Category Archives: Academic home truths series

My Shadow CV

The idea of the shadow CV

I have been inspired to write this blog post Devoney Looser’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which she asks: What would my vita look like if it recorded not just the successes of my professional life, but also the many, many rejections? After doing some digging I realised this wasn’t the first instance – I found one going back to 2012 by Jeremy Fox, another by Bradley Voytek from 2013 and a piece by Jacqueline Gill from the same year in which she mooted the idea (but refrained from sharing the dirt, yet).

I have long been an advocate for more candid and open sharing of the often harsh realities of academic work. Here is my attempt to mimic Devoney’s wonderful example, and hopefully model the sort of warts and all honesty that I advocate and wish to see in others.

Aren’t I nervous about making this kind of stuff public?

Let’s face it, academia is a highly competitive and often insecure work environment. While I currently have the privilege of an ongoing, full time contract, who knows what the future will bring. It seems reasonable to expect that someday, someone might be looking at my CV and doing some digging around my online scholarly identity, considering whether to appoint me to another job, or perhaps even just as part of a promotion panel.

Devoney wrote about the tendency for us to hide our rejections, arguing: “That’s a shame. It’s important for senior scholars to communicate to those just starting out that even successful professors face considerable rejection.”.

While I don’t claim to be a senior scholar, I do believe that all academics face considerable rejection. Therefore in what follows I’m not revealing anything that I wouldn’t expect to be broadly true of any colleagues competing with me for whatever job or promotion it might be.

More importantly, if a prospective employer thinks twice about offering me a job because of what they read below, then I probably don’t want to be working for or with that person.

The values I see reflected in presenting a public shadow CV are ones of honesty, openness, and trust. My Shadow CV actually isn’t that shadowy: it shows me to be resilient and determined. I never claimed to be a perfect academic. Success in academia is not about never failing, never being rejected. It is about bouncing back. If I preach this but don’t have the gall to match generalisations with concrete detail, I should just shut up. So here goes.

My career path

My CV has a lovely little paragraph talking about an internationally recognized research profile that spans work in schools, universities, health services, and workplaces. It all seems wonderfully coherent, planned, deliberate.

My Shadow CV would say something more like this: Nick started education research doing a MSc and PhD focusing on young people’s learning about geography and sustainability. However there were no jobs in this area when he graduated (see ESRC failure #1 below), so he had to look elsewhere. He got a job looking at doctoral education, and so there was then a period when this was his main focus. When that (4 year contract) job ended, again there were no jobs in that field (or none he could get in a place he was willing to live), so he applied for a postdoc at UTS. To be successful in that, he had to change fields again. In short: Nick’s research interests have gone where the jobs and money are. True, there are some consistent questions and approaches that I’ve been exploring and developing through these broad contexts. But a lot of it was to do with opportunity and constraint.

My employment history

My CV shows how I went from a funded postgrad scholarship to a full time job on a project at Oxford, to my UTS Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, which was converted into an ongoing position at UTS.

My Shadow CV would mention:

ESRC failure #1 – I applied for an ESRC postdoc, but didn’t get it. I found that out 6 weeks before I was due to finish my PhD, and had no job lined up. Panic stations.

  • Not getting interviewed, twice: about 3 years into my postdoc job at Oxford, I applied for two jobs advertised at Lecturer/Senior Lecturer level. I felt I had a pretty good publication track record, and relevant teaching experience. I wasn’t even called for interview. I had no idea how small a fish I looked in such a big, competitive pond.

My funded research

My CV shows I have consistently been able to get funding for the research I want to do, starting with an ESRC 1+3 scholarship for my postgrad research, including international funding from the NSF in the USA, and concluding with a whopping $371,000 from the Australian Research Council for my current DECRA project.

My Shadow CV would mention:

  • ESRC failure #2 – I was part of a team that applied for funding for a project on doctoral education. The reviews were pretty blunt. No cash registers ringing anywhere near me this time!
  • ARC failures #1-5 – The Australian Research Council funding is highly prestigious, and undoubtedly a tough nut to crack. I heard of success rates around 17%. If that is true, then I’m no better than the average person. I was involved in two Linkage submissions that were not funded, and two Discovery submissions that were not funded. I was also part of a proposal that started as a Linkage, fell over before it got submitted, came back to life as a Discovery, got submitted, and then was not funded. Yes I got a DECRA, but that was the 6th knock on the door (and yes, I do think I’ve learned a lot on the way… the irrational part of me thinks this will mean I get the next ‘hit’ in fewer than 6 tries, but someone should probably tell me I’m dreaming…)
  • Spencer Foundation – another research application that was not funded. All the more galling because I’d roped in some key international people to join in, and they put some time in… I feel it all falls on my shoulders. Though interestingly, both the key people stuck by me and are now involved in my DECRA.
  • ANROWS – yup you guessed: another detailed proposal that took months to put together that resulted in $0.

Publishing rejections and other shadowy truths

My CV states how I’ve published 28 refereed journal articles, 4 scholarly books, an edited volume, and 14 chapters in books. It boasts of my h-index (15 at the time of writing, Nov 2015), and high citations.

