Resurrection

Its been ages since I wrote. Last October… good lord. has it really been that long? Well… a lot has happened around here. Things got busy in October: PhD application writing kicked in; I had conference papers and talks to present; and then flu hit. Yay. It went downhill from there, a christmas break that wasn’t (a break), and its just been a case of placing one foot in front of another since then. It wasn’t till a conversation with a friend on a subject ended with “you know, you really ought to blog this on DeafStudent” that I realised I’d not blogged here in absolutely ages. But more of that in a moment: now is about updating.

First of all – NEWS!! The exciting bit: I got the PhD funding I applied for. Which is really excellent news cos it’s really … really competitive funding to get, it marks me out as someone to watch in future. Its not just about the money – although the money is very nice (tutition fees plus living costs, and fairly substantial living costs too, around £15k per year) – its also about the opportunities that are included in the programme. I can’t go into details, cos, you know, that pesky anonymity thing, but suffice it to say that these opportunities allow me to build on my PhD, to contribute extra to my CV, and which make me that much more employable in the years immediately after my PhD. It’s also marked a change, since I got the news, of feeling more assured about myself, and happier because my immediate future is more settled. I know that come October I will have a regular paycheque and what I will be doing, what i will be studying, who with, and where. That kind of stability is, for me, immensely reassuring and makes me feel much happier.

What else? When I last wrote, I was about to deliver a series of talks. I’d done one, and was about to do a conference paper. The conference paper went well, I had a couple of questions, and did some useful networking with people. Networking is something I can and do struggle with, but I seem to have gotten a much better handle on it recently (and I might well do a proper blog post on that). The second hour long talk didn’t happen. I was very annoyed about that, I came down with flu to the point where I couldn’t even drive, much less stand for an hour and talk (and I do mean flu, not a cold). I hated cancelling but it had to be done. That one is rescheduled for later this year. The first hour long talk that I did, that I blogged about last October, was such a success and had so many enquiries for a repeat showing, that I was booked to do a second which I did a few weeks after the flu, rather croakily. It wasn’t as good, mostly because I still wasn’t 100% and the passion that drove the first was a bit more muted. But I hope they still enjoyed it – I’m booked to give another talk in September to the same group on a different subject, which I call a success!

The PhD application: I had an awful lot of support from my supervisors, but I also bounced the application to just about every academic I knew, even the ones that do not have any academic knowledge on my subject. This was quite deliberate: the people who choose from the applications, while academics themselves (or working on a similar level) are not necessarily academics in my particular subject, let alone my specific field. The application had to be detailed, within a certain (very frustratingly, very limited) word count, but had to be understandable enough that those outside my subject could cope. Bouncing the application round to everyone but the college porter achieved that. I also re-wrote. A LOT. I think my application went through 19 drafts before I actually hit send. I paid attention to what the programme managers said they wanted in successful applicants, and made a concerted effort to give it to them. Again, I can’t comment on what those specifics were, but I’m quite sure it helped in the box ticking. When the panel receives 10 applications for every post that’s available, you have to think in those terms to get you through the early stages. What do they want – A, B, C. Do I have them? Yes, no, what can compensate…? that sort of thing. A similar process dictates academic research funding, so .. get used to it now, was the advice given to me.

One thing that I am sure people reading this will wonder: did I disclose my deafness? Yes. A part of the form detailed the allowances that they would need to make for any kind of disability. Although this would have been removed from the form before the panel read it, before it got to panel stage, it had to be approved by the university to which I was applying: of all their applications, a set number got put through to the final approving panel, so the university was interested in approving the applications that they thought had the best chance of succeeding. The university I’ll be studying with is the same one that I’ve been with for the last five years so they were well aware that I’m deaf, and even if they didn’t know, they would’ve been aware cos I brought an interpreter along with me to the interview (more about that in a minute). In the event, I don’t think it made one iota of difference. Universities are so careful about that sort of thing these days that they’d be stupid to even try to be prejudiced or biased on the basis of disability.

