This post in part rant, part reminisce with some comparison.
Knowledge mobilization: a rant
A while ago my friend Ernesto wrote a blog post Knowledge Mobilization and Interdisciplinarity: A rant. In this post he criticized academia’s obsession with knowledge mobilization and the shallow rhetoric of interdisciplinarity. Ernesto rightfully called out our educational system that ‘talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk’ by fostering publish-or-perish climate and academic publication arms race over the complexity of interdiciplinary work that often a) takes a long time to have any impact and b) favours process over product.
Later in the year, our department held a Graduate Students Conference Re-animating & Re-searching: Mobilizing Knowledge in Education, which specifically asked students to engage with the concepts of interdisciplinarity and knowledge mobilization, either in form or focus of the presentation. The organizers of the conference tried a new exciting format for the conference. First day was devoted to workshops and the second to students’ 8-minute presentations, one slide or image per talk, Q&A to follow. Similar to three-minute thesis , Fire Talks or Pecha Kucha this format pushes students to condense their thoughts, cut the jargon, get to the point and be open to rapid straighforward questions from the audience. I loved it (not everyone did).
Now, I understand the academic pain. Not everyone should embrace these emerging formats of knowledge communication.
Moreover, I echo Ernesto’s rant here. It seems that knowledge mobilization through participation in all the aforementioned events has become academic obsession, with little real-(academic)-life value attached to it. When I organized our Faculty’s 3MT heat, I found it incredibly hard to communicate its value to my peers. To many it seems like a waste of time, more work and non-CVable. The time spent preparing for the 3MT can be spent doing traditionally recognized and/or paid academic work.
In addition, there isn’t much support when it comes to actual preparation of one’s talk. There is more exposure to traditional formats and over the years students get comfortable following a fixed set of steps in their presentations. There are talks about elevator-pitch, but there aren’t too many walks in the direction of teaching students how to compose one. Because of this, engaging in knowledge mobilization seems difficult, not worth it, reserved for a small group of those colleagues who have mastered a formula (and don’t want to share).
I still love all these knowledge mobilization initiatives. I think they give us freedom and add excitement to our academic lives. And yes, I would love to Dance my PhD!
TEDx audition: reminisce
This summer, I found myself among the 48 applicants who were chosen to audition for the TEDxEastVan 2017. I didn’t make the final cut, but even being selected to pitch my idea, getting to meet the TEDx team and other amazing Vancouverites who make this event a reality was a great honour and I had a great time.
Looking back at my experience with applying for the TED talk and going through the audition process, I can confidently say that the past 10 years of my graduate life did little to teach me how to communicate my work outside academia. Do better universities!
First step in getting the audition was to fill out an online application. It is a pretty transparent and straightforward form. Once the call for applications comes out, anyone can fill out an online form and make a case for their talk to be selected. There are many good tips out there, so I won’t repeat them all here, I’ll just share what I did.
In this section I wrote about my interest in sociolinguistics and why I should be chosen to give the talk. I also talked about my love for different street signs and my collection of fun signs around the world.
How it’s different from author’s bio
Author’s bio, a familiar genre to many academics. What the author’s bio doesn’t answer is why me? question. I had a difficult time making a case for “why me” – because IMPOSER SYNDROME duh. See below:
Outside academia, it seems, people believe in themselves just a little bit more. To start, I gave myself a pep talk (you are smart, you can do this). Then, I made a list of all my non-academic engagements and a short description of what made me do it and what I learned. I also thought about my life, learning languages, starting to read signs and funny moments shared with friends when we would encounter a fun/confusing sign. Finally, I put it all in a narrative form. Honestly, after filling out this section, I did feel better about myself and my experience with giving talks, presentations, workshops, public lectures and such.So, booo on you imposer syndrome, yay for finding strength and confidence through public speaking!
About the talk
I really wanted to talk about multilingualism and how it manifests itself in public signs. So, in this section I wrote about linguistic landscapes. Pretty much it was the shorter version of the five-minute presentation I was invited to give later. Personally, I believe that linguistic landscapes are extremely interesting artifacts, but it was a bit hard to communicate my excitement in a brief format.
