Saturday, June 26, 2010

the rabbit holes of research: how I prepare an academic paper for presentation

For the last few days I’ve been, like Alice, falling down the proverbial rabbit hole. Not, for me, the wonderland of mad hatters and Cheshire cats, but the wonderland that is research.

It began on Wednesday. Half way through having to move my office, complete with books, filing cabinets and notes, a random conversation with a fellow lecturer brought me to a halt.

I am due to give a paper at the Centenary celebrations of the Melbourne College of Divinity in a few weeks. (more here). The conference theme is The future of religion. It’s a fairly important conference, so they demand all presenters submit their papers prior. I thought it was due Monday 2 weeks away. Standing in my colleagues office, I realised my mistake. My 12 days to write had suddenly become 5 days.

And so begins the wonderland that is research.

A possibility. As an academic, I get a regular stream of emails advertising conferences. Most get deleted, but some look a possibility – location, time, theme – seem to mesh.

A possibility. If you want to deliver a paper, you are requested to submit a proposal, a few hundred words outlining what you might speak out. This is when you begin the fall into wonderland. Because the conference is months away, you have no idea what you will actually say. You expect you will have time to do some research. So you lob in a proposal, your potential argument. It needs to sound good, even though you have not yet actually done the research to be sure.

A poke around. And so you seek to clarify a research question. It needs to be original, but respect your discipline. I consider it the spiritual practise of honouring the saints, those who have gone before. And so you take your question and poke around a few books, and a few things click and you get excited and you send in the proposal.

The process. And then you get engulfed again by the daily demands – lecturing, marking, meetings. At some point you wriggle free (to be honest most of my marking is actually still in a pile somewhere in my half-moved office!) and you begin to research. For me, this involves following the white rabbit. To quote, Alberto Manguel.

I like discovering places haphazardly .. I have not attempted .. a systematic method .. I was curiousity.

I am not systematic. (Is anyone?) I have an idea, I go to the library and I start reading and wrestling.

Today there are 20 books on my floor – for this project some Bible commentaries of the book of Judges, Aboriginal mission history, scholarly articles on how people read. You have to keep your eye on the time – the “Monday 5 days away.” So you can’t read everything. Instead you are looking for data to build your argument – quotes, insights – and connection with the discipline – key scholars, history of the argument.

And writing. Because the goal is not reading, but writing, organising your data in a way that is honest and comprehensible. It’s exhilirating. It’s agonising. You have to keep your eye on the conference theme and your initial abstract. Some flexibility is expected. Too much and I am potentially becoming rude to my audience and the expectations already created.

The presentation. This is the goal. Speaking should be different from writing. This is how the academy works. You submit your ideas to your peers (at conferences and in research journals). Just like artists look at the art of others and mechanics comment on another’s work, so your ideas are offered to the guild.

The probing. Following your paper comes the question time. And the comments in the corridor. And the coffees after. The questions. The testing for logical consistency. The linking with another book, author, idea. This is really why you present. In your paper, you have placed your clay on the potters wheel. It needs to be wet, so that it can be moulded by the community of your peers.

The publication. A conference invites the spoken word. It allows you to test ideas and fly kites. It gets you started. Generally you speak for about 20-30 minutes and take questions for 10-15. So a conference paper is around 2,000 to 3,000 words. And it only reaches those who are present. So the hope is that the conference paper becomes a publication. That usually means expansion (you need to write about 5,000 words) and clarification (picking up).

But that’s another whole story/post. For now, for today, my focus is simply Monday.

Posted by steve at 06:51 PM