academic cohort, Academic conferences, academic courage, Academic rituals, blogging, Creative Writing PhD, fear of failure

Conference papers: the pleasure & pain of presenting your academic research

stand up blog

It’s that time of the year again – conference time. Sure, it’s exciting to be presenting new work at two overseas conferences, but that also means facing the lengthy plane flight to the other side of the world. And, oh, that other thing – actually writing the papers. 

Yes – presenting your academic research is a fine line between pleasure and pain. As Chrissy Amphlett from the Divinyls sang; “you got me once, you can do it again”. To my mind, the iconic 1985 song Pleasure and Pain is a soundtrack for how I feel right now. Certainly Amphlett’s signature air thumping rage and frustration in the middle of this video feel all too familiar. Who hasn’t experienced it when trying to prod a paper into shape?

I have realised that this annual experience of writing conference papers and getting up in front of your cohort to present is a sort of Groundhog Day for academics. No matter how many times you have done it, the thrill and the chill are the same. But though it feels like we are in the same place again – I have a appear to write! I have a plane to catch! I have to stand up in front of everyone and appear credible! – we are not reliving the same experience…because we are different each time.

Many universities are moving heavily in the direction of journal papers rather than conference presentations, which is certainly cheaper in so many ways, and ruthlessly time efficient. It also rules out that pesky human factor. You don’t get to make connections with people, you don’t get to hear about other people’s research, and you really don’t get to network.

Conferences, done well, are about being exposed to new ideas and getting valuable feedback for yours. They are about linking into a global academic community that no amount of emailing and skyping and journal submissions can do. But – they are also about pleasure and pain. They are about standing up in front of an audience in a way that quietly submitting to a journal is not.

It’s a thrill to be accepted into the conference. It’s a terrifying to stand in front of everyone and talk about new research. It’s exhausting and agonising and oh, so demanding on top of everything else to actually do the work in the first place.

Because writers are life’s great procrastinators. Journalists are worse. We can’t move except when there is a deadline. So, it should come as no surprise that despite carefully plotting my papers, diligently organsing all aspects of my solo trip to Europe for three weeks (including alternative arrangements for the care and feeding of my children and pets), I still find myself faced with the prospect of all nighters as I grimly write the words. Time for another coffee.

coffee hit blog

But first – before writing – some research (or is that procrastination?) Sometimes Australia seems very far away. Not just in terms of the cost and time to get to Europe for the conferences, but in strange ways such as deciding I needed – absolutely had to get – Francois Ozon’s movie Ricky on DVD, as research for a paper I am presenting next week on monstrous motherhood and human animal hybridity.

The synopsis to Ozon’s film “Is the baby who has wings an angel or a monster?” sent shivers of joy up my spine. Oh – come on – I HAD to watch this movie! A baby born with wings! A mother working with noxious chemicals in a factory….not folklore, but a strange merging of science and speculation.

Film still from Francois Ozon's movie 'Ricky' http://www.rickylefilm.com/
Film still from Francois Ozon’s movie ‘Ricky’
http://www.rickylefilm.com/

Problem – the only copy I could get sent to Melbourne at a reasonable cost (Sorry Ozon, but I am loathe to pay $85 for the DVD from Amazon!) came via an eBay seller – in Thailand. And so I watched Ozon’s wonderful French film dubbed in Thai with English subtitles. It’s like eating French food with microwave plastic melted into the top layer – every mouthful is unpalatable, but underneath it sort of tastes like it could be somewhat authentic.

I wouldn’t call it a peak cinema experience, but it is a terrific movie for my research, and I tried to avoid hearing the dubbed Thai by keeping the sound low and focusing on the narrative and visuals – film really is a silent medium, after all. Still, my desire to use the movie and the unfortunate way I had to go about watching it in Melbourne seemed to me a fit metaphor for the relentless pursuit of knowledge – we do it at whatever cost, no matter how unpleasant some parts may be, because we really believe in the final benefits. So – this is where I will be very shortly:

Motherhood and Culture International and Interdisciplinary Conference

15-17 June 2015 Iontas Building, Maynooth University, Co. Kildare, Ireland

Key Note Speakers: Professor Nancy Chodorow (University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance) Professor Andrea O’Reilly (York University, Toronto and Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI))

After the conference in Dublin, I am off to London to the 2015 Great Writing Conference, 18th Anniversary Conference, where I will present a paper on the issues most doctoral students face with the Creative Writing PhD – the exegesis and the creative project and the tension between the two. My way ‘out’ of the problem was to blog about my research, which is a little like what I am doing now – blogging about writing a paper for the conference, rather than writing it.

