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 conferences, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues

Fallow time: Waiting for the literary muse to show

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I don’t agree with sitting around and waiting for anything, much less a muse to come and whisper in my ear. As a writer, I am too impatient, too demanding – very demanding, in fact. And yet, it is as if the muse is laughing at me now. Because I have landed in the becalmed sea of fallow time. The post doctoral submission state of limbo.

In short, I feel inert. I suppose this is to be expected when a major project comes to an end, and a period of great focus and intensity such as the doctorate in creative writing comes to its conclusion. There was no period from when I applied to do the course through to submitting my first proposal and then jumping every hurdle placed before me over the four years – culminating with submission – that I allowed myself time for any reflection.

That time is now.

Well, ‘now’ is actually a relative term because, like all good workaholics, I have made sure that on top of my full time job in arts communication, I am again teaching an evening class in entrepreneurship for creative practitioners. As we explore how a writer can sell themselves, without selling out, it makes me reflect about my own work. That old question – who am I? It’s not a bad thing to pause and explore this, take some time out from doing to being.

In my job in a large public art gallery, the cycles of intensity revolve around each exhibition. I have become accustomed to the ebbs and flows of this world over the past four years, but this is the first doctorate I have done, and therefore, the end of studying has been a blessing and a curse. I am probably not alone when I say there is a sense of loss from the structure and the focus – and indeed the need to block out all other distractions in order to complete.

In The Thesis Whisperer, Lauren Gawne, a PhD student in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, writes of this post submission limbo. She writes “I was lucky I had teaching lined up in my department, and a conference to look forward to. It’s weird enough waking up without thinking about what I need to do on my thesis after 4 years of it, so I’m glad I had some structure to fill that. ”

I have structure – my full time job, my part time job, my children and my writing – but still…..it is as if there is a big hole in my life, possibly because it was overfull to begin with. And now that the super structure of the doctorate has gone, I am forced to look at the world around me.

On the plus side, the distractions have flooded back in – and though they are life itself, friends and family and the odd, wonderful realisation that there is a world out there beyond my desk – it means I am getting less done as I do more, well ‘life’. That to me is an odd feeling.

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And then a glance at the diary indicates it’s only weeks until I head overseas, to present the final chapter of my exegesis at a conference, and also do research for the other two books in the trilogy I started with Almost Human – my doctoral novel. In Europe, I will be catching up with friends that tyranny of distance puts between us, even in the age of electronic communication. Melbourne is a long, long way from the rest of the world.

Yet as much as I long to see them again, I also feel strongly there is someone else I need to reconnect with after this doctoral journey. And that’s myself. As I wander around, unsure of what I have achieved, unable to put my finger on why I am so flat, and in a fog about starting anything new creatively, I realise that it is because I am trying to find who I am in this post doctoral state. Maybe I will reconnect with that ‘me’ in Europe, where I can be truly introspective. Especially in countries where I do not speak the language!

People keep on saying to me – what now? Where are you going? What’s next? And in truth, I don’t know. When you undertake any major project, you only think about getting to the end. Getting through – you really have no idea of how you will emerge after the journey, and where those experiences will take you.

You are in a sense, missing – searching for yourself. The new you. The old you, too, that you perhaps put aside while you studied so hard. Maybe that ‘you’ doesn’t really exist anymore…

The trouble with this period of reflection is that I am too exhausted and flat to enjoy it. I suppose that is to be expected. My most popular blogs at 100 Days To The Doctorate are ones that talk about doctoral misery – and it seems a quick glance on the Internet reveals that this comes in several forms – the misery of doing the doctorate, of having finished the doctorate, and are wondering why the hell you did the doctorate when there aren’t enough academic jobs out there.  Mind you, I am not so sure if I want an academic job. The more I read about life in the academic lane, the less appealing it sounds.

But that’s not why one does a doctorate, surely. I certainly didn’t opt for a vocational course, not with creative writing!

Let’s move on to misery. The misery of actually doing a doctorate is for me a blur of highs and lows and focus. The lows were not so much giving up things so I could work and study – it’s amazing how the body and soul adjusts to social solitary confinement like that – but were in fact the lows of the hard, and it must be said, often tedious grunt work. For instance, it’s harder to make sure you are up on all the administrative details of your doctoral process than it is to make sure you are aware of the latest journal article in your field. The constant academic hurdles – every six months or so, confirmation, progress, and then finally completion. Paper work, more paperwork, and often conflicting advice. Sometimes – no advice. After all, at this point, you should be able to go solo, right?

