Allow me to present myself!

Regardless of what comprises an academic’s workload, there is never a shortage of opportunities to stand in front of a group of people and pontificate on subjects near and dear to the speaker’s heart.  Didactic lecturing is one such example, but, unless this is a particularly prestigious and high-profile lecture (or possibly part of a job interview), this sort of activity seldom causes most academics to even break a sweat.

Dr. Charles Chamberlain gives keynote address ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Presenting a research paper, delivering a keynote address, now these are things that can strike terror into the hearts of even the most seasoned educators and researchers.  I can think of two particular events in my past that have probably helped to form the presenter I have become.

The first event occurred in the initial month of my PhD studies at the University of Waterloo.   I had completed my Master’s degree at the University of Windsor just three or four months prior to this and had had an abstract from my thesis accepted for presentation at the Canadian Society for Biomechanics annual conference in Kingston, ON.  I had my slides made up before I left Windsor, this being back in the days before PowerPoint when presenters had physical slides and used carousel projectors.  I also had dutifully used index cards to carefully map out my 12-min of fame – one card per slide.  In the quiet of my home, the talk went perfectly, ending precisely at the 12-min mark, leaving 3-min for questions.  And, I had a couple extra cards to handle any tough questions.  I was ready!

My talk was the first one after the morning coffee break, but I was too nervous to consider holding a coffee cup, so I stood to the side, re-visiting my index cards.  I went into the lecture room early, to make sure all was ready for my talk, when the first of two ‘hiccups’ happened.  As it turned out, the moderator for my session was a well-known author and researcher, and one of two researchers’ work that I was criticizing in my presentation – in fact, part of the rationale for my study was the fact that she had got it wrong in one of her previously published papers.  Now, this was unexpected!

The second ‘hiccup’ was that I discovered through this talk that it is one thing to sit quietly in your home rehearsing a 12-min, 10-slide presentation all alone; and it is an entirely different thing to give the same talk in a room of strangers, i.e., well-informed strangers, including someone to whom you had planned on giving some stern criticism.

Bill Gates enthralling the audience with his t...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, off I went.  Blah, blah, blah.  Click.  Blah, blah, blah. Click.  And so on.  Finally, I finished with a “And I’d be happy to answer any questions”, followed by polite, if muted, applause.  Then complete silence.  To her credit, the moderator asked a fairly easy question, ignoring completely the negative things I had just said about her research.  After giving my answer, she said the words that still echo in my head:  “Well, since we still have 10-minutes until the next speaker, I imagine there is still some coffee left out in the hallway if anyone would like to have some.  Please be back here at 11:15.”

All my planning, all my rehearsing, and it came down to this:  a 12-min talk delivered in 4-minutes by an obvious amateur.   Needless to say, I took advantage of the opportunity to get some coffee, only I did not return to this room, opting for whatever was happening in the other lecture room.  The rest of the conference was a complete blur – no, less than a blur – it’s a blank place in my memory.  I don’t even remember how I got back to Waterloo.  Not my finest hour.

And it has affected my preparation for every single lecture or talk I have given ever since in that I never rehearse.  Of course, as I create my slides, I am thinking about what I will say for each slide, but once I have the number of slides I deem necessary (about 1 slide per 2-min of the talk plus a title and any references and/or acknowledgements), I never attempt any practice versions.   When I attended my first international conference in Sweden in the second last year of my PhD, and my fellow PhD students heard I wouldn’t be rehearsing, I suspect they all came to watch, not out of solidarity or to give support, but to watch me fall flat on my face.  They would leave disappointed, as I gave a flawless talk that ended precisely on time.  And, this time, I was asked several good questions that I handled expertly.

