Tag Archives: Presentations

Unpacking Professional Development for Graduate Students

The work that I do on this blog is generally designed to support my work in the classroom, which involves teaching academic writing and speaking to graduate students. When graduate students attend these sorts of workshops or courses, this undertaking is often characterized as professional development. In order to understand that characterization, it’s essential to think about what is meant by the term ‘professional development’. Most of us first became familiar with the term as something designed for already-working people. That is, professional development was necessary precisely because the original training or education was complete. After a number of years in a job, we benefit from professional development because it can offer us innovative ways of approaching what we do, thus making us more confident, competent, or engaged. When we start thinking of professional development for graduate students—that is, for people who are currently in school learning how to do something—we have to confront an obvious question: Why do we need ‘professional development’ for people who are still in school? Isn’t that what the school is for? If we are to offer professional development for graduate students, we clearly have to be reflective about the process.

Whether or not professional development initiatives act as an implicit rebuke of existing graduate education, the growth of such initiatives highlights what generally isn’t happening within graduate programs. Traditionally, graduate programs have been good at training students to do a certain sort of academic work, but less good at supporting a wider range of ancillary skills. Before looking at these ancillary professional skills in more detail, I’d like to make a distinction between professional development and professionalization. My anecdotal sense from my own university is that professional development tends to be offered centrally while professionalization initiatives are coming out of departments themselves. While the two things are similar, they are also significantly different. Professionalization is something that happens to the field of study whereas professional development is something undertaken by the individual. That is, professionalization reflects an awareness that graduate departments themselves have an obligation to offer initiatives—that are often part of a degree program and possibly even compulsory—to support students’ eventual ability to thrive professionally. In contrast, professional development has an individual dynamic: the student can decide to develop their professional skills on their own time and away from the department. While I think the structural integration of professionalization is valuable for a range of reasons, I’m going to focus in this post on the training offered centrally under the auspices of professional development. In what follows, I am going to divide these skills in three categories: integral; professional academic; and professional non-academic.

Integral skills are those that allow us to communicate our research effectively. The ability to explain research to a wide range of audiences in a wide range of formats must be seen as integral to the educational goals of a graduate student: research that can’t be conveyed to others in an appropriate fashion is inherently lacking. These integral skills—writing effectively, understanding how to make presentations, being able to communicate research to different audiences—will indubitably help students in their professional lives, but they are different from other forms of professional development because of their inherent connection to being a successful student. You can’t thrive as a graduate student without developing these skills, which makes them different from the skills necessary for moving from being a student to being a professional.

Professional academic skills are those that prepare students first for the academic job market and then for an academic job. The key element here is, of course, teaching; as so many have observed, a PhD is often expected to prepare us for teaching despite the fact that the actual teacher training component of doctoral education can be pretty hit and miss. Supporting graduate students as nascent teachers rather than just fostering their research skills is a crucial way to prepare them for academic jobs. Similarly, talking about how to apply for funding and how to prepare for scholarly publishing can help with the transition from student to professor. However, given the current state of the job market, preparing for the job of being an academic isn’t sufficient; graduate students also need to be prepared for the travails of an increasingly fraught job search process.

Lastly, professional non-academic skills are those that bridge the gap between graduate training and the jobs that many graduate students are going to find—by choice or by necessity—outside of the traditional professorial role. We know that doctoral training is often extremely transferable, but we need to clarify those pathways and facilitate the translation that allows graduate students to frame their existing skills as valuable for a wider range of professional opportunities.

These three species of professional development obviously involve a great deal of overlap. Some of the skills will operate in all three areas because they are fundamental skills. Some of the skills will be readily transferable: a good understanding of oral presentation skills, for instance, will allow us to make many different sorts of effective presentations. And some of these skills themselves will assist students in understanding the very nature of transferable skills. As an example, when I teach students about writing for different audiences, they are learning two things: at a basic level, they are learning to adjust their writing to suit its potential audience; at a higher level, they are also potentially learning to be more reflective about the nature of the skills that they are developing in graduate school.

Accompanying all these species of professional development, of course, is the need to provide holistic support for graduate students. Supporting graduate students means acknowledging both that they have issues—financial, familial, medical, emotional—affecting their graduate experience and that the task of building the necessary research and ancillary skills is inherently difficult. We need to give graduate students access to the skills they may lack while also acknowledging the complex stress of graduate study. While it doesn’t replace providing concrete emotional support for graduate students, providing these three types of ancillary skills can have the effect of normalizing their challenges. Graduate students, who so often struggle in their dual role as advanced student and novice scholar, can be reassured by the very existence of this sort of professional development. I’m often surprised by the fact that a frank discussion of the intellectual and emotional challenges of graduate writing is met by relief from many graduate students. Despite the prevalence of that narrative, many graduate students have often internalized a different and more damaging narrative about their own deficiency vis-à-vis the expected work of a graduate student. These psychological costs have tangible implications for the students themselves and also play an important role in rates of attrition and lengthy time-to-completion.

