If a tree falls in an empty conference room, does anybody hear?

Last weekend I went to Orlando, Florida for an academic conference. Two colleagues and I were on the program to present a panel (that is, three integrated short talks) on the teaching and learning opportunities in original research projects for undergraduate mechanical engineers. We had been working on our project since last January: drafting the proposal and later the paper, revising them, drafting the slides, rehearsing, revising the slides, and going over them again. I estimate that about 250 woman-hours went into our talks.

Two people came to our panel. That’s right, two. Oh, and one came 15 minutes late.

This is the thing about academic conferences that everybody knows about but no one does anything about: there are too many panels on the program for the number of attendees, which disperses the audience among too many rooms. Yes, some panels I attended had 30 people in the audience, the size maybe of a class of students. Usually, you hope for at least 8 to 10. But two? Well, that’s just disillusioning, as one of my colleagues said. Our work had almost no effect.

I wonder, selfishly, what else could I have written with the same 100 hours I contributed to the panel? One could say I learned a lot from the research I did (my talk was based on a qualitative study I conducted among students on their experience of a set of assignments), and my colleagues and I consolidated our understanding of our own work through this experience, but, really, to have an audience is better.

In the talks I went to, the best was by keynote speaker Manuel Lima, who presented from his book Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). He argues that, as the dominant paradigm for visualizing knowledge has gone from the tree to the network, ideas of beauty must change from an emphasis on symmetry and order to complexity and disorder. Lima’s presentation ranged over history, art, science, Gestalt psychology, and our digital world. He used beautiful, disparate images from handmade manuscripts and other artifacts in surprising ways. Illustrations of trees, like this one from 1202 by Joachim of Fiore (in Lima’s book), gave way to abstract art and in particular a network-like painting, Autumn Rhythm, done in 1950 by Jackson Pollock.

The Tree of the Two Advents (1202)

I sat at a table with Manuel Lima at lunch and heard more about his ideas; I bought his book and got his signature. One always gets something of value out of these academic conferences. I am intrigued by the shift from trees to networks as the paradigm of knowledge in our era and by our ideas of classical beauty giving way to complex beauty.

Networks are not just at the center of a scientific revolution; they are also contributing to a considerable shift in our conception of society, culture, and art, expressing a new sense of beauty. As we continuously strive to decipher many of their inner workings, we are constantly bewildered by their displays of convolution, multiplicity, and interconnectedness. And the most elaborate of schemes are the ones that apparently seduce us at the deepest level. — Manual Lima, Visual Complexity (2011)

This is a big idea, the only one at the conference. My colleagues and I were ready with a well-done yet admittedly modest idea. Is this the thing to do, which Lima has done: dedicate one’s self to bigger ideas and bigger projects?

Image credit: The Tree of the Two Advents, Joachim of Fiore (1202), via Brainpickings.org

More than the end

Lately, I have been thinking about endings because students are rehearsing and making presentations, ones that begin strong, build purposefully, and then break off awkwardly. At best, presentations seem to end with a gracious thank you to collaborators. Speakers perhaps wear themselves out, and when they’re done, they’re done.  Tough luck, audience.

Linda Flower (1979) described writer-based prose as an expression of the writer’s thoughts, for the writer, with no other purpose. Such prose is revealed in problems like a chronological process-based structure (first I did this, and then I did that) rather than an idea-driven one.  This kind of prose is not concerned with a reader’s experience; it is a record of the writer’s experience of thought, reading, or action. For my concerns about presentations, Flower’s theory of writer-based prose might be reframed as speaker-based speech. When I experience one of these presentations that simply break off — and, hey, I’ve occasionally made a few of these myself — I think what I’m seeing is an example of a speaker who has said everything she wants to say. Spent, she stops.

Stopping, though, is not concluding. Continue reading

Telltale art

In July, I got lucky and went to TEDx Boston. My favorite talk was not the expert one by presentation superstar Larry Lessig, but the surprising one by artist Eric Mongeon, on his persistent obsession with what he calls the “dark and thrilling work” of Edgar Allen Poe and his struggle to illustrate and publish Poe’s stories.

What Mongeon says, in part one, about Poe’s work makes me want to return to the stories: “He was writing about fear in uniquely modern terms. All of Poe’s characters experience fear when their fundamental beliefs about their social, personal, or practical situation are somehow invalidated. The world becomes uncertain, because the picture of reality falls out of sync with the experience of reality. And at the root of fear is uncertainty.”

In part two, Mongeon describes a situation he found himself caught in. After years of generating material for his secret Poe project, he realized he was in The Vortex: “A viscious circle of research, rejection, and refinement. It is unrelenting, and it is self-perpetuating because you feel like you’re actually making something.” He soberly adds, “Doing isn’t the same thing as making.”

