Academic conferences, conferences, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, Frankenstein, networking, science fiction

Academic conferences: Performing for the crowd

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There comes a time when you have to share your research with the world. Or at least, your world – your academic world. Yes, you have to take the pigs to market. The academic community is your audience, and the pigs you are taking to the market are your research and ideas. Are they fat enough to pass muster?

You might think they are just little runts not ready for public scrutiny, but those pigs have to be put up for public display and be judged. The time comes in every emerging academic’s professional life when one must walk the walk and talk the talk.

I am putting the finishing touches to a paper I am presenting at the Affective Habitus:  New Environmental Histories of Botany, Zoology and Emotions conference in Canberra this week.

Affective Habitus conference at The Australian National University, Canberra (19-21 June 2014) will provide a forum for a new collaborative approach between environmental humanities and ecocriticism; two exciting new academic fields forming part of the conversation.

Even though I have been presenting at conferences every year since I started my Masters degree, this one is different.

For a start, it’s the first conference I am presenting at where I am no longer a post grad student. I have now earned the title Doctor and I am firmly in that stage of having burst through the cocoon and am sitting on the branch, gently fluttering my wings. A little hesitant!

Secondly, this is the first conference for which I have proposed a panel – a practitioner-led response in the creative arts to issues of climate change. I invited  visual artist Dr Debbie Symons and scientific photographer, doctoral student and writer Justine Philip to participate with me. It was even more nerve wracking waiting to see if the abstracts were accepted, as I was pushing others along with me.

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Image: >2 degrees of separation <2028: Akira and <2 degrees of separation <2028: Akira. 2012. Copyright: Josh Wodak. Used With Permission from the Artist for promotion of the Affective Habitus Conference.

I will be speaking about the new field of “Cli-Fi” which is a new genre of climate fiction – I’ll be referring to eco-catastrophe films such as I am Legend, Noah, Splice and others that have ecological disaster at the heart of the extinction of humanity as we know it.

In her introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment  (2014), editor Louise Westling says Kate Rigby, in her chapter ‘Confronting catastrophe: eco-criticism in a warming world’ surveys ecological disaster texts and suggests that confronting catastrophe might open a path to ecosocial transformation and a vision of transpecies justice. It is this vision of transpecies justice that I explore in my doctoral novel.

I’ll be reading some of my novel to the conference audience, and wonder what the reaction will be – the first time I tried an early piece of writing from the manuscript, at an Animal Studies conference, I was met with looks of utter shock. Let’s just say sex, violence and transpecies cannibalism is a lot to stomach for a vegan audience. However, I’ll say it now – no one is simply eaten gratuitously in my novel.

I am somewhat pleased our panel is on the first day, as being the postgraduate representative for ASLEC-ANZ I am one of two people in charge of live tweeting (follow us at #ecohab14) so I will be kept very busy – as well as listening to other papers for my own interest.  I expect to have my brain filled and expanded by the papers at Affective Habitus – with confirmed keynotes (a stellar cast in eco criticism) including: Tim Collins, Tom Griffiths, Eileen Joy, Michael Marder (remotely), John Plotz, Elspeth Probyn, Ariel Salleh, Will Steffen (remotely), Wendy Wheeler, Linda Williams and Gillen D’Arcy Wood.

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I found when doing my doctorate in creative writing that I would have two computer files (or paper notebooks) going at once – one for the academic research and the other for the creative ideas that flowed from that. The idea for my novel came when I was listening to a paper at a bioethics conference.

My first conference as a Masters student was terrifying. I stepped into the big league with my fledgling research into the scientifically created human in fiction and pitched to a major bioethics conference. My paper was accepted and I was given the prime spot of last paper on the last day.

“Don’t worry,” assured one of my supervisors. “All the academics will be hung over from the conference dinner or going to the airport early, no one will come, just view it as a test run in front of the three other post grads you become friendly with.”