As we think about these three species of professional development and the complex demands of graduate study, we also need to think about the diverse needs of different graduate student constituencies. We can divide graduate students by discipline; this division can be a broad one between the sciences and the humanities or something finer that recognizes the unique professional demands of different graduate programs. We can divide graduate students by linguistic background; some students are learning to write suitable academic prose in their first language while others are accomplishing the same task in a subsequent language. We can divide students by degree; the needs of doctoral students are often different from those of Master’s students, especially from those in terminal Master’s degrees. In order to tackle needs spread along so many different spectrums, it is very helpful to have a deeper understanding of the types of things we are trying to impart. Clarifying our understanding of what professional development might mean for graduate students can help us to design suitable offerings and explain those offerings in terms that make sense to the many constituencies involved. In the end, offering these professional skills is one way of ensuring that all graduate students—each of whom represents a unique spot among many overlapping measures of identity—can have the chance to thrive in graduate school and beyond.

I would like to thank Dr. Jane Freeman for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post.

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2015 in Review

Happy New Year! Before heading into a new year of blogging, I’d like to take a quick look back at the past year. My first post of 2015 was my attempt to articulate what I found so troubling about the tone of Steven Pinker’s 2014 book on academic writing. In this post, I argue that the value of Pinker’s insights on writing are obscured by his overly broad characterization of what ails academic writing.

I followed this defence of academic writing with a somewhat related topic: how we use metadiscourse. In this post, I talked about the evolution of signposting, suggesting that even boilerplate metadiscourse can be transformed into something that informs the reader while being well-integrated into the text. I think this notion is important because the prevalence of clunky metadiscourse shouldn’t be treated as an argument against the value of effective metadiscourse in academic writing.

My next topic was a very different one: whether I should use the singular ‘they’. At the simplest level, I decided to do so (spoiler!) because this blog is a place where I can pick and choose among style conventions as I wish. But, more generally, I made this particular decision to embrace the singular ‘they’ because I believe that it is necessary, correct, and beneficial.

During our summer term, I taught a thesis writing course. At the end of that course, a student sent me an interesting email questioning some of the assumptions animating my discussion of productivity. This note gave me a welcome opportunity to think more about the ethos underlying the notion of productivity, especially as it pertains to graduate student writers.

In lieu of writing a reasonable number of new posts this year, I spent an unreasonable amount of time classifying my old posts. What I came up with was an annotated list, published in September as How to Use this Blog. This list is now a permanent page on the blog, allowing me to update it as needed. It can be found by using the For New Visitors tab. This list is a good way to see the type of topics that I have discussed here and to find groupings of posts on particular topics. If you are interested in finding out if I’ve covered a specific issue, you might prefer to use the search function (located near the top of the left-hand column).

After a short post previewing AcWriMo 2015, I ended the year with a post on the way we write our presentation slides. In this post, I discussed the possibility that our presentations may suffer if we compose slides in the same way we compose our other written work.

As you can tell from the brevity of this list, the past year was a relatively quiet one here on Explorations of Style. The blog is now five years old, a milestone which has given me the opportunity to reflect on what comes next. While I will continue to publish new posts, my main project for the upcoming year will be to rework some of the older posts. I’ve learned so much over these five years—from readers, from students, from colleagues, from other bloggers—and some of my original posts need updating to reflect that development.

As always, I’m happy to hear about topics that you’d like to see discussed or questions that you’d like answered. In the meantime, thanks for reading and good luck with your writing!

The Writing on the Slides

A few weeks ago, Raul Pacheco-Vega asked on Twitter whether presentation slides were a form of academic writing. My first thought was ‘sure, why not?’; I see little point in circumscribing the activity of academic writing to exclude any of the things that academics write. But my second thought was that conceiving of slide preparation as academic writing could easily contribute to the notion that slides are places for extensive text. This is not to say that slide writing couldn’t be a genre of academic writing, as Pat Thomson suggested in her reply to Raul, but rather that emphasizing writing on slides may lead us to over-emphasize the extent to which slides are meant to be read.