My shadow CV would acknowledge that I still get plenty of papers rejected (one only weeks ago, which I did blog about). My book proposals didn’t all sail through at the first attempt either. I would hope that my rejections these days tend to be for ‘good’ reasons (foibles of peer review, fact that I’m presenting complex, sometimes challenging arguments) rather than ‘bad’ reasons (failure to do my homework, Early Onset Satisfaction etc.). My shadow CV would also point to the many papers that haven’t been cited by many people, including those that have only been cited by me. My published work is clearly not of uniform or universal appeal or value in the eyes of others.

In conclusion

I could add sections about awards (Shadow CV mentioning those applied or nominated for that I didn’t do so well in), about reviewing (the times I’ve said no, I’m too busy; the reviews where I have been harsher than was warranted), etc. etc.

Well, I doubt this post has achieved much except echoing Devoney’s brilliant piece. I’m just trying to say “Yes, she’s totally right! We need to do more of this kind of thing!”.

There is no such thing as a doctoral student

This post is a playful thinking-through of what it means to be a doctoral student. Obviously it is based on being pedantic about words and phrases to explore and make a point, but where we end up is interesting…

(1) You can’t be a ‘student’ and be ‘doctoral’ at the same time

If ‘doctoral’ means ‘studying for a doctorate’ then obviously my claim (1) above is false. But, if ‘doctoral’ refers to ‘being of a doctoral level’ then it is arguably true.

(By the way, for simplicity I will use ‘PhD’ as a placeholder for most doctoral degrees, like PhD, EdD, DCA, DPhil; but probably not DSc or DLitt – the super-posh, rarely awarded degrees that don’t apply to the lowly likes of you and me.)

If you’re studying for a PhD the point is to learn what it means to do research of a particular scope, level and quality. This is usually referred to as ‘doctoral’ and implies a kind of ‘doctoralness’ in what you are doing. The doctoralness of what you have done is not established until your examiners proclaim it so. And it cannot be evidenced until the very last minute when it all hangs together in a thesis (or creative work and exegesis) of some kind. However brilliant, your literature review is not doctoral until it is part of a wider piece of work. Your analysis may be ground-breaking and reveal a remarkable discovery. It is not doctoral until it is placed in the context of your scene-setting, argument as to previous work and the gap it has left (so-called literature review), your discussion, and conclusions.

Until you have the whole thing in place, doctoralness is an elusive quality. It may be that particular pieces of work that you do along the way are of a standard that will serve you well when it comes to putting it all together and making your case for the title ‘Dr’. But technically none of these things are yet, nor can they be, doctoral. A doctoral thesis is more than the sum of its parts. That’s what makes it doctoral. Any one part or task along the way can certainly fail to meet the standard, but this standard is not ‘doctoralness’, but something different.

Does this mean I’m saying journal papers can never be doctoral? Well, yes! (perhaps for the sake of argument). This doesn’t mean that journal papers are all ‘sub-doctoral’ in the sense that they are at a masters or lower level in terms of the robustness of the contribution or their intellectual sophistication. Journal articles are not miniature PhDs. Doctoralness is an aesthetically and substantively unique concept, and the only way to demonstrate doctoralness is in a doctoral thesis of one kind or another. That’s why a thesis by publication requires a linking text (exegisis, kapa etc) that frames the papers as part of a wider body of work, and (crucially) your development as a scholar.

What I’ve written above implies a lot about what doctoralness is – I’m not going to spell it all out (at least not here). But I am going to say it is worth some serious thought. If journal articles, even the most highly cited, groundbreaking ones, are not doctoral, what is? If the building blocks you create along the way (data, chapters) are not doctoral, what does this mean for your thesis?

 

(2) There is no such thing as a doctoral student in the same way there is no such thing as a baby

In the mid twentieth century, Donald Winnicott coined what has become a famous aphorism: “There is no such thing as a baby*”. What?! I’m guessing most, if not all, readers of this post would think, quite reasonably, that they were a baby at some point in their lives. Perhaps you were only a baby very briefly, before you morphed into that intellectually dazzling toddler… Or maybe you can’t be sure you were ever a baby, but you’re pretty sure babies exist: that last long haul flight was plagued by one of them screaming her lungs out, stopping you getting any sleep; those things in the really annoying pushchairs that get in the way pretty much everywhere aren’t just worryingly realistic (and noisy, smelly) dolls, they’re little human beings, right?

Yes, you’re right. And I’m no baby-hater. But Winnicott had a point. He went on to say: “A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship”. Elsewhere he wrote “if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone” (1947).

I think the same could be said of doctoral students.

A doctoral student cannot exist alone. Though an interaction on ResearchGate showed me that some like to think so. A prospective student posed the question, ‘Can I study for a PhD without a supervisor?’. To me this wreaked of arrogance (although everyone else on the planet and in history has needed a bit of help, I’m so brilliant I can do it by myself), and revealed a painful reluctance to do any homework on what a PhD is and what it means to study for one. The only rationale I could see here was someone thinking more about the certificate than the learning that leads to it.

My distaste at this proposition reveals how Winnicott’s idea applies. It was inconceivable to me that a PhD could be obtained without some kind of supervision or assistance from others. Yes, supervisors disappear sometimes, relationships break down, students don’t get the feedback they need. But zero support means no degree. It really is as simple as that. [I expect among readers there might be people who feel they are doing or did their PhD alone, abandoned by supervisors, or perhaps professionals who put together a thesis based on publications without much or even any supervision; in the first case my bet is you were not as alone as you think you were; in the second case this is not the kind of thesis I’m talking about, and my response to the first case also applies].