Well, I spent the conference chatting over coffee with those academics about my research – a rather sexy topic amongst the philosophical and scientific analysis of end of life procedures and transplantation. I was writing gothic horror, and using Mary Shelley and Jodi Picoult in my work on the place of the creative arts in bioethical debates.

At that time, every second presenter was reading Picolt’s novel “My Sister’s Keeper” on the plane trip to the conference and discussing “savior siblings” created to hopefully save the life of a dying child. And mention Frankenstein at a bioethics conference and everyone turns to you as they munch their biscuits and drink coffee. One academic said to me “when I die they can take whatever they like from my body – but not my eyes!”

 

The punch line of my first conference is that I had a full house for my presentation. All those professors I had sat in awe in front of for the past few days were now sitting in front of me (okay, with their suitcases next to their feet ready to dash for the airport), and I will never forget that moment of sheer terror realizing I had to speak in front of them.

But – they were engaged and supportive and I have to say, made me feel like I had a place taking my first steps in the academy. Thank you to all of them.

So, as I finish my paper for the Affective Habitus paper, I try and think back to how terrified I was of that first step onto the public academic stage, and how far I have come since then. From a first year Masters student at an academic conference, feeling like it was my first day at school, to taking my first steps as an emerging academic.

Back then, I was swimming in a vast sea of knowledge, looking around for where I might find land, seeing only a far horizon. Now, with most of my thesis already presented and published, I am claiming to be something more than a student stumbling into the light of knowledge – I am trying to claim a place of my own in the academy.

 

 

 

 

 

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Academic rituals, Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, Time management, Writing strategies

The daily word count – overcoming procrastination

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If you had all the time in the world to write, would it make you a better writer – or would you just have more time to procrastinate? Even if you love to write more than anything else, why is it that a deadline is the push you need to get it done?

Perhaps one reason you are falling behind in your book, doctoral writing or dissertation is that you are not putting in enough writing time. Maybe you are skimping on your daily word count. Are you cheating in your assessment of what you actually do each week when it comes to writing? If you added up all the time you actually spent physically putting words down on the page, what would it add up to?

And if you simply can’t get started – why? It’s time for some reassessment of your work habits, and a little look at the cheating and self-delusion that writers, like dieters, are all guilty of doing of indulging in. Go on, admit it – when you told your supervisor that you wrote for five hours last week, was it in fact one hour and the rest of the time googling celebrities without makeup?

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Dieters delude themselves that it’s not cheating if they eat when no one sees them. Writers delude themselves that they are writing when no one sees them. Which is why so many seem to need a deadline to get anything done. It’s like the equivalent of a public weigh-in.

I am no stranger to the motivation of a deadline. What writer hasn’t cleaned the stove, mowed the lawn or rearrange the sock drawer to avoid the blank page? Doctoral students are even worse, with that supposedly long period of time stretching endlessly into the distance – until the final deadline looms.

I’ve been thinking a lot about deadlines these past few days because I’ve been talking a lot about them in a writing master class I am doing. Other people might spend a long weekend down at the beach, I spend it – writing.

What, you might ask, did I expect to get out of a writing master class, now that I have a doctorate in creative writing under my belt?

As one woman said “I am doing this because I am a life long learner”. Indeed. Also, the simple act of being surrounded by writing peers at a similar level of expertise is galvanising. The quality of feedback is invigorating and challenging, the camaraderie as the social ice thaws is comforting, and hearing other experienced writers talking about their struggles is enlightening.

In fact, no matter how accomplished, it transpires that writers are all prone to the same self doubt and procrastination. Here are common comments during the coffee break –  “I am so lazy!”, or “I am a fraud!” or “I can’t do this!” and “what makes me think I can ever write anything good enough?”  This is what US psychologist David Rasch PhD – author of The Blocked Writer’s Book Of The Dead calls “the jerk in my head”.

