Tuesday, 15 July 2008
Reading books doesn't seem like real work. I remember when I started work on my Ph.D. (full-time, with a bursary!), I used to stop every so often with a sense of guilt that I was spending my time in a comfortable armchair, reading a book.
That was decades ago but I'm still surprised that reading books for study can be so tiring.
Of course, like everyone else, I read books for relaxation. I reread Agatha Christie, for instance so that I can wind down. But if I'm studying Agatha Christie, it's a different experience from reading for relaxation. I'm observant, analysing technique, making mental notes about context, trying to compare one book with another or thinking about how common ideas at the time are developed or denied in that particular Agatha Christie book. And my mind is working away, trying to organise - and test - a set of larger arguments. Reading for study is exhausting.
So is writing an academic paper. I was only doing a short presentation - 20 minutes - but the the reading and thought behind it occupied almost all my spare time and haunted my dreams. Not that I slept much. The night before I gave the paper I was down to three hours' sleep. I was still reading, thinking, writing and editing. I'll give you an idea of the contents in a future post.
I'm not convinced it was a successful paper. I'd have liked two clear weeks on it instead of a few days, evenings and odd hours. And the preparation was hampered by computer problems. I wanted to use a couple of video extracts and suddenly the computer on which I'd stored them refused to open.
A conference paper is a tricky thing to write. You can't know till you're there how much detailed knowledge the audience will have but some are bound to know much more than others. Academic conferences are packed with people with all kinds of esoteric knowledge - specialists in surprising areas. Speakers work hard at finding ways of conveying facts without suggesting they will be new to everyone in the audience. But because the papers are so short, they have to draw on a wealth of knowledge and thought. Any sentence may be questioned so every suggestion should be defensible. On the happiest occasions, people in the audience will suggest further ideas for developing a line of research.
For a week I thought I didn't have enough for my paper - then I realised I had too much. I kept taking ideas in different directions, then narrowing them down. Two days before the conference, I knew the shape of my paper and had prepared a 10-page hand-out. It was far too long, of course, but it gave members of the audience some material with which they would almost certainly be unfamiliar and would provide them, if they wished, with the opportunity to consider my ideas in greater depth.
The days I'd planned for writing the paper filled with meetings and administrative tasks. I missed fencing to work on my paper.
The day before the conference I made copies of the handout and tried to finish writing the paper between meetings at work. But there wasn't time to concentrate. At 2-o-clock in the morning of the conference, I fell asleep on the living room floor with the paper still incomplete. At some point I staggered upstairs, set my alarm clock for 5, and went to bed. At 5 I forced myself up and began to wonder if I could improvise the last two pages from the handout. I decided I was too tired. I had to write the paper.
I was still writing on the train. I got to work early. I finished writing the paper 5 minutes before the conference was to start, but decided to miss the first session so that I could check my video clips.
There were fifteen people in my panel, including the chair and speakers - exactly what I'd predicted. I had the right number of handouts. I played the first video clip, then started with a joke. The audience laughed. I went on and remember only the occasional stammer. I got to the end.
I'll write more about the conference later but, since then, I've been catching up on sleep. I still haven't caught up. But at last I've returned to the blogosphere.