And finally he knits it all together — Poe’s stories, his own story, fear — deftly.

Original ideas, and a really original presentation. Everything fits: the script, the images, the timing, his clockwork pacing of the stage, and some strategic pauses. Simmering is how I’d characterize this, and worth studying.

A is for awesome.

Lydia and I were talking about school, hers and mine. We considered motivation, and what fires people up to be and do the best  they can. She told me about her high school history teacher and an upcoming presentation assignment that Lydia wants to nail. In part, she is motivated by the teacher’s rubric:

A equals awesome.

B is not bad.

C is meh.

D is “Um…”

Lydia is aiming for “awesome.” I would go pretty far, too, for an authentic awesome. And if on the first draft I got a meh, I might laugh at the teacher’s humor, figure out what to do, and keep trying.

Photograph of the CN Tower, Toronto, August 2010.

– Bingeing on sticky notes

“Post-it® notes came out when I was in college.” I mentioned this to a group of students as I was passing out stacks of the colored sticky notes, along with a Ziploc® bag full of Sharpie® markers: tools for an article annotation and mapping exercise.

I continued, “In fact, I recall my friend Jeanne buying a pack — they only came in yellow at the time — and her marveling to me at their coolness. Secretly, I was thinking that the little pad with adhesive strips was about the stupidest invention ever: Don’t paper and a piece of tape do a sufficient job?”

How wrong I was, I concluded. “It’s hard to imagine school life today without sticky notes.”

Teachers, not just students, need sticky notes too. In the past few weeks I’ve been thinking through and organizing a presentation, for the WAC International Conference, on “The Professional Poster Session and Its Simulation in the Undergraduate Setting.” I interviewed four PhD students on their first experience as poster presenters at professional conferences in their disciplines, and I had about 80 pages of interview transcripts. That’s a lot of material to boil down into an interesting 15 min and 12 slide talk. So, I decided to walk my own talk, get out the sticky notes and markers, clear off the kitchen table, and sit down and sketch first… with words. Continue reading

– Distressing ratio

I just walked back from giving a short lecture across campus. It was a 20 minute performance, complete with (a) slides that articulated and illustrated common issues that students struggle with in writing a technical report and (b) enthusiasm.

As I walked back, I added up the time spent looking again at the batch of reports and my summary comments; making 14 slides, with examples from student writing; and mentally rehearsing. Time? Seven hours.

Sometimes I’ve heard professors tell students it takes an hour of preparation for every one minute of presentation. I did not spend 20 hours on my talk today, although perhaps all the time spent reading & commenting on the papers that led to this talk counts for preparation.

This makes me realize, though, that some professions (all?) are like icebergs: most of what one does (as a teacher, writer, dancer, bass player) is hidden from the people we work for (students, readers, fans, audience).


Post script: Later Jimmy asked, “How many people were in that lecture?” I answered, “Fifteen students and one professor.” And he reminded me to include those numbers in my ratio, which in turn reminded me that it’s not all about me and my experience!

My Beck dream disappears

In the year that I started teaching (2003), I had many night dreams that I would remember and think about the next day. One especially, even though it was about Beck, seemed to be about me, and teaching.

In the dream, I waited outside the Orpheum among a crowd. People pressed up against the main entrance doors. People spilled out of the alley onto Tremont Street, not bothered by the cars that edged around them. People climbed up and hung from a rickety, wooden staircase that clung to the outside wall of the building and ended at a door at balcony level. In the dream, it was a late September afternoon, the sun slanting. I had a ticket for the Beck show and could have made my way easily through the front doors, but instead I climbed the wooden stairs, pushing up and up and up, and slipped into the door at the top. Inside: darkness.

My eyes adjusted to the poor interior light, and, from the top, I made my way down balcony steps, along box seats on the side that hung from the wall, and into the door to the right of the stage. No one stood in my way or stopped me; I kept weaving in the direction I was going.

Going backstage at the Orpheum was like going backstage at my college’s auditorium: just a few stairs up, and there I was among the curtains, rigged-up lights, people in black shirts with clipboards, steamer trunks, lit Exit signs. Backstage, there is no place to sit down. Move, move, move, or stand.

I edged around a curtain, feeling it touch my back like hair, or a hand, and stood out of view of the audience yet close enough to center stage that I could see the house, performance area, and backstage at once. There was Beck, alone in front of the audience, with just his amped guitar, big hat, and a vest. He sang “Mixed Bizness.” He played hard, danced his plastic moves, and jerked his shoulders and guitar when he hit a line like “Freaks flock together.” He seemed to be possessed by the music, deep into it, as mesmerized by his performance as the audience was. Continue reading

– Presentation of self


Once in a while, if someone knows or notices that I wear an insulin pump, that person says to me, “Don’t you love it?”, gushing on the word love.

