Research hacks #17: 15 tips on fielding questions after a conference paper

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

In this fourth post on presenting a conference paper (following on from planning and writing a conference paperdelivering a paper and timekeeping and technology), I want to think through the often panic-inducing issue of how to approach the question and answer time at the end of your paper. This is the first of two posts on fielding questions.

Fielding questions

Prepare for question time like you prepare for your presentation

  • The first thing to say is that preparing for Q&A should be considered a task of equal importance to preparing for your presentation. Q&A is an important time: people often remember the exchanges after a paper more than the paper itself. If you prepare well for your paper but aren’t sufficiently ready for the question time then your overall presentation may fall flat and leave an underwhelming impression. You wouldn’t dream of giving a paper without thinking about it beforehand and having at least some notes in front of you. Don’t take the question time any less seriously.
  • Prepare for questions by reading your paper through with a critical eye. If it helps, imagine that you are a particular critical reader you have encountered in the past. Ask yourself “what would he or she ask about this paper?”
  • You know the weakest moments in your argument. Think what you might be asked about those.
  • If you can, find people willing to read your paper and ask them to note down two or three questions that they would want to ask you.
  • Once you have a reasonably comprehensive list of questions, put them in a document and take your time working out possible responses to each of them. Write the responses under the questions (preferably in key-word form) and take that document with you to your paper. Bring it out at the end of your presentation, and use it to jog your memory during the question time.

During question time itself

  • Have a pen and paper in front of you during the Q&A. Note down key words from questions as they are asked so that you don’t forget what you are being invited to respond to, especially if the question has multiple parts. Also note down key words of your response as they occur to you, with the purpose of jogging your memory when you come to reply. That way, you don’t have to hold your whole answer in your head at once but can concentrate on listening carefully to the question. When the questioner stops you can glance down at your notes and be confident that you have something to say, rather than looking like a rabbit in the headlights.
  • Don’t make your answers into new mini-papers. People want to hear something interesting in response to their question; they don’t want an extended monologue. 30 seconds to a minute at the most should be sufficient for most answers.
  • If you don’t understand part of the question, feel free to ask the questioner for clarification rather than launching in and hoping for the best. You can say “Just let me make sure I’ve understood. Your question is about ____, right?”
  • At the beginning of your answer it can be useful to restate or rephrase the question (especially if it was a long one). You can say, for example, “You are asking, I think, about…” This is also a moment when you can choose which part of a six-point question you want to focus on. Sometimes people’s questions wander off in multiple directions and you can’t do justice to them all, so don’t try. Pick something central to the questioner’s point that is also an issue you want to talk about and say something like “I’d like to pick up on your point that…”
  • Assume that questions are in good faith and not hostile until you have incontrovertible evidence otherwise. If it is possible to interpret a question either as hostile or as friendly, assume the friendly interpretation unless or until you are proved wrong. More on handdling different types of question in the next post.
Know your main point, and stick to it
  • One of the greatest helps in answering questions is to be very clear in your own head what your main point is, and therefore what it is you are (negatively) defending and (positively) commending. I suggested in a previous post that your conference paper should have one main point, and one of the many reasons why this is a good idea is that it helps you immensely in knowing how to deal with questions. Imagine that your paper has one main point, supported by multiple strands of supporting evidence and argument. Write them down on a piece of paper and have it in front of you during the question time. It will help you to discern quickly to which part of your paper a particular question is making reference, or indeed if the question is irrelevant to your paper.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Use your main and supporting points to work out what is at stake in the question
  • If someone poses you a critical question, ask yourself  1) “is this attacking a) my main thesis, b) one of the supporting strands of evidence, or c) nothing I have said at all?” and 2) “if it is attacking one of the supporting strands, does the overall argument still hold whether or not this strand is present?” This will help you see what is at stake in the question, whether it is a) torpedoing your hull, b) knocking out one your rudders, or c) missing you altogether by a good ten feet.
  • If you can’t see how the criticism is engaging with either your main point or supporting arguments, find a way of pointing this out politely to the questioner.
  • If the question is only attacking one of the supporting strands, and if that strand is not necessary to your argument, then after defending the strand in your answer you should add that, even if you grant the questioner their point, the main thesis of your paper still holds.
  • The art of answering questions was once helpfully explained to me with the image of a person holding a cricket bat, rooted to the spot, with people throwing tennis balls at them from all angles. They bat away the balls in front of them, on both sides, and behind, but they do not move. They have one fixed position that they are defending, and they stick to it. Balls that are not on course to hit them just sail past. In other words, know what you are trying to defend, and don’t move away from it. Don’t be drawn into flailing wildly with your bat at arm’s length. Keep it tight, know what you are trying to say, and then say it, defend and commend it.

