I’ve been handing out a lot of this of late, so I thought I would centralize it here. Maybe you’re presenting at your first conference, or maybe it’s not your first time but it’s a really major meeting and you lack confidence. Either way, perhaps you should consider these points. Don’t be one of those people who give dire conference papers that everyone remembers for the wrong reasons.

1. It’s a conference paper, not a journal article

These two genres are very different, yet many people – especially in the humanities – treat them as if they are the same. In other words, to prepare a conference paper, many humanities students/academics sit down and write. They produce elegantly phrased sentences of complex construction. They delay the moments of ‘big reveal’, maybe by opening with an evocative quotation or posing a puzzling question that won’t be answered until the end. These strategies might work fine in a written version (although, actually, I advocate coming clean on what your argument right from the beginning even in print), but a conference audience can’t flip back and forth through the pages to double check they know who Llywelyn ap Gruffydd is, or what the quote you used said. Take pity on them! Plan your paper from the outset with the awareness that it is an aural object, designed to be spoken aloud and received by listening. This awareness will lead you to the following points…

2. People have to be able to follow your argument in real time

Signpost. Signpost. Signpost. State your argument (and even its parts) right from the beginning. When you (and the audience) arrive at a new part of the argument, say so. Explain why the audience should care before you launch into each new quote, or complex description of influences on an idea. If you expect them to indulge you in an extended aside, say that that is what you’re doing. Tell them when you return to the main point. Give people plenty of hooks and ‘stage directions’ so they can follow you as you speak in real time.

3. You only have time for one key argument

Don’t try to cram your entire thesis on a given topic into 20 minutes. Although it may all be relevant to the title you proposed (oh so long ago!), it will just push you over time, and clutter your audience’s mind. Plus, I think it’s simply bad manners when lots of other speakers (many of them dutiful higher degree students) will have worked hard to make sure they keep on time, and everybody’s time is valuable.

As you begin to prepare, sit down and deconstruct your larger argument to its skeletal outline. Reflect: who is my audience? How much background will they already have? What will I need to explain so that everyone can follow me? Once you’ve dealt with the context that is essential to allow an intelligent non-specialist to follow your ideas, you won’t have a lot of time for complex exposition. Stick to the key point, and save the flourishes for the written version. Maybe your argument has lots of parts… but probably you only have time to deal with some of them. So what will you prioritize? What is the main ‘take home message’ you want to convey. Like Nick Hopwood, I’d encourage you to get it out in the open from the opening words – and then stick to it.

4. The details are devils

In a written version of a paper, you will give extensive footnotes, and probably provide a number of examples or pieces of evidence for each point in your argument. These details do not all belong in a spoken version, however. See points two and three! Just as you must reduce your argument to its essential skeletal outlines, you must be ruthless about how much evidence is needed to illustrate it in this format. Some will be essential in order for people to see, recognize the validity of, and remember your central point. But the rest can wait for extended treatment in print.

5. Only use visual aids if they help

Some presentations naturally work better with a bit of visual assistance. For example, if you’re going to rely on the physical layout of a document to draw some conclusions, having an image of it will no doubt be useful. Or you might want a family tree so that the audience can keep track of the relationships between lots of individuals. This might work best on the old fashioned handout. Or it might be ideal for a Power point or similar projected technology. But never, ever, do this gratuitously. A pointless power point slide show just makes people wonder if that’s where you put your energy instead of into refining your ideas. And if you are going to use visual aids, work to integrate them into your presentation actively – rather than just distributing the handout / whacking up the slides without comment and forgetting about them. When it works, visual supplementation is great. When it doesn’t, it looks – and is – redundant, and detracts from your work.

Any other tips from your experience?

Turns out it’s really very hard to concentrate on finishing writing a grant application when some misguided idiot is lighting fires all along the nearest freeway on a day when it’s 39°C with high winds and there are sirens going by every ten minutes. Who knew?

[Edit 1: and now we have the water helicopters... Time to make sure I have a copy of all my important files backed up to the cloud, me thinks!]

Water Bomber at the Riddell’s Creek fire (Photo, jaytown1 via Instagram)


[Edit 2: What fun. The last five hours have been occupied 'enacting my fire plan'... packing up dogs, valuables and bottled water, hosing the exterior of the house, watching the wind changes and listening to ABC emergency broadcasts. Patches of frenetic activity interspersed with patches of sheer boredom, but no option of turning off the radio to focus, so no grant writing! I hope the Faculty is understanding tomorrow...]


