Thursday, May 31, 2012

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?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Humanities writing without a formula, but with a plan

I was just reading David Perlmutter's latest column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, on procrastination. (I was, OBVIOUSLY, procrastinating on writing this blog post, nyuk, nyuk.) It's all very sensible and you should go read it.

However, one bit of advice struck me as very likely to frustrate humanities academics, particularly graduate students embarking on dissertation writing. This particular bit of advice came from the section called "What is the real deadline?" but it might have fit under the section called "Create a master plan" as well. The advice is:

One anti-procrastination measure I've seen employed by "on time" academics is to create mini-deadlines that break down the completion of a larger project into smaller segments. Think multiple train stops on the way to the final destination. When I co-write a paper under a conference deadline, for example, I ask my partners to finish the introduction by a certain date, the methodology section by a subsequent date, and so on.

The problem with writing in the humanities is that our work proceeds differently than in the social sciences, even, let alone the hard sciences or other experimental disciplines. Our papers are not broken down into discrete, standard sections like "Introduction," "Literature Review," "Methodology," "Results," or "Discussion." Each piece of writing, if done really well, develops its own organizing structures.

So advice like Perlmutter's (and he's by no means alone in advocating planning and mini-deadlines) can be very frustrating for novice writers in the humanities. First, we may bitterly laugh at the idea that we even know what sections our papers or dissertations or books will have, let alone any idea of how long each might take to "write up." Second, the idea that any such eventual sections can be tackled on their own and completed in some sort of sequence is also seen as some kind of lunacy. Arguments in humanities writing tend to .... loop, to iterate, to shift, to frustrate and surprise their writers in equal measure and at every turn. Every sentence, every section, every chapter from the very first to the very last might be getting substantially revised until the very last day of writing. Once, I wrote an article about You've Got Mail. I wrote for two months on one interpretation of the film (the use of email is hopelessly naive and futuristic) and ultimately published it arguing something completely different, after another two months of writing (the use of email is nearly nostalgic, and returns the genre to its 1930s roots). Who knew that would happen? Not me. And the idea that I could have mapped out the sections in April to complete them in stepwise forward motions until submission in August would have struck me as at once hubristic and completely clueless.

Why the disconnection? It comes down, I think to the notion of "data" or "data collection" or "experiment"--in a really meaningful, fundamental way, in humanities disciplines, the process of scholarly writing is itself the act of research, of experiment, and the texts we are producing constitute the data we are analysing, as well as the analysis. So in the humanities we may strike upon an idea, and begin to read up on it, often quite substantially. But the "experiment" we perform is the act of analysis that develops in the course of writing, not before.

So. Anyways.

How can a writer in the humanities disciplines benefit from all the great advice to plan, to create mini-deadlines, and such? I think, because of the way our research, experimentation, and "write-up" are all so deeply intertwingled, we may be even more prone to procrastination than other writers, from the sheer impenetrability of the problem and its lack of steps, if nothing else.

I have a couple of suggestions. They must work, because I did manage to get that romcom paper finished in the time I had allotted, for example.

Here goes:

Plot hours on task, rather than milestones. I think we can roughly estimate how long a scholarly article takes to write, once we start writing them. Novice writers might ask their supervisors or mentors. I know that an 8000 word article takes me ... about two months-ish if that's all I'm doing (sabbatical), and three-ish if I'm doing other things too (research term). Eight months if I'm writing during the teaching term. Once I get to the part where my reading and knowledge is deep-ish enough that I'll say to my husband, "Dammit, I'm going to write an article about this because everyone else is wrong," that's when I start the clock. If I work on it about three or four hours a day, I'm done in two months. So all I need to keep track of are the hours I'm spending on the project, and I can be pretty sure when I'll get it done. This allays my worries and keeps me on track.

Count total words and pages read and written, rather than milestones. I just wrote a book chapter on Facebook using auto/biography theory and design theory. It was solicited for a collection with a contract, so there was a Real Deadline*. The task seemed overwhelming and my ideas were spinning out in a million directions. How I got my focus was just to write random shit down, every day, all the time. I could easily--I mean, very very easily--produce anywhere from 200 to 4000 words of freewriting every day based on what I was reading and thinking. For the 8000 word piece, I ultimately wrote about 20,000 words of ... random stuff. Now I've got the seeds of a couple of other pieces as well. Early on, I told myself I just had to get two pages of random writing done everyday, related to the project. Or I had to read one article related to the project every day. Caveat: you may be tempted to just read all the time, because you feel not adequately prepared to write. This is a mistake. Start writing right away, even if it's only marginalia in what you're reading.

