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.


Airbag said...

I can completely relate to your dilemma. Often I get stuck on papers, then before I know it, I have to edit, shorten, and cut out half of it (Or else I would be submitting something equivalent to the length of Grapes of Wrath). Well, reading has prompted me to start my own blog (yesterday actually). I read for relaxation, for leisure, for fun (I just don't like reading for school [read: books forced upon us by unwavering professors]). I have a habit of reading in the bathroom (read: on the toilet). For some reason, that seems to be the place for me to escape the noise and grab a good book while nature takes it course. However, I have recently read in Why Do Men Have Nipples? (while sitting on the toilet - ironic) that reading on the toilet is actually bad for you. The author said that blood pools in the behind area, which can potentially cause horrible spider veins or whatnot. Well, needless to say, I'm 19 and that news stopped me from reading on the loo for a whole 5 hours until I needed to use the facilities again.

KateJ said...

That certainly is commitment to your subject! I just hope the people at the conference really appreciated the amount of work you put in, and that you can perhaps use the talk again - or turn it into a paper or whatever.
I'm lucky enough to only have to read for pleasure, so I can read what I want, when I want. Currently reading a lovely book called Homestead by Rosina Lippi and have just finished The Lost Garden by Helen Humphrey (for a second time). If you - or anyone reading your blog - are looking for a short but emotionally engaging book, I can recommend either of these. Both are books where I deliberately took a break part way through as I wanted to make the book last. Recommended anyway.

Anonymous said...

I am so impressed with your ability to throw hours at a project. I hope you can catch up on sleep and everyone appreciated and enjoyed your work. At times I too have worked hard so I can appreciate what you do.

Anonymous said...

Hope it went really well.
You'll be amused to hear I am doing much the same -- working on paper on the morning of. It must be conference season.

Kathz said...

Thanks for all your comments.

cide-hamete, I hope today's paper is a great success. (It's definitely conference season.)

Elizabeth McClung said...

Wow, terrific, well not the sleeping three hours part but the concentration and delivery - a 10 page handout? A 20 minute reading is about 12 page paper isn't it? This is one of the frustrations I found is that you go to an academic conference and then have to have a VERY small paper (since you may have noticed that it takes me 2000 words to introduct any subject even for fun).

Still great job, glad it was a success.

Kathz said...

The hand-out was longer than (and different to) the paper. I find that a paper is usually eight or nine double-spaced pages for a 20-minute presentation, because this gives me space to elaborate when necessary. But this presentation was tricky because of the extracts I was using.