When you describe a doctoral student, you will quickly find yourself describing the other people around them. This is not to bloat the role of supervisors, or to negate the independence, creativity and shaping that come from doctoral students. But your thesis would be a different thesis if you had a different supervisor or different supervisors. It would be different if you had chosen to study somewhere else. Your thesis is a product of you, your work, and the intellectual environment you are part of.

Doctoral students can’t be imagined outside of other relationships, too, although we might often feel that our institutions forget this. Every doctoral student is always one or more of the following: someone’s sister or brother, mother or father, daughter or son, friend, colleague, housemate, facebook friend, twitter follower etc etc. Doctoral students are always other kinds of human beings. I might even be so bold as to say they are other kinds of human beings first.

So, when someone asks you “Are you a doctoral student?”, have fun and do your best to discombobulate the person asking the question. You might try these responses:

“No. There’s no such thing!”

“No, I’m a person [sister, mother, daughter] who happens to be studying for a PhD.”

“No. I’m learning to do research, and might by the end of it be able to show that what I’ve done is doctoral, but until then, I’m more student than doctoral.”

“No, I’m a doctoral student working with an amazing [or terrible, or something in between] supervisor.”

 

 

* Tracing the precise origins and wording of this phrase are a bit hard to pin down. It seems he spoke the words “There is no such thing as an infant” in 1940 in a discussion at the Scientific Metting of the British Psycho-Analytic Society. Since then different print versions and attributions have proliferated. A good place to look is Winnicott D (1964) The child, the family and the outside world. Hammondsworth: Penguin Books.

Do you have quotitis? How to diagnose, treat, and prevent!

What is quotitis?

Quotitis is a common disease among qualitative researchers. It’s a name I have started using to refer to the tendency for people writing about qualitative data to over-rely on raw quotes from interviews, fieldnotes, documents etc.

 

Why is this a problem?

I used the term over-rely deliberately, implying not only more than is necessary, but too much to the point of being counter-productive by virtue of its excess.

The basic point is this: whether in a journal article, thesis or other scholarly publication, people are giving their time (and quite often paying money, too) to read what you have to say, not what others have said. The value add in your work comes from expressing your thoughts, interpretations, arguments, and ideas.

 

How do I know I have quotitis?

Quotitis can be diagnosed both through its manifestations in writing, but also through reflective questioning of the (often tacitly held) assumptions underpinning your writing.

Symptoms to spot in writing

Look at your findings / discussion section. How much is indented as quotes from raw data? How much is “quoting the delicious phrases of your participants” within a sentence? It would be daft of me to give a fixed proportion to limit this, so I’m not going to. Do you give multiple exemplars to illustrate the same theme? Look at the text around the quotes. Have you given yourself (word) space to introduce quotes appropriately, and to comment on them in detail?

Underlying causes (assumptions)

A full diagnosis requires you to consider what frames your approach to writing up qualitative research. Any of the following assumptions might well give the writing doctor cause for concern:

  1. No-one will trust or accept your claims unless you ‘prove’ each one with evidence in the form of quotes from raw data
  2. Participants express themselves perfectly, and your own words are never as good, and lack authenticity
  3. Not to quote participants directly is to deny them appropriate ‘voice’
  4. Raw data is so amazingly powerful it can ‘speak for itself’.

All of these assumptions are false. Perhaps at times, in certain kinds of research that place high emphasis on sharing knowledge production with participants, you may take issue with point 3. But still, I would suggest that an academic text will be more valuable by virtue of you developing ideas around data rather than just reproducing it.

Of course, the really uncomfortable truths around some cases of quotitis are as follows:

  1. You may have a fear of your own voice and words (whether self-doubt, uncertainty, insecurity), and prefer to rest in the safety of the words of others
  2. Simple laziness, for example using quotes to pad out a text and increase the number of words.
  3. Lack of analytic insight. Lots of cases of quotitis seem to be to reflect the fact that the researcher hasn’t gone much further than coding her or his data, coming up with a bunch of themes, and wishing to illustrate them with quotes from data in the text. Coding is sometimes useful as a starting point. It is rarely an outcome of analysis.

Prevention rather than treatment or cure

It is better to address underlying causes than to treat surface symptoms, so I’ll deal with this first, before presenting some tips for treatment/cure for an existing text.

Let’s challenge those underlying assumptions.

Raw data are needed to convince readers to believe your claims

This is about the ‘evidential burden’ placed on quotes from raw data. Think about it. Does a sentence or two from an interview really prove (or establish credibility) in anything by itself? Surely we have to think about where the quote came from, how it was treated as part of a sophisticated analytic process, how it relates to other features of the data, and what features of it readers are supposed to notice and interpret in particular ways.

Moreover placing the burden of proof on quotes may be utterly illogical and force (or be a symptom) of highly reductive analyses. I doubt very much that many of the most interesting analytical insights into qualitative datasets can be accurately conveyed in someone else’s words (in the case of an interview), or in your own field notes (in the case of observation). In my experience the real value-add ideas can’t be pinpointed to one bit of data or another. They come by looking across codes, themes, excerpts etc.

