appreciation · balance · conferences

Leaning into the weight and being off balance

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This is me giving a conference paper in Paris a few years ago. That’s my daughter in the baby wrap thing. Those are her little legs sticking out. She had  fallen asleep right before my panel. We had just survived our first trans-Atlantic flight together. I was SO tired. I know she was too. Once she fell asleep, that was it. I was not going to disturb that nap no matter what. So I gave my paper with the lights dimmed and reveling in the white noise of the projector. I whispered. The whole time. The room was hot. I am pretty sure everyone in the room was asleep by the time I was done.

Not the greatest conference paper of my career. For sure. But I got through. And the whole thing seems very funny now.

I’ve been thinking about this moment again. There’s always a lot of talk about work-life balance and how hard it is to strike that balance. I would be the first to agree. But I’m also starting to think that, sometimes, it’s ok for things to be kind of totally unbalanced. Maybe you’re a new parent. Maybe you have to care for a parent. Maybe your partner needs you a lot all of a sudden and you need to be there for them.

When I look at this picture, I can feel how heavy my baby was. I can feel the straps cutting into my shoulders and the heat of her little head against my chest. It wasn’t exactly pleasant, but there was a kind of sweetness in that weight too and I want to hang on to that.

Let’s keep talking and staying with each other about all the craziness of this thing called work-life balance, about whether to lean in or lean out.  I don’t have a lot of grand thoughts about any of that except to say that, sometimes, things just won’t be in balance. You will try. And you will let that be good enough. And, sometimes, you will lean into the weight of the things that throw you off balance. You’ll feel it in your shoulders and your in your chest and it will probably be exhausting. Lean into that too. It’s ok.

conferences · etiquette · grad school · social media · twitter

How to Tweet at a Conference

A couple weeks ago, we had a guest post from Danielle J. Deveau on “Conference Etiquette and Privilege.” Danielle told a personal anecdote of a terrible conference panel that she attended (not the one she presented on, notably, as I imagine that would be a little too risky) in which a speaker rushed into the room 50 minutes late and then presented for 5 minutes on his research interests, proceeding afterwards to become defensive during the question period. While this story was bad, sadly it is not completely unusual, and Danielle’s post established some baseline guidelines for, well, how to present a paper at a conference, about which apparently many [especially white, male] conference presenters are unaware. As Danielle’s post implied, perhaps we should be talking more about who gets heard at conferences, and for how long. There are countless tales of panels whose presenters who drone on, who are underprepared, whose moderators do not intervene, whose “roundtable discussion” turns out to be more of a self-aggrandizing insular dialogue between eminent scholars who barely glance at the audience. I have a friend whose moderator did not show up for the panel she was on, so they just recruited some random passerby from the hallway.

As scholars devoted to questions of privilege and equitable representation, whose work is often primarily concerned with giving voice to those whom have not previously been heard, these issues should concern us. We should be noticing, when we’re at conferences or public talks, who is qualified to speak, who is being ignored during the question period, whose panels are being attended and whose aren’t. Perhaps we should be more actively engaged in making sure all panels are adequately populated, and should take it upon ourselves to–for example–attend at least one panel per conference that we normally wouldn’t. As we all know, speaking to an empty room is just as bad as having to compress one’s 20-minute talk into 5 because of lackadaisical timekeeping.

These questions are particularly urgent for graduate students or other precarious workers who have a particular stake in being heard in such professional settings. With the rise of Twitter as a conference tool and alternative discussion medium, there are now other possibilities for making sure everyone’s voice is being heard, to achieving that ideal within the humanities of a polyphony of voices and thoughts. Unfortunately that medium is sometimes abused as well, and faces similar issues of silencing, underrepresentation, and/or professional grandstanding. This past summer I had the honour of writing a guest blog for the medieval website In the Middle about the use of Twitter at academic conferences. At the risk of copping out on this post slightly, but in accordance with H&E’s recent upsurge of how-to posts (c.f. how to ask for a reference letter, how to read a book, and how to write a lecture), I’m going to adapt and repost here some of the guidelines I established in that blog, under the assumption that most of you are not medievalists and have not previously encountered it (though the original post can be found here, happyface).  I welcome your input and additions to this list, and hope that we can continue to find practical ways to acknowledge and address issues of privilege and silencing within the academy.

