In the past couple of years, I’ve presented at quite a few Mormon Studies kinds of conferences. Almost all of them have been recorded–some just with audio, but some with video as well. (I’ve found this far more common in the Mormon Studies conferences I’ve attended than ones in my academic field more generally, which is why I mention them specifically.) I can appreciate why this is done; there are a lot more people who are interested in hearing what happens at these events than are able to actually attend, and from that perspective, it’s great to have the material available.
But honestly, as a presenter, I hate it. It kind of freaks me out. Enough that I always have a moment of serious ambivalence before signing that inevitable form giving the conference people permission to record me. I cringe at the thought that there are various recordings of me out there, and just have to remind myself that I don’t ever have to see or hear them and can basically ignore their existence.
So okay, I’m neurotic. And I get that I’m living in the age of accessible information gone wild, and there are lots of ways in which that benefits me. But a question that troubles me more than my own self-consciousness about the whole thing has to do with the ways in which recording everything affects the kinds of conversation that can potentially take place in such a setting. If discussions are going to be recorded, I feel that I have to be more careful about what I say; I feel less free to try to talk things through that I’m still not sure about. I don’t like that dynamic. (And it’s not just conferences; I’m not crazy about being in seminars and seeing fellow students whip out their digital recorders to preserve our discussions. I’m thinking how hard would it be to have a genuine discussion in Sunday School–already a challenge–if it were being recorded and posted on the internet.)
I think I didn’t realize how much this bothered me, because I’m fairly used to it, until I started working on a presentation I’m giving in a few weeks, and it occurred to me that they aren’t recording the sessions. And realizing that was a seriously liberating feeling. Conference presentations exist somewhere between the more fixed form of a published paper, and the freewheeling discussion one might have in a class or an informal conversation or perhaps a blog. And I like them better, and find them much less stressful, when I see them closer to the latter than the former, when I think of them as a place to kick around interesting ideas, to try out stuff, as opposed to a place to present one’s definitive thoughts, albeit in a somewhat more formal setting.
But if they’re being recorded, it’s harder for me to think of them that way. It pushes the feel closer to something more settled, more fixed, because the moment will be captured and frozen as it would be in a published paper. I generally think of conference papers as ideas on the way (maybe, if they turn out to have any potential) to something more polished and thought out. In that sense, a recording feels like jumping ahead when I’m not yet ready to make that leap. I also find it stressful as someone who doesn’t think quickly on my feet. Because not just will I give a crazy answer in the Q&A–that crazy answer will be digitally preserved forever. (Needless to say, I would make a terrible politician.)
So I’m torn. On the one hand, I like the idea of making these things available to a wider audience. That’s part of the reason I sign those forms, in addition to wanting to support the various organizations who are sponsoring these things. But I think there are real trade-offs. It’s true that there are other venues for more relaxed, real conversations, often in informal gatherings at these conference. But I have to admit that I like the feel of a conference session without recording equipment in the room.