Academic conferences, academic publications, creative writing, Early Career Reseacher, Publishing academic research

The doctorate unbound: publications versus the bound volume

2013-09-09 16.03.09

I was excited to see a fellow doctoral traveller’s thesis photographed on Facebook, leather bound, and with gold lettering. She is now a Dr, and her twinkling gold letters on the leather bound cover were a joy to behold. In contrast, my university ran a mile from having to store a hard copy of my doctoral research, uploading it instead onto a server.

I wasn’t that fussed, actually. While the newly minted Dr. I congratulated on Facebook had her doctorate conferred in London, and that might be the way things are done there, I see my university’s logic in the doctorate unbound. Literally and metaphorically.

Sure, I wanted to see my academic articles in print, of course, but not printed in a bound volume that I had achieved by taking it to the printers. I wanted those words critiqued by peer reviewers apart from my examiners, and accepted for publication in academic journals and/or book chapters.

However, I know of others who have long held the fantasy of getting their doctoral thesis bound, despite the fact that their university simply doesn’t want it. They went ahead and had it printed up anyway, fulfilling the long held dream of seeing their names in gold on the cover.

Of course, whether or not it is a requirement to have a bound volume of the doctorate for ready for submission, candidates are aware that what they hand in surely isn’t the last word on their research.

I think that eschewing the concept (and fetish) of the bound submission if possible reminds us that our doctoral research is the beginning of the journey.

It’s also important to remember that ‘research active’ isn’t just what happens after you land (if ever) an academic job. You should be presenting and publishing your research throughout your candidature – enough so that when you finally submit, your work is already in the public sphere.

Okay – maybe this doesn’t apply to STEM candidates (I’ve heard that their research is akin to state secrets) but sharing your work and progress, exposing your ideas and writing to the cold light of day – and an audience – are all part of doing a doctorate in creative writing.

 

Evelyn Tsitas chapter "Boundary Transgressions: the Human-Animal Chimera in Science Fiction"
Evelyn Tsitas chapter “Boundary Transgressions: the Human-Animal Chimera in Science Fiction”

 

I had my taste of the printed thesis back in the analogue years, when I was required to present my fourth year undergraduate fine arts mini thesis (10,000 words) this way. I have a copy of it in my unpacked books somewhere. There is no doubt a (very dusty) copy in the university archives. The research (on semiotics and 1980s art magazines) is bound, sealed, delivered. Who looks at it? No one. And it’s not enough to drag it from the shelves yourself, flicking through the pages of that hard grind of study that produced the tome. Research should be set free. It is the springboard to other research, and doesn’t live in between the printed pages of a book expensively printed by an academic printer.

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Of course, if your university demands you print the thesis as part of your submission requirements, you must print it. But if all that is required is an electronic version? Well then, I say print that disk or upload to USB and move on.

Granted, handing in a disk to the Graduate Research Office with my ‘final’ version as the rite of passage after being passed by examiners lacked a certain romance. But I can see it saves on storage space, and the work is searchable by the world at large.

It’s actually a tough call to publish as you progress through your doctoral studies. While my aims were to always have the thesis published and presented in stages, showing my research to the world in tentative steps, that required being judged for it all along. I remember my first presentations at conferences; sure, there were some tough questions, but I have to say the academy was welcoming. I made many friends and contacts across the globe in my key research areas when I presented at three Inter-disciplinary.Net conferences at Oxford University through my doctorate.  These are wonderful for the emerging academic and demand that everyone fully participate – a big difference to conferences where senior academics adopt an arrogant Fi-Fo (Fly in/Fly out) attitude of presenting their paper, listening to no one, and having a tax-right off holiday.

 

Evelyn Tsitas chapter " Strange Erotic Encounters: Speculative Fiction and the Trope of Bestiality"
Evelyn Tsitas chapter ” Strange Erotic Encounters: Speculative Fiction and the Trope of Bestiality”

 

Coming as I did from the media world and demands of daily journalism, I was amazed by the slow progress of academic publishing. Factor in the endless waiting after a paper is accepted and the endless waiting after submission to see if it might be accepted – the wheels turn at a pace which I’d say was glacial. Except in this era of global warming, glaciers can melt faster than the response time from many academic publications.

