Who is the greatest (living?) academic speaker?

by Micah on April 10, 2004

Suppose you’ve been given a sizeable pot of money to fund an annual lecture. Leaving the question of topics aside, who do you invite? Who are the best speakers in academia today? Is there someone you’ve heard speak who you think is underrated–as an academic, or as a public speaker? Now imagine you had to publish the speaker’s talk. Does that change things for you? Or is your top choice still the same?

There are lots of people we enjoy reading whom we’ve never heard speak–especially when they’re from fields in which we don’t attend conferences. I thought it might be helpful to get comments from those outside my immediate fields (which are law, political theory and philosophy), though I’d certainly be interested in reactions within those disciplines as well.

I think the most impressive academic speaker I’ve heard is Ronald Dworkin. (Will “Brian Leiter”:http://webapp.utexas.edu/blogs/archives/bleiter/000484.html#000484 ever forgive me?) His Hart Memorial Lecture in 2001 (for which I couldn’t find a link) was probably the single best academic presentation I’ve seen. He gave the lecture without notes. By itself, that wouldn’t be anything all that extraordinary. But I’d read the manuscript that the speech was based on, and it was as if Dworkin had a teleprompter in his mind. You might have thought he’d delivered it from memory, except that it was clear he was just moving through his ideas systematically. I’ve heard a lot of excellent talks over the last few years, but none that stands out as much as that one.



eszter 04.10.04 at 4:05 am

I thought Larry Lessig’s talk on Feb 20, 2003 at Princeton was wonderful (or “superb” as I noted the next day). (I realize this may not be new to you, Micah, but I wanted to mention his name in response to this query.) Good question!


Tim 04.10.04 at 5:09 am

Interesting idea! There are different qualities that make a speaker ‘good’ – knowing the material is a favourite. Some riveting lecturers are unpleasant in person afterwards. Some speakers grab my attention because they appear such nice people, not for the talk itself. If I were endowing a lecture I’d care more that the substance was good, whether or not the peaker had the greatest delivery, since more people read than attend.

About the only person I’ve heard live who meets all these criteria would be Cornel West, but even he is more civil than flashy. Odd how my first ten selections have died recently – I should get out more.


Jacob T. Levy 04.10.04 at 6:26 am

Hm. Different strokes. I find Dworkin’s style grating in the extreme– and am convinced that he does memorize his talks, word for word, and cultivate an air of preppy casualness about making it up as he goes.

Gordon Wood (History, Brown) on the other hand, is shiver-inducingly good. Yesterday I saw Robert Pippin (Philosophy/ Social Thought, Chicago) turn in a truly bravura performance, and I’ve seen Jeremy Waldron deliver several such, but every time I hear Wood give a public talk I’m struck all over again at his talent and his mastery of the craft.

The glibness might make publication unattractive, but Richard Rorty is a pretty terrific public speaker. So’s Alan Ryan.


john 04.10.04 at 6:58 am

Harvey Mansfield is the most impressive speaker I have seen recently.


DJW 04.10.04 at 7:09 am

Hmm, I saw Waldron give a lecture and found him fairly ordinary. Fumbling around with powerpoint didn’t help much. Agreed on Rorty. Best I’ve seen that I can recall at the moment was Donna Haraway.


Carleton 04.10.04 at 7:35 am

Dale Brawn hands down.


push 04.10.04 at 9:39 am

been a few years now but Quentin Skinner was superb.


dw 04.10.04 at 9:44 am

Two theologians come to mind:
Hans Kung and Eugen Drewermann. I have heard both deliver extemporaneous speeches (in Kung’s case in both English and German) that were both immediately appreciable to lay audiences and ready-to-print directly from the transcript.
But then again, preachers probably have an advantage here.


norm 04.10.04 at 11:10 am

I’ll second what push says on Quentin Skinner.


maria 04.10.04 at 2:00 pm


jgl 04.10.04 at 2:12 pm

Peter Brown, stutter and all. I remember going to see him give a talk in Chicago ten years or so ago; I didn’t know what to expect, really. Breathtaking. Changed my life.

I rather enjoy Kermit Champa (Art History, Brown), though he’s not in the same league. Sort of like listening to the late Robert J. Lurtsema talk about Cezanne. Soporific, but in a good way.


harry 04.10.04 at 2:27 pm

Annoyingly, I’ve still never seen an academic speaker better than Tim Brighouse (British educationalist, more an administrator than an academic, but sometimes holds academic positions so I think he counts). I just saw Caroline Minter Hoxby give a talk (with PP) and she was terrific.