This happened to me recently, during my annual check-up. I was sitting on the table with a paper gown wrapped around me and talking to my doctor, whom I like, and the medical student who was observing. It was my doctor who asked the question and gushed on “love.” Clearly, even though it was an endocrinologist and not she who had prescribed it for me, she considered the pump a marvel. As miniature devices go, this one is indeed remarkable in what it can do.

Because she is a doctor, and because I feel able to speak frankly to her, I replied honestly: “No.”

Dr. H.’s lips pressed together and then broadened into a smile, which I took as a signal: Go on.

I elaborated.  “Sure, I appreciate the technology, and it’s more convenient than multiple injections, but, no. Loving it would be like being an amputee and loving a cool prosthetic leg, when what I want is my real leg.” Continue reading

– Accentuate the positive

This week at MIT could be called “Presentations Galore.” In many classrooms, lecture halls, and meeting spaces, day and night, students are making formal presentations to their peers, profs, and even parents, if they want to invite them. My colleagues and I who are communications lecturers have been overseeing a lot of the behind-the-scenes rehearsals and being first audiences for draft presentations. We reserve practice rooms, lug laptops and projectors, cue students, ask questions, offer feedback, articulate our puzzlement, troubleshoot PowerPoint, watch the clock, talk through nerves, and inspire confidence.

And on the big day, the best thing we can do, besides be attentive members of the audience, is root for them, like devoted sports fans. Students do better when they sense our belief in them. They can borrow our positive energy.

So, I sent my presenters an e-mail yesterday morning, just a few hours before showtime. I wanted the message to be practical, positive, and sincere:

Dear [student names]:

I really enjoyed working with you on your draft presentations. I have
learned soooo much from your teams this semester, and I look forward to today’s showcase of your work.

Here is some preparation advice that is most relevant on the day of:

–Drink water. (If your mouth and voice are comfortable, you will feel more comfortable *and* confident.) Bring some with you, so you can keep sipping up until your showtime.

–Breathe. (Some deliberate breathing, in the five minutes before you go on, really helps with gaining your poise.)

–Pick a personally relevant, positive message. (Like, “I will reach my
audience,” or “I will enjoy this,” or, like an athlete, “I’m winning this
thing.” Once, before a good presentation, I said this to myself: “I own this stage.” This seems corny, but, honestly, it WORKS.)

And remember… your audience is interested in your project, and your friends and peers are rooting for you!

All good thoughts,


Thanks to my friend, Jan, who sometimes signs her notes, “All good thoughts,” which makes me, the recipient, feel as though she’s sending some good vibes my way. And if you want to hear Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters sing “Accentuate the Positive” (1944), you could watch this scene from The Singing Detective on YouTube.

– Number one fear?

For weeks, Grace has been preparing for her animal research project, which is the culmination of the second grade curriculum. Out in the garage, with the door open, she constructed over many days a diorama that featured the elephant seals’ habitat. In the basement, on the kids’ computer, she searched Google for “elephant seals” to find what she called “quick facts.” (They are carnivores and eat skates, small sharks, and other fish, by the way.) She talked about an upcoming “oral presentation,” yet the design and rehearsal of that happened entirely at school.

Raised handOn Friday, we went to school, sat in the back of the classroom, and watched Grace and her classmates, one by one, give their presentations. The room was arranged like an auditorium, with a table as podium at the front and the desk chairs arranged in rows. There was a microphone, into which each child spoke as s/he read aloud her prepared remarks. After the formal presentation, each speaker asked, “Any questions or comments?,” and then called on raised hands. Remarkably, what happened during the Q&A is what happens during the Q&A of presentations made by many adults: The speaker relaxed, smiled, and seemed more natural and engaged.

Children have less polish and guile than we do, so there’s something very raw about the behavioral “data” they present for our scrutiny. In this instance, the eight-year-old presenters gave me an opportunity to wonder this: Why does even a practiced, rehearsed professional speaker seem stiffer, less natural, than the same person during the Q&A?

I have always been skeptical of that claim that Americans fear public speaking more than any other fear, even fear of death. This source points to a 1973 survey by the Sunday Times of London that initiated that now wildly-held belief. Of 3,000 respondents, 41% listed public speaking as their number one fear. Hmm. About 1,200 Americans — many of whom might be dead by now — have got a lock on our fears. I, for one, do not fear public speaking over fear of death, or the death of anyone I love, or my fear of woodchippers. Let’s put this survey, and its outdated data, aside and actually examine this fear. Whether it ranks first or tenth, it’s still real. Continue reading