When a paper was accepted, it was a major cause for celebration – and rewrites! Each editor or editorial team has a particular style, and some desire more input than others. My exegesis chapters grew up to become real papers, and these have been pushed, pulled, restructured, massaged and cut back. Others have required lengthy additions, a refocus, and some demanded – hardly anything. What I can say is that I responded to all requests for changes, and made them. You can’t afford to be precious with your work, or arrogant.

That’s not to say it was easy! Sometimes the space between submitted paper; accepted paper and editorial request for changes can be lengthy indeed – a year or more. You move on, other work priorities take over, and it’s hard to get back into that headspace again. Not to mention the fact that several of my papers were accepted while I was frantically finishing my doctorate, and others were reworked at the beginning of this year – after I had officially graduated, and also moved house. All my notes – and books – were stacked in boxes in the basement…

Evelyn Tsitas chapter "Monstrous Breeding Grounds: Creation, Isolation and Suffering at Noble’s Island, Hailsham and Rankstadt"
Evelyn Tsitas chapter “Monstrous Breeding Grounds: Creation, Isolation and Suffering at Noble’s Island, Hailsham and Rankstadt”

That meant putting in all my time after work and on weekends going back to the exegesis. Not an easy task – or welcome one! And it meant that many other things I wanted to do with my creative writing were put on the backburner while I did these papers. It often felt like the equivalent of sticking a hot fork into my eye – utterly painful and pointless. But in the end, I can proudly say that four chapters of my exegesis have now been published, as well as presented at conferences in Australia and overseas. I find this more satisfying than getting the ‘final’ version of my exegesis printed in a leather bound book. Because the chapters have evolved since my doctoral submission.

And there is more to come. The well of four years of doctoral study has not dried up – the exegesis is a research gift that keeps on giving.

As part of my creative writing doctorate, I needed to explore the process of how the research impacted on my creative writing, and the methodology used to tackle the hybrid that is the creative writing doctorate. I’ve submitted an abstract based on this chapter for a conference next year in London. Fingers crossed.

Likewise, my final exegesis chapter on further explorations in my research has become the basis for an abstract I have submitted to another conference mid next year. Once must plan ahead!

 

Evelyn Tsitas chapter "Are We Not Men? When the Human-Animal Cyborg Talks Back"
Evelyn Tsitas chapter “Are We Not Men? When the Human-Animal Cyborg Talks Back”

 

I still feel I have several other abstracts lurking and papers arising from my exegesis, because it isn’t ‘finished’ as such, but the foundation of my continual research into issues of hybridity, identity, human-animal relations and monstrosity. My exegesis, like Frankenstein’s creature, is unbound. And that’s why it literally is unbound, as I do not want my research to be boxed in, held between the covers, and regarded as “complete”.

The next step is to develop the research into a book sparked by my ideas, and I am hoping that the fact that the work has been published and approved, as it were, by the academy in one form will give me the authority to present a different version of the work for a wider audience. As my supervisor often reminded me, it’s hard for me to totally remove myself from my past as a tabloid journalist.…always seeking a large audience, always aiming to make complex work accessible and interesting.

And what’s wrong with that? 

Indeed, the journey from thesis to book demands doctoral candidates look beyond their academic research, and consider marketing, product placement, competitors, unique point of view, their own author profile and potential audience.

Evelyn Tsitas two short stories "Xenos" and "Undeceive"

Evelyn Tsitas short story “Xenos”

As this is a blog about the creative writing doctorate, the question you are probably asking as you read this post is the same as my youngest son’s. “When are you publishing the creative component – the novel???!” I am working on it! So far, I have had the middle chapter of my doctoral novel published – in the collected short story book “Scarlet Stiletto: The Second Cut”.  My short story “Xenos” won the the Scarlet Stiletto Award-Dorothy Porter Prize for Innovation in Crime Writing and became the inspiration – and anchoring chapter – for my doctoral creative work.

But just like doing a creative writing PhD, there are two sides to the postdoctoral story as well – the exegesis and the creative. Getting the academic research published requires a different set of skills and part of the brain than writing the novel and getting it published. There will be many blog posts to come on the novel’s journey, don’t worry.

At the moment, while pitching the novel to publishers I am happy with having the exegesis out in the world. Unbound.