Now – the joy. The great joy of doctoral study, besides the sheer buzz of research and writing (well, I say this as a writer) was engaging on an intense level with people passionate about the same things.

I spent the four years presenting at seven conferences, and each one drew me to people who expanded my life somehow, people I would not have met if I hadn’t undertaken this journey.

I imagine the worst thing would be to try and undertake doctoral study without engaging with other students and peers in your area. For me, the highs were actually forming concepts and exploring ideas based on my research, and the giddy feeling of exploration and eureka moments of discovery along the way – especially when shared with others. And I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to sit and hear about other people’s research as well, and hear the passion in their voice – yes, the struggle and the pain as well, and the constant fear of ‘am I good enough’? But conferences are where we can shine, and spread our wings, show our true colors – it’s worth the leap of faith in exposing yourself and your ideas to the academy.

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But – that doctoral journey demands its pound of flesh. Yes, if you are determined, organised, selfish, ruthless, clever, attentive, gracious, and bloody minded, you will emerge and hopefully be able to relish the feeling of having achieved a major academic hurdle – submitting your doctorate.

Just don’t expect to come through in one piece! At a writing workshop a few days ago, I quizzed other authors who had done the doctoral slog and asked if they got sick – and depressed – after submission. Yes! It was a resounding reply. One they don’t tell you about at the Gradate Research Office when you submit.

One author had such bad eye strain he got a tear behind his retina. Another was sick for months. I promptly came down with a major sinus infection that hit hard, so hard I was in bed for a week. And then came a strange inability to commit to my writing. Oh no –

Was I having – writer’s block?

“Oh good!” said a friend, gleefully. “It will make the rest of us feel better! At last you are not doing five projects or more at once…”

Postscript:

Of course, fallow time, in the end, didn’t lasted that long, thank goodness. No sooner than I wrote this blog and let it languish a day or two on the computer screen than the call came from my supervisor that heralded the start of the next phase of the doctoral journey.

But you know what? Like all good crime writers, I am going to leave this blog on a cliffhanger, and keep you waiting until next blog tell you the news.

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Academic conferences, Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues, Publishing academic research, science fiction, Time management, University life

Far from the normal crowd: when your doctorate sets you apart

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This week, an academic turned to me in a meeting for my opinion on a survey he wanted to conduct with the general public. “As a normal person, how would you answer this question?” he asked. Quick as a flash, everyone else around the table responded with “but she’s not a normal person!”

When your upcoming holiday plans involve presenting a conference paper in Oxford on the erotic and the non human, as I am doing in September, this is widely regarded as placing you in the “not normal” category.

Indeed, if there is one thing that doctoral study does it is to set you apart from the ‘normal’ people. This of course can be a problem if your friends and family belong to that ‘normal’ group and you have moved away from them because of what you are studying.There are many advantages to coming from a family with several PhDs.

For instance, in my family, we speak the same language – the language of happiness deferral; of long tail gratification; of holidaying in conference zones, unreasonable academic hurdles, and so on.  This is a good thing, as no one feels alienated. My kin understand and appreciate the hard work, sacrifices and the emotional exhaustion at the end of the doctorate. And they also have shown me that there is a life post-PhD, even beyond coveted academic tenure.

It’s just as well, because as Rita says in “Educating Rita” once you have gone down the path of academic – the old you has gone – and this is who has taken your place. Maybe not everyone likes this new you. Even if you do.

The scene where Rita interrupts Dr. Frank Bryant – the middle-aged university lecturer – to tell him about seeing her first play – Macbeth – and her excitement “I just had to tell somebody!” – is a wonderful example of how finding people who can speak your language becomes so important when you are surrounded by ‘normal people’ – who perhaps don’t share your enthusiasms.

I love the shorthand I have with those who share my academic interests. For instance, I was recently sent a link to an article in New Scientist about growing human organs inside pigs by someone who just knew I would find it fascinating (thanks Emma!) – and perhaps my predilection for the macabre aspects of biotechnology are the very reason others think I am ‘not normal’.

I can’t help it. As part of my doctorate in creative writing, I have been researching the human animal hybrid in science fiction for the past four years, and I love it when life imitates art.