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How to Tweet at a Conference
In six* easy steps. 
I could even tweet these steps, wouldn’t that be meta.

1. [This is the Most Important Thing]: Every single tweet must contain named attribution to at least the last name of the presenter of the idea, ensuring that ideas remain securely pinned to their owners rather than let loose online. It is also customary to include the session and conference hashtags (see the MLA’s official recommended guidelines here). Formats such as [#conference #session] [last name pinned to the end] are fine, though it is best if the first tweet contains a fuller statement of who is presenting, followed by briefer attributions in subsequent tweets. If you are adding your own ideas to a presentation or tweeting a thought completely your own, make that clear (eg. “Brown says X, and I would add Y” or “I wonder what Brown would make of Z”). This is no different than citing other voices in our own scholarly work, and should not be difficult. (sometimes we slip up. That’s okay.)

2.     Try not to overtweet. Be aware, when tweeting, that the scholars whose ideas you are reproducing may not be thrilled to have every single point they make in their laboriously constructed paper haphazardly flung across the internet, attribution or no (and they might not think or wish to announce this preference at the beginning of their talk, as it might seem overly defensive and set a bad tone). Issues of consent and ownership are at play here, especially for young scholars.

3.     Be aware of other tweeters. When choosing to tweet in real-time, follow the session and conference hashtags and observe what other people are saying. Twitter is supposed to be a dialogue, not a monologue, and as such you should listen to the multiplicity of voices around you. Favorite and RT other tweets, make it clear that you are listening and supporting other thoughts.  

4.     Be respectful of the physical space you inhabit as you are tweeting online. Try to maintain a courteous posture, make eye contact with the speaker, take manual notes perhaps, convey a sense that you are at least as much present in the room as you are present online. Being aware of your physical body as you tweet communicates respect to the diversity of persons around you—including the speaker—and minimizes misinterpretation of your twitter-stance as rudeness or boredom.

5.     Be aware of which panels are and aren’t being represented. If one panel or paper is tweeted more than another, that panel or paper receives disproportionate representation online. I don’t fully know how to remedy this problem, but I wonder if, in the future, there should be an official “Tweeter” stationed in every room (or perhaps a job for the moderator) so that every panel and/or paper receives at least one or two summative and/or representative tweets. Until that day, just look around you and observe whose ideas are being tweeted and whose aren’t, and consider actively seeking out and tweeting an underrepresented panel.

6.     Be aware of the form of your tweet. In my opinion a good conference tweet contains both local and global (or specific and general) components: local so that there’s substance for your claim, but global so that there’s some kind of broader takeaway, and also for the benefit of those who are not at the conference. Don’t fill your tweets—at least not all of them—with esoteric facts and alienating coded details. Tweets with general instead of or as well as specific content help avoid the problem, mentioned above, of overexposing the intimate details of someone else’s argument.

Here are a couple examples of my tweets from the New Chaucer Society Congress this summer, which I would like to think contain both local and global elements (y’all go ahead and let me know if they make no sense to you), as well as careful attribution to the speaker and session.

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What about you, readers? Have you had some particularly bad (or good) experiences tweeting at conferences? Do you have anything to add (or subtract) from the list? We’re listening.

*This post has been edited to reflect the fact that there are, in fact, six tips here, not five. Thanks to the reader who brought this to my attention.  

conferences · guest post · making friends · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail

This guest post, by Megan Dean, a masters student in Philosophy at the University of Alberta, reminds us that not all subjects move through the world in the same ways, nor are all technologies and practices “selfish” in the same ways. It reminds us as well that interpersonal interactions can be asymmetrical in ways that are scary. This is a useful reminder.