This is an expanded and updated version of a post I originally published on September 5, 2014.
CC Image courtesy of opensource.com on Flickr.

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Research hacks #16: 20 tips on timekeeping and technology for your conference presentation

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

This is the third post in a mini-series on presenting at conferences. Previous posts covered planning and writing a conference paper and delivering a paper. In this post I offer some tips and advice in relation to two aspects of giving a conference paper that can often sneak up and ambush unwitting presenters: timekeeping and technology.

Timekeeping

  • Know how long you’ve got before you start writing the paper. Your time limit dictates how much you can say, not the other way round.
  • Rough rule of thumb (depending on how fast you speak and how much you extemporise): 20 minutes: 2400 words. 25 minutes: 2900 words.
  • You will probably take more time (if you extemporise) or less time (if you speak fast through nervousness) to deliver the talk on the day than you do in private beforehand. Be ready to adapt to that difference in the ways outlined below.
  • When people are in a situation of high stimulation like giving a paper they tend to speak more quickly. If you know this is an issue for you, practice slowing yourself down a bit. Perhaps even write in coloured pen at the top of every page of your paper “SLOW DOWN?”
  • Keep your own time. Don’t rely on the panel chair or on a clock on the wall. Put your watch on the desk or make sure that your phone is visible in front of you, so you how you are travelling time-wise and so that you are not surprised by the “one minute to go” sign being waved in your face when you are only half way through.
  • If you are particularly concerned about timekeeping, write time notes in the margin of your talk (for example: put a “10” in the margin at the point in the talk you had reached by the 10 minute mark in rehearsal). As you go through the talk “for real” you will know whether you are ahead of schedule, behind, or about right.
  • Don’t go over time. Just don’t do it. It’s stealing time from the other presenters on your panel and from the audience, it’s rude, and it creates an impression of self-important incompetence. There’s no excuse. You might think your paper is the most important item of the day or that your argument simply makes no sense unless you go through every point you were intending to make, but if you can’t say what you want to say in the time given to you to say it, then that’s your problem and no-one else’s. Wear it, and plan better next time.
  • Confirm with the panel chair before the beginning of the session how long she/he wants each speaker to go for, and how long is being left for questions (some people will want 20 minutes + 10 for questions, others will allow 25 + 5, for example). If they tell you something different from the original conference CFP, let them know.
  • It will almost certainly be better to cut some of your paper in order to keep to time rather than go over time. If you know what your main point is, you can always sum things up relatively quickly if you run out of time by just coming back to your central argument. If one or more presenters in your panel have gone over time already, leaving you with a truncated allotment, check with the panel chair before you begin whether you still have the full time. If they are a good chair they should have stopped the other presenters before they ate too much into your precious minutes.
  • In concrete terms, if you are one of three speakers in a 90 minute panel it can be a good idea to go in with a 25 minute version of your paper and a 20 minute version (with some unnecessary paragraphs in grey or in boxes that you can skip if you need to keep it to 20 minutes).
  • Be prepared for one of the speakers on your panel not to turn up, with the result that you more time than you had envisaged.
  • Equally, be prepared for someone joining your panel at the last minute, with a consequent diminution in the time you have available (it has happened!).

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

If you are planning to use any sort of technology…

  • Test all your tech and set it up before the session begins. Don’t try to do so at the start of your paper. If your presentation contains a video, play the video before the session starts to check 1) that it works and 2) that the sound is loud enough.
  • If you have a large presentation, consider copying it to the desktop of the computer you are running it from. Presentations usually run more quickly from the hard drive than from a USB stick.
  • Embed fonts in your PowerPoint presentations to prevent your slides from appearing like one of Apollinaire’s calligrams.
  • Embed any video files directly in your PowerPoint, rather than linking to YouTube or a similar site. Don’t rely on the conference room having a fast enough (or working!) internet connection, whatever reassurances the organisers have given you.
  • If you are worried about the layout of your PowerPoint slides being messed about by the computer in the room where you are presenting, you can bullet-proof them by going to “Save As”, saving the slides as a series of images (jpegs are usually fine), opening a new presentation and importing the images as a photo album. That way, all your formatting and fonts will appear exactly as it looks on your home computer. You will lose any in-slide animation (which you can’t re-introduce) and any animation between slides (which you can). You can re-embed any videos over the jpegs.
  • Consider using a clicker to transition between slides. You don’t know where the keyboard and mouse will be in the room relative to your position as speaker, you don’t know how reliable the keyboard and/or mouse they will be (especially if wireless) and you don’t want to have to march across the floor every time you need to change slides. I use a Logitech R800 and it has proven reliable over the years.
  • Make sure that you have a ‘plan B’ in case the tech in the room simply won’t work. Don’t spend half your paper time trying to get it to work.
  • Can you use a paper handout instead/as well? It won’t break down or fail to load, and people can take it away with them.