Interview: As I said before, I took along my interpreter. That person was someone I’ve worked with extensively before. This was not the time to experiment with new people! The university was good in making accommodations to ensure that the interpreter could be there (they arranged the time and date well before anyone else’s, knowing that interpreters get booked up quickly, for example). That was the only advantage that they gave me; everyone who applied was interviewed (and told that the interviews would be held week commencing XYZ), so even knowing further in advance than anyone else when exactly my appointment would be did not gain me that much. The interview lasted about half an hour, I was asked some very pointed questions but I didn’t let it ruffle me, just answered to the best of my ability. They asked me if I had any questions. I’m quite sure that they thought that a formality – I soon showed otherwise. I can’t detail the questions I asked them here, but two of the questions put my interviewers on the spot, and gave me useful knowledge on how to handle my PhD. In other words: I saw my interview as an opportunity to gain knowledge as well as to impress them, and I think that may have made more of an impression than anything else.

The time between interview and the result was horrible. I tried to put it out of my mind as best I could, not helped by people asking me if I’d heard anything. Annoyingly, the interpreters were the worst for this! I’d see one particular interpreter for a class on a weekly basis and every week they’d ask if I’d heard anything, even though I told them the week before that the result would not be until X date. Argh! The day the result came through though was a very special one, as can be imagined.

In the last month or so, I’ve delivered two more conference papers and attended the introductory day for my PhD programme. All three required a lot of networking, which is why I think I’ve improved – one of the conferences was at my home institution so I knew most people already, but the other was at a new (to me) university and it showed beyond doubt that I can now at least go up and talk to unknown people about their papers, even if I’ve still got a way to go with networking. I’ll give more tips in another blog post, but I definetly punched the air on the way out of that one!

So, what next?

Well, I’ve an MA to finish off, which is what I’ll be doing over the summer. In October, the PhD begins; I’ll have access to a form of Disabled Student’s Allowance (not run by Students Finance England, thankfully, but by the Research Council responsible for my funding) which will help to cover costs for any communication support I need through my PhD. I don’t forsee a problem occurring, if I’m honest: it would be counterproductive, and I’ve been assured by both the head of the section dealing with the programme at the Uni and the head of the entire programme (‘The Big Cheese’, as my supervisor put it) that my deafness is a non-issue and that they’ll do all they can to keep it that way. I’ve been offered a place teaching on an undergraduate module next September already; although I’ve been doing some teaching in the last two years, that was fairly limited as I was working on a computer module, where the students had a workbook that they had to go through to complete the module – I was on hand to answer questions and sort out the inevitable screen freezes and blue screen of death. What I’ll be doing next year is a step up from that, encouraging online discussion amongst new undergraduates on my subject and hopefully fostering a love for the subject. Well… one can hope. So that’s exciting. There is also definitely the opportunity to teach tutorials during my PhD programme, although I’m not sure when (they may try to restrict it to the second and third years). It all adds up for the CV, which is good.

All I really have to do right now is finish my MA dissertation. I have the marks, apart from the MA dissertation to achieve a distinction, so naturally, that’s what I want to achieve. There’s also a prize for the best dissertation, so I’m aiming for that as well (and then I’m going to try to get articles out of it as well. Waste not, want not).

It’s going to be a fun summer…!!

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public speaking

Its been more than two months since I wrote, and… holy moly! Its been an amazing two months – incredibly busy and it almost feels like today is the first chance I’ve had to breathe and reflect on what’s been going on.

Of course, I can’t share all of it, but here’s a bit of it….:

  • Finding funding that has allowed me to complete the second year of my MA – both tuition and living costs. In mid-August I was seriously concerned about being able to eat, never mind find tuition fees, and I feared losing all chance of doing the course I love, and the career I so desperately want. That threat has been lifted and the surge of joy and productivity that has come as a result has been amazing.
  • I now have the chance to pull together a PhD proposal and apply for some really important funding. It’s very competitive, but if I get it (and I’m in with a good chance), then I would get not only my tutition fees but a stipend paid for living costs, a pretty generous one as these things go, AND all my communication support costs would be paid by the same organisation. They have a meeting soonish on applying for the funding, for which I’ll need communication support and so far their attitude has been “who do you normally use? okay. fine. leave it with me”. Fantastic! Even the head of the funding has been quick to assure my supervisor-to-be that my deafness will make no difference whatsoever to my application. 🙂
  • Because I’m a part time student, my MA dissertation would not normally be due until January 2017. However, because I’m applying for full-time PhD funding, I need to hand in my MA dissertation early, or I’d be in a position where I’d be doing my MA dissertation and my PhD research at the same time. Now, since they’re on related subjects that’s not as difficult as it might otherwise be, but certainly not a situation I particularly want. So the uni have recommended that I hand in my MA dissertation early. Like, July 2016 instead. errrrrrrrrrrrrrk!
  • As a result of all this I now have three research projects on the go: my PhD proposal, my MA dissertation, and a project for the module that I’m now doing. Keeping all these bits of information in the right place – both in my head and organisationally – is challenging!!
  • I am also engaged in volunteer research, and if that wasn’t enough, have signed up to be a course rep this year for my course. I’m nuts, I know I am.

I am also in the course of delivering various public talks on my subject. Now, as a would-be academic, this is something I have to get used to, but still, the prospect of jumping from a 4 minute long talk (my longest talk before this) to a group of historians that came about as part of my voluntary research, or the 5 minute long talk that I had to do as part of my undergrad degree, to a full hour long talk to the general public, rather than university people and friends was rather daunting. I also knew it had to be done – a key part of the PhD funding that I’m applying for involves Impact and Public Engagement (deliberate emphasis), so you have to get comfortable with working with strangers, and standing up and getting passionate about your subject.

So, when I was asked to deliver this talk to the general public, with tickets being sold for it, I was understandably nervous. Not just for the usual reasons either – would they understand me? would I stumble over words and make an idiot of myself? And then, to make matters worse, some kind person gifted me with a cold the week before I was due to deliver this talk. ARGGH!

In the event the talk went well. I worked with a hearing friend who advised with the words – I had no microphone, and was worried about reaching the back of the room (especially given my cold), but they advised me to focus on enuciation rather than projection, and it worked really well. I also took example from a former tutor of mine, who had no fear of silence – he would happily stand in front of the class, lost in thought, for 30 seconds to a minute, making sure he’d said everything he had to say before moving on. I built silences into my talk, used them to drive a sense of suspense as I told my story. People laughed in the right places. They didn’t elsewhere (i.e. they were laughing with me, not at me). I even worked the rugby into it! I had many… MANY compliments afterwards, and the biggest one of all? I’ve been asked to redeliver the talk, probably next year, at a much larger venue, that can probably hold a hundred people or so. So, bigger advertising. bigger ticket sales. not that I’ll see any of that, but .. having your name plastered around town… oh dear. oh deary me. how’s THAT for nerves?

My supervisor also asked me to deliver a paper at a postgraduate conference, which is coming up in the next few weeks. There’s been some difficulties over communication support for that conference, with my initial request for interpreters being denied. However, this seems to have been sorted out now, and interpreters are booked. Its my first time delivering a paper at a conference, and only my second conference altogether, so there’s a steep learning curve ahead for me. That paper is now largely written so its just practice and tweaking now.

I’ve a third talk to deliver, a few weeks after the conference, at the AGM of a society that deals with my subject, so a fairly prestigious location, and organisation. This is being delivered to a group of people who know a lot about my general subject, although the subject of the talk itself is original, so if anyone is going to pick it to pieces, it’ll be them.