Roll Call: My exegesis chapters – and final publications

1. “Boundary Transgressions and the trope of the mad scientist” – became  “Boundary Transgressions: the Human-Animal Chimera in Science Fiction” in Vol 2, No 2 (2014) Relations. Beyond Anthropocentrism

2. Monstrous birth tropes and hybrid breeding grounds – became “Monstrous Breeding Grounds: Creation, Isolation and Suffering at Noble’s Island, Hailsham and Rankstadt” in Monstrous Geographies: Places and Spaces of the Monstrous. 2013

3. When the hybrid talks back – became “Are We Not Men? When the Human-Animal Cyborg Talks Back” (with Dr Lisa Dethridge) in Navigating Cybercultures, 2013.

4. The erotic nature of the hybrid – became ” Strange Erotic Encounters: Speculative Fiction and the Trope of Bestiality”, in “Forces of the Erotic”. 2014.

5. and the creative component – the middle chapter “Xenos” published in Scarlet Stiletto: The Second Cut.  Clan Destine Press. Ed Phyllis. King.

 

 

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Academic Study, Brand Identity, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, Marketing, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, publishing the novel, writing workshops

Show Me The Story: Creating Your Doctoral Narrative

2013-09-12 14.18.06

Once you have your doctorate, don’t imagine the progress reports stop. Don’t think you can say goodbye to explaining what your research means, or why it is important and whether anyone should care. In fact, once you graduate, the demands for you to sell your doctoral story have never been greater. Now you have your doctorate, you are expected to deliver your story about your research in razor sharp, fully focused, bite sized pitches. To everyone.

Some great advice I received shortly after graduating was to start practicing my story. Not the story of what I wrote about – but the story of me; my doctoral research, my journey – both what I did and what I planned to do. I had to curate myself.

In short, you have to be able to sell yourself. “Let everyone know who you are, that’s no easy thing,” I was warned. My mentor is a fellow doctoral traveller, fast tracked on those research only spheres, and I took frantic notes over lunch, as if I was back in a research study methods class early on in the PhD.

I was reminded of the need to be able to tell the story of my work again when I listened to a consummate performer and terrific writer Graeme Simsion at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Simsion is the Melbourne author of the bestselling novel ‘Asperger’s romcom’ The Rosie Project. 

The Rosie Project 9781922079770

I have the good fortune to live in Melbourne, a UNESCO City of Literature, and to work at RMIT University literally one block from the Wheeler Centre for Books and Writing (my second home), where I regularly attend lunchtime and evening writer’s talks and events, and many weekends every year honing my craft at writing workshops and meeting with my regular writing cohort.

Like so many who have enjoyed Graeme Simsion’s romantic Asperger comedy The Rosie Project, including Bill Gates who called it “profound” I had marvelled at Simsion’s clean and sparse style and economical use of language, as well as pace. But I also know many who know Graeme (it’s a small writing world in Melbourne, and indeed Australia) so I also know the dedication that goes into perfecting his craft, and in writing a sequel of his successful first novel. All the more reason to appreciate his work and also enjoy listening to him speak – in particular, on the value of stories.

The Rosie Effect 9781922182104

Take heart, fellow doctoral students in creative writing. When someone challenges you on why you are doing something so ‘nebulous’ and not a doctorate in say communications or public relations, reply, as I do “because I believe in the value of stories”.

In fact, post doctorate, I work in strategic communications where I use my doctoral skills daily – and use the power of the narrative to shape communications. It’s a gift to be able to tell a story, but a craft to spin a yarn across all mediums.

In his talk, Graeme Simsion stood and spoke, engaged with the audience – a full house of adoring fans, and said loud and clear “I have found the value of stories”.

Interestingly, while Graeme said he was inspired to write the character of geneticist Don Tillman in The Rosie Project by a friend’s story (an IT wiz with Aspergers), he didn’t want to write his story.

How do you go about taking a real person and turning it into a character? One way is to create a character and then place them in not the same situation as the real person, but an exaggerated one – raise the stakes, throw everything at the character. And don’t worry about going with the comedy if that seems to be the way the character is dictating the story.