This is an expanded and updated version of a post I originally published on September 5, 2014.
CC Image courtesy of Jeremy Osterhouse on Flickr.

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Research hacks #15: 15 Tips on delivering a conference paper

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

In the previous research hack I discussed how to plan and write a conference paper. Now we move on to delivering the paper to your conference audience.

Delivering the paper

  • Be enthusiastic, but not manic. If you don’t look interested in what your saying, why should your audience be? But if you come over like the Duracell bunny you risk diverting attention away from what you are saying and onto yourself. If you look as if you are trying too hard, you lose some of your authority. Note the demeanour of the best (clearest, most persuasive, most engaging to listen to) presenters at your conference, and try to pick up tips from how they conduct themselves during a presentation.
  • The authority of the way you hold your body and use your voice is all part of the impression you give the audience, and consciously or unconsciously it contributes to what they think of you and your paper. How your paper is received is–one would hope–mainly about what you say, but not exclusively about what you say. So put a little thought into how you will say it.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of your audience. Speak in a way that you would want to listen to, and hold yourself in a way that you would think appropriate for a conference speaker if you were looking on.
  • Don’t be too arrogant, and don’t be too apologetic. A note to the arrogant: you’re not Immanuel Kant. You are not always the smartest person in the room. So don’t act like it. It doesn’t attract discerning people to your ideas; it just turns them off you. A note to the unduly meek: Your paper has been accepted in just the same way as everyone else’s. No-one gave you special treatment. You have a right to be up there speaking. You don’t need to be Immanuel Kant to give a good conference paper, so don’t make that your yardstick of competence.
  • Eye contact really helps, even if it’s not all the time and even if you are reading your paper word for word.
  • Try not to read your whole paper word for word. Know which sections need special precision and might warrant a word-for-word approach, and know which paragraphs can be delivered from memory, while maintaining eye contact with the audience. Try to deliver at least your opening paragraph without looking down at your notes.
  • Smiling also helps. It helps you to calm down and it leaves a positive, warm impression on your audience. Don’t smile like the Cheshire Cat and don’t smile at inappropriate points in the paper (if you are discussing torture or death, for example!), but a constant frown or an Eeyorish disposition creates an unnecessary distance between you and your audience. By and large your audience will be subtly drawn to mirror your emotion and expression, so if you want them to ask grumpy questions go right ahead and keep on scowling at them.
  • You are a person, not a reading machine. It’s OK to lose your place once or twice, to sneeze, or to take a sip of water. That’s what real people do. There’s no need to apologise or to get flustered.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

  • Often, the way people try to cover up something going wrong comes over much worse than the thing that went wrong in the first place. Things go wrong, we all know that. So if you drop your papers on the ground or stumble on the way to the lectern or overturn a glass of water or mispronounce a word in a humorous way, let the audience know that you know that what just happened was a bit funny (a raised eyebrow or smile will usually do the trick, even a shrug of the shoulders or a quick “it happens”). Acknowledging what has happened diffuses the tension in the room and gives people permission to chuckle with you, rather than smirking at you. Don’t break your rhythm for it. Don’t rush to pick your papers up like a rabid dog; do it properly. Rule of thumb: it will almost always be a bigger deal to you than it is to your audience, so don’t make too much of it. Don’t launch into a 10 second apology. Your audience don’t really mind; they just want to hear your paper.  Also let them know by your body language that it hasn’t flustered you, and get right on with the presentation.
  • Any non-verbal communication you can add (within reason!)—hand gestures, changes of intonation and so forth—will really help your audience to engage with what you are saying.
  • If you are not using a microphone, speak up. Stand up if necessary in order to make sure that your voice travels to the back of the room. Sometimes it might even be appropriate to ask people in the back row if they can hear you, rather than just hoping they can. People usually won’t move forward unless you given them “permission” to do so, even if they can’t hear.
  • Use silence to your advantage. Don’t speak at 100 miles an hour from the first word of your presentation to the last, but slow down and use pauses to emphasise important points and to let ideas sink in before you move on. Don’t go slow and use pauses in every other sentence, but one or two pauses in a paper can help people understand what you are saying and also bring them back from the brink of slumber if their attention is drifting.
  • The same goes for repetition. A little judicious repetition can really help your audience (is this your main point? then say it twice), but mechanical or incessant repetition can become tedious and inappropriately humorous.
  • If you are using quotations and don’t have a handout or PowerPoint presentation, let people know when the quotations begin and end (by saying something like “quote… close quote” perhaps).
  • As a summary of the above points, you are there to serve the audience by helping them to understand something you think is important and worth saying. You are a human being communicating to human beings, and communication from one human being to another is about more than the words on the page.

 

What are your own tips for delivering a conference paper?

