On academic detachment and relational research

A few months ago, I started a postdoctoral position at the University of Cape Town. Becoming part of an environment of active and supportive(!) scholarly exchange made me realise how much I had conditioned myself to work independently so far in my still rather pubescent academic life. While that is not a bad thing per se, I firmly believe that research is inherently relational. It is a form of knowledge production that requires a stimulus beyond stoically practicing data collection and writing in the ways we have learnt to be academically sound.

I have technically been working ‘from home’ for quite some years now. Doing my Masters by dissertation meant that I was only on campus for departmental seminars and irregular meetings with my thesis supervisor. This was after I had done a six-week qualitative research project on refugees in Cape Town and practices of dreaming for my Honours degree, which had given me an appetite for more in-depth research. I missed being part of academic life during my Masters but was really excited to conduct my first long-term ethnographic fieldwork. It allowed me the time and space to immerse myself in a topic for much longer – this time doing research on suburban neighbourhood surveillance groups. I would get a degree for spending my time observing, interviewing and writing – I was thrilled! And it really was a great experience at the time, even if not without ups and downs. I established my routines and enjoyed being able to do so without being impeded by class schedules and other academic obligations.

After embracing my degree certificate for my work, which, thankfully, had not felt torturously laborious for the most part, I worked for a health research organisation for three years remotely. Even though the topics I got to research interested me, my junior status and the fact that the project I was hired to work on did not materialise had me working on bits and pieces of other peoples’ projects. There was therefore no substantial, stimulating exchange with colleagues beyond brief Skype updates. When the situation did not change and funding became even more limited, I pursued my PhD on Tinder dating – another opportunity to spend A LOT of time talking to people about a topic that fascinates me.

I have always embraced a sense of independence. As a younger girl, I envisioned myself growing into a journalist when older, travelling around the world, covering all kinds of exciting topics. The anthropologist I grew to embody instead has roamed the world much less than I would have liked – mostly for funding reasons. I have, however, still managed to go out and explore the very themes I felt strongly about. It has taken a moment, but I feel like I’m getting closer to positioning myself in academia and thinking of myself as a ‘digital anthropologist’ – whatever that may actually mean. Especially through writing many an application in search for a postdoc, summarising my interests concisely over and over helped with that.

Having my first ‘proper’ (as in, fully paid) position pursuing my own research interests and now being part of a lively even if still remotely operating academic environment makes me feel the last years of academic detachment. Particularly so after the past 1.5 years of COVID-19-enforced remoteness. I am hungry for fieldwork and even more hungry for exchanging ideas with other scholars. Scholars, that is, who harbour a collaborative rather than a competitive sentiment – something that is not to be taken for granted.

I got a strong sense of what a collaborative spirit can do when attending my first hybrid workshop on UCT campus the other day. The big screen was not working and the five of us who were present in person were all still looking at our respective computer screens with our facial expressions hidden behind masks. And still, it was a very different feeling from following the same meeting from my kitchen table. The workshop went on for more than three hours, but I felt enlivened by the mere physical proximity of colleagues with whom I could exchange thoughts on our projects located within the same research cluster. It may have been the combination of the ability to share our progress and insecurities within this space, working on a similar research topic and having been deprived of unmediated support for a long time that made for this animating effect.

For me, the takeaway from these experiences is to, yes, embrace the autonomy research allows me when it comes to going to a certain field and approaching a topic in an exploratory manner – even though this autonomy in always also impeded by funding, institutional expectations and the pressures to fit moulds in academia. And the way things have panned out for me also cautions me to value not just my relations to the people I work with when conducting research but also academic environments that offer me space to develop frameworks to think with. Even if it is sometimes hard to admit, at the end of the day, none of it can be done alone.


Academic presentations: how to get them right!