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At this year’s meeting for the society for Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture, I attended a thought-provoking panel entitled “How Big is the Body?” Tracy Nicholls’ contribution contrasted the disparate experiences of listening to music with others—described in rich and vibrant language as the expansion of the body through space—and listening to an iPod—characterized as an isolating experience that effectively limits the body, foreclosing possibilities for community by buffering the earbudded individual from others’ “big bodies” which otherwise might “bump into” her. I was drawn to Nicholls’ description of communal musical experience, to the feeling of being thrown out of oneself by music. At the same time, I was troubled by her description of the ipod as a technology that entails selfish or even rude disengagement from others.

I always carry an iPod. The central reason for this is not to provide a soundtrack to my day, but to lessen the personal impact of sexual harassment. Appearing as if I can’t hear anything isn’t always effective in preventing harassers from calling out or making comments, but at least I can pretend I didn’t hear them when they do.

Two days prior to Nicholl’s talk I had been sexually harassed while in the line-up for conference registration. The incident had left me flustered and upset, and I had spent the rest of that day alone in my room, wanting to avoid running into the harasser again or having to explain my emotional state to colleagues. The harasser’s “big body” was one that I’d have been better off having never bumped into. 

Thinking through Nicholl’s paper in light of this incident, I suggest that disengagement via iPod should not be dismissed as a selfish, community-degrading practice; while it sounds counterintuitive, I think self-imposed isolation deserves consideration as a useful strategy for building moral communities, or at least for supporting the sorts of persons who can engage in that work.

Some level of personal fortitude is important for political engagement, especially where one’s politics is a fundamentally critical one. Such a politics suggests that one will be regularly disgusted, frustrated, and outraged by the everyday behaviour of institutions and individuals. Dissatisfaction, anger, and frustration generated by such encounters can be productive and motivate people to become politically active. It can also be dis-enabling and self-destructive. I draw strength from feminist colleagues and friends, whose support helps me withstand “bumping into” the bodies of “normal” individuals—normal meaning sexist, racist, ableist, and speciesist—without devolving into rigid bitterness, apathy, or ressentiment. Even with this support, the harassment left me upset and frustrated. The fact is that most of us are more than aware that sexual harassment exists and calls for a response. Being harassed one more time did little to enhance my appreciation of this. What it did do is undermine my confidence and lead me to withdraw from an important professional event. Having an option to strategically avoid, however imperfectly, situations like this one merits consideration as a tool for preserving personal well-being and avoiding some of the very real negative individual consequences of sexual harassment.

So while I am sympathetic to the imperative to open ourselves to others in the interest of building better, more equitable and just communities, and I am certain that in many cases, we should confront what (or who) is problematic face to face, we should consider the political and personal value of occasionally sticking the earbuds in and tuning those big, “normal” and unfortunately sexist bodies out.

Megan Dean

advice · conferences · heavy-handed metaphors

Conference Papers Are Like Movie Trailers

It’s Congress. I’ve been to see a lot of conference papers. Some of them have been excellent and some of them have not; some of them have been inspiring and some have been boring and/or deeply frustrating. And I have an idea that I think can describe the essential quality that separates a really good conference paper from a poor one. It’s an analogy.

A conference paper is to academic research what a movie trailer is to a feature film.

Let’s just come out and admit it: it’s really hard to convey the nuance and weight of a big scholarly undertaking in a 15 or 20 minute paper. After all, most of us aspire to write books, 80 000 or 100 000 words long, and many of us produce one or two 6000-8000 word articles a year, and chafe at what the length restrictions do to our expression of our ideas. So if an a book isn’t always long enough, and an article is almost always too short for our liking, what of the conference paper? I’ve given something like 15 different conference papers in the last 10 years and I know for certain that 15 minutes is no more than 3000 words. Barely half an article!!!

Some oft-deployed strategies in light of this reality:

  • Pretend that you can read 6000 words aloud in 15 minutes
  • Hope the audience is so engrossed they just hand over all the panel to your talk
  • Pray that the moderator does not cut you off
  • Imagine you can cut words on the fly, while you talk, with an eye on the clock
  • Cut out most of the text to hit the requirements, but extemporize the ideas back in while you present
  • Curse the “time constraints” imposed by the format as the moderator drags you away from the podium

This is all foolish and annoying. If you read really fast, I can’t understand what you’re saying. If you are allowed to go overtime, I always resent that you are eating up the time belonging to the other panellists. Besides, I had mentally prepared myself to hear an argument that arced over 15 minutes. Go longer and I get confused and thrown off the pace. If the moderator won’t stop you, I get very fidgety, like a sheep dog who sees a sheep hop the fence. I can’t relax until order is restored. If you cut on the fly, you look disorganized. If you interrupt your own text to add in all the missing details it comes across pompous. And if you make a remark about how the “time constraints” are crushing you I get stabby, because you proposed a 15 minute paper and should hardly be surprised to only have 15 minutes to deliver that paper.