This is an expanded and updated version of a post I originally published on September 5, 2014.
CC Image courtesy of Open Grid Scheduler on Flickr.

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Research hacks #14: 15 tips on planning and writing a conference paper

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

Judging by their behaviour, people seem to approach to the prospect of giving a conference paper wildly divergent ways. Watching some poor souls present, it looks for all the world as if they consider a conference paper to be the modern-day answer to trial by ordeal. Others seem to be approaching the exercise as a gladiatorial duel, the main purpose of which is to attack and repel all adversaries with obnoxious ferocity, forcing them into submission by fair means or foul. Still others seem to have little interest in their own paper, while some give the impression of having downed a few gallons of Red Bull directly prior to speaking.

I claim no particular distinction for my own presentations but I have observed a fair few over the years, both good and not so good. In this post I begin to distil some paper-delivering ‘best practice’ and combine it with other advice I have gleaned over time.

Planning and writing the paper

      1. Don’t try to say too much. In most cases try to say one thing well, even if you say it in different ways. Have a main point. A conference paper doesn’t give you long enough to develop an octopus-like argument with arms going in all directions. Have one main argument, and stick to it. Only bring in other ideas, however brilliant they are, if they support your main point.
      2. Hit your main point at the very beginning of the paper, sprinkle references to it in the paper’s body, and return to it at the very end. This way, it’s fresh in people’s minds when the question time starts, and people whose attention has drifted will still go away with your main point in their heads.
      3. You can structure an argument like a story, with a beginning (scene-setting), middle (introduce a problem, show how difficult it is to solve) and an end (you solved it, hooray! Look at all the consequences and implications of having solved it…). Use some of the story-teller’s art to lead the audience through your paper.
      4. Make everything explicit, even the things that are mind-numbingly obvious to you. The audience have two things against them when it comes to understanding your paper: 1) they are not as close to the material as you are, and 2) they are trying to grasp your point after hearing it once, rather than after reading it many times (as you have done). Add to this the normal human vicissitudes of digestion, tiredness and daydreaming, and you end up with a situation in which you will have to work quite hard to make your point intelligible and accessible. Don’t assume any moves in your chain of reasoning, and spell things out in a way that may even seem a little obvious and crude to you. Chances are, your audience will appreciate it.
      5. Let your argument breathe.
      6. Make your signposting explicit. Use phrases like “I am now turning to the second section of my paper, in which I want to…”; “This point is really important because…”; “Let me start with x, before moving on to y.” You could even begin the first sentence of the paper like this: “In this paper I want to…” That way, people will know right from the very beginning where you are planning to take them. Predictable? Perhaps. Helpful? Certainly.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

      1. If you say anything controversial or unconventional in your reading of a particular thinker, try to make the point with a direct quotation. It’s much harder for people to dismiss your argument that way.
      2. Don’t say anything that is in the least academically controversial or unconventional if it’s not necessary for your main point. Chances are, the question time will be hijacked by your controversial remark and people won’t even remember the broader argument you were trying to make.
      3. Say things as simply as you can without being simplistic. If you are dealing with an abstruse thinker in your paper, don’t ape their idiom.
      4. You can get away with much denser prose when people are reading you then when they are listening to you. Shorten your sentences and rein in the subordinate clauses.
      5. Answer the ‘so what?’ question and answer it early. What is at stake in what you are saying? If your argument is correct, what difference does it make? If you provide people early on in the paper with a sense of what hangs on your argument then you will give them one more reason to listen to what you have to say.
      6. Use exposition to serve your argument, not as an end in itself. Talk about the material you need from your primary texts in order to lay out your argument, but don’t expound it for its own sake. It is your argument that should drive the paper forward, and everything else should arrange itself around that.
      7. If you can find examples or illustrations of the argument you are making, especially examples that leave a visual impression in the audience’s mind, they can really help people latch on to what you are saying. (Just note how often it’s the images and examples that come up in the question times: they are what draw people into your argument more than anything else).
      8. As you prepare the paper, note down likely questions that will come your way, and the answers you will give. Make a special point of planning answers to the questions about the weakest points in your paper. I will say more about answering questions in a future post.
      9. Your audience probably isn’t worried about the same things you are. After having listened to many papers and given a fair few, as well as having advised students preparing their own conference presentations, here’s where I think the differences in expectations lie between presenter and audience:
What the presenter is probably thinking What the audience is probably thinking
Am I understanding my primary texts correctly in every small detail? How does this relate to what I already know?
Have I said everything I want to say? What are the bigger issues at stake here?
Is this complex enough? Why is this important?

This is an expanded and updated version of a post I originally published on September 5, 2014.
CC Image courtesy of Dushan Hanuska on Flickr.