Now, some – many – would call that procrastination. But they are not writers. Writers of course count vacuuming instead of writing as part of the ‘process’. In fact, I am sure someone has written a PhD in Creative Writing looking at domestic activities and procrastination as apart of the creative process. And if not, I am sure someone will.

I have written many blogs on the similarities between parenting, pregnancy and childbirth and the creative process and the doctoral journey. It occurs to me that the pain of conference presentation is like childbirth – one forgets the reality of the pain until the first contractions are felt. And so it is with conferences.

Getting in the ‘conference way’ is fun – sending off abstracts in the dead of night on a whim – but there comes a time and it’s usually many, many months away (sometimes even 9 months away) when you have to deliver the goods. The discipline needed to produce the goods when you have so many other deadlines, let alone all the travel to arrange to even get to the conference, is akin to being handcuffed to your computer.

blog pleasure pain

Because unlike a baby, a conference paper doesn’t just gestate itself while you are doing other things. You have to sit down and do the work, the thinking work, and that’s the painful part. Yes, it will be great when you have finished the paper, and you are on the plane and at the conference.

In the meantime, you have to push that baby out. Write the paper. I have been presenting at conferences since I was in my first year of my Master of Arts. And let me tell you – it always hurts at this point. I am always regretting my decision to pitch an abstract. I always say I won’t do it again – I’ll take a holiday and sit by the pool and ready trashy novels like everyone else (instead of well, writing them…) or maybe I tell myself, I’ll just stay in Melbourne, sit in my study and submit to journals. I never learn.

Or, should I say – I always learn that I learn so much connecting with others in my field, and I always forge such great networks and learn from other people’s papers, that I am here again, at my desk, wanting to plunge that fork into my eye as I write the paper. But why? When I am excited by the research. I mean, how many people get to talk to others about flying babies, and be taken seriously? Who wouldn’t love my job? Yes, welcome to the world of writing.

Film still from Francois Ozon movie Ricky. http://www.rickylefilm.com/
Film still from Francois Ozon movie Ricky.
http://www.rickylefilm.com/

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than doing a conference paper is not doing one.

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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

100 per cent more effortIMG_4450

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?

snacks IMG_4453

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 regalia, Academic rituals, Academic Study, Academic success, Big Love TV Series, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Doctoral completion, Graduation ceremony, parenting and study, The Hero's Journey, Time management

Doctoral graduation: the rite of academic passage at last

Evelyn at RMIT graduation

There are two schools of thought about graduation. One is the “I am too cool for school and never attend any of my graduations” and the other is “I have earned this rite of passage, get me that academic gown stat!” I am in the latter school. I always intended to celebrate getting the doctorate.

Alas, what I hadn’t counted on was getting so sick before the ceremony I thought I might not be able to attend.

I have written about post doctoral malaise, and the lingering, debilitating lethargy that hit me once I had handed in. I expected to jump back from zero to hero once I have officially passed, but no – disturbingly, I had no energy. It was as if my body had said, enough is enough. But surely, I would kick up my heels come graduation night, and celebrate?

By the time I actually got to the massive Etihad stadium in Melbourne’s Docklands on 18 December 2013 to receive my formal doctoral degree at RMIT university’s massive evening graduation ceremony, I was so ill I could barely stand.

roof rmit graduation

I mean this literally – I came down with horrendous gastro only five days before the ceremony, and for days I couldn’t get out of my bed except to vomit. I felt this was a fitting visceral metaphor for purging all those years of doctoral study, for those long, long nights and early morning starts of burning the candle at both ends as a mature age student, worker and mother.