To prove my point I wrote a paper based on analysis of interviews with doctoral students. It was about relationships they have with other people and their impact on learning and experience. The paper does not contain one single quote from raw data. Admittedly one of the reviewers found this odd, but I argued my case to the editor and the paper stands with no raw data quoted whatsoever. Don’t believe me? Check it out here at the publisher’s website, or here (full text free) from ANU.

The justification was this: I did my analysis by identifying all the relationships between each participant and others around them (supervisors, students, family etc). I then went through and looked for all the data relating to that relationship. After several readings, I was able to write a synoptic text, summarising everything I knew about that relationship, its origins, importance and so on. This drew on all available data, and was shaped by a holistic and synthetic reading of the data. There was no one line or even paragraph from an interview that could demonstrate, illustrate, or even support what I had to say. Because what I had to say was at a different level from what students told me directly.

This is an extreme example, and I’ve written plenty of other papers where I use quotes from raw data. But I use them sparingly and I don’t operate from misplaced assumptions about evidential burden. The problem is, many referees do apply these unfortunate ideas, so be ready to defend yourself when they do!

Participants express themselves perfectly, your words are worse

Do people really speak in the most considered, informed and evocative ways? Sure, sometimes the odd gem of a quote comes out. But I’d suggest that the craft we can put into our written text, playing around with word order, phrasing, vocabulary, emphasis and so on, means we can reach much tighter and considered words than the on-the-spot responses in interviews, or madly rushed field notes.

What are raw data ‘authentic’ expressions of that your words in the paper or not? They may authentically capture what someone said or what you wrote in the field. But is that really what your paper is about? Is it not about reading into what people say, constructing a new argument out of those comments. In which case authenticity lies at a different level: what is authentic to your argument or contribution may not be what is authentic to a participant. Unless your contribution rests solely on reproducing what others say or feel about something, for example.

Not to quote is a denial of participant voice

I never promise participants they will be ventriloquized in my writing about them (though I know in some qualitative approaches this can be important). And anyway, I would never get chance to quote from all participants equally, so there would always be some who are denied more than others. Why should those who happen to say something in a particular way (the ‘real gem’ quotes) be given voice, while those who are less articulate be silenced? Not a useful or valid basis for my writing. Neither is giving everyone blanket the same ‘voice’ because that doesn’t seem likely to be a sound foundation for a balanced, well structured text either.

What’s more as I’ve hinted above, there’s another denial going on when you over-quote from raw data: denying readers access to your opinions and insights. You’re the author of the paper: it’s your interpretations and arguments I’m interested in. Don’t deny me, the reader, chance to benefit from your thoughts by hiding behind the words of others.

Raw data speaks for itself

No it doesn’t. Or at the best this is rarely the case. This is a continuation of the point above. If raw data really was that powerful and self-evident, we would simply present interview transcripts as papers and let it be. But we don’t. Why? Because readers need help and guidance in making sense of those data. You need to hold my hand, shine the light on relevant features, make links, show connections, read between the lines, and provide contextual information that is not contained in the quote itself.

So the way you introduce quotes is important – is this ‘typical’, ‘illustrative’, or chosen for some other reason? How does it relate to other quotes you could have chosen?

And you need to provide a commentary on each quote. What work is it doing in the development of your argument? What do you want readers to take from it? Why is it important?

Raw data speaks most powerfully when you speak on its behalf.

 

Treatment and cure of quotitis

Maybe you’re working on a text and you can diagnose a likely case of quotitis: the symptoms are there in the text itself, and your assumptions are in need of some serious questioning. What can you do? Here are some tips:

Ask yourself some really difficult questions, and be ready for answers you don’t want to hear: Are you over-reliant on quotes because your analysis is half-baked? Are you presenting a list of themes or categories but not doing much with them? Are you hiding behind your data because you aren’t clear about what you actually have to say or want to add to them?

Challenge yourself to sort the wheat from the chaff: are any of your quotes absolutely essential? I promise you, not all of them will be. So bin the one’s that aren’t, and start adding better introductions and commentaries on those that are most crucial. A good way to start the sorting process is by asking: am I giving three (or more) quotes when one would do? You don’t have to prove that three (or more) people said something relating to a theme by presenting three (or more) quotes. You can quote once and say something about the occurrence of these theme across your dataset.

Ask yourself ‘what is going on here’ when you read a bunch of quotes. I mean, in the sense, what do these quotes collectively say about a particular phenomenon or idea. How can you read between the lines, analyse, synthesise, interpret them together? Perhaps you can swap heaps of raw data for paraphrasing and making a higher-level argument.

Address your anxiety about evidential burden by being really clear in your methods section why readers should trust in your evidence (because your methods of data generation were appropriate and high quality) and what you have to say about it (because your methods of analysis are clearly explained so people have a sense of how you arrived at the claims you make without having to have everything ‘proved’ with a quote).

 

In conclusion

Quotitis can be painful, especially for readers. Left undiagnosed and untreated, it can be deadly (for your publications, scholarly reputation etc). Fortunately it is easy to spot, treatable, and its underlying causes can be addressed with some critical and honest reflection. Over to you…

How to be amazing or awful at answering questions from the audience: your choice

Presenting at conferences is super-important. Nerves relating to public speaking are common, but no excuse for avoiding doing so. I hope this post may join some others in alleviating some of those nerves.