I’ve seen Waldron be very good indeed. But Powerpoint is something good speakers should only use if they have at least as much enthusiasm for using it as they do for their subject.


harry 04.10.04 at 2:39 pm

Now I’ve re-read it a bit more carefully, I have another comment. My guess is that people who speak well and frequently tend to be overrated, and people who speak badly or infrequently tend to be underrated. I certainly think there is not a great deal of overlap between the best academics and the most famous academics (Rawls, of course, is in the overlap). I have one colleague who doesn’t publish much and never goes to conferences but, even from what he has published, is clearly worthy of a much bigger reputation than he has, and more worthy than many others with bigger reputations. I imagine this is not uncommon (I say this as someone who reads a lot of work in three different disciplines and has a reasonable sense of who is famous in each).


Michael Tinkler 04.10.04 at 3:23 pm

I’d happily second Peter Brown and repeat the caveat – “stutter and all” — he’s fantabulous.

Another non-native speaker I would have paid to hear again is Georges Duby.


Matt 04.10.04 at 3:27 pm

How about a vote for the worst public speaker? I’d think it would have to be Habermas, at least when he speaks in English. Between the thick accent and the lisp, he’s totally incomprehensible. I don’t mean this in any way to comment on the accademic quality of his work, which I’m in no good position to judge. Merely, hearing him give a talk is like torture.


Tom Slee 04.10.04 at 3:39 pm

I’m an ex-scientist and so read these suggestions from the outside: most of the names mean nothing to me.

What strikes me is that all the nominations are for men, and that all the nominators whose gender I can guess are, with a single exception, male as well.

I would not have been surprised to see this in the sciences, but to see it on a humanities board surprises me greatly.

What does it mean? I have absolutely no idea.


harry 04.10.04 at 4:19 pm

Tom — I named three people, one female. Didn’t exactly nominate anyone, but Hoxby was excellent.


Timothy Burke 04.10.04 at 4:43 pm

Stuart Hall is excellent both as a speaker and an answerer-of-questions.


Sam Jackson 04.10.04 at 5:00 pm

Next up:
You have a sizable advertising budget that has to be spent. Who would you invite to draw up the plan? In other words, who is the greatest (living) advertising planner? Would you change your opinion if the planner had to come up with the creative theme as well?
Nominations will be accepted later on in this thread.


Joel 04.10.04 at 5:05 pm

I’ve seen Philip Kitcher speak a few times, and its always been stunningly good.


DJW 04.10.04 at 5:26 pm

Oh! I forgot about Stuart Hall.

When I rack my brain to figure out the best speakers I’ve heard, my mind invariably goes back to a handful of panelists at conferences who were not famous at all, probably graduate students. One gentleman gave a paper on Nietzsche and Rorty on childrearing that was a pretty good paper, but his 15 minute conference presentation was both brilliant and hilarious; I think every political theorist in the room was tearing up with laughter at some point or another. (It involved, at one point, holding up a copy of Irony, Contingency, Solidarity, and asking “why is this man so smug?” It sounds borderline-unprofessional to retell, but noone thought so at the time). Sadly, I can no longer remember the presenters name, or which conference it was at.


ellobo 04.10.04 at 5:45 pm

Composer and Wesleyan University Professor Alvin Lucier. Strong stutter, but audiences are spellbound.


andrew ti 04.10.04 at 6:19 pm

This might not be considered academic enough, but John Szarkowski’s talks on photography, specifically Atget, are amazing.


Ponderer 04.10.04 at 6:55 pm

Two luminaries in “critical whiteness studies,” both fantastic speakers–George Lipsitz and David Roediger. I can’t decide which is the very best speaker I’ve heard.


Matt McG 04.10.04 at 7:04 pm

I really enjoyed Bas van Fraassen’s Locke Lectures a few years back… accessible, clear and witty.

[I tend to miss the big name academics though… always look at a poster for Prof. X and think “oh yeah, that looks great, when is that?” and then see that it was 3 days ago.]