Race through it like a puppy just release from his crate. Maybe you sit down, to face that section on Thing Theory, but while you were brushing your teeth you had an idea about personification and Internet tools. For God's sake, write down your new idea and keep writing about it until you run out of steam. And if, partway through, you stumble on a great blog post on materiality and capitalism, that links to three articles you are desperate to read, read them. You can't do this everyday, but it is foolish to squander enthusiasm. The days are longer than you think, so if you go off on a related tangent for 20 minutes or 2 hours, you're still moving forward without jeopardizing your thinking on Thing Theory. Do that after lunch. Follow your enthusiasm, particularly at the beginning of a project. Generate enough ideas and sources and writing and notes that when you're well and truly stuck, you have something to work with.

Facing the totality (write an article this summer, or else! Get dissertation done by next summer!) is too daunting and procrastination is inevitable. Inevitable. But creating a detailed outline in advance is not possible in humanities writing, I think. So find other ways to create smaller tasks and more frequent little deadlines that are not based on completion but rather on volume or time, and you'll get it done. You will.

"Lemme out! I just had this idea that Facebook users are creating
self-biography rather than autobiography!"


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* True story! I had this idea it would take me two months to write, during the teaching term. I wrote precisely nothing. So even I need some help remembering my own advice. I got a new deadline, two months from the start of my sabbatical. Nailed that one! YEAHH!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Breathe!

It has come to my attention recently that I hold my breath. What does this have to do with academia? Probably everything.

I hold my breath when I am nervous, when I am excited, when I am thinking, and when I am working. I hold my breath when I watch television. I especially hold my breath when I fret, and goodness knows this is a profession that facilitates fretting.

I may well have reached a new fretting-record in the last few months. Between teaching four courses, travelling to several conferences, attempting to write, and trying to keep my personal life afloat at home and with my friends I suspect I have held my breath for a sum total of about six weeks. Sometimes I feel kind of smug about being able to 'handle' the stress of the schedule I keep. Lately though, I have felt like lying on the floor and drinking wine through a straw while watching reruns of Mad Men. The end of the semester always leaves me feeling depleted and even more breathless than usual, and not in a Godard/Truffaut kind of way. My thought pattern goes something like this: I have accomplished so much! And there is so much more to do! So much! All of the things must be done! I will write a book! I will make bread from scratch! I will write a book while making bread from scratch and learning French and teaching a spring course!

Gasp.

I practice yoga pretty regularly and have just started working on drop-backs. Drop-backs require that you go from standing at the front of your mat to ending up in a backbend. The in-between bit is where the dropping comes in: to make it into a drop-back you have to have a balance between leaning forward from the waist down in order to counter gravity. You also have to lean waaaay back from the wait up and look toward the floor. Somewhere between upright and upside down your hands catch you and voila! You have dropped back. It looks a little like this:


Well, actually my drop-backs look nothing like this, but you get the picture. Here's where the breathing comes in: if you hold your breath at any stage of this crazy set of moves things do not proceed well. I get tunnel vision, constriction in my chest, and find it hard to think straight and remember seemingly obvious actions such as 'place hands on floor to save head.'

The third or fourth time through this morning--after having forgotten each time to breathe--I asked my teacher why it was so difficult. It was a rhetorical question, I did not expect him to answer, but he did. He told me that I was thinking too much. As I thought about that he tipped me backwards quickly. I had no time to think, I just popped my hand down and landed. He did this several times in a row. It felt like I was moving faster than a speeding metronome. And just like that I realized that I was breathing without thinking about it.

Huh. Heavy-handed metaphor for surviving academia? Yes. Compelling for me today? Yes.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Guest Post: The Year of Living Emotionally - Taking/Making Time as an Academic


Today's guest post comes from Pamela Ingleton, a PhD candidate at McMaster University. You can read her blog or follow her on Twitter (@PamelaIngleton). I admire the way she links the more personal side of her life with her studies in this post. It's useful to bring these connections more out into the open, I think.

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Prefatory Note: I swear this isn’t a note of apology to my supervisory committee, though it might read like one…

It’s been one helluva year. I feel as if, over the past twelve months, I’ve reached my highest high and lowest low, with a whole lot of everything in between. A year ago I was dragging my exhausted self through the final pages of my comprehensive examinations, completely worn out from an overbooked conferencing schedule and a bout of depression that made getting out of bed an accomplishment worth celebrating. Somehow, on the heels of this, I wrote, submitted, defended and passed my comps, and just in time—as the final answers rolled off my tongue in the defense room, my already hoarse voice slipped away, and I entered the next marked period of my 2011, to be comprised of four months/rounds of an uber-cold/flu (otherwise known as, “you’ve put your body and mind through the wringer, and now you’re going to pay for it”).

