A few weeks ago, November 26 to be precise, I was scheduled to share my research with a group of peers in an informal setting known in the UBC English Department as the Work in Progress (WiP) series. This weekly series is organized by fellow PhD student and TA Michael Stewart who blogs, by the way, over at Rabble. These talks are accompanied by coffee and tea (bring your own mug) and the audience is mostly other grad students, though all are welcome. I found it especially useful because of three big reasons (and many smaller ones).
1) As far as I know, I am the only graduate student in my department who studies Victorian pornography which makes me something of the expert in the room. This is always a good feeling.
2) Sharing your research with a general academic audience is helpful in ways you would not believe.
3) Sharing your research in a no pressure setting is also helpful in ways you would not believe.
Now, the first reason above makes me sound like a bit of a snob. I assure you this is only kind of the case. As PhD students, it is our job to become an expert in something. I have chosen Victorian pornography as my area of subspecialty expertise (Victorian literature being my general specialty) and I, in turn, am researching that area in all sorts of ways. Back to the snob thing – I’m sure that every PhD student has come off in this way at one point or another. I’m sure that some PhD students are actually snobs. The thing about covert snobbery is that someone who is not yet an expert in something can sometimes overcompensate for their lack of knowledge by being snobbish. I’ve done this in the past and knew it was wrong when I was doing it. I wasn’t being a complete dick or anything, just making it seem like I knew more than I did so as to save face. I have learned, however, that it is much more respectable sometimes to admit you don’t know. So, now, I will say “I don’t know” if I don’t know something and I usually follow that up with “But it is something I will/should/want to look more into”.
The second reason above is really important because not everyone is an expert in what you do, obviously. The audience for my talk came from all sorts of backgrounds and they asked questions that I was not unprepared for, but which challenged me in ways I was not used to. You will also get this in the proper academic conference presentation but what was nice about these questions was that I did not get one of those questions that runs something like this: “When you talk about Victorian pornography, have you ever considered my research and expertise [in a totally unrelated period and field]?” No, instead I got thoughtful questions that helped me to think about my project and research in new ways that I otherwise would not have. It’s important that your research is accessible to a general audience and you won’t be able to gauge this if you only ever present it to other experts.
Lastly, the no pressure setting is something you should always take advantage of if you can. This is especially helpful if you are able to do it in a safe place like your home department; it’s great practice for the big leagues of academic conferences, oral defenses, and, if you’re one of the chosen few, job interviews. Low stakes presentations will never be useless to you, your research, or others taking part. My only regret is that I was unable to go to more of these presentations during the semester.
I am attaching the presentation I gave on the day in question. It has some notes that I made prior to and after the presentation written in blue. Take note that the bulk of my presentation comes directly from my qualifying papers list project description.