Ophelia Benson 04.10.04 at 7:05 pm

Martha Nussbaum is pretty good. I haven’t seen her give an actual academic talk or lecture, but rather a book-tour talk – but since the audience was probably pretty academic, it seems fair to assume she planned her talk with that in mind. So maybe it’s close enough. (The book was Upheavals of Thought.)


vivian 04.10.04 at 7:46 pm

In a seminar-style class (not a public lecture), Syela Benhabib is amazing. She distilled all of Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action into under 30 minutes, and less than two blackboards worth of notes (chalk, not PPT). Do we add all the points Jurgen loses to her speaking score?


vivian 04.10.04 at 7:53 pm

…er, Seyla Benhabib, of course.


artclone 04.10.04 at 8:46 pm

Debra Satz or Ted Glasser at Stanford. Both are sharp, confident, eloquent, and completely engrossing speakers. These days when ethics in general and ethical journalism in particular seem to be so misunderstood, don’t pass up a chance to hear either of them speak.

(BTW – I don’t mean ethical journalism in in the insignificant, personal J. Blair sense, but as in the crucially important, institutional what-gets-covered and what-does-not sense.)


Cleis 04.11.04 at 1:35 am

I would never miss a talk by philosopher Louise Antony, who is charming, funny, and smart as hell.

Philosopher Linda Alcoff’s talks are straightforward in presentation-style but astonishing in their erudition.

A friend of mine saw political theorist Drucilla Cornell give a departmental job talk a number of years back and reports that Cornell wiped the floor with the rather inferior gentlemen interviewing her (she didn’t get the job).

Ralph Williams, an English professor at Michigan, is spellbinding. I don’t know how much he lectures outside the university.

I’ve chuckled my way through presentations by philosopher Gerry Cohen and lit-crit guy Stanley Fish, too.

I would like to become an excellent presenter, and I’d like to hear more from others with that aspiration. Surely it’s a skill that can be cultivated.


micah 04.11.04 at 2:07 am

I agree with Jacob (and others) above about Waldron, Rorty and Ryan. Rorty was at UVA while I was an undergrad, and he gave some great lectures. Though, after a few weeks, they sort of all start to sound the same. I saw Waldron’s Carlyle Lectures on Locke and Christianity in Oxford. I enjoyed them a lot, although there was some grumbling from the philosophers in the crowd. As it turns, “Alan Ryan”:http://www.law.virginia.edu/lawweb/lawweb2.nsf/pages/lev2calc?OpenDocument&Fr1=yyy/lawweb/Faculty.nsf/FHPbI/9031&Fr2=/home2002/frames/lf_faculty.htm happens to be at UVA law school right now teaching a short course on Rights and Bills of Rights. I don’t know how UVA managed to get him to do this, but I’m grateful for it.

Awhile back, there was a conference on Sandel’s book Democracy’s Discontent at Georgetown, and I remember being very impressed with a talk by “Robin West”:http://www.law.georgetown.edu/curriculum/tab_faculty.cfm?Status=Faculty&Detail=344.

And what to say about Jerry Cohen? Academic humor may never be the same after watching him mime the difference between analytic and contintental philosophy.


Vera Tobin 04.11.04 at 4:02 am

Linguist David Tuggy gives wonderful, charming, illuminating, entertaining, and enthusiastic talks. I never miss hearing him when I have the chance.


lms 04.11.04 at 4:42 am

To draf the debate away from the social and legal…Richard Dawkins


jb 04.11.04 at 11:26 am

i’ll second martha nussbaum, and i’ve also found fareed zakaria quite good. not sure if he counts as purely academic, but quite good.


Dave 04.11.04 at 12:35 pm

Why has no one mentioned Michael Walzer? Susan Wolf is also wonderful.


Jim Miller 04.11.04 at 1:04 pm

There are two experiments which may be relevant to this discussion.

First, an actor was hired to make a speech to a group of psychologists, most of whom had PhDs. The actor was presented to the audience as a gifted academic and gave a speech that was literally empty of content, full of meaningless phrases in the psychological jargon of the day. The psychologists rated the speech as very good, though a few complained that it was vague.

Second, a young man was paraded in front of the usual groups of undergraduates, and described with different academic ranks. As his rank rose, so did the students’ estimate of his height. As I recall, he grew 3 or 4 inches as he rose from graduate student to full professor.