Let’s get to the point: when it comes to the part when the audience asks questions, you have two options (in what more discerning readers may detect to be a gross oversimplification, but it works to make a point):

Option A: come across like a thoughtful, open-minded, well-prepared scholar who listens attentively and is keen to engage with the people who have turned up to listen to you (but see my post on what your audience is really doing).

Option B: come across like a defensive, narrow-minded, rigid scholar who is ‘winging it’ through not only the conference but their whole PhD, a know-it-all who doesn’t want to be challenged or think differently about anything.

Your choice.

Let’s assume for argument’s sake, your preference is for Option A. Some of the performances I’ve seen, of students and those who have somehow earned the title ‘Dr’, would suggest they plump for Option B, but I think you’ll agree that isn’t a great idea.

You can radically increase your chances of succeeding in Option A in two easy steps.

Step 1: Know what kind of question is being asked, and what kind of questioner is asking it.

Step 2: Use this knowledge to inform your response.

Pat Thomson’s post suggests most people are asking out of genuine interest, for more information, or to alert you to something important and relevant that you appear not to be aware of. She also identifies the ‘offer’ of free supervision (which I would add seeks a dialogue at best, and an ‘I’m right, you’re wrong monologue’ at worst) or the just plain rude. Importantly Pat reminds us that the audience is usually pretty aware of what is going on when certain kinds of question are being asked. Don’t be the only one in the room to treat all questions at face value or as the same.

There is a good post by Allan Johnson for Times Higher Education that identifies:

  • the courtesy question,
  • the tell-us-what-you-want question,
  • the talk-to-me-personally question,
  • the wandering statement,
  • the obstinate question,
  • and the display of superior knowledge.

You should see from Allan’s list that there’s no guarantee the question is actually a question. His list should also lead you to some insights into the motives that lie behind some questions or ‘questions’, and the kind of people for whom those motives apply. I’ve come up with a slightly different list, with some clear overlap (I think Allan’s list is great but not exhaustive). In each case I suggest how you might respond to achieve Option A.

Type 1: The open ended more info question

Often people might genuinely not understand something, seek clarification, or ask for more background information. In its most generous form this goes like ‘Can you tell us a bit more about…’. It’s a dream question! And it should be one of the easiest questions to answer, assuming you know your stuff. This reinforces the importance of not including absolutely everything in your talk, and also that leaving some detail out isn’t a bad thing: it helps to produce a question in which you can show off your Option A credentials!

The best way by far to look really smart and well prepared is to design in a bit of a gap in your talk, produce or at least anticipate the ‘can you tell me more about X’ question, and then, wait for it, have a slide prepared AFTER your ‘last’ slide, with some details of the answer!

I’ve seen it done and it looks amazing. The presenter finishes on time. She or he might have said something like ‘obviously there’s a lot to say here but in the interests of time I will move on’ during the talk. This is a nudge to the audience to ask for more. Then the question gets asked, and presto, you skip forward a slide. Wow! This girl/guy really knows what she is talking about! Something as simple as moving a slide from the middle of your talk to after the conclusions can have a powerful effect. I dare you to try it!

Type 2: The ‘did you know this’ question

This might be a question though if so it is often a rhetorical one (the answer ‘no’ is expected) or simply a statement disguised as a question. It might even just be a statement: ‘I think XXX’s work might be useful here’. Of course the best answer is to say ‘yes I’ve come across that, and yes I’ve read it, but I didn’t think it was so useful because…’. If you haven’t read it, be truthful and say so, and perhaps ask the questioner why they think it would be so useful, or say you’d like to talk to them afterwards to get some references. This doesn’t show you’re an idiot, it shows you are honest and ready to take others’ ideas seriously.

Type 3: The testing for you question

This may or may not be intended as a test (see Type 6), but for whatever reason, someone has asked a really insightful question and you don’t know the answer. Maybe you actually do know but in the heat of the moment you draw a blank. Maybe you don’t know, but this doesn’t mean you have been discovered as an academic imposter (much as it may feel like this). By far the worst response is to leap immediately into a poorly thought through, make-it-up-as-you-go-along answer. This also tends to be the more common response among less experienced (or more arrogant) presenters. As Pat Thomson tells us “If they ask something you actually don’t know the answer to, then don’t try to cobble something together. You don’t have to have an immediate answer to everything. It’s OK to say that you hadn’t considered that and that you will think about it further… it’s fine to take a moment or two to compose what you will say”.

Pat argues, and I agree totally, that essentially no answer (the confession: I don’t know) is better than a crap answer. And that silence can be golden. If you get a difficult question, breath deeply. I mean it. In for four seconds, pause, out as slowly as you can. You’ll find your heart rate slows a bit. Far from the audience thinking your body has been occupied by a spirit from the other side, or that you’re about to faint, they are thinking ‘ooh, this person is actually bothering to consider her/his response’.

My personal favourite response is something like: ‘Well, that’s a really great question, and a very thorny issue. To do it justice I’d need more time to think about it carefully’. You could then follow up with ‘I will come and see you at the end’, or even better, steal some free education from the audience and throw it back: ‘I don’t have an obvious answer to that right now, do you have any thoughts on it yourself?’.