[Edit 3: For those who were asking/wondering, my Faculty is ACE! Very kindly gave me the extra day's grace I requested once I explained the circs. Kudos to them.]

I have a lot of postgraduate students among my friends, and among this august group one reaction has been fairly prominent since I handed in and subsequently passed my doctoral thesis. Students, who are still embedded in the higher degree process, often think that there’s something special about me and/or my work, and that some aspect of this exceptionalism is what has carried me over the line at both submission and passing stages, whereas for them everything will naturally be much more difficult. This is rot. As Research Degree Voodoo recently reminded us:

A doctoral thesis is about 80,000 words (or your discipline’s equivalent) of academic writing that describes a research project that should take about 3 years and can be carried out by someone just starting out as a researcher.

Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s (probably) not a nobel prize. It’s (probably) not the best work you’ll ever do.

If there is one thing about me in particular that helped me achieve completing this PhD, it is the fact that I have done it before. I already held a PhD in neuroscience, and although the content and the quotidian processes of producing it were utterly different, the intellectual and emotional processes were very closely related. If you just plod through your candidature, keeping fairly abreast of what is required and doing ‘stuff’ regularly, completing actually boils down to a fairly simple matter. It’s about knowing when enough is enough; about keeping in perspective the fact that this is ‘just a PhD’ and not your Life’s Work; keeping the panicked voice of your inner perfectionist at bay while being able to say: ‘yes, of course I could go on and do about 100 more experiments, or rush off to a new archive and translate a bunch more charters, or whatever, but what I’ve got here is a respectable, original contribution, albeit not particularly earth-shattering in its importance. It is enough.’

The other piece of wisdom that two rounds of doctoral study have taught me is that by the time you get to the end, nothing you’ve worked on feels new any more. It’s very easy to give way to a sense of despair and, throwing up your hands, cry out ‘it’s all a waste, because nothing I’ve done is actually new or interesting! Surely everybody already knows all of this by now, and I’ll fail for not having contributed anything to knowledge. Therefore, I must now… [return to point 1, above].’ Resist this impulse. Your work feels old to you because you’ve been thinking about it fairly constantly for three or more years; but nobody else has. That’s the point. That’s why your work is yours, and original.

None of these things is easy to realise or tell yourself when you’re within the process (even if you have done it before!), but they’re all true. So if you’re nearing the end of your candidature, next time you get in a panic don’t try and reinvent the wheel, or assume you need three extra chapters, or another six months. Just stop and ask yourself – is it enough? and is it mine? Or if you can’t figure it out for yourself, ask a trusted friend. The answers are probably yes and yes. You’re probably nearly finished.

So! (or rather Hwæt!)[1] My dissertation has just been passed, and it’s winging its electronic way to the printer and binder as I type (hat tip: I always use White’s, whenever I do a PhD!). One day, perhaps soon, it will be a book which all of you can read (if you can be bothered… if not, I’ll forgive you. Probably.). But the book won’t be quite the same, and it certainly won’t have quite the same acknowledgements in the front. In reflecting on the journey from thesis to book, it occurred to me that since this version will ultimately be read by few people, very few people will ever see the list of thank-yous that were important enough for me to put in the acknowledgements section. So I’m sharing them with you here, just so that my thanks are on record publicly, and because lots of people out there are awesome, friendly, helpful, wonderful colleagues, and that should be celebrated!

Read the rest of this entry »

The Close Rolls reveal that on December 14th, 1286, while Edward I was in Gascony, his cousin Edmund, Earl of Cornwall, witnessed the enrollment of a settlement among the heirs and parceners of Stephen de Bocton, a tenant-in-chief, lately deceased.[1] Stephen was survived by his wife and three daughters, two of whom were married. There were thus six people with a direct interest in the division of Stephen’s estate. Interestingly, among the lands and income to which they were now entitled were a number of rents specifically attached to various feast days, including Christmas. Presumably such rents enabled lords to entertain their important allies and tenants at banquets to mark these important moments in the liturgical, social and political calendar. After all, we know that ostensive feasting was an integral part of alliance formation and maintenance, and by no means insignificant in maintaining the dignity of lordship that enabled land holders to command the respect of their neighbours and dependents.[2] Even those who weren’t invited may have ‘feasted’ on the news of the rich dishes and their staggering variety.