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Research Hacks # 13: The power of planning your research project

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

Today I want to share one of the earliest research productivity hacks I ever learned, and one that has served me faithfully over many years. The principle behind it is simple: planning increases productivity, and things that get planned get done more often than things that don’t. By and large, and allowing for all necessary caveats, what you get done is what you plan to get done.

I first learned this lesson when I was taking my GCSE exams aged 16 in the UK. Mr Barlow, my wonderful history teacher at the time, ushered all the GCSE students into the school gym (I think it was) and gave us a lesson in planning our exam revision over the Christmas break.

  • He told us to break each day into three parts: 1) from after waking until lunch; 2) from lunch until dinner; 3) from dinner until bed.
  • He told us, where possible, to plan about four hours of revision for two of those three slots each day, and to write in a chart on the wall which subject(s) we would revise in which slot.
  • The unused slot each day was to be taken as time off.
  • Finally, he told us to draw a picture of a Christmas pudding in the three slots for December 25th.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Mr Barlow’s system was simple but effective. I got up each morning knowing exactly which subjects I was going to revise that day, when I was going to revise them, and when I was going to have time off. It helped me to work hard while I was working and play hard when I wasn’t. I always knew how much time I had left in the day to work. I didn’t feel guilty about not working, and I didn’t overwork.

I’ve subsequently used versions of the Barlow plan for revising for A-levels and parts 1 and 2 of my university Tripos exams, for writing my PhD, for planning my last university OSP (Sabbatical leave), and for book projects.

For articles and books I break the task down into reading, writing and refining, and give each task a number of slots on the calendar. Sometimes, I drill down further and schedule time for reading specific books or writing specific sections. Although I use Outlook as my calendaring tool these days, I tend to keep the Barlow plans in a separate Excel spreadsheet and pin them up on the noticeboard in my office. That way I can track my progress daily and see whether I am behind or ahead of schedule.

Long gone is the time when I could unproblematically divide the day into Mr Barlow’s three neat periods, but even with complicated work and family responsibilities it is still possible to use a variation of his plan.

I have experience of writing both with and without a Barlow plan and I can testify that, without exception, planning has on every occasion made the process more productive and less stressful, has increased my motivation to push forward with the project (so that I meet the Barlow plan deadlines), and has yielded a greater sense of satisfaction at the end. It also helps me to see, in the planning stage, whether a project deadline is too ambitious, about right, or too slack.

 

How do you plan your projects?

CC Image courtesy of Erik bij de Vaate on Flickr.

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Research hacks intermezzo: A cornucopia of writing and publishing advice from Stuart Elden

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

Over at Progressive Geographies Stuart Elden has curated a list of “some of the posts about writing and publishing from this blog”.

The list contains around fifty posts and articles (some by Stuart, some external links) with lots of helpful and thought-provoking advice about research, writing and publishing. It’s well worth a browse.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Here are some of my personal highlights:

Why I prioritise writing books over articles, even in an era of research assessment (March 2017) – this has quite a bit of discussion in comments, and see the follow-up post here.

You can’t polish a turd, but you can edit one – the importance of early drafting (Feb 2016)

My sabbatical rules for writing (Sept 2015)

Theory and Other Languages at E-IR (July 2015)

On writing books (April 2013)

Raul Pacheco-Vega’s research resources

Notes on Academic Productivity at OrgTheory (Jan 2017)

How to give a conference paper – some excellent advice to read and share from Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Oct 2015)

CC Image courtesy of dutchbaby on Flickr.

Research hacks #12: Seven ways of keeping up to date with developments in your field

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

Whether we like it or not, research trends dictate to a significant extent what is published and read in most fields. It’s all part of the room of conversations that I described in a previous post in this series. In order to draw readers to your work and contribute to a conversation that others are going to be interested in, you need to know what is currently hot in your field, what is up-and-coming, and what has exhausted itself, at least for the time being. This is also useful knowledge for current or future graduate students; it will help you to get a sense of how to position your doctoral project, how to talk about it in job applications, and how to frame your future articles.

Seven ways to stay on top of developments in your research area

So how can you stay up to date with what is happening in your field? Here are seven ways of keeping up with the Dr. Jones’s.

1. Email lists

Even though they are a tad old-school now, an email listserve can be a great way of receiving calls for papers and conference announcements, news of new publications, deaths (!) and other important information in your field. For my research Francofil, Philos-L, and A-Phil are among the main lists. If you are not sure what the key lists are in your area, why not ask around and see what updates your friends, supervisors or colleagues receive?