In the worst of those days of illness, I honestly thought I’d be a no-show at graduation. It was bizarre how hard and fast the illness hit me. I have blogged that the key to academic success is brutal self focus, determination and time management – in short, it’s all about organization. So in true form, I organized my parents and children to join me the weekend before the graduation ceremony for the official photographs. And just as well I did. At least I have photos where I am smiling and actually look healthy!

At that point, it all felt exciting – graduation was finally feeling real. When I successfully wrangled my parents and kids into the city to pose for the group photo, it was the first time I had slipped on the doctoral regalia – the gown, the hat (velvet) and the scarlet hood. And it was the first time the “special status” of the doctoral graduate was made apparent.

I needed my gown ironed – someone nearly knocked over a lowly masters graduate to do so. I was suited up, the hood placed correctly, the velvet hat arranged, while undergraduates looked on, possibly queasy with the thought of how many years it would take them to earn the right to wear such academic dress.

I’d like to say I took a moment to savour the end of the journey that began about five years ago, but in honesty I was preoccupied with whether I could get my sons to brush their hair, stop fighting and fidgeting and look up from their mobile devices – and to stop the impressive doctoral hat from falling into my eyes. I should have tried it on when I hired it and picked it up on collection day. Oh well.

At some point, as the kids stood next to me, smiling happily that mummy was no longer doing doctoral study, I must have telegraphed some element of smugness to the fates. Because I was about to be taken down a peg. Big time.

In what seemed to be a sign from the universe about being too proud of my achievements, I promptly came down with crippling gastro that very evening. Thankfully, I had already bought my graduation dress, and the dazzling electric blue patent pumps to match, and had been given the most amazing necklace to wear from my parents as a graduation gift – I was set.

Sick I might have been, but I was also determined and on the big day I staggered out to the pharmacy for over the counter tablets that would make me functional for the event. And just as well, because if the doctoral journey required stamina, so too did the graduation.

The special position of the doctoral graduate was apparent from the minute I was ushered into the VIP room before the ceremony. Separated from the herd, I got to mingle with the other Chosen People – the same academics from the university who previously looked through me as a mere student, were now greeting me warmly as One Of Them. This is part of the doctoral rite of passage – your initiation into the group of academics with whom you are now on equal footing.

There was copious amounts of sparkling wine, yummy catering and much hugging and clinking of glasses. Dr Tsitas! Dr Tsitas! I was greeted by academics I worked with on exhibitions at RMIT Gallery, and those I knew from my sessional teaching. It was a cross between a speed networking event (“Send me your CV!”) to a love-in (“I am so happy for you! This is fabulous!”)

It was reminiscent of that penultimate scene in Ira Levin’s SF novel This Perfect Day, where protagonist Chip storms the bastions of Uni (an all encompassing computer system that controls the utopian world and all its citizens) only to be greeted  as a newly anointed peer by those scientists and leaders who program Uni – and who used to program his life . Chip was smart enough to evade capture, and find his way through the maze to grab the holy grail in an attempt to end the dictatorship. He passed the test. He was allowed into the inner sanctum. The punchline is, of course, that he now gets to program the masses, having proved himself worthy of the task. Someone has to rule, right?

This is what the doctoral celebrations are all about – you, the student, have found your way out of the doctoral maze, and returned triumphant with the prize.  Joseph Campbell would approve. The masks are taken off (them and us) and you are one with the power of the academy. Your doctoral journey is a hero’s journey, after all.

One thing I noticed at this pre-ceremony event is that academic dress is very diverse, something American geologist Evelyn Mervine discusses about in her blog. She writes, “I think it’s wonderful to celebrate academic dress. In these days when students and professors are more likely to wear jeans than a tie, I find the academic dress a fascinating throwback to times when dress was much more elaborate. Today, academic dress looks delightfully ridiculous… as if all the students and professors are dressed up for a Harry Potter movie, perhaps.”

Here is a photo of me with my Handle With Care co-author Dr Caroline van de Pol, who graduated from the University of Wollongong with a doctorate in creative writing, but is wearing different style academic gown (I think it is from an American university). Caroline lectures in public relations at RMIT and had to stand in for a colleague at the ceremony.