I imagine, then, that the division of the Christmas rents may have been among the articles of inheritance that were hotly contested or at least seriously debated and considered in the course of reaching the settlement, because it is far from clear that all parties got an equal share of the festive goodies:

  • 26 ½ hens and a cock to Idonea, Stephen’s eldest daughter and her husband Thomas de Gatesden.[3]
  • 25 hens and two cocks, and a hundred horse-shoes to Joan, Stephen’s second daughter and her husband Ralph de Otringden.
  • 29 hens and a cock to Isolda, Stephen’s third daughter.
  • nothing for Matilda, Stephen’s widow – or at least nothing recorded in this entry on the Close Rolls.[4]
image from wikimedia commons

Fowl, I say! Image from wikimedia commons

Oh boy, I have been waiting a long time for this kind of software to be free and accessible to mere mortals, and finally, it is here! This is the preliminary result of me testing out a piece of shareware devoted to displaying frequency analyses as pretty cloud diagrams.[1] Basically all I’ve done here is paste a random, small assortment of Latin letter transcriptions from TNA, SC 1 (familiar to many readers here) into an online tool I recently discovered, called Wordle, and play with the display settings until I liked what I saw:

latin cloud

How cool is that?! In one visual sweep, you can start to pick out the most commonly recurring elements of vocabulary (granted, in declined form – but maybe that’s important and interesting in a different way from the stem lemma…).

My next project is to build some select files so that word clouds can be compared between, for instance, letters to the King, and those sent in his name; or letters from men, compared to letters from women… Such tantalizing possibilities! Bring on the summer!


[1] Perhaps it’s the scientist in me, but I often find visual data so much clearer to deal with. Give me a nice graph and a regression line, and we know where we stand – including the awareness that those little lines/dots/asterisks are a product of fallible human intent and design, rather than any kind of all-knowing objectivity whether derived from or metaphorically similar to an ultimate deity. Got that? Good.

When you’re not writing a dissertation 25 hours a day, 8 days a week, you have time to stop and listen to things like this…

It just doesn’t seem right. I’ve sent my dissertation to the printer, only eleven minutes after I had planned to do so. Perhaps it could have done with another hour or two of proof reading, but by the bitter end, I just wanted to get the thing off my desk. And I did! Hoorah! Except… it didn’t really feel like ‘hoorah!’.

Something people don’t warn higher degree students about is that achieving the ‘ultimate goal’ of completion and submission can be not so much relieving as overwhelming. In the moments after pressing ‘send’, I actually felt physically ill and head-achy. I was cold, shaking, and fidgety. ‘What if the examiners think its bollocks? What if I forgot to include that final reference on page 51? What if I accidentally submitted the version from yesterday, before I double checked the page numbers and margins?’ And worst of all, ‘what if someone asks me how I feel?’ The delicate house of cards that is the intensely-focused self control a completing doctoral student must draw around him or herself could have collapsed in an instant. When you’ve been living in your office for weeks on end with about five hours sleep a night and taking your calories mainly in liquid caffeinated form, let’s just say it all gets rather fragile. Pass the tissues!

For me, the only way to cope with this extremely unsettling sensation turned out to be a long walk, an enormous cooked breakfast, paracetamol and half a day of aimless window shopping. Whatever it takes, right? Maybe in a few days’ time I will feel elated, but the enormity of completing something so large and significant in one’s life will take some processing. For now, I’m just glad to be over the initial panic. And I suspect I got off lightly.

In the last few weeks of frantic work, keeping the lid on emotional disturbance was a priority. In order to work effectively, I did an awful lot of deep breathing, quite a lot of running up the stairs to the eleventh floor and back, and a lot of talking sternly to myself aloud. I drank probably toxic amounts of peppermint tea and consumed way more cheap chocolate than was good for my waistline. I somehow learned to function at a mental level while my senses were dancing a tarantello. At one point I even suffered from the very unpleasant sensation that my right hand belonged to someone else, and that insects were crawling all over my body, (Delerium tremens, but without the whisky. Where’s the fun in that?)

Clearly, there were some pretty serious stress metabolites to be processed after living through all of this while remaining single-mindedly focused on a goal, so it’s not really a wonder if I needed to ‘crash and burn’. But these are the things about academic life that don’t often get aired in public. They can take you by surprise, even though they’re probably common.

Managing the emotional side of doing academic work doesn’t get the attention it deserves. There are lots of workshops students can attend about time management, using Endnote, university policies and procedures, performing statistics, using library search functions, writing CVs, and so on. It’s easy to focus on managing the information because it’s clear that this has to be done. It’s not possible to produce a thesis that coherently expresses complex thoughts without that underlying structure that wrangles the jostling ideas into shape; furthermore, universities themselves are complex beasts that require special knowledge and experience to navigate effectively. Research students have to learn to manage both these kinds of information to succeed.