But if the first half of 2011 was a bit of a stinker, well, the latter half was akin to that montage you inevitably get forty-five minutes into a romantic comedy. Having never really dated anyone before (oh the ease with which I type this now, compared to the fear and shame with which I lived it before), I somehow stumbled my way into a surprisingly terrific, now serious and long-term relationship, and my first. Where sadness, depression, illness and general malaise kept me (partly) from my work in the winter/spring, tummy butterflies, elation, walks in the park and general upliftedness were keeping me (partly) from it now, especially since the person-in-question was in all likelihood to be moving away at any moment. (He’s still here.)

I’m not entirely sure these are things I should be sharing with you. As a humanities scholar (or, you know, a thinking/feeling person), I want to believe I can honestly express my feelings and recount past events without suffering the repercussions of such revelations later. I don’t want to be someone reluctant to discuss mental health, when occurrences such as the one I have described briefly above are all too common. So here I am, giving it the old college try.

What I want to say is, my work suffered at the expense of my life this year, and looking back (with my annual committee meeting around the corner), I’m…not a tad bit sorry for it. Now to be fair, it’s not as if I accomplished nothing since last April; post-comps I busied myself with a bibliography course, a long proposal, several CFPs, a handful of publications and two RAs (hello, thesis committee!). But there was work that got put off, and I have decided to own that putting-off in a way I never have before.

I felt every second of this past year, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. But I wouldn’t give up a second of it, not for a completed chapter, or a whole thesis, for that matter. Life happened for awhile; if that makes me a “bad academic,” well, I suppose there are worse things one could be.

Monday, May 7, 2012

It would be an honour

Here's an awkward conversation I had last week:

Him: "Yes, the talk you've outlined sounds perfect, and of course we're looking forward to hearing it. But I'm calling to settle another matter with you. What's your usual speaking fee?"

Me, after picking myself up off the floor from a dead faint: "Um, err, oh, it's, I goes ... zero? I'm an academic. I'm usually just glad someone has asked me to talk."

Him: "Okay. No. How about $250?"

Me: "Of course. That sounds great. Thank you."

Yes, it's a post about honoraria. Honorariums? I don't know. The money people pay you to talk about your research, money that's not your salary. Money that's not your travel or food expenses. Ideas money.

It's all very awkward. No one ever told me about honoraria when I was a grad student, just like they never told me about negotiating for royalty payments for a textbook. And here I am with both issues somehow having become current in my life. The only thing I ever remember hearing about "speaking fees" was of a Famous Postmodernist who extorted a very large speaking fee from a university I attended, and then read to the eager crowd an excerpt from a book he'd published ten years earlier. The idea I gained from that anecdote and others was twofold. First, superstars get fees, and they're big. Like prohibitively, we can't afford her, four digits big. Second, there's a whiff of jackassery and arrogance about the whole notion of charging money for talking about your research.

Okay, I guess it was threefold, because I also picked up the idea that writing and speaking that paid was not real research. You know that's true: textbooks bring their authors lots of money and monographs are often subsidized by money the author somehow finds to give to the press. Which book earns the author a gold star at review time?

Last year, I was invited to another university to give a talk in a lecture series. They told me up front that they would pay all my travel and subsistence expenses. And they said there would be a modest honorarium, but they didn't say how much. This year, I gave a plenary address to nearly 200 high school students at a symposium, and I had written the paper before I found out that there was going to be an honorarium, and how much. I gave a keynote to a small gathering of scholars and found out after the event was finished that there was going to be an honorarium. I won't know how much until it arrives, I guess.

I have written about social media and the professoriate for a Reader's Forum in a scholarly journal, gratis. I have written about collaboration and the humanities for University Affairs, with Heather and Erin, for a fee. It's all a mystery, frankly. I am making, I discover, a gagillion dollars a year from the Canadian edition of the textbook I work on, but the American author makes several gagillion more, but exactly how much is a mystery to me.

We don't, I guess I'm saying, talk in very clear or explicit ways about money in this business. Should we? Myself, I do a lot of knowledge dissemination work, which is to say, media and public talks and such. Some of it is paid and some of it isn't, but we never talk about it beforehand. I have been recompensed along a sliding scale from nothing (local TV, talks at the library, most academic gigs), through logo-emblazoned coffee cups (The Current), to cash money plus a bottle of wine (private high school).

I am always honoured to be asked. The honorarium is never top of mind. Should it be? Or middle of mind? What do you think about the issue? I find it all terribly awkward and perplexing, but it is nice to be paid for things, sometimes at least. I don't know, seriously, I just don't know what I think about the issue. You?