2. Google Scholar email alerts

Google scholar alerts are fantastic for funnelling targeted information about specific research interests to your email inbox. For example, a while ago I set up a Google Scholar alert for “Michel Serres”. I receive a digest about three times a week of every new book published and searchable on Google Books that mentions Serres anywhere in the text, and every new academic article published and catalogued on Google Scholar that mentions Serres. It gives the title of the item, a direct link, and usually a couple of lines from the text, including a mention of Serres. Here’s the 28 March digest.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

3. Google email alerts

Unlike the targeted Google Scholar alerts, Google alerts trawl the entire wild wild web for your chosen search string. You can set up one or multiple alerts, and the service gives you the option to receive comprehensive results (which can sometimes be overwhelming, depending on the search string) or just the links that Google thinks are most important. I have a number of these alerts set up for prominent figures in French thought, so that every time someone mentions—for example—Catherine Malabou in a blog post, I get to hear about it.

As well as setting up alerts for key people/concepts you want to keep across, I recommend you set up an email alert for your own name. Yes, really. No, it isn’t vain. Or, more precisely, it’s only vain if you use it in a vain way. An alert for your own name can tip you off when reviews of your books appear online or when people mention you in blog conversations. You then have the opportunity to join in the conversation, clip and save the review, or just pass on unnoticed. If you don’t know which conversations you’re cropping up in then you don’t have the option to decide whether you want to get involved or not.

4. Feedblitz

I’ve been using Feedblitz for over a decade and love it. It can aggregate any site with an RSS or XML feed and deliver a digest of new material to your email inbox daily. That means no more trawling round multiple sites looking for new posts or updates: everything comes packaged in one neat email. I use Feedblitz to inform me of news stories from the THE, TLS, LRB and NYRB, as well as new reviews on Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, new entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and new episodes of, for example, Les Chemins de la Philosophie (xml) on France Culture. I also have it set up to send me new posts from a small number of key blogs in my field and related areas (including the ever-insightful—and entertaining—Progressive Geographies blog maintained by Stuart Elden).

5. Twitter (if used wisely)

I’ve never ridden in a rodeo, but if I ever do I imagine it will feel like trying to stay on top of my Twitter feed. I get the feeling that Twitter is increasingly becoming one of—if not the?—primary mode of communication and dissemination for may outlets. Journals tweet. University departments and centres tweet. Conferences tweet. Individuals tweet. Organisations tweet. If you’re not using Twitter, I think you’re missing out. But there’s a caveat: the only way to make Twitter a useful tool for keeping on top of developments in your field (instead of using it as a tool for endless procrastination and largely tangential or irrelevant distractions) is to tame it. I have found two ways to do this that work for me, and I’m sure there are more out there.

5a) TweetDeck

Once you are on Twitter and following a decent number of relevant people (the recommendation is more than 100), get yourself a free TweetDeck account. It works like a search engine and aggregator for Twitter. You can view multiple columns of tweets at once, each column representing either the latest tweets for a particular search term, one of your Twitter lists, or your latest twitter notifications. Once you’e told TweetDeck how to populate the columns they’ll be waiting for you and ready to go whenever you log on.

Here’s what the first few columns of my TweetDeck account look like at the time of writing this post:

5b) Nuzzel

Fed up of trawling through your Twitter feed to find the important news and links? Want a daily digest of the articles and ideas that are being “shared” and “liked” the most among your Twitter friends (institutions, organisations, individuals) today? Want to get wind of news as it bubbles up and before it breaks in the mainstream media? No, then move on to the next point and don’t worry about it. Yes? Then get yourself on Nuzzel. It collates the most important events from your twitter feed and puts them all on one page for you. If you follow a range of accounts in your academic area, this becomes a powerful tool. Its strengths are picking up on ephemeral news and comment that affects your research community, and it’s great for keeping up with conferences too. You can view the digest directly on the Nuzzel site or have daily emails sent to your inbox.

6. Zetoc

Before moving to Australia I used to have a range of Zetoc alerts hitting my inbox every week. Zetoc indexes “over 30,000 journals and more than 52 million article citations and conference papers through the British Library’s electronic table of contents”, and can send you email keyword alerts as well as the table of contents pages for the latest editions of specific journals. I’ve replaced this with Google Scholar alerts in my own inbox, but I mention Zetoc as an alternative. Let me know in the comments below if you think I’m making a mistake.

7. Go to conferences and seminars with a wider vision than presenting your own paper and listening to other people’s

All of the means of keeping up to date I have mentioned so far are electronic. Email lists and twitter feeds have their advantages, to be sure, but also their weaknesses. To begin with, it’s almost all one-way traffic: you are receiving lots of information but no-one knows who you are or what you are doing. You rarely get the opportunity to explore or question the information you receive with those who wrote it. So it’s wise not to rely on electronic means alone. Alongside a web- and email-based strategy you need face-to-face gatherings in order to keep up with news and trends in your field. The obvious events where this can take place are seminars and conferences.