Evelyn  & Caro RMIT graduation

The pain of the past four years – those doctoral hurdles, deadlines, papers and most of all, the gruelling paperwork and administration – fell away. I was now part of The Club. Fittingly, this took place in the glass walled VIP room overlooking the stadium – all the hoi poli – the great majority of those without a doctorate, the location seemed to be implying – are below. Here you are, with the Chosen Few. It was so highly ritualized, I was reminded of the HBO TV drama Big Love and the controversial scene where Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) goes into the Mormon Temple’s Celestial Room so she can undergo the endowment ceremony. Just as those in the Temple are dressed in ritual garments, the academics in the VIP room were fitted out in their ritual gowns. No outsiders, please.  Like Barb, you must pass the ultimate test before you are allowed in.

Let us pause for a minute to reflect on my use of the phrase “chosen few” for doctoral graduates, because it isn’t exactly true, is it?  According to Dr Les Rymer (University World News 26 January 2014) “one issue stimulating debate about PhD education is the view that, at least in some disciplines, universities are producing too many PhD graduates and the huge increase in doctoral candidates means there is now a much more diverse PhD graduate population than in even the recent past.”

But, on this night – my own doctoral graduation – we can ignore the facts, and concentrate instead on the fantasy. I sipped on sparkling water, well aware I had to be on stage, in the middle of the stadium, for several hours, so alas, no champagne for me. More to the point, I was gleefully informed by all the academics that I would be sitting for hours on a stage that would rotate, like a giant gyros, basting me and the other doctoral graduates in the sunny glory of success. And overhead lighting. And roaming video cameras. I could not afford to pass out.

I have to hand it to RMIT University – more than 6,600 students gathered at Docklands Stadium to collect their certificates in front of more than 27,000 family and friends in the spectacular ceremony. And, cliche time, everything went like clockwork. At every turn I was marshalled into this line or that line, told when to sit, stand, move to the right or left, and march. Oh yes, there was an entire Magellan like circumnavigation of the oval at Etihad Stadium, which put my new heels – and my somewhat wobbly post gastro gait – to the test. I am pleased to report I made the circuit with no incidents.

During the long, long haul of sitting on the stage while every other single student graduated from the university at the same time (the doctoral students were first, of course), we were supplied with bottles of water and bowls of sweets to keep up our energy levels. Finally, at the conclusion of events, there was another glass of champagne. This time, I took one cautious sip. I felt I earned it.

champagne RMIT graduation

My 12 year old bided the time by opening a Twitter account and sending me a congratulatory message and by the time I located my kids and parents after the ceremony, they were full to the gills with the sandwiches and snacks wheeled onto the oval for the crowd to feast upon. It was nearing midnight as we finally took the last of our informal photos, collected my framed doctoral degree, and headed home.

Like Cinderella, I didn’t get to keep the academic finery. I had to dump the carefully pressed gown and hat in one of the large bins placed around the stadium – squashed in along with all the other gowns.

disgarded gowns rmit graudation

It seemed a sad but appropriate farewell to the fantasy night of graduation – what lies ahead is now up to you, after all. No more university holding your hand.

How odd, after 12 years of university study.

What I know now about doctoral graduation

Go to the graduation –Thank your support team. Honour the moment and dress up and get photos taken. Everyone around you wants to celebrate – and they want closure too. Make sure you organize ahead for seats for family. If you have children, they really, really want closure.

  • Yes, it is more special graduating with a doctorate – you do get ushered into the door of those who have stayed the distance, and it’s all champagne and accolades. Enjoy it while it lasts. You are now one of them – the group of people with PhDs. Share a glass of champagne with these guys who are now your peer group. Smile. In the “real” world, no one actually cares… 
  • You don’t have to know what you will do next. From this point on, you will be asked “what now?” In truth, I don’t think we can ever know just how much higher education changes everything. It’s not the final research or project that you produce, either. It’s the way you approach information, assess and amass knowledge, cast a critical eye over information and learn to think, analyse and argue.
  • Be grateful: You stayed the distance, you passed the test. Take a moment to congratulate yourself and be grateful you had the opportunity to do post graduate study in the first place. Finally…

Do not listen to old applause: Once the graduation ceremony is over, you actually have to start again. A doctorate isn’t an end it’s just a beginning. Maybe you don’t know what it is the beginning of – that’s okay. Just don’t rest on your laurels.