Thursday, October 24, 2013
October 24, 2013: Book Talk Thoughts: Harrisburg
[Now that my year of book talks has kicked off in earnest, I wanted to follow up a few of the talks I’ve had the opportunity to give so far, as well as look ahead to the next one and beyond. If you have thoughts, questions, or takes on these talks, such talks in general, or any related issues, I’d love to hear them! And if you were at any of these talks, please say hi and share your thoughts too!]
On the importance and power of audiences, both captive and really really not.
While I was down in Harrisburg this past weekend for the NeMLA Board meeting, I had the chance to give two books talks in two hugely different spaces. At Penn State Harrisburg, I was able to talk about the book with students in an Asian American Studies course that’s part of the university’s wonderful American Studies program, as well as with grad students and faculty like Jamie Hirami and John Haddad (who both helped set up the talk). And a day later, I talked about the book at Harrisburg’s unique and wonderful Midtown Scholar Bookstore, one of the nation’s best independent and used bookstores. Once again I got a lot out of both experiences, but here I want to use them to think about two kinds of audiences at opposite ends of a particular spectrum, and the challenges and benefits that each offer for such presentations.
At the Penn State talk, the majority of the audience was comprised of those students in Jamie’s class, and thus the audience was explicitly captive—both because she had asked them to be there and because they had to pay enough attention to my talk in order to discuss it in subsequent class conversations. For me, the central challenge in talking to such an audience is thus to create a talk that (hopefully) makes them happy to be there, both in the knowledge and perspectives it adds to their world and in a delivery and performance that make those histories, stories, and ideas as engaging and compelling as possible. Besides being great practice for doing the same in my teaching, I would say that these kinds of talks are also wonderful reminders of the importance of stories, narratives, and frames for even the most scholarly or analytical focal points—because if we can’t communicate those focal points to our audiences, and do so in a way that makes them want to listen and engage and respond, then it won’t much matter what we have to say.
At the Midtown Scholar talk, I found myself dealing with similar questions but from a very different perspective. The talk had unfortunately not been broadly publicized, and so while there were a decent number of people in the audience, I’m not sure that many (or perhaps even any) of them had come specifically to hear me talk. That made them the exact opposite of a captive audience, since if anything I was potentially interrupting their reading, browsing, chatting, coffee drinking, working, and so on—and thus if I didn’t get and keep them interested, they were likely to get up and move or leave within a short period of time. I can’t lie (not to you, blog readers!), some of them did just that. But some others stayed, and when the talk was done and I was sitting at an info table, each of them eventually came up to me, chatted a bit, shared their own perspectives, and in a few cases asked me to email them an e-copy of the book (an offer that extends to you as well! email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like one). And I have to say, being forced to make such connections without any starting point, based purely on what I had to say and how I communicated it, was both incredibly scary and even more incredibly inspiring.
A few hopes for my next talk tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?