The benefits of this response are that it demonstrates a public respect for the questioner and her/his expertise, while showing the audience that you’re not willing to bullshit them. It means everything else you’ve said is stuff you’re confident of and sure about. They’re not sitting there getting spur-of-the-moment waffle.

Type 4: The ‘why aren’t you doing your research the way I would do it’ question

You finish your presentation and a hand goes up confidently and quickly. ‘Where is power in all this?’ asks the Foucault or governmentality person. ‘Where is gender in all this?’ asks the feminist. ‘Where is race?’ etc… You have to see these questions (and their questioners) for what they are. They are not questions at all, really. They are not even what Pat describes as free supervision. They are attempts to co-author your research by stealth. Except the disguise is pretty poor. No topic requires any research to attend to any theoretical framework, question, issue, text etc. If there are some obvious and popular ones that you haven’t been working with, it might be an idea to mention them in the presentation and explain why, heading off this kind of question early.

If you do get the question, don’t buckle and say ‘oh yes, you’re right, my whole thesis should change to be the one you suggest, would you like to be my new supervisor?’. But don’t pour fuel on the flames by trying to convince the questioner. You’re not going to win. I would say something like: ‘That’s an interesting point, and I can see why power/gender/race/etc would be interesting and relevant. However, that lies outside the scope of what I’m trying to do here, and my originality or value add comes from doing things differently’. With a little luck you will be able to truthfully say ‘that is interesting, but has been done before a lot (even mention a few names). I’m trying to come at this from a different perspective’.  The point here is not to say ‘No’ and question the assumption of the questioner, but ‘Yes but…’. As Pat suggests, succinct polite answers are the best way to shut this down. And shutting down is what you and the rest of the audience want.

Type 5: The ‘listen to me’ monologue

This question is not a question. Or it is a series of questions that seem unlikely ever to end. This is unacceptable and unprofessional but sadly not uncommon. The audience sees it for what it is and so should you. It is a statement spoken by an arsehole who likes the sound of her/his own voice and feels licenced to deviate from the conference program by turning themselves into a presenter. Again shutting down is the required response here.

If you’re really bolshy you could try revealing it for what it is: ‘Well you had a lot to say, and I’m not sure I could possibly answer all your questions, to which you have either given answers or appear to know what they are already’. Or ‘I’m sorry, you spoke for so long I somehow missed your question’. This certainly would be brave and would probably cause a curfuffle. But I’d love to see it one day!

More likely is you say: ‘Thank for your considered and detailed comments. I will take definitely them on board’. You can then take control off the chair (who should have done a better job and stopped the diatribe minutes ago) and identify the next questioner.

Type 6: The ‘I’m testing you’ question

This question is a deliberate test. The person asking the question knows the answer. Conclusion? They too are an arsehole. They are trying to find you out, show you up. So lesson one: be prepared and know your stuff. Read widely etc. Lesson two: don’t give an answer unless you know it’s right. If you guess you may be shown up to be wrong. Which is worse? Being demonstrably wrong and showing you don’t know what you’re talking about, or being willing to admit the limits of your knowledge? The latter leads to option A.

Type 7: The question motivated by anger, rudeness, politics, emotion etc

I’ve had plenty of these.  You might not be surprised (if you’ve read my other posts) that at times I’m not afraid of saying things bluntly or challenging people. My current research is about child and family health services, and plenty of people in the audience very quickly decide that the whole topic of my study amounts to government interference in family life and should be scrapped. No matter how well I’ve done my research, they hate it anyway. Elsewhere I’ve seen ‘hatchet jobs’ where profs engage in the academic equivalent of star wars, apparently trying to dismantle each other’s careers. Alternatively there might be something unnecessary and unprofessional in the tone of the question that turns a genuine question into a rude challenge to your intelligence.

In this case, I agree with Pat that the one making an idiot of herself or himself here is not you. Don’t become complicit in the idiocy. Don’t fight fire with fire. When people tell me the idea of parent education makes them sick to the core, I say ‘Thank you. Yes, quite a few people share your views and find the idea of working with parents in this way quite troubling. Personally, I’m convinced that these services are really valuable, and that the alternative is to turn our backs on parents who are struggling, which is not something I’m comfortable with. But I acknowledge this will always be contentious’.

Pat suggests you might ask the audience what they think of what has been said (fingers crossed they don’t agree!). You could also say ‘I can see that this is an issue you feel very strongly about, for good reasons. I’m not going to try to change your mind in a few seconds here, but I equally have reasons for my topic/approach that I would be happy to discuss with you afterwards’. Of course what you then do is find someone who asked a much better question and talk to them when it’s finished instead!

Conclusion 

  1. Diagnose the question (if indeed it is a question) type and what this tells you about the questioner and her/his motives or expectations
  2. Avoid responses that fuel flames and lead to heated dialogue
  3. Be prepared to think through before giving an answer
  4. Be prepared not to give an answer
  5. Have an answer pre-prepared on your slides!
  6. For the conspiracy theorists among you: you can either conspire with arseholes who are out to get you, or with the audience who see the arseholes for what and who they are. Go for the latter. Politely.