All of the 12 people in the master class were talented, prolific, experienced, published and devoted to their craft. But one thing really, really resonated with everyone was the communal cry of “we just don’t get enough done!” and “I need to have better work habits!”

One  participant had the enviable lifestyle of all the time to write – no kids to mind, daily paid job to do, or elderly relatives to nurture. He had the money, the support and the space and no distractions. Unlike another writer of 10 published books who is also a full time primary school teacher and writes books in the school holidays, this man appeared to have a dream existence. Except he wasn’t writing. He was procrastinating.

 

I suggested some obstacles, boundaries or roadblocks –  sometimes having everything is actually limiting. A form of creative agoraphobia. Maybe that’s why writers procrastinate – because it focuses time when they have to really, really get something in. And that narrow window of opportunity then casts a beam of clarity over the problem at hand.

Or – maybe not. It just makes us stressed and irritable. I am no stranger to the all-nighter, probably because I take on many projects, work full time and have two children. But what I do know is that there are many ways to approach your writing, and you need to find the one that works best for you. How will you end up with a reasonable body of work? By putting the time in. The same could be said of having a reasonable body of course…you have to put in the work…not just think about it…

 

Here are some ideas canvassed in the master class: – which writer are you?

  • Binge writer: you starve yourself of writing and time, then hit the computer and pour out the words in a block of time, alienating yourself from the rest of the world.
  • Helicopter nibbler – you don’t have the time to write every day because of other commitments, but the weekend seems so far away…so you keep in touch by writing little notes to your work, making sure you maintain the love with your project.
  •  The five: two writing diet – you are a weekend writer only. The rest of the week you think you might write, but don’t. After all, You haven’t finished watching Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.
  • The early morning writer – you start before the family gets up. By 8 pm, you can only concentrate on TV.
  • The late night writer – for night owls – you write when you have the children to bed. This is because you can’t even write a shopping list in the morning that makes sense.
  • The word count writer – you write 500 to 1000 words a day, whenever, no matter what. This adds up. You have a book finished in six months!
  • Once a week writer – you write only one hour a week on a Sunday – and make sure you write 2000 words in that session. See above!
  • Endless plotting writer – maybe it’s not JUST about the words – but the other complicated, moving parts of a novel – the plot, characters, the twists and turns, the set ups and payoffs…maybe you set aside a specific block of time each day or week – half and hour – to work on this AS WELL as a separate block of time for actual writing. You also have a book finished in six months, but are late paying bills and have no personal relationships. You are obsessed and driven – are you doing a doctorate?
  • Vomit draft writer – you don’t worry about the perfect draft first off – you write the entire “draft zero” or “vomit draft” and then have time for editing, and rewriting. People use the words fast paced, action packed and could do with a close edit for your work.
  • None of the above. You want to write but get nothing done. But your next holiday is planned and you have a table covered in books that could be the inspiration for your novel, if only you’d stop watching Game Of Thrones.

Think of your writing life like other aspects of your life that you need to do to remain a functional person – you need to eat, shop, clean, cook, take care of friendships and family, you need to read, plot, write and engage with the writing community in some way as a writer. Just as you should exercise regularly, you need to write regularly.

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No time for writing? Nonsense – you can fit even 10 minutes a day, can’t you? Save the big burst up for when you can carve out time, but just as there are many forms of eating (snacks, dinner out, leisurely brunch) so too are there many forms of writing. Just do it!

The trick is to find a pattern for yourself, and factor it in, every day, every week, week in and out. Remember the worst thing is starting, so some tricks, like retyping the last paragraph of your story when you start, or making sure you always finish some writing off so that it’s never a neat ending, and come back into that sentence, might work for you.

What ever you do – start. And put in – the time and effort. Nothing happens without it. Books, and doctorates alas, do not write themselves from your imagination and research without your physical input.