Why don’t we think of the conference paper like a movie trailer?

A movie trailer is meant to cover the gist of the thing, to draw your attention to a particular movie, to make you seek out the full-length thing. The way we give conference papers now, often, is akin to creating a movie trailer that is two hours of movie sped up into an incomprehensible and boring 2 minute clip. Or we just play the first two minutes of the movie, which is just the opening credits and one clever shot, and then bemoan that you can’t really “get” what the movie is about from that. Everyone knows a movie trailer is not the same thing–can’t do the same things–as a full-length movie. I think we should learn a similar lesson about the relationship between conference papers and full-length scholarship.

A really good conference paper, I think, presents your idea in such a way that everyone gets the gist … and everyone wants to know more. Hit the highlights: if you had one weird finding among ten others, that is leading you in a new direction, just talk about the one. Show the chase scene: some parts of your research are more amenable to delivery in 15 minute chunks and some are less–a close reading of one poem using a particular slant, say, rather than the literature review that undergirds your development of that slant. Simplify the plot: maybe the article you’re writing makes three main points–in a conference paper, you should just do one of them. Maybe you can do two more conference papers, devoted to the other points. Like a comedy/action/romance movie, you cut one trailer for air on Sportsnet, and another one for air during The View.

Maybe we’re all afraid people will think we’re dumb if we create engaging, comprehensible, well-paced, on-time conference papers. (Crazy, huh? But very true, no?) But when I do my conference papers like movie trailers, I find that people tell me instead that they want to know more: have I published something on this? Can they read it? Can we have lunch? What’s my Twitter? If they think I’ve skimmed over something important, they’ll ask about it during the question period–and when everyone sticks to time, we can actually HAVE a question period–and I can explain it more fully then, to someone who actually cares about that one point.

So that’s my pitch. Think of the conference paper like a movie trailer, because all the speed-reading and complaining about ‘time constraints’ has been continuing fruitlessly for the 15 years I’ve been giving papers, so we have to find a different solution, I think.

What do you think?

conferences · faculty evaluation · going public · outreach · writing

Guest Post: Recycling is not a bad thing

Our first guest post of the ‘summer’! Jo Van Every had the classic experience of writing a humongous comment on a post here, and then watching it get eaten by Blogger. Luckily for us, she channeled her disappearing-comment energies into writing a full-fledged post, and it’s very topical: as conference season launches, it’s a good time to think about the “communication of scholarly results,” as our funders express it.

Enjoy!

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This post was inspired by Aimée’s post Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. I have used examples from her post for the sake of convenience. Feel free to substitute names of journals and conferences in your field as you read.

I’ve written on my own blog about the tensions between publishing for validation and publishing for communication. While you will be judged (and validated as a scholar) based on your publications, the primary reason for publishing and presenting your work at conferences, public lectures, or wherever, should be to communicate.

If you have a communication orientation to your work, the recycling issue appears in a very different light.

Audience makes a difference

The list of occasions on which Aimée had presented similar work looked to me like it spanned a range of different audiences:

I’ve been joking that what I’ve been creating this week, in preparation, is a “Frankenpaper”: parts of Saturday’s 15 minute conference paper is built from text I created for a public talk in the Digital Media Series at Stratford, reworked for a lecture celebrating 50 years of the Faculty of Arts at UW, and then reframed in a minor way for an invited lecture hosted by the MA in Humanities at Laurentian University in Sudbury. Incidentally, those talks all revisited ideas and prose I first considered and wrote in 2005, for the Reader’s Forum of English Studies in Canada. Still with me? Okay. My conference paper is also built from an article I’ve recently submitted to Biography–which was written from the ideas I pulled together for a different conference paper for last summer’s International Auto/Biography Association conference in Sussex. Oops, I did pull stuff right from the conference paper, too, that I had removed from the article version of that research. The Keynote slides draw from the Stratford/Arts/Sudbury presentation, as well as from the IABA presentation.

