shouldn't feel like I need to prove anything. (I even obtained (a smallish) grant since they hired me.)
So, what's going on? (What follows may be of use to young scholars.)
Now, since I found my academic voice (ca 2003; recall), I have also developed a distinct public lecture style that exaggerates bits of my personality. (I exaggerate other bits of my personality in the classroom.) I use powerpoint, which I treat as my structured cheat-sheet, and talk my way through my lecture, which is nearly always work in progress. By not writing out the lecture, I feel or become spontaneous and energetic; and the format allows me to sketch the big picture and relevant details without getting lost in minutiae of scholarship (which tends to bore non specialists). It also allows me to be funny if I want to be. (Yes, I am used to the fact that other folk may not find me funny.) I am proud of the fact that some places have invited me back.
The lecture style just described rather abstractly suits me. There are lots of other ways to have a distinctive lecture style that entertains and instructs; I admire presenters who have figured out how they can convey their philosophical vision and voice in front of an audience. I find there is nothing more depressing and embarrassing than to see a senior figure go over time and, simultaneously, bore their audience. You would have thought that after thirty to forty years as an academic, they will have figured out a some of the basics of rhetoric. (Philosophers have low standards for this compared, say, to art historians, lit crit., or cognitive science types, so I am really alluding to horrid talks.)
Now, different audiences demand different lecture styles. I give talks to six distinct kinds of audiences: specialist early modern groups/workshops (this is the vast majority of my speaking engagements); general philosophy departments/workshops (increasingly); specialist history of economics groups; truly interdisciplinary audiences (not very often--I am not a star--and I find this very difficult); history of science groups (often a disaster); and non-academic audiences (increasingly), including student groups and civic organizations. While the overall tenor of my presentation personality is the same, I prepare very different presentations for these groups. For example, economists, and even the more genteel historians of economics, tend to interrupt a lot and sometimes you should not expect to get through the whole of your prepared remarks. With them I always make sure that my first two slides contain my thesis (this has become second nature in most of my talks) and the big pay-off of my talk. That way, my position is on the table--I can fill in details along the way. If I know my audience (and, more important, they know me) in advance, I know how to prepare (see the first few minutes here for my ongoing exchanges with an audience I consider home). The key is always to educate your audience in what they need to know as background in order to understand your main point, and this 'education' will vary with different audiences.
As the previous paragraph reveals, my 'style' does not always work well for me. In particular, sometimes audiences in the historians of science tend to find me really annoying. My own self-serving theory about this is that I remind them of the annoying arrogant philosophers they encountered during their graduate careers in HPS programs; then they think I offer familiar (misguided philosophical) views about science (explanation, etc.), which they know how to respond to, and then they discover that I have a different kind of view that challenges their core commitments about how to handle the past and their assumptions about science. I have had more than a few extremely hostile exchanges with such audiences -- notably known for civility --, and so I try to avoid going to history of science conferences now. (Yes, my loss; but I can always read what people say.)
These days I am never nervous before a lecture unless I know there is a gap in my argument. (I do not suffer from imposter syndrome.) I do try to be energetic before I start a lecture. But I am not nervous. By contrast, I am always nervous before the first session of a course I teach. I know that first impressions and setting tone matter a lot, especially because group dynamics are very important (recall).
Now, an inaugural address in Holland is challenging because it mixes audiences. In principle, there are three kinds of groups in the audience: folk that really understand your research; department colleagues and the wider academic community that may or may not understand your research; non-academic audience (composed of friends/family). It is, thus, very hard to pitch the lecture, which is supposed to give a sense of one's research plans and appeal to specialists and non-academics alike. I read and watched half dozen such lectures, and it is quite clear that these competing demands are very hard to navigate (although I have encountered a few that did it just fine). I have some experience in writing for multiple audiences at once, but limited experience with speaking to such diversity. So, that's a good reason to be nervous, and I thank that's part of the (but not the whole) story.
Now, on the whole, most of the people in the audience are not rooting against you, so even if you screw up, after the event (no longer than a hour), they can quickly get drinks and utter polite comments. But the vain part of me does not find that reassuring at all.
The reason I am not reassured is that today I am not abiding by my ordinary lecture style. For, while I have slides, I am reading my 5750-word lecture despite knowing that most read lectures (but not all) are boring. In addition, the lecture is not funny. Despite the presence of two or three modest jokes, the lecture is grim. That is to say, today I am playing a part that does not really fit my academic self-conception. And this makes me really nervous. Of course, I have practiced the lecture, visited the auditorium and checked the equipment there. I am not a perfectionist, but when I present I intensely dislike technological surprises.
I hope writing this post is sufficient therapy to ameliorate the nerves.