It’s much easier to neglect emotional management than information management, because it doesn’t seem like the main issue. Students fall into this thinking trap too, which is why even when mental health and fitness programs are provided, students often fail to make use of them. In addition, students who make it to graduate school are usually fairly high achievers who have often internalized social assumptions that associate failure and succumbing to emotional ‘distractions’. Guilty as charged. Furthermore, there are times – like the last few weeks of a thesis – when you do really just need to put a lid on it and ‘push on through’. But academics are people too, and emotions are a real part of academic life. It seems to me good that we talk about this. So I thought I would make a small start by posting this little exposé. If you feel/felt like this when you submitted, you’re not alone. And if you’re preparing a thesis for submission, lay in some tissues and the bacon and eggs, and book in a good friend to hold your hand, because relief doesn’t always feel terribly comforting to begin with. Perhaps that’s the measure of what you’ve actually achieved.

Cathectic (adj.): of or relating to cathexis (a concentration or accumulation of mental energy in a particular channel).[1]

I came upon this amazing word in Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper, ‘Beyond “Identity”‘, Theory and Society, 29.1 (2000), 1–47,[2] a dense but interesting and genuinely useful reflection on the imperfections of ‘identity’ as an analytical category and the possible replacements for it. I particularly liked the fact that this article, rather than simply complaining that lots of people use ‘identity’ in problematic and contradictory ways, actually proposed some useful solutions. Solutions that I, for one, am quite likely to adopt in future writing.

The word, cathectic, also rang some serious bells, because I am currently immersed, one might say in a cathectic manner, in the final revisions to my dissertation in time for submission next week. Wish me luck/leg breaks/etc. No time for proper reflective blogging… See you on the other side!

[1] “cathectic, adj.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 2 October 2013 <http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/view/Entry/28935?redirectedFrom=cathectic&gt;; “cathexis, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 2 October 2013 <http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.monash.edu.au/view/Entry/28959?redirectedFrom=cathexis&gt;.
[2] Available on JSTOR if you have access; I recommend checking it out!

So said Jorge Luis Borges, apparently. I’d like to help reunite someone with their own little slice of paradise, and you can help me do it, gentle reader.

A large box of books has found its way into my office, posted from the Leeds International Medieval Congress in July. Monash colleagues and I posted quite a lot of books home from this conference – 24kg of them to be exact – and some of them have arrived, while some of them haven’t. The box in question has arrived, but it doesn’t contain books that any of us actually purchased. It’s a box of bookish orphans, in fact. We need help to locate the owner of these books so that a reunion can be effected. If you or your colleagues purchased a fairly large number of books from the collection of the late Elizabeth Williams, and have strong interests in Middle English and French romance literature and lyric, please alert us. If you can name four or more books that are likely to be in the box, we’ll try and sort out a way of reuniting you without costing either party too much extra.[1] If the owner can’t be identified within 3 months, I’m just going to donate them to the Monash library, because I can’t see another way around it.

Paradise: the State LIbrary of Victoria Domed Reading Room. From Wikimedia Commons. By John O'Neill, under creative commons licence.

Paradise: the State Library of Victoria Domed Reading Room. From Wikimedia Commons. By John O’Neill, under creative commons licence.

Meanwhile, if anyone has seen a large number of books on Maimonides, preaching and silence, marriage, chastity, gender or the figure of Penelope in medieval literature, please let me know! (None of these, as you may have gathered, were my books; all mine have, happily, found their way to me already.) I know a few readers who won’t find Elysian peace until they can be reunited with the said volumes.


[1] We haven’t had any success getting a response from Oxbow Books, who provide the postage service from Leeds. We greatly appreciate that they provide this service, but we’re frustrated by the radio silence after emails, online customer feedback forms and tweets over several weeks haven’t generated any communication. They may or may not have records that connect the books with the address to which they should have gone. If you work for Oxbow, please get in touch so we can get this sorted out together!

[Update: A colleague has finally had a response from Oxbow, who are looking into matters at their end, and the books will soon be heading back to them at their expense - with luck to be reunited with their owners.]

[Update 2: our missing items have arrived!!! Huzzah!]

Find me elsewhere

I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

You can also find my academic profile on Academia.edu

Read the Printed Word!

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 67 other followers