Can you recall the last time you listened to a presentation or lecture for two and a half hours, and still wished it could last longer? Honestly… I cannot either. After Albert Einstein’s two-and-a-half-hour presentation during his tour in Japan, the audience did something uncommon, especially in Japanese culture…. they complained. For Einstein, this was received as a complement rather than a complaint – the people in the audience asked for the longer version of his presentation! This is a rare occurrence. In addition to the intellectual brilliance of Einstein, he was humble and soft spoken in his delivery, and this is thought to have enhanced the impact of this particular presentation.

Unfortunately, many brilliant academics fail to adequately communicate their message during presentations, due to failure to address a number of considerations. Using various sources of information and guidance from my supervisors, I have gained skills that have enabled me to present my work effectively, and as a result, I have won numerous awards in research presentation competitions across the country. In this blog, I share some considerations that one should take into account in the pursuit of delivering effective academic presentations.

Myself after presenting at a local conference in 2018.

Professionalism, especially during the current era of virtual presentations

Similar to the concept of ‘love at first sight’ in romantic relationships, the initial perception the audience has of you as a presenter affects the level of attention they will pay throughout your presentation. Perhaps, the first and most important thing to consider prior to a first encounter with your audience is ensuring maximum levels of professionalism. Simple things like arriving on time and dressing up properly can go a long way in achieving this.

In the era of COVID, where we have shifted to virtual presentations, technical glitches are bound to happen, and this can negatively affect the professional outlook of your presentation. Some of these technical glitches can be avoided. Firstly, being ‘punctual’ for your online presentations helps you to identify and rectify any potential glitches and try to rectify them before the audience joins the platform.

Secondly, connectivity issues can really spoil your presentation and indeed your entire day. Unpredictable as these issues are, one way to avoid them is to have at least one alternative internet source, should your original one fail. I have found that my computer is much slower in terms of performance and connectivity when it is updating. So, to avoid connectivity issues, I usually check for updates the previous day and pause updates on the day that I am presenting. Finally, it is quite daunting to lose connectivity in the middle of your presentation due to load shedding, which we are currently facing in South Africa. Therefore, to avoid such, you should check the load shedding schedule for your area, and plan to be in a region with power during the time of your presentation.

Knowing and capturing your audience

In addition to professional etiquette, one other factor to keep your listeners engaged in your presentations is ensuring that you tailor your message for the specific audience you are presenting to. Professionals within your field of specialty can quickly get bored when you explain technical terms that are common within the field, and they are more likely to be interested in hearing your specific findings and what new and exciting information you bring to the field.  On the other hand, when presenting to a broad and unfamiliar audience, using technical terms without further explanation can confuse the audience as they would consider it all jargon. Such an audience would be more interested in how your findings affect their lives personally, and would likely not be very concerned about the bit of new information you are bringing to the field.

In addition to tailoring the presentation for a specific audience, it is also important to capture listeners from the beginning of your presentation. The first few seconds of a presentation are critical, as they determine the level of interest and attention that an audience would pay to your presentation. Here, it would be good to start off with a shocking fact, or statistic that your audience immediately relates to and want to hear more about. Once you have captured your audience, you then need to keep them interested until the end of the presentation. The enthusiasm and energy you put into explaining your work plays a huge role here, people tend to pay attention to an enthusiastic, energetic speaker, and the opposite is true.

Clear and concise slides

Finally, one thing that can make or break your presentations is the clarity of your slides. A common mistake that people make is to try to add a lot of information on slides so that they can convey the volume of work which they did in their respective studies. This usually clutters the slide and forces the audience to read slides rather than listen to what you have to say. My general rule is: if I can represent the information in a picture, rather have a picture on the slide rather than having text (see example below). In addition to avoiding cluttering the slides with too much information, it is important that each slide is centered around a single key point, as this allows for better emphasis.

I could go on for the entire day providing tips and tricks on how to effectively communicate via online presentations, as they are many other points to consider. Fortunately, there are various sources out there that one can use to obtain more information on how to present effectively. One particular book that has enhanced my presentation skills is “The Craft of Scientific Presentations” by Michael Alley, and I highly recommend for individuals aiming to effectively communicate their work through scientific presentations.

An extract from one of my presentations, where a concept is explained through an annotated picture, rather than text.