Audience during my Wikimania talk
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second event that I remember that has affected my approach to presentations occurred in between the two talks I mentioned previously.  The University of Waterloo hosted an international conference (in fact, the same society as the one to later happen in Sweden), and we graduate students here only too happy to be pressed into service as session aides, assisting the moderators with timing the talks, helping speakers with the lapel microphones, and so forth.  I worked a few sessions and was thrilled to be close to researchers that I had only read about or whose work we had studied.  Being at the front of the auditorium, so close to the speakers, I could not help but notice just how nervous many of these people seemed to be.  I could see hands shaking, sweat on the brow of some, and even witnessed first hand how a seemingly simple thing as a laser pointer absolutely confused people who probably had IQs in the stratosphere.  And, I remember thinking to myself, if someone like Professor Emeritus Joe Schmo can get this nervous, who am I to worry about any little gaffs or mistakes that I might make?

So, you may ask, do I get nervous now, some 30-years later, when I give talks?  Darn right I do?  Do I still refuse to rehearse?  Yup, guilty as charged.  So what’s my secret?  Well, one thing I DON’T do is imagine my audience naked (shudder)!  I just remind myself that what I have to say is important, perhaps only to me, but important nevertheless.  And even if most of them are there because the next speaker is going to be really interesting, I know that once I get past the first sentence or two, everything will calm down inside my head, my heart will stop beating so hard, I’ll find two or three faces in the audience who seem to be listening to me, and I will tell them my story.

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How relevant is my research?

Suzzallo Library, one of the great libraries o...
Suzzallo Library,  Seattle, Washington, USA (Photo credit: Wonderlane)

In 2006, it was estimated by Bjork et al. that there were about 1.35 million papers published in a little over 23,000 peer-reviewed journals.    Given historical growth rates of about 2.5% per annum, we can surmise that this year, 2014, there will be just over 1.6 million papers published via peer review.

This raises several very interesting (and potentially disturbing) questions:

  • What is the quality of such a large number of papers being published (that’s one paper submitted every 20 s, assuming all manuscripts are published)?
  • How well are peer reviewers able to adequately review these submissions?
  • And perhaps most importantly, how can I be heard above the ‘din’ of other researchers trying to be heard?
Photo credit: Paul Appleton)

Of course, there will not be 1.6 million articles published in your discipline in 2014, so the chances of you being heard are considerably better.  But perhaps the larger question this raises is this: just how relevant are my research questions?

The answer to this may include several different considerations.  First, to what extent are your efforts in research self-motivated, i.e., are you primarily driven by your thirst for knowledge? Or, will your contract, or bid for tenure, be ultimately affected by the quantity, and quality of course, of this year’s research output?

Second, assuming that your motivations are intrinsically noble and not self-serving, you have to determine how ‘important’ are your research questions, i.e., has someone else already answered some (all) of them?  Are they, in reality, self-evident?  Back in the 1960s, when sports biomechanics research was well and truly in its infancy, it was possible to publish research on running that concluded that one’s running speed was a function of both increasing stride length and increasing stride frequency – hardly earth-shaking by today’s standards (the equivalent of the academic ‘duh’).

Concert Crowd (Osheaga 2009) - 30000 waiting f...
(Photo credit: Anirudh Koul)

Finally, while there will be probably several hundred thousand researchers publishing their findings in 2014, I believe that many of these publications will be, at best, one paper in perhaps a series of two or three papers within the same theme, with many being the only paper from the lead author in that particular topic area.   One of the best ways to truly have an impact and stand a little above the crowd in whatever discipline you may be in is to develop a program of research, rather than just a series of research projects loosely falling under a theme.  For me personally, although my current position, like most of my previous ones, places expectations on me that I will participate, encourage, support, etc. research across a wide range of topics and disciplines, I have been developing a theme to my research.  This program began, to a certain back in my doctorate at the University of Waterloo, under the late Professor David Winter, where I started learning about gait and gait analysis.  It was enhanced, in the mid-1990s, again under the influence of Prof. Winter, with explorations into balance and posture.  Today, I would describe my research program as a study of the mechanisms and effects on the sensory-motor coordination of the human dynamic stability system during movement where the human can be modelled as an inverted pendulum.  This system can be tested under a wide range of conditions, including sit-to-stand, quiet standing, walking, running, stair-climbing, and similar activities.  Admittedly, this is quite a broad theme, but it does have well-defined boundaries.  It has wide implications for inter- and multi-disciplinary collaborations, and findings would be of interest to multiple journals.