[One thing I do want to note is that although I can’t reveal the specific subject here, I can tell you that all three of these presentations are actually discussing exactly the same research subject. What this means is that I’ve had to re-write each talk to deliver a different emphasis. The general public talk has had to include a lot of background information so that they understand the import of my orginal research. The conference paper has far less in the way of background info, but more in the way of showing the gap in the research, and what my analysis has done to fill it. The final talk, to the society, focuses on the methodology – how they can use my methodology from this research to apply to other research projects, what it’s strengths and weaknesses are. I should add, by the way, that this research project was my undergraduate dissertation, which got a mark of 80 in itself and was commented on as being ‘one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of reading’ by one of the markers. Since my undergraduate dissertation this material has been substantially rewritten multiple times: once for a journal, which was ultimately unsuccessful, mostly because I didn’t anticipate the requirement of writing FOR the journal, of tailoring the material to it; once for another academic journal, which was successful and which won an important prize (being published in January next year); once for the general talk; once for the conference; once for the society talk. It will be rewritten again for the larger venue, and again still for another society talk – a different society to the first one. If all this is teaching me anything, it is about the importance of just that – tailoring material, of knowing your audience, of being able to use the same basic material to deliver different messages, to use your material as a lens to focus on a different part of the project. Yes, the basic material is always the same: what your project was about, your data, your research question, your methodology and your basic conclusions. But within that, you can and should focus on a range of points when discussing the project within different settings, and for me, undergoing this experience bodes well for the future.]

But, back to the talk. When it comes to delivering talks, the convention is that the floor is opened up for questions afterwards. It is these questions that pose some of the nightmares for me – answering a question at some length, to get the reply “that’s very nice, but not what I asked”… or full-on not understanding what the person has asked at all! At the first talk, my friend (who is very lipreadable) relayed the questions to me, and at the conference, I’ll have proper interpreters, but at this last talk, I’m on my own. I’d been thinking about how to handle this kind of situation for some time, because, with the best will in the world, you’re not going to get interpreters for everything, and I had come up with a solution, of sorts, that might work well in an informal setting. I explained the situation to them, my deafness, how it works (or doesn’t work) and gave them two choices. They could either book an interpreter, which would cost, at absolute most, this much, OR… The Solution, which they went for, and will be tried for the first time at that event. My Solution (caps intended) is that, basically, the audience gets pencil and paper at the beginning of the talk, and at the end of it, a box goes around. They write their questions down, and put them in the box, and I pull them out, with a flourish, raffle style, and read out the question, then answer it. It’s got its advantages for several reasons:

  1. its anonymous for the person writing the question. This can be particularly attractive to someone who is a bit more shy, but doesn’t want to stand up to ask a question and have everyone turn to watch them.
  2. done right, it can give a real lift, a bit of fun to the whole proceedings. You can even make it more fun by offering a prize – a box of chocs or a bottle of wine – for the best question! [again, something I learned from one of my tutors who would periodically offer a bottle of red for the best question – HE never had an issue with a silent room after asking a question!]
  3. It rather neatly solves your communication issues in the process.

It has its disadvantages too. You do have to be upfront about your deafness. You also have to have a certain level of confidence yourself, because if you do this in an apologetic manner – ‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to…’ – rather than – ‘I’m deaf, but rather than struggle through questions, I want to make it a bit more fun! Can you write the questions down for me, and I’ll pull them out, one at a time? Oh, and the best question gets a prize!’. You can see the difference. Immediately people will respond far better, far more positively to the latter.

However, this confidence is not a bad thing, and it is actually fairly easy to fake. You’ve heard of ‘fake it till you make it’? I watched a really interesting TED talk a while back about faking it till you become it (it has subtitles). Amy Cuddy talks about the importance of power posing, of body language, and of making this work for you to trick your brain into feeling powerful, confident, and strong. I tried it just before the talk I just did, and although I felt extremely silly doing all this posing stuff in the loos beforehand, I actually felt really really good immediately before the talk. No nerves. It undoubtedly helped that I knew my stuff, I had my talk all written out and I knew my material, where I was talking, and who I was talking to, but there is no doubt in my mind that the powerposing absolutely helped too.

So… having done the first of what will be many talks – apart from the ones described above, I have at least two more to deliver, and I doubt they’ll be the last – I feel very confident, happy, and strong. I don’t doubt myself or my ability to do this. And that’s something that is invaluable, going into the next year, and something I’m going to do my utmost to hold onto.