Of course, some slides are meant to be read; in some contexts, slides are a way of sharing content. Some people—especially in business environments—use slides as a kind of report, as a platform for conveying information that will need to stand alone. That use of slides will, needless to say, require a very different type of writing; this helpful post from Dave Paradi explores the difference between presentation slides and slides designed to stand alone. (Teaching slides, which often try to both stand alone and support a lecture, are another matter altogether.)

What interests me here, however, are those slides that are meant to support a formal talk. In my view, only once that talk has been written—ideally in a manner suitable to being spoken—ought the accompanying slides be designed. I’m not making a capital-D distinction between designing and writing, but rather making a practical point. Presentation software should not have the same relationship to a presentation as word processing software has to a written text. We often start writing a paper by opening our word processing program and beginning to type; unfortunately, people often start working on a presentation by opening up their slide software and beginning to type. The creation of slides in advance of the writing of a presentation has two hazards. First, the slides are being created before we have a fully worked out plan, which means that they may not represent the optimal arrangement of information. Second, these premature slides are almost always wordy because they are bearing the brunt of the initial rush of thinking.

In this scenario, the presenter is saddled from early on with slides that lack coherence and that have too many words. As the presenter then tries to shape the oral presentation, those slides can be a bad influence. Speakers often seem to be reacting to slides rather than using them as support for their remarks. And when the speaker is reacting to a slide, the audience will often struggle to decide how to allocate their attention. A speaker should always be in control of the audience’s attention, including their attention to the slides. When the slides are too wordy, the audience will often be tempted to read those slides, thus neglecting the words being delivered by the speaker. Once the audience’s attention is bifurcated in that way, it can be hard for the presentation to succeed. If, on the other hand, we write a presentation before we design the slides, we are more likely to create slides that enrich the presentation by providing synchronized visual support.

This reflection has taken me far from Raul’s original question and deep into one of my own preoccupations. Again, it is not that I have any interest in defining what is and is not academic writing. But I do think it’s valuable to frame presentation writing as something distinct from the process of slide design. If it suits your workflow or your philosophy of work to define both as falling under a broad #acwri umbrella, that’s great. The crucial issue for me is that we subdivide the activity of presentation preparation into the work of writing what we are going to say and the subsequent planning of what the audience will see on the screen.

Links: Attrition and Writing Support, Effective Job Talks, Understanding Journal Boycotts

Here is a recent piece from The University of Venus blog on graduate students and attrition. The author, Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, begins by allowing that some attrition is probably beneficial: some people will inevitably decide that graduate study isn’t right for them. But she argues that even those who are in the right place would benefit from additional support from sources outside their departments. She divides that support into two types of ‘services’: psychological support and research and writing advice. This notion of additional support is great, and Segesten provides a helpful list of suggestions for managing the writing process. But I think it is worth noting the implications of treating writing as a problem in need of a solution. In this framework, writing is treated as a problem—akin to other life or organizational problems—to be solved rather than as an activity at the heart of the academic enterprise. Treating writing difficulties as mere matters of organization (or approach or determination) can lead students to feel that their difficulties ought to be more manageable than they are. When writing is treated more as a life skill than an academic skill, a student can be left in a difficult position: their weakness is characterized as minor but their experience of that weakness can be extremely unpleasant. Being a weak writer is rarely a ‘minor’ problem for a graduate student, and the solution to such difficulties are rarely simple.

This post from The Professor Is In blog discusses delivering effective job talks. Kelsky’s post is full of great advice, all of which would be helpful to anyone preparing for an important talk. In particular, I wanted to highlight her discussion of the text necessary to support an effective talk. Her advice is ‘read but don’t read’, and most people can only achieve that apparent paradox with a well-designed written text. Nothing gives polish to a formal talk better than a prepared text: most speakers cannot achieve the necessary level of articulacy off the cuff (especially in a high-stakes situation when nerves are more likely to be an issue). At the same time, nothing weakens a talk more than seeing nothing but the top of the presenter’s head as a paper is read word-for-word from the page. As hard as it sounds, we all need to find a perfect blend of textual support (to avoid inarticulacy) and rehearsed confident delivery (that doesn’t appear to rely on a written text). Here is an earlier post that suggests some ways to create a text that will support a sophisticated and fluent talk without the appearance of reading.

We all know that we can’t read everything and that we can’t follow every story that comes along. When a story is new, we all make decisions about whether a story warrants immediate engagement or not. Sometimes, inevitably, we guess wrong and end up feeling as if we’ll never grasp all the nuances of a particular story. I thought (or maybe just hoped) that the boycott of Elsevier was one of those stories that I could ignore. Then, of course, it wasn’t! So I was very happy to find this helpful post from Barbara Fister writing at Inside Higher Ed. She starts at the beginning, documents the important steps along the way, and draws valuable conclusions. The comments on her post are also surprisingly constructive and interesting.

Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.

Writing for a Presentation

Regular readers of this blog know that it has an unsurprising tendency to reflect my current teaching or research interests. So today, after my first week of teaching, you will have to bear with me while I reflect on writing for oral presentations. This post is about the aspect of writing that is currently most on my mind: the creation of a written text designed to be read aloud. Even if oral presentations aren’t your favourite thing to think about (and most people like presenting even less than they like writing), they are an area in which most of us can improve. In fact, oral presentations are a topic that most people choose not to think about too much. Instead, most people just try to survive them. And most of us know firsthand what it is like to sit through a presentation when the presenter has no higher ambition than to survive. The challenge of oral presentations is obvious: oral presentations are a complex blend of intellectual command, organizational skills, technological expertise, and performance ability. So there is a lot to be said, but today—since this is still a blog about academic writing—I will focus on the creation of a text written explicitly for a presentation.

I will begin with an important clarification. Writing a text that is designed to be read isn’t something that all of you will do. In many fields, the expectation will be a presentation that revolves around speaking and not reading. But those of you who do need to read a presentation have a uniquely difficult task. Faced with this task, some presenters seem to feel that reading is in fact all that is required. However, the experience of having a standard academic paper read to us is not one that most of us wish to repeat. There is, of course, a range in people’s listening abilities; some listeners can manage a degree of attention and comprehension that others—me, for instance—cannot. But as a presenter, it is probably best to target average listeners, rather than the superstars of academic listening. And the average listener has needs that reading alone can’t meet.

So once you’ve learned that a read presentation is standard in your field and acknowledged that simply reading a paper may fail to engage your audience, what to do? The key is to identify what is so valuable about the read presentation. A read paper allows for a complexity and density that might not be achieved without a written text. The benefit of reading is that you can offer deliberately structured prose of the sort that most of us can’t create on the fly. This is what you will be able to maintain in your written paper: sophisticated sentences that convey complex relationships among concepts. Beyond that, you need to think how your presentation text needs to be different. Here are three key areas for alteration: one, the degree of elaboration; two, the extent of structural explanation; and, three, the use of actual annotations of your presentation text.

In the first place, your complex sentences will need elaboration; what can be said once for a reader should be reiterated for a listener. Complex ideas will likely need to be unpacked further in the designed-to-be-read version. Ask yourself if a sentence in your writing might require a reader to read it more than once or even just pause to think about it. If so, you must work that repetition or time for reflection into your read version; strategic repetition is your friend here. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a lot of presentations during which I wished that the speaker had spent less time clarifying the key idea.

Second, you need to think of your paper as a one-way street for the listener. When readers read you, they have the luxury of flipping back to something, of reminding themselves of where they are within your argument. Listeners, on the other hand, are completely at your mercy. Once they lose the thread, their only way to regain it is through the structural signposts you have provided.

Third, the physical text that you read from needs to be distinctly different from a normal paper. The difference will come through the annotations that you make to direct your reading process. Some sentences need to be read in their entirety; some sentences can be a way to get you started with some room for improvisation at the end; some aspects of your paper should probably be left completely unwritten. I usually suggest that some proportion of the examples or anecdotes or elaborations be left open. I also suggest noting for yourself basic things like where you will pause, where you will look up, where you will put the emphasis. If you don’t need this degree of guidance, you will naturally disregard it, but many will find it helpful. For most of us, the appearance of spontaneity is much better than actual spontaneity.

One final note: a more dynamic read presentation requires careful attention to time management. When practicing ‘reading’ in this way, you have to make sure you know how long everything will take you during the actual presentation. It can be helpful to know whether it generally takes you longer to give a presentation than you anticipate or whether you are one of a smaller number of people who actually end up being quicker during the real thing. If you are in the former group, time yourself approximating the presentation as closely as possible, and then give yourself a few minutes leeway. If you are in the latter group, try slowing down!

This topic was well handled by ProfHacker last winter. Their blogger talks about creating a dedicated reading copy, a term which does a good job conveying how it must be different from the original version of the paper. If you have other questions about oral presentations, here are a few recent links that might prove helpful or might lead you to other helpful resources. Here is something from Dave Paradi’s blog about a technical issue: preparing to make a presentation on a computer that is not your own. Here is something from the Presentation Advisors blog on simple ways a presentation can go wrong. Here is something from The Guardian on deciding strategically how many conferences to attend. Finally, here is something from The Professor is In blog on making conferences work for you as a graduate student or junior academic.