The audiences for those various public talks are unlikely to overlap. Local events, like celebrations of 50 years of the Faculty of Arts, draw a local crowd. Public talks have a different audience from academic conferences. And different academic conferences have different groups of people. The Auto/Biography crowd are not the same as the English Studies crowd. (I know, for example, that there are sociologists in the former.)

The same can be said for different print (or online) publications. The people who read Biography are not the same as the people who read English Studies in Canada. And they certainly aren’t the same people who read journals in communication studies, digital media, or whatever.

The fact that you’ve heard it before doesn’t mean everyone in your audience has heard it before.

Audience also affects the content

In addition, each of those presentations/publications will not be exactly the same.

All research communication contributes to ongoing conversations. Those may be formal theoretical conversations happening in peer reviewed academic journals. Or they may be public debates taking place in the mainstream media and people’s living rooms. The general public are interested in your research in a different way than the students in an MA in Humanities, or your disciplinary colleagues at an academic conference. And you want to communicate something different to those different audiences, too. You will be engaging with them in different ways.

You will also contextualize your findings (empirical, conceptual, theoretical) in ways that are relevant to a particular audience. A paper for the International Auto/Biography Association will be different from a paper for English Studies in Canada because you have to make different assumptions about the audience’s familiarity with particular debates that you engage with, at the very least. A public presentation on Digital Media is more likely to be contextualized in public debates happening in mainstream media than theoretical debates happening in academic journals.

Chances are that you are publishing/presenting to those different audiences because you have contributions to make to different debates and those debates are happening in different places. Although the content overlaps, you have something slightly different to say about your research to those different audiences.

Again, just because you’ve said this before doesn’t mean you have. Or that you’ve said it in a way that this audience can engage with.

People need to hear what you have to say

Presenting/publishing in multiple venues is not “recycling” so much as giving people multiple opportunities to come across your work. If you only produce one publication/presentation from a given research project, you rely on the people that need to know what you’ve discovered/created finding that one place where you’ve told anyone about it.

It’s like the proverbial light under the bushel. It’s there. And if you know it’s there and lift up the bushel basket, you can see the light. But most people aren’t going to notice. If you have something worth saying, it’s worth saying in venues (live, online, in print) where the people who need to hear it can find it easily. You don’t need big gaudy neon signs but you need to be visible.

In doing this remember that any oral presentation is reaching a much smaller potential audience than a written publication. People are there to hear it or not. Whereas a print (including online) publication can be engaged with at another time, even years later. One reason to turn your academic conference papers into academic journal articles is to make them accessible to people that weren’t there, including people that won’t even be interested in your topic until 2 years from now. And if you want to reach people who don’t read academic journals, you need to also publish your work in venues they frequent — blogs, magazines, public talks, etc.

That ability to access the paper asynchronously (to use the fancy online learning jargon) also means that readers/listeners can refer others to your work. Maybe Jane heard your paper at that conference and thought it was really interesting. She knows people who could really use that knowledge. Is there a way for her to tell people about it and get them access to what you presented/published?

Validation is still important

The processes that validate your work as an academic only recognize some of those publications: the ones that communicate to audiences they value. If you want recognition and validation by peers in your discipline then presenting at conferences in your discipline and publishing in peer reviewed journals in your discipline is important. The fact that you also communicate to peers in cognate disciplines or interdisciplinary fields is likely to enhance your reputation in your field. Those publications will probably not substitute for publications in your discipline.

Communicating to non-academic audiences may also be valued in this additional way, though peers are likely to wonder what the time you spend on that is taking away from things they value more.

The question is, why are you writing/presenting? Who do you want to reach? What do you value? Organize your publication/presentation strategy accordingly.

In the end, you are probably more at risk of publishing too little than publishing too much. Stop worrying about recycling.