How it’s different from an abstract
There is a huge huge difference between writing a comprehensive abstract or a conference proposal and a TED talk pitch. It is also much harder to write the latter 🙂 At one editing workshop I heard a phrase “Bad writing often hides behind claims of complexity”, so true!
For many years, I have limited myself to academic styles of writing (also, see above for academic publish-or-perish arms race) and only recently I have allowed myself to be more playful with various genres. However, it is still somewhat challenging to communicate academic matters in non-academic ways. It took me five drafts and some peer feedback to rid the application of jargon, references and other researchy knick-knacks, and get the application right. This video from WIRED of Bobby Kasthuri explaining what Connectome is in five levels of difficulty was super useful as well. I would encourage everyone to share their work at various venues and using multiple formats. It doesn’t diminish the rigour of your argument, in fact it enhances it!
On the day of my audition, I was invited to speak for five minutes in front of a panel. There were four of us who made our pitches one after the other. After we gave our five minute pitches, the panel asked us questions on the topic of our talk.
My talk was about linguistic landscapes. I have been studying the use of various languages in public signs for many years and have presented on this topic at various academic venues. However, I have never given non-academic talks on this research. To think about it, I’ve become a bit too comfortable in my academic bubble where most people share my interests and opinions on different matters. So, being invited to a TEDx audition has really pushed me to reconsider how I communicate my research. It also reminded me about the difference between academic and non-academic venues.
Time and format
At conferences, we are usually given 20-40 minutes to talk. At the audition, we were given five. Plus, these was a really loud buzzer to make sure that you stop. I rehearsed and rehearsed, but still went almost overtime. That is, I said my last words with the buzzer going off. Maybe we should enforce time limits a bit better back at the university settings too…
At the conferences there is PowerPoint (AKA academic comfort blanket) or a Prezi if one feels adventurous. At the TED talk audition there wasn’t anything. Also, most people who auditioned with me had their talks memorized, so no reading from your manuscript! Too often we rely on the PPT, we could break away from this dependence a bit. I remember the horror when the PowerPoint doesn’t work…Instead, we could try to make out talk engaging and captivating without being too dependent on the screen support.
I found that people listened more carefully and attentively at the audition. Sometimes at the conferences, you would look around and see the audience answering emails or editing their own presentation slides. Multitasking is academic MO and a curse, plus don’t forget about slinking.
Yes, I have seen this at the conferences too.
At the audition everyone was listening very attentively, looking straight at me, taking notes. As I was talking, I was getting increasingly excited about my ideas. I mean, there were people who were actually interested in what I had to say! What a luxury. In academia we could work more on supporting the speakers by putting the work aside for a little while, turning off the phones and just listening.
Insults disguised as compliments are the passive-aggressive reality of life. Ten-minute reflections on one’s research disguised as comments are the passive-aggressive reality of academic conferences. Oh, such pain! Yes, a pain, but an expected one, so most of us know how to defend ourselves from such comments. Other comments are usually about something you actually said, a theoretical concept or empirical finding that needs to be clarified. So, also quite manageable.
The audition gave us 5 minutes for questions and answers. So, the questions were very precise and to the point. My questions were supposed to be just as clear and straightforward. Needless to say, I struggled… The questions could be loosely grouped into “what’s you main message and why should I care?” category. These were quite unexpected. Simply, I don’t remember being asked such questions before. Honestly, I didn’t really know what to answer and stumbled a bit. I mean, why shouldn’t you — that was what I wanted to ask back. Isn’t it enough that linguistic landscapes are awesome and so much fun? Apparently not, haha. Now, I will ask this question to myself before I embark on any research journey. Curiosity and new theorization is not enough! Why should the larger public care? That’s the question…
I am sure that this year’s TEDx promises to be amazing. Even though I wasn’t chosen to give my talk, I am extremely excited to attend TEDxEastVan (September 16th at the York Theatre), meet those who made it through selection and hear their ideas on what it means to be human!
PS This is my five-minute pitch Why linguistic landscapes are awesome