Their success…

I am shattered.

In truth, I’m running out of ways to describe just how exhausted and spent I am at the moment — mentally and physically, but particularly mentally. This does not serve me well when my vocation depends upon the mental acuity to not only communicate well, but to help others communicate their own ideas, plans and findings more effectively.

As a consequence of the need for a mental break and at least a week (or more) of decent nights’ sleep, I confess: lately, I’ve felt less than successful at my job. In fact, I’ve felt like I’m letting my colleagues and my students in particular down.

Today, however, two things happened which reminded me that I’m still doing okay. First, I received an email from a former student, thanking me for helping her with grant writing. After multiple attempts and failures in the past, she received two years of funding for her PhD research. Reading this over my morning coffee made me smile. But, this evening, during an entirely different class on conference presentations, one of the participants shared that she actually won a prize for her presentation at a local conference last week. And, she believed that recognition resulted from her experiences in and feedback from that class particular over the preceding three weeks.

Today was a good day.

My success as an instructor and a member of the extended University of Helsinki community isn’t so much about cataloging accolades for my own resume. It’s much more about these seemingly small-scale successes for my students and colleagues. Their successes are my successes. Their awards reward me even if I am neither recipient or beneficiary. I don’t need to be.

If I am at all effective in my job, these individuals—who spend 12 to 24 hours sitting in a classroom with me or painstakingly address each of my seemingly infinite number of suggestions and revisions—gain one skill or another to help them along in their careers. Whilst I don’t often know what happens to them once they leave my classroom or inbox, I thrive on hearing their success stories and victories. And, it could not be more meaningful; it could not make me happier.

Several weeks ago, I noticed balloons randomly placed around the city centre campus. They seemed so celebratory, although at the time I did not feel at all festive. I honestly cared now why they were there; I just liked seeing them and snapped a picture.

This evening, they seem relevant. And, celebratory in an altogether different way. And, this evening, as with most, I am immensely proud and honoured to serve as a member of this community of brilliant scholars. Here’s to our collective success.

University of Helsinki

 

Bigger picture & wider lens

einstein-picture-full-uncropped

Arthur Sasse / AFP

Maybe it’s because I love the notion of the mad scientist. But, I love Einstein.

His brilliant mind aside, I love his wit and eccentricity, along with his passion for communicating science and his own work within it.

One of my favourite images of Einstein other than him sat in wacky dress donning furry slippers (naturally) features the not-so-mad scientist sticking his tongue out. I’ve had a version of that image for as long as I can remember, and it never fails to cheer me up and remind me to embrace the silliness whenever I can.

I decided to use the image for a talk I’m giving later today to women in STEM at the University of Helsinki. The talk itself is on communicating science. And, as I’ve been thinking about and formulating precisely what I want to say on communicating science vis-á-vis the dreaded conference presentation, that image of Einstein has popped up in my head over and over again.

When looking up images as I was preparing, I found a bit on the history of it, and love it even more now.

My original intention and own message for including it focused on simply ‘being yourself’ during presentations. When we attempt to assume someone else’s notion of what it means to be a researcher or scientist or instructor (in my case), we become disingenuous and lose credibility amongst our audiences. We aren’t actors, after all. And, we shouldn’t pretend to be.  We also lose the plot of our message as well. Rather than water down our own personalities and individualities, I say bring them to the forefront when presenting.

But, also, I think this image reminds us to have fun with our presentations, particularly when we care most about the messages we are communicating. Most of those with whom I work research incredibly interesting yet at times troubling or difficult topics. It’s hard work no doubt. But each of us are truly passionate about our work (I hope) and I’d like to think that we also have fun with it.

In addition and after reading the back story behind this image of Einstein and his tongue, to me the image now serves as a reminder to never assume that the audience will intuitively get the full picture of the story we’re attempting to tell. Unless, that is, we actually tell the story well.

Details matter. As does the bigger picture and wider lens.

Metamorphosis

As a twenty-something graduate student, I never imagined teaching. The prize that I kept my eye on at that time was research, ideally in a position related to policy in some way, shape or form. At that time, as an arrogant graduate student rather myopically focused on her own research, I thought landing a teaching gig would be the worst possible outcome of all those hours and years spent as a graduate student.

Oh, the irony. Life has a way of reminding us of just how foolish we can be as young (or, even, older) idealists.

Fast forward 20-plus years, and here I am lecturing to graduate students. What’s weirder still, I love it. After three full academic years of teaching at the University of Helsinki, I cannot imagine not teaching.

Part of my enthusiasm for teaching lies within the topics I teach: academic writing, conference presentations and presentations in general, and grant writing, along with a few other transferrable skills courses. I was fortunate as a graduate student to have incredible mentors, professors-turned-friends who I still rely on for their wisdom and guidance, even if I don’t constantly pester them or hover in their doorways. The lessons they taught me years ago remain with me even now, and often echo in my own lectures. I can only hope that I do these incredible minds and kind souls justice. Because they shaped me in so many ways and helped me to become a more dedicated member of the academic community I now feel duty-bound to serve.

As exhausting as the academic calendar is and as much as I look forward to summer and winter breaks, being an instructor never ceases to provide further inspiration and immeasurable rewards. This most likely reflects the immense privilege it is to guide the pool of students that grace my classrooms. These brilliant, dedicated individuals, wise beyond their years, amaze me. They are, quite simply and, as one professor referred to me, indefatigable. As I sift through my inbox sending reviews and feedback to those who worked incredibly hard throughout whichever course they took with me, some of these bright young minds provide feedback to me. I welcome these moments because they help me do better in future. But, this, this I wasn’t expecting and it has moved me in ways I can’t begin to describe:

…. [O]ne thing that I found particularly inspiring was that you seemed to let your personality bubble through your professional instructor role. I have noticed that especially women often somehow suppress or flatten