For instance, what I find fascinating about the recent turmoil in Australian politics is that our newly returned Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who disposed Prime Minister Julia Gillard in rather Shakespearean circumstances in the lead up to our upcoming election, has a bovine heart valve.  Now, considering that our first female Prime Minister had to endure endless comments about her childlessness, her figure, her unmarried status and her basic femaleness, I find it interesting that this animal fact goes unremarked.

Rudd even said he promised not to ‘moo’ in public. I however, seem to be the only one who remembers this, or is interested.

As a science fiction writer, I speculate on the following – if Natalie Cole feels a connection with Hispanic culture since receiving a kidney four years ago from Salvadorian donor, and claims this cultural transplant link has given her the strength to record her first post-operation album — totally in Spanish – then does Kevin Rudd have a similar connection to animals? Is he or has he become a vegan since receiving the bovine heart value? This could have implications in many areas of policy relating to the treatment of animals farmed for food.

This speculation of course, has nothing to do with the serious matter of politics. Just as the abuse “vitriol and bullying, often of a sexual nature” that Julia Gillard received as first female Prime Minister of Australia had nothing to do with politics, but rather, as many feminists such as Anne Summers claim, everything to do with gender. And also, perhaps, that I have strayed far from the pack into that zone where my research seems real, but life seems just plain weird. I mean, why lambast the then Prime Minister Gillard with questions about whether her partner is gay because he is a hairdresser, and then have the more excitable sections of the media silent on whether the now Prime Minister Rudd will moo in public or not?

Of course, the intensity and – shall we dare say – absurdity – of the doctoral journey means none of us come out unscathed. I am an Australian creative writing PhD student, not an American science PhD student – but even I howled with the laughter of recognition at this trailer for The PhD Movie. 

I mean, what PhD student doesn’t know that “jump to attention and do the impossible right NOW” – demands from supervisors and administrative staff? I remember just two weeks out from handing in receiving an email to say I had to do my completion seminar within weeks. The first thing I did was look at my diary and figure out how I could organise this. It was – seriously – only after a bewildered email to my supervisor wondering if this was a second completion seminar on top of the one I had done six months before that it was revealed to be an administrative error. But there I was, like a little lab rat, ready to keep running around that wheel.

One of the reasons so many agony posts on the Internet warn about not doing a doctorate is the slim chance these days of finding a job in the area you have committed four years of your life. I have spent years understanding this reality through dinner table conversations with my relatives – and it didn’t stop me doing a doctorate.

I know many people with doctorates who have gone back and done a vocational Masters degree to make them more employable. A recent Australian radio report investigated the current situation many PhD graduates find themselves in of having made the long journey and found there isn’t the job they want at the end.

I guess it comes back to what we consider normal. What are your expectations, anyway? And after all, I am a fiction writer, in Australia, a country with a small population – it goes without saying that I always knew I would have to get a paid job that wasn’t the same as my passion job.

I was told bluntly six months ago (by a fellow traveller in academia) that I was a fool to have done a doctorate in creative writing and in fact should have opted for public relations instead. My response was – maybe that is the more sensible, employable option, but I am a writer, and as the Indigo Girls sang in “Virginia Woolf” – a ‘woman of the page’ – carving words and stories that I hope touch people now and in years to come. I am part of a long tradition of writers through history who write and be damned.

Writers don’t do it for fame, fortune or anything other than the desire to tell stories and communicate with an audience. What if Virginia Woolf had pursued a ‘sensible option’ such as public relations instead of writing? Think of all who have been touched and moved and inspired by her work. Think of all that would be lost if Virginia had played it safe. If she’d been one of the ‘normal’ people – the world would be poorer.

So then, with no rewards in sight, no possibility of an academic job, and the certainty that you will end up distancing yourself from the pack of ‘normal’ people – why do a doctorate?

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Testing your boundaries is always a leap of faith and there are plenty of people who feel cheated by the time, effort and money they spent pursuing a doctorate. And let it be said there are plenty of people who regret other major decisions they have made – opting out of the workforce to raise children; buying a house; putting their savings in shares; getting married; not pursuing love; travelling instead of settling down and vice versa.

Life is risk and in living comes the possibility of regret and failure. Whatever the outcome of your doctorate, it is only absolute passion that will make the commitment worth the effort. Normal be dammed.