A conference is not just a place for people to hear your paper. In fact, the attendance at the parallel sessions of most conferences is decidedly underwhelming, and if your sole aim is for people to hear your paper then you may be sorely disappointed. Happily, though, that’s not the whole ball game. A conference is also about all the intangibles that happen on the edges of the presentations: the conversations you drift into over coffee, the questions you hear other people ask, the concerns raised over dinner, the publishers who have stalls and who you can get to know. Conferences are for gathering news as well as disseminating research. It’s not just about the papers; it’s also, to quote Denis Denuto in The Castle, about tuning in to the “vibe” of your discipline. What are people arguing about? What new topics are being discussed? What (by implication) is no-one interested in? So go ahead and talk to people you don’t know. Ask them what they do. Find out what’s going on beyond your existing interests. The bigger the conference—or the more of them you attend—the better sense you will have of what is hot in the discipline at a given moment, and what is likely to be in the future.
So that’s my array of tools for keeping up to date. I’m sure there’s more out there. What do you use?
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Research hacks #11: Let your arguments breathe

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

You’re writing a PhD, research article or undergraduate essay. You’re excited by your topic and you have lots to say. You want to say it all, and you want to impress your reader by your high-powered, complex, sophisticated argument. Good for you. These are all laudable intentions, but one mistake that many research students fall into is that they become so intensely involved with the minutiae of their material that they expect every reader to come to their writing already possessing the same intimate knowledge of their project that it took the student themselves months to build up. You can’t expect that of your readers. If you let rip with both barrels from the first paragraph then by the end you will leave your reader poleaxed and on the floor, indignant and frustrated, buried under a barrage of technical terms, in-house phrasing and sinuous formulations.

If your reader has to stop multiple times every paragraph in order to re-read a dense sentence or to look up a specialist term you haven’t bothered to explain, don’t be surprised if your examiners become frustrated or if other readers simply give up and move on to something else. Your reader is not a potential rival you have to beat into submission, but a potential ally you have the opportunity to woo. Don’t get them offside by throwing at them paragraph after paragraph of relentlessly dense prose that assumes they knew what you were thinking when you wrote it.

When I was young, my grandfather kept a steaming compost heap at the bottom of his garden, beyond the delicious peas and raspberries. One of the “jobs” that we used to enjoy together on Saturday mornings was to take a garden fork each and aerate the compost, de-compacting it and letting it breathe. If it became too dense the reduced oxygen supply would slow or even halt the composting process. The same goes for your writing. Some undergraduate and graduate writing is so single-mindedly intense–injecting every last drop of meaning into each sentence by cramming in a cacophony of tightly-wrought, multi-syllabic words–that the reader feels suffocated in the unremitting avalanche of maximally complex point after maximally complex point.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Do your reader a favour. Let her breathe a little. You don’t need to cram into the current paragraph everything you possibly can. You don’t need that pentasyllabic word if a shorter, more common term can get the job done just as well. It doesn’t look clever. In fact, it often has the opposite effect: it reads like a graduate essay trying too hard to look intelligent, or as an attempt to hide a paucity of argument behind a cloak of verbiage.

Complex words don’t necessarily indicate a complex argument, and the best writing on complex texts is lucid and aerated. If you introduce a new term, explain it. If you haven’t used it for a while, remind the reader in a footnote where they can find your explanation of it. Less can be more, and it’s almost always OK to slow down and let the air into your argument.

One way to do this is to find an appropriate way to illustrate your point. If there is an analogy or comparison that can help your reader to grasp what you are saying, then give them a helping hand and include it. If a metaphor can provide your reader with an “oh, now I see!” moment, then include the metaphor. Your job, if you want to write well, is not simply to tell your readers what you think, but to help them to understand what you think and why you think it. You’re not just in the information business, you’re in the persuasion business, and too much information too densely packed can weaken the persuasive power of your argument.

How do you ensure that your own writing doesn’t suffocate your reader?
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Research Hacks #10: How to present a smart, well-crafted argument

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

You are writing an essay, journal article, book or thesis chapter and you want to present a smart, well-crafted argument that will both convince your reader of the point you are making and also strike them as authoritative and expertly constructed. How can you write such an argument? Here is a four-stage structure that can help you inform and convince. You can riff on it and adapt it to your needs, but it’s a solid starting point for presenting clear and compelling arguments at any level of academic writing.

1. Signpost your point

There are few things more frustrating for a thesis examiner or essay marker than to get to the end of a paragraph and think “I’ve no idea why I am being told all this. What argument is this paragraph making?” A great way to avoid this is to signpost your arguments as you begin to make them. There is no need for a clunky “In this paragraph I am going to argue that…” or “my main point here is that…”. Don’t sound an elaborate fanfare about it; just make sure it’s clear, in the first sentence of the new argument’s first paragraph, what it is you’re trying to show. Think of it as a courtesy to the reader. You are letting them know why they should spend their time reading the paragraph that follows, and you’re helping them to understand where your argument is headed. I often describe this to students as taking your reader by the hand or leading them through your argument like a tour guide.