Academics behaving badly

This is a link to a site showing a video of Professor Andrew Walker giving a talk at the ANU 3 Minute Thesis evening.

It is VERY funny, and echoes many of the points I’ve expressed in previous blog posts about academic presentations and how to really screw them up. Except he does it much better than me.

My related posts:

Guide to making presentations more effective

Your audience isn’t listening

Do what most other people do: a shockingly bad presentation, with even worse slides

A guide to making academic conference presentations more effective

Turn your conference paper upside down. State your argument, expand on it, and state it again.

That is what I am modelling in this blog post, by the way!

I’ve been more than a bit bitchy and critical of conference presenters, slides, and audiences in some recent blogs. I was challenged on twitter to offer something a bit more positive and, yes, helpful. So here goes.

What do you want?

In decreasing order of priority, I expect the outcomes you might want from your presentation might be:

  1. The audience to have a clear sense of your key take-home message, and to take it home (ie. Remember it distinctively amid all the fuzz and crap of however many sessions)
  2. The audience to value your message: to come away with a good answer to the question ‘so what?’
  3. The audience to have an impression of you as a diligent, competent and professional scholar
  4. The audience to think you’ve done your homework and read lots.

I wonder how many readers structure their presentations as if the ranking were the opposite: that the gold medal goes to point 4?

Turn it upside down

I reckon a good way to make sure you hit the most important targets first, is to turn the conventional presentation on its head (conventional in the sense of the structure I’ve seen hundreds of times over the years, and done myself often enough).

I mean, start with the end. Good morning/afternoon, the argument I’d like to make today is ….

That way, if an earthquake strikes or there’s a power cut, or you faint, it doesn’t matter: the key message has been broadcast loud and clear. Note by doing this you radically reduce the chances of the audience falling asleep, and you keep a competitive edge in the attention economics that are wooing your audience away from listening to you (see my post about conference audiences).

Then you might expand on this key argument, say what you mean, outline some different features. Maybe some theory gets thrown in here: not in an abstract explanation of concepts, but theory-in-use as applied to your research or data. In a way, you move backwards from conclusions to key findings.

Then you might say: to all you doubters out there who think I’ve made this up, here is my highly robust, well considered methodology that means you really can trust what I’ve said.

Then you might get into some of the literature and policy or other context. Instead of being boring background that is merely you reporting what others have done or said, this becomes weaponry in your quest to address the ‘so what?’ question.

You show how your argument is new, fills a gap, steps into new knowledge territory.

You show how your argument has something to say about an important issue.

You show how your argument matters now, to xxx people, for xxx reasons.

And then, just for fun, you remind everyone of your argument.

Say what you will say, say it, and say what you have said

This maxim unfortunately leads many people to start their talk with an outline of their talk. Boring and unnecessary unless you’re going to talk for an hour. Even then I’d avoid it.

What I mean is: state your argument, expand and justify it, and state your argument again.

See how this approach makes the most of what you have to say and worries less about what others have done? See how it serves the ranking of outcomes I listed above?

It’s not a spoken paper, it’s an advert for a paper

Okay, there are some conference formats, particularly in the humanities, where people sit and read out full papers from a pre-written text. Even in this (in my view rather dull and unfortunate) practice I would spice things up by putting the conclusion or a quick version of it first.

But for many of us, we have 10-15, maybe 20 minutes. I say bin a presentation based on the structure of your paper. Trying to get through the whole thing just leads to being rushed and doing no parts justice, or being slower but using up your time on the lit review.

Consider the presentation an elevator pitch for your paper.

If you are using slides, here’s a trick to have up your sleeve

Following my approach (I’ll self-aggrandise for a moment and call it the Hopwood upside-down talk), you are prioritising what you have to say over some other things, perhaps background literature, context, nitty gritty of methods.

You will finish reinforcing your key argument, so no-one is in any doubt as to what it is. But you might have skipped a few things on the way. Your audience might have noticed.

No worries.

After your final slide (which isn’t ‘thank you’ or an unreadable list of references, but which is a clear statement of your argument), you might have a few extra ones that anticipate audience questions, like: can you say more about the theory? Or what definition of xxx are you using? Or what were your sample demographics?

I saw this done by a keynote speaker. Finished talk. Audience asks ‘what about xxx?’. Present skips to next slide and bingo! An answer.

It makes you look super-smart and well-prepared. And it gives you a chance to give an even better answer because you’ve got the visuals to match it, not just a pointless ‘thank you’ slide, or, worse, a black screen.

In conclusion

Turn your presentation upside down. Start with the conclusion. Expand on and justify it. End with your conclusion. (and have a few extra bits up your sleeve).

Go on. Try it. Dare you! It is guaranteed to work*.

 

*Not at all guaranteed in any way.

Is your conference audience really listening? Some uncomfortable truths

This is a follow-up to my posts about presentations and how to bore your audience. I also intend to write one soon about conference questions and how to deal with them, building on a recent post elsewhere on this issue.

I was motivated to write it when I was advising a student preparing to give a presentation, and I was thinking about my recent conference experiences.

Here’s the basic uncomfortable truth I think is worth confronting:

Many people in the audience in academic conferences is not listening closely to what you are saying, and those who are may be on the point of switching off anyway.