Not that any of the posters at this site would make the errors shown in those experiments, of course.


matt 04.11.04 at 3:25 pm

A few comments on some of the comments above-
Philip Kitcher gave a series of 3 lectures at Penn a few weeks ago- they were terrific- very interesting lectures presented in a very enjoyable manner and easy to follow, despite their serious nature. He definitly deserves more votes. He also was very good at taking questions. Walzer, on the other hand, gave a talk here in the fall that was, at best, so-so. It was uninspired in content and lacking in presentation. He basically re-hashed some old ideas in a dull and tired way, and then treated anyone who questioned him as if they were just too dumb to understand.


chris 04.11.04 at 4:53 pm

One speaker who actually lived up to the billing was Peter Winch. It was not just the talk but the way he handled questions that I recall best. My own teacher, John Gunnell, is awfully good too. The more contentious the situation, the better he gets.


chutney 04.11.04 at 9:58 pm

Environmentalist/geneticist David Suzuki was just in, and he was passionate, humble, and engaging. He was also good with students outside the lectures.

Also good have been Harvey Cox and Stephen Carter.

Worst we’ve had is Robert Coles. Skipped out on dinner with the donor who provided funds to meet with admirers, gave a fifteen minute speech, accepted no questions, and left immediately (but four hours early) to catch his plane.


gemma 04.11.04 at 10:31 pm

From my undergrad years, the best lecturer I heard was astronomer Alex Filippenko. Brilliant, funny, and a helluva nice guy.

The worst? There was an obscure visiting Pol Sci prof from Italy who was simply awful–pompous, mean, boring, unintelligent, with a nearly impenetrable accent. Thankfully, I’ve forgotted his name. Worst among the Big Names? Robert Nozick gave a lecture once that was so trivial and meandering that half the grads and undergrads in attendence walked out after 30 minutes.


John Mc 04.12.04 at 4:13 am

How can any discussion on this subject be complete without Lawrence Holmes or Leonard Spinks?


Sebastian Holsclaw 04.12.04 at 7:14 am

You haven’t seen extemporaneous speech until you see Douglas R. Hofstadter debate in blank verse.


hew diolch 04.12.04 at 11:13 am

I hear there’s some bearded guy in fatigues down in Cuba who can talk for ten hours straight. They should get him up to Berkeley some time.


drapeto 04.12.04 at 4:49 pm

Why has no one mentioned Michael Walzer?

because he’s a drip? then again, ppl mentioned martha nussbaum and cornel west.

my votes are for mahmood mamdani, sanjay subrahmanyam and aijaz ahmad, who are all irresistibility interesting live and in print.


An 04.12.04 at 5:27 pm

Roberto Unger (for content and general style points)–
When considering law schools, I sat in on one of his lectures during a visit to Harvard. The man walked into the room in an understated way, not really looking around or seeming to pay attention to what people were doing/saying around the room. He was also IMPECCABLY dressed–I’ve never seen another male academician dressed like that just for class. (fancy suit, white shirt with matching white shiny tie. even men who are paid to dress well can’t usually pull that off). He then proceeded to sit down at a table at the front of the room and deliver a two hour lecture with no notes, yet perfectly structured. In the end, it seemed he had been talking from a well-structured and in-depth outline, but no visible outline existed. He also, after the first 10 minutes or so, had the entire class rapt, inspite of his low-key delivery.

I’ve been to MANY lectures, and I’ve never seen anything that approached his delivery. (Of course, it should be noted that the ideas were fascinating as well. :) )


anon 04.12.04 at 6:59 pm

For sheer entertainment value: Jerry Cohen, no question.


Another Damned Medievalist 04.12.04 at 7:50 pm

Another vote for Peter Brown here. A big no on Umberto Eco. Krugman was okay, but I wouldn’t pay to see him.

How about Elizabeth A.R. Brown?


marooned in florida 04.13.04 at 3:47 am

K. Anthony Appiah — I saw him give a 90 minute talk without notes which sounded as though it had been crafted word-by-word over a period of months. And personal style…impeccable, classy, charming, cosmopolitan without pretension.


Simstim 04.13.04 at 12:30 pm

I third Skinner, he also made an effort to speak to us postgrads in the bar afterwards which pushed him up in my estimation.

I also nominate Zygmunt Bauman. I saw him give a plenary at the British Sociological Association a few years back. He was speaking absolute tosh, but had the audience in the palm of his hand.


Phersu 04.13.04 at 4:08 pm

Why would you not like Umberto Eco? Ok, some of his jokes can be sometimes a little repetitive and he is sometimes condescending.


Another Damned Medievalist 04.13.04 at 8:18 pm

Because eco was duuuuullll?

Another vote —
Patrick Stewart speaking on Shakespeare to a university audience — does that count?

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