“If you are lucky enough to be gifted a character who makes good comedy, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” said Graeme – who learnt this gem from Australian comedy writer Tim Ferguson, whose motto is “make them laugh, make them cry, make them think.”

 

The crucial thing for Graeme was that he didn’t set out to deliver a message, but to tell a story. As I was listening to this, I reflected on the doctorate in creative writing, where we are compelled to both tell a story (with the novel) AND deliver a message (with the exegesis). This is one of the hardest things for the candidate because the brain is going “exposition, exposition” for half the required work, and “show, don’t tell” for the other half of the doctorate. One has to deal with writing time and focus, and always the need to refrain from adding the message we are learning from our research into the novel, instead of letting the novel tell the story.

Graeme said “if you write a story that has your values, you might succeed”. And I think that’s the key – to go so deep into your research, and know it so well, that it comes out in your writing in an organic way. This is a far cry from “I am going to get a scholarship and take four years from other work and write my novel – oh, and I’ll throw together that pesky exegesis to keep the examiners happy.” I think to be really successful at both sides of the creative doctorate, you have to pursue both research and writing with equal passion. And that’s not easy.

Of course, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Oh – they are? Point taken, well then, even more writers would be doing the creative writing doctorate than they are already!

The other thing that Graeme said is that he doesn’t want to get too influenced by other people’s portrayals of fictional characters ‘on the spectrum’. So he doesn’t watch Big Bang Theory. No Sheldon Cooper for Graeme, lest he be swayed by that approach. Many writers say the same thing – though in some ways it’s counter intuitive with academic research. We endlessly swot over other academic’s papers, for instance. And the worst thing that could happen if you are writing an academic paper about fictional characters with Aspergers in TV sitcoms is not to have watched The Big Bang Theory – or read other papers on the topic. How often as a doctoral candidate did I hear “We don’t care what you think, you stand on other people’s shoulders – and what does your academic guru think?” In creative writing, however, your voice should be unique.

 

Graeme’s view is that there are a range of people in real life with Aspergers, just like, for instance, knowing one person who is gay doesn’t provide you with an understanding of every gay person on the planet. “We need to be able to see a range of people in fiction, not stereotypes,” he said.

Graeme has a successful background in IT, which proves that you can’t stereotype writers – no working in a bookshop or living off writing grants and a bit of sessional teaching but rather a career that taught him that “there are craft things you learn when you take on a new discipline.”

I admire this methodical approach, and perhaps that’s the sweet spot where STEM and the creative arts meet. I was so intrigued by Graeme’s logical breakdown of turning a screenplay into a novel that I pass these suggestions of Graeme’s onto you. Remember, a novel allows the reader deep into the inner world of the character, especially if it is a novel in first person, as is the Rosie Project. How do you translate this inner world into a screenplay?

“Sometimes you don’t,” admitted Graeme. “A book is a book and some things a book does better. You can always go to that book and get into the inner world.” One of the reasons people have buddies in films said Graeme, is so they can externalise their thoughts and their inner world.

But there are tricks, said Graeme. Such as the voice over. This is either liked or loathed. I was reminded of watching Blade Runner again recently, with a friend who had never seen it, and her son, who studied it at school. Even though we watched the Director’s Cut, I still had the 1982 Theatrical Release in my head, expecting Rick Deckard’s (contentious) voice over as Replicant Roy Batty dies.

The 21 year old, who had never seen this version, looked at me in amazement. “Why would anyone think the audience needed a voice over?” he asked. A film does some things, and as Graeme Simsion said, “A book is a book and some things a book does better.”

Why indeed. The death scene with just the close up on Deckard’s face is far more poetic, filled with longing – for life. Is the voice over needed? The beauty of films that we fill in the internal monologue through music, cinematography, and acting.

However, when we are telling the story of our doctorate, we cannot assume anything as we are selling our research to a varied group of people. We may not have a captive audience, the lighting and sound may be bad and we have not had time to develop our characters. It could be a short ten minute interview for a coveted academic job, and we are one of many vying for the post. In that case, go for the obvious, sum it up, make it snappy. Give them the Deckard voice over in the Blade Runner Theatrical release. “I didn’t know how long we had together – who does?”

Yes, give it to them, curate yourself with a little story. Practice on your friends.  Like any story, the story of your doctorate gets easier with the telling.