Why? Several reasons, some or all of which may not apply to particular conference circumstances. But the take home message – about making yourself, what you have to say, and any visual accompaniment SUPER-UBER-HYPER-MEGA interesting – remains true. It’s like 3 minute thesis but longer, without losing any of the punchiness, engagement, or entertainment.

 

Reason 1: they’re not there to listen to you anyway

Many conferences clump papers together into longer sessions with 4 or 5 presenters, maybe 15 minutes each. If you’re lucky these are on related ideas. Commonly the links between them are somewhat spurious. Either way, chances are you are not the star presenter that has put all those bums on seats (ignoring for now the fact that it is highly likely that there are more empty seats than those warming gently under academics’ backsides). They’ve come for the guru who’s on after you, or just because the guru is the discussant or chair. Or they’ve come for their colleague who is on before you. Or maybe they are just there because that’s the room they were in for the previous session and they’ve got so absorbed in their emails / youtube / facebook that they haven’t realised the session has changed.

 

Reason 2: what you’re saying is probably boring

Many presenters make the crucial error of assuming that other people are at all interested in what they have to say. That interest should not be taken for granted. It cannot by assumed by virtue of the fact that there are people in the room (see point 1). You have to earn it. Telling them about all the policy context and all the existing literature is not a good way to do that. Their puny interest levels have already plummeted somewhere close to absolute zero and short of a change in temperate of an order of magnitude required to produce nuclear fusion, you ain’t getting it back.

 

Reason 3: what you’re showing is mind-numbingly dull too

Readers of this blog will know I’m not a huge fan of bullet points (to put it midly). Perhaps you are reading what’s on the screen, making both yourself dull and the screen irrelevant. Perhaps you’ve got an overwhelming amount of text etc etc you know the score. The point is, your slides are probably as visually appealing or aesthetically pleasing as a bland thing that fell out of the bland tree and hit every bland branch on its way down to the bland ground.

 

Or perhaps, you’ve put crap and pointless animations in or are using prezi badly and have given your audience seasickness.

 

Reason 4: you’re being utterly outclassed by the competition

I find it helpful to think of conference presentations in terms of attention economics. Attention economy is not my idea (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attention_economy) but it’s a good one.

Basically in any situation, academic presentations in particular, lots of different things are competing for each individual’s attention. On the street it’s signs, adverts, other people’s clothes, pets, hot air balloons, dog turds, whatever. In the conference the competition is fierce. It’s huge. It’s immense. It’s…

 

 

wait for it

 

 

 

 

THE INTERNET!

 

Holy sh!t. Yes. Every conference I have gone to in the past couple of years has had wifi available for delegates in session rooms.

The nice idea is that people will be tweeting about what they hear and creating online scholarly discussion. This happens. A bit. Sometimes. If there is an ‘r’ in the month. And a full moon. And nothing has happened in the news, at all, for the past 10-15 days.

The rest of the time, your audience (who are either absent, not there to hear you, or bored to tears already) are being tempted away by…. THE INTERNET!

(and for those of you who’ve seen Avenue Q, we all know what the internet is really great for, don’t we? [that was a joke btw; I’ve never used the internet for that purpose and certainly don’t condone it, particularly not in conferences; it would be very embarrassing if you got caught, for one thing])

Maybe there’s work emails piling up that they would like to delete

Maybe they’re going on google and checking out your web presence on uni websites or academia.edu and coming to the conclusion that (i) you’ve got heaps of publications that they can read later, and given this experience, should really be saying something more interesting in front of them right now, or (ii) you’ve got no publications and therefore probably aren’t worth listening to; or (iii) can’t be found on the web, therefore don’t actually exist and your presence in the room is just a clever but sadly wasteful illusion.

Maybe they’re on facebook. A little red dot has just appeared on their web browser tab telling them they have a new message and it is oh so tempting just to flick and see what it is. How tempting to flick back to your home page or the conference twitter thread? About as tempting as switching chocolate cake with hot chocolate sauce and home made vanilla ice cream for last week’s dried lentils with stale bread.

Maybe they gave up long ago and are cruising nicely through a series of youtube videos. Lady gaga’s latest, a cow falling over in a field, or something equally enthralling (compared to your presentation, that is).

Maybe they’re watching live news streaming as nothing happens outside a hospital where a famous person has been admitted, or where a royal baby hasn’t yet been born.

Even if they don’t have the internet, and there might be some luddites in the room who have these weird old fangled things called pens and paper, they still have the infinite freedom and pleasure of doodling. Seriously, and I’m being totally honest here, some of the best roller coaster designs I’ve ever come up with have been done in conferences. (Yes I’m a roller coaster fanatic and my dream job is to be a roller coaster designer).

 

So there you have it

The set-up is against you in many ways. So unless you’re really engaging and interesting, you might as well be talking to a brick wall. Your parents / supervisor / best friend in the audience don’t count. Don’t just look at them and assume everyone is paying attention like they are (maybe they’re faking it anyway, or you’ve lost them too and they are busy checking out the latest viral clip from a vacuous TV talent show).

Don’t assume they’re there because of you. Don’t forget to earn their interest. And don’t forget you have to work really hard to keep it. Because other things are working their hardest to steal any hard won attention you have got.