 

Academic conferences, Academic Study, conferences, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, University life

Your doctoral cohort: network with your peers

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I’ve been reading Linked In posts about ‘what I’d tell my 22 year old self’ and one caught my eye in particular – and that was ‘network with your peers’ Specifically, writes Nicholas Thompson of the newyorker.com; “many of the good things that have come in my career have come because of the people I got to know in my early twenties.”

I think of my own career and realise how true this is. It’s the people I worked with on newspapers and magazines in my twenties that I still turn to over the years as our careers have morphed in the evolving media landscape.

I wrote and published a book with Dr Caroline van de Pol, who I met on a suburban newspaper, and then worked with on a daily newspaper, and now have shared interests in academia as we have both received our doctorates in creative writing.

But Thompson’s advice doesn’t just hold true for twentysomethings just starting out. As we move through careers, which develop and change in this age of reinvention, academia plays a key role in retraining for the future. Swap “people I met in my twenties’ for “people I met doing my doctorate” and you can see where I am heading – it is your cohort at university that is vital, no matter how old you are when you take on post graduate study.

Thompson says with the hindsight of age that it “wasn’t meeting people who were influential; it was becoming friends, and developing working relationships, with people who would become influential” that was important.

Take this advice to heart, doctoral candidates, and embrace your cohort. What I have learned is the older you get, the more retired and senile your mentors become. Sad, but true. It’s your cohort that will grow and ultimately, help you as you will help them.

Not everyone who does a doctorate does so as a fresh faced 25 year old on the roller coaster from one degree to the next. Certainly, with the creative writing doctorate, I find that most of my cohort are in fact mid career writers who have realised that they need to “Dr Up” if they are to even get a casual teaching gig anymore. And why would they want that? Because it’s always been hard to make a reliable living from just writing creatively. You need to hustle your skills where the money is – be it copywriting, communications and in the old days before the Internet, journalism. Now to make a living doing sessional teaching as well requires you have the edge by having a doctorate. Call it educational inflation, if you like, but it’s reality.

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It’s easy with the pressure to complete your doctorate in a ‘timely fashion” to concentrate on that and nothing else. But that’s only one part of the story. Your doctorate is a journey and the people you met on the way will become characters in the story of your life and career.  I am going to give you advice I never got doing my doctorate and this it – it is not what you know, it is who you know when it comes to getting an academic job at the end of your doctorate. Meritocracy is for fairy tales, alas. The cold hard truth is that the jobs advertised are so often done for show – candidates are already chosen long before the key selection criteria is sketched out by some HR consultant. Those who want a certain candidate make sure the key selection criteria fits the person they have chosen so they can get away with this sort of thing.

So, how do you get around this? Networking. And that means – making your self known, useful, by joining up, taking part, putting yourself out there and helping others up, too. Getting to know people. All very well, isn’t it, when you are struggling to finish. But there is an organic way of doing this, and that’s to be part of an academic community that meshes with your interests.

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I went to many conferences before I found ‘my people’. And I am sure these are not the only people who are playing in the same sandpit as me, either. I could find more, and should. But so far I have met a wide circle of engaged emerging academics across disciplines who have helped me as I have helped them, in some small way, to get some recognition.

“Thank you for thinking of me” I have been told many times when I have put someone’s name forth for a panel, presentation, reading, whatever – as they have put forth mine.

Thompson writes: “I’m continually working with the same people I worked with in my early twenties. I assign them stories, or I ask them for advice. They call me. We’ve built up trust.”

Don’t underestimate this ‘trust’. I was reminded of this when researching Bruce Springsteen fandom, of all things, for a paper I am toying with that looks at the power of sharing personal stories to connect with readers. I have good friends who are ‘bronze’ Springsteen fans, travelling the world to see him play. As we watched numerous Springsteen concert videos together and I took notes, one of the words that came up frequently was ‘trust’; the trust Springsteen’s fans placed in him for his authenticity, the powerful personal connection with his lyrics, and the admiration fans have in Springsteen’s trust in his own E Street Band, his primary backing band that he has surrounded himself with since 1972, and grown up with – and grown successful with – over the decades. As we say in Australia, he’s a bloke who doesn’t ditch his mates.