2. Show your working

Make sure that every argument you make rests on clear evidence or inference of one sort or other. If you’re in literary or philosophical studies this might be in the form of a quotation or a broader evocation of your primary text. It might be a thought experiment, some data or statistics, or it might rest on the authority of leading secondary sources. One way or another, make sure that your reader doesn’t have to take your argument on trust: force them to agree with you by showing them why you’re correct.

People vary in the extent to which they use direct quotations. I like them for two reasons: 1) by and large working with direct quotations in my writing keeps me honest and helps convince the reader that I am not twisting the text I’m writing about, and 2) my readers are probably more interested in my primary text than in my own thoughts, so I want to dose them up by giving it neat, not diluted through my commentary and paraphrase.

If you quote, don’t expect your reader to do the work of figuring out how your quotation is relevant to your argument. Sandwich your quotations in the following way:

  1. A sentence introducing the quotation, framed to show how it is relevant to your argument.
  2. The quotation itself.
  3. A sentence showing the implications of the quotation for your argument: how it proves the point you are making, how it moves your argument forward, and/or any relevant details (words, arguments, constructions) in the quotation to which you want to draw your reader’s attention.

Without the lead-in and lead-out sentences your killer quotation is like a beached whale: superficially impressive, but isolated and impotent.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

3. Explain your point

This is where you write in more detail about the argument for which you have just supplied textual evidence. Why is it interesting/relevant/important/controversial for what you are arguing? Develop your argument using questions like “what if it’s not as simple as that?” or “so what?”

 4. Create a smooth transition to the next point

As you leave one point, make sure that you show how it leads on to the next turn in your argument. The series of points in your argument should be like beads on a string, not like marbles in a box. In other words, they come in a specific order and that order is important. Each point leads on to the next, and each builds upon the one(s) before. If you were to leave out any one point, it would create a hole that none of your other points could fill. Your argument, in other words, should be cumulative.

 

Do you have a systematic way of presenting arguments in your writing? What is it?
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Research Hacks #9: Building an argument with the “it’s not as simple as that” tool

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

In this post I want to share a great way of building an argument for an essay, article, or thesis chapter. I learned it when I was an undergraduate and I have used it to great profit in my own writing. It is also one of the first research hacks I share with new undergraduate and graduate research students I teach.

When you begin to formulate an argument in your essay or article, stand back and say to yourself “Suppose it’s not as simple as that. Suppose there’s something I’m missing, something I haven’t thought of. What is that thing?”

Asking this question will help you to avoid one of the most common mistakes in student writing: not that what you say is wrong, but that you don’t push it far enough. I have lost count of the undergraduate essays I have read that begin to argue their point very promisingly but just stop before the job is done, or stop at the moment when the argument begins to get really interesting.

Here are some examples of the question in action. It’s not as simple as that because…

  • …there’s a counter-example that you haven’t addressed.
  • …one of the key words in your argument (or in the essay title) is ambiguous and its different meanings result in different responses/trains of thought.
  • …if what you’ve argued already is true, then there are big implications for something relevant that you haven’t yet discussed.
  • …there’s a third (or fourth, or fifth…) option that doesn’t fit into your either/or schema.
  • …your argument, or the argument you are discussing, undermines itself by the way it is put (example: a very clearly written explanation of why language is always unclear).
  • …your argument could just as easily prove the opposite conclusion (or at least a different conclusion) to the one you want it to support.

To read all the research hacks posted to date, please click here.

Don’t just cycle through this question once. Add layers of complexity to your argument to the point where you have covered all the relevant and important bases, dealt with all the significant counter-arguments and taken your reader on a journey. As a rough rule of thumb, in a typical undergraduate essay of 2000 words you should be aiming to go through this process about three of four times. In postgraduate work you need to spend more time substantiating each move you make, so the average journal article might also contain three or four such cycles.

A variation on the “it’s not as simple as that” move is to ask yourself “how would I argue against myself?” or “how would I prove my own argument invalid or trivial?” Arguing against yourself is often one of the best ways of making your own argument more robust and complex. If you don’t go through this process before you publish then someone else may well subject you to it afterwards, and you won’t have the opportunity to get your rebuttal in first.

You might end up leaving half of your “not so simple as that” moves on the cutting room floor, but until you have been through the process of finding them you don’t yet know what the most important or exciting moves in your argument are.

Image: Yves Klein, Monochrome bleu sans titre (IKB 81), 1957, 100 x 200cm. Available at http://www.yveskleinarchives.org/works/works3_us.html

How do you go about constructing an argument for an essay, article or book chapter?

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