Recording Talks

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.


  1. Having mostly only every presented at super low-key grad student conferences, I’ve never actually ever encountered this problem. I wonder if it’s at all common in my field — I don’t feel like I see such recordings being made available, but maybe I’ve just never been looking for them. I’ve never really noticed whether they record sessions at the larger conferences I’ve attended, since I’ve so far managed to avoid presenting at them.(Not that that’s any achievement, since it basically = too lazy to submit an abstract.) Fideline, if you’re around, do you know if they record the big name (or maybe just the plenary) sessions at Kalamzaoo?

    I can imagine, though, that I’d find the Q&A part a lot more stressful if I were being recorded. I’m always expecting someone to point out the huge glaring hole in my argument anyway, and it would only be worse if it were being immortalized on film, for future generations to laugh to scorn.

    Basically, I think the things I’ve thought through and revised and reworked and organized and carefully crafted* for publication** can be made permanent in the annals of permanent stuff. But the stuff that just comes out of my mouth when I open it, I don’t want preserved forever.

    *or, more realistically, obsessed over so long I can’t stand to think about them anymore

    **not that this has happened


  2. Good points, Lynnette. I can definitely see how being recorded might stifle conversation. I wonder, though, if it were more ubiquitous, if we’d get used to it more. After all, when we blog, our comments are recorded and difficult to erase, but at least speaking for myself, this fact inhibits me much less than it should. As I recall, researchers who record video of people in their homes have also reported that people seem to quickly settle down from “best behavior” to “business as usual” as they adjust to the cameras. But it may be difficult to generalize from those examples. Certainly I’m not a big fan of being recorded either, but I guess the conferences I go to mostly don’t do it.

    (Tangentially, I wonder if President Packer would now be in agreement with you and would rather not be recorded at Conferences. 🙂 )

  3. Lynette:

    If I gave presentations like yours I would love to have them recorded.

    Also, I still can’t get at the mp3s of the 2010 SMPT conference. Do you have any pull there? Can you or anyone else hear them?

  4. I know exactly how you feel, Lynette – as a fellow LDS woman in academia, I feel like I could have written the OP. I also am not that quick on my feet; I need time to process questions in order to respond well, and I don’t perform well under pressure. Also, the aesthetic and performative components of recorded presentations make me extra nervous – I don’t want to worry about if my hair is poking out funny or if I stumble over my words (well, I never want to worry about that, but I’d really rather it not be preserved for posterity). I feel like recorded presentations blur the difference between the final product of written word and the more exploratory nature of spontaneous speech.
    Also, unlike Ziff, the permanence of blog comments does inhibit me from participating on blogs more (though I follow ZD regularly). And Elder Packer’s talk may indeed be the perfect illustration of how we can say things that we may need to later revise – significantly – in order to convey what we meant.

  5. I also am not that quick on my feet; I need time to process questions in order to respond well, and I don’t perform well under pressure.

    Me too!

  6. I find recordings of myself in any medium horrifying. I’m pretty sure this indicates a deeply rooted and intractable pride, an investment in a self-image that’s shattered every time I’m forced to confront what I actually look and sound like.

    On the other hand I’m thrilled that Lynnette gets recorded because then I can enjoy her presentations. So I suffer from the same philosophical ambivalence.

  7. Melyngoch, I have never seen audio or video recording equipment at any Kalamazoo session, but I rarely attend the plenary presentations. I think the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan may publish transcripts of the plenary addresses, but I am not sure. None of the medieval conferences that I have attended have been recorded (or at least not that I knew about). If people like my paper, they usually ask me to share a transcript of it. Medievalists also tend to be less tech savy, so we rarely set trends in academia.

    Personally, I would rather read transcripts of academic presentations (especially theology) than listen to audio or video files on the internet. Posting transcripts would give the presenter more control over what he or she decides to make public and solves the problem of awkward Q and A.

  8. Though I have not presented at many conferences and even fewer have asked to record my presentations, I find that I have a similar concern when it comes to my job.

    I work as a Reference Librarian helping people solve their Family History puzzles. “Someone” has recently decided that they need to have some numbers indicating that indicate if the answers we give as reference librarians are accurate (which can be problematic at best as Family History is not a cookie cutter activity). This is probably one of my least favorite decisions that “someone” has ever made. Reviewing a genealogical problem and providing suggestions for further research can be a lengthy affair, and when I know that “someone” is listening I feel very self-conscious. I feel like I have to keep self-checking to make sure I am being properly polite and that I have the correct level of enthusiasm and excitement as I teach the patrons how to use the Library Catalog. In a lot of ways, knowing that I am being recorded can be slightly distracted and I often feel like I am focused more on what the person who listens to my interaction will think of my answer than on the patron with whom I am interacting.

    Even though I do not have to worry about giving random unfounded questions during Q&As that will be preserved for the next group of budding [insert conference attendees here], I do have to worry that the random unfounded answers I give to patrons will be listened to and used as examples of how not to help budding genealogists. The stress of being recorded is definitely a problem in many situations.

  9. The advantage of being on a slower blog is that you can be slow to respond to everyone’s comments. (That’s my excuse, anyway. Also because I had to finish the presentation I mentioned in this post, the one that happily is not being recorded.)

    Eric, I appreciate the kind words, though I still try to stay in denial that anything I’ve done has ever been recorded. Unfortunately I’m not sure what’s up with getting MP3s from the last SMPT conference, if they’re not on the members-only section of the website.

    The question Ziff and galdarag brought up about blog comments is something I’ve thought about as well. There are threads out there with comments I’ve made that I’d be happy to go back and erase–but there they are, out in cyberspace. My consolation is that I think of it like the idea that we’re going to watch the movie of everyone’s life at the Last Judgment–there will be so many movies that all the foolishness I’ve done will (hopefully) be lost in the sheer amount of movie material. Still, I think I over-stress about commenting because of that issue. If I’m writing an email to my siblings, I just dash off whatever thoughts I have–but if I’m on a blog, I think about it a lot more. There are upsides to that, I think, in maybe making blog conversations a little more thoughtful (in theory, at least), but it does undermine a sense of free conversation.

    Fideline, I would totally go for transcripts–that seems like a reasonable compromise.

    Melyongoch, exactly–I don’t want whatever random thing I said in response to a question to be recorded for posterity.

    Elbereth, that would really stress me out. And it does seem like it’s a negative if they’ve set up a situation in which you have to think about the person who will be judging your recording rather than the person in front of you needing the help!

    And ha–I didn’t even think about the recent BKP talk issue when I wrote this post, but it does seem quite relevant!


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