Being a professional academic – does it have to mean being boring? This is the question asked by Ellen Spaeth (@ellenspaeth), a University of Edinburgh PhD student researching music listening in the treatment of anxiety, in a guest post on the Thesis Whisperer blog.
In it, she recalls a presentation she made recently at a “relatively informal” conference for students at the university. “The emphasis was on getting experience of presenting in an academic setting, and as such, all attendees were asked to complete feedback forms for each presenter,” she says. “I’d already given a similar presentation at an external conference the previous week, and had been complimented on both content and delivery. I’d been really nervous before this, so I was delighted to do it again.”
According to Ms Spaeth, the presentation went well. “I made some jokes (which people seemed to appreciate), and the audience looked interested and engaged. I even had some thought-provoking questions. In keeping with this, my feedback was mostly complimentary.”
However, some of the feedback forms “ALSO contained a warning”, Ms Spaeth says, that “I should probably be more serious and sedate in a more formal setting, if I wanted to be taken seriously as an academic”.
She concedes that the presentation was “not serious”. “It was not sedate. I probably did talk too fast. My bugbear is with the idea that to be professional, you need to remove what might be your best assets,” she writes. “The things that set you apart from the crowd.”
She asks her readers a question. “What does it really mean to be professional?…To me, being professional means being efficient and getting the job done, while maintaining a respectful attitude. It means engaging your audience, or at least increasing the odds that they’ll stay awake (unless you work as a lullaby-creator).”
For Ms Spaeth, the problem is not that the warning was wrong or offensive. The problem, she says, is that “it was probably right”.
“I’ve always been branded as ‘enthusiastic’, which is both positive and negative. I do try to tone it down at times, while still being me – it’s all about keeping a balance. And obviously, it’s important to know your audience.”
However, the idea that “trying to be LESS engaging, enthusiastic, and innovative will be good for my academic career scares me”, Ms Spaeth concludes, before asking what others think.
The blog clearly caught the attention of the academy, eliciting almost 50 comments in the first 24 hours.
Jonathon Ball, who runs the Educational(ism) blog, believes that some audiences are more tolerant of a lighthearted presentation style than others. “I’ve found that presenting to an education specialist audience can be vastly different to an ancient history specialist audience,” he says. “Education specialists, for me, tend to be more approving of the energetic, outgoing, enthusiastic presentation.”
Benjamin Habib, lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University in Australia, urges academics to keep it real. “If you’re bubbly and fun, go with that…if you’re a more subdued person, go with that instead. Be true to yourself,” he advises.
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