Balancing Rocks
Balancing Rocks (Photo credit: Viewminder)

Ultimately, I suppose, the answer to my question, how relevant is my research?, is not something I can answer.  Any answer I give will be at best biased and at worst self-deprecating.  Time will tell whether I will be remembered for anything I may have published or presented.  But, I know that when I leave academia, I will be able to look back and take pride in what I have done in research.  And, maybe that is all any of us can hope for!

Bo-Christer Björk, Annikki Roos, Mari Lauri.  2008.  Global annual volume of peer-reviewed scholarly articles and the share available via different Open Access options.

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Researcher, Administrator, Teacher … or What?

Blogs are typically quite personal things and since this blog is about me, it seems appropriate to address the question that most, if not all, academics face: what exactly am I in the academic world?  A quite common model for an academic will include three main duties – in fact, I remember quite early in my career someone likening their careers to a three-legged stool – the legs being ‘research’, ‘teaching’, and ‘service’.  In fact, this may have been somewhat prophetic since a three-legged stool is rather unstable and standing on one can leave one in quite a precarious position.

In some cases, the roles of an academic are quite prescribed: e.g., 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service.  Others may let one decide the precise breakdown, with minimums in each category.  Regardless, there are some significant implications with however the breakdown is decided from several perspectives, including human resource management, employee retention and morale on the management side, to career advancement, promotion, and tenure on the employee side.

We like to think that the 40:40:20 model is a good approximation of what an academic does because is does not seem to burden one with too much work not related to what universities are supposed to do primarily, i.e., generate new knowledge and train/educate subsequent generations – at 20%, service/admin work is about one day per week.  And, it gives at least lip service to the idea that research and teaching are seen as being equally important to the university, even if that is seldom true when promotions and sometimes tenure are awarded.

In some places in the world, and my experiences in Asia clearly suggest this is one place, (although, no doubt, there are others) one cannot help but wonder if the concepts of ‘equal workload’ and ‘identical workload’ are not seen as being exactly the same things.  In the context of an academic’s workload, this can be seen in the way directors and heads of department try to make sure that everyone has about the same teaching loads and that the expectations for service/admin and research are also about equal.  This would be fine if the training, talents, and ambitions of academics were also more or less identical.  And here is the rub: not all academics are interested in teaching and research in the same way.  Like any skill that is both innate and learned, teaching and research are skills that are not distributed equally in all academics.  We have all had experiences with academics from all parts of the excellent-to-poor spectrum when it comes to either teaching or research.

Outside of category 1 research institutions, most academics have to juggle relatively heavy loads that include teaching, research, and service.  Add to the mix of being in a tenure track, and the pressure to achieve much in a fairly short time means academics have to ‘hit the ground running’, even though very few graduate programs include any sort of career management training.  Those for whom teaching is a real joy – time-consuming but very rewarding –  making time for research tends to be a real challenge.  Students love them and reward them with high feedback scores.  Others catch the research ‘bug’ during their doctorates and love the challenge of trying to answer the next question.  They power through their teaching time, perhaps investing just enough time in preparing lectures to get by, chomping at the bit to get back into the lab or into the field collecting data.

The question raised is: why shouldn’t an academic choose their ‘speciality’ between research and teaching?  If academia was a private company, you can bet a smart CEO would exploit the talents of his or her staff in such as way as to ensure maximum output.  ‘Equal workload’ should allow for some academics to be more heavily involved in one of the two main legs of the stool, research or teaching, while contributing to the overall mission of the institution.  Those who love to teach and feel ‘forced’ into getting involved in research to satisfy departmental requirements would be able to invest more time in what they love if most of the research requirement was removed.  Similarly, a productive researcher, who begrudgingly spends time lecturing – often not particularly well – would be even more productive in research if most of his or her teaching duties were reassigned to those who love to teach.  In the end, each of the legs of the academic stool would be stronger, more stable, and academics would find fewer reasons to look for greener pastures, ensuring good morale and stability in academic departments.