What is true in life and for Bruce Springsteen is also true in academia –  we need to reach out to others, and hold on to those we connect with. Yet no one tells you this when you start your doctoral journey. It’s all about impressing the professors, getting articles into high ranking journals. Completing on time.

I can hear what you are saying: “my doctoral study is so isolated I don’t meet anyone”, and “any event I go to on campus hardly anyone turns up anyway”. So true. So true. So, this is where part two of my advice comes in – network with your cohort AND find that cohort at conferences. That’s where you’ll meet your real cohort – the ones engaged in your research areas, or like-minded interdisciplinary ones.

Alas, while universities like to pride themselves on supporting doctoral students and travel to conferences, that’s not always the case, as Pat Thompson explains. In fact, the talk is cheap and the funding cheaper. Let alone support from supervisors anxious you’ll quickly overtake them.

I presented at three Inter-Disciplinary.Net  conferences in Oxford during my doctorate and through those, I made many global connections that have been important in my life and work.

 

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Maybe you are reading this in some country that seems very remote from the action – certainly in Melbourne, I feel very remote from Europe. But the Internet connects us all. I co-edited an academic book Monstrous Geographies: Places and Spaces of the Monstrous with a French doctoral student from the Sorbonne Sarah Montin, whom I met at one of those conferences in Oxford.

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We finally caught up again for a stroll around Paris and the Sorbonne when I visited last year – it was wonderful to meet and chat after spending so many hours corresponding via email about the project as we edited it over many months. And Sarah gave me behind the scenes tour of that glorious Parisian university.

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Closer to home, I am a postgraduate committee member for ASLEC-ANZ – The Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture — Australia and New Zealand , along with my counterpart, Emma Nicoletti. ASLEC-ANZ membership comprises writers, artists, cinematographers, and musicians as well as academics working in and across several areas of the Ecological Humanities, including ecocritical literary and cultural studies, environmental history and the history of science, anthropology and ecophilosophy. The 2014 biennial conference “Affective Habitus” takes places in June in Canberra and together with Emma and others, we are currently planning an informal post grad event of arts practitioner readings – and who are we turning to? Our cohort. From one toss of the pebble, the circles of influence and connection grow. But first you have to pick up that pebble…

It’s vital to go to conferences because you network and by socialising with your cohort you start making connections and organic links with people who share common research interests. And go to an academic’s book launch and support them! (That’s me in the crowd when Dr Peter Singer launched Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan’s book ‘Animals, Equality and Democracy’ . I got to know Siobhan at a conference in Brisbane at the start of my doctorate, and was invited to her animal studies reading group; the connections I made there carried me to an animal studies conference in Utrecht and into ASLEC-ANZ, and onto the Affective Habitus conference where Siobhan is presenting a keynote address. Connections.

Despite being told over the four years of my doctorate that the only thing that matters is writing the exegesis and submitting and everything else is a distraction, this is the stuff of fear and nonsense. It was the conferences I went to and presented at over those four years that were vital because of the people I met – people who became important in my life in so many ways.

It’s not the people at the top you go to conferences to impress and meet – remember, they may well be dead, retired or wandering in a fog of dementia in 15 years time. No, it’s the newbies like you and me who are the ones to network with – because we are at the beginning of our academic journey and whatever our age, we are enthusiastic, tackling the latest ideas, open to possibilities and (however slowly) climbing the academic ladder. You will do well to keep liaising with them over the years, and like me will find that it is this cohort who hold the key to the exciting opportunities.

So – get out there, chat to that other overwhelmed student you meet and really listen to what they have to say and follow them on Twitter, friend them on Facebook, get their email address, search them out on Linked In – follow their blog. When they get a book published – go to the launch and buy two copies and get them signed, keep one, and gift one and spread the love. Whatever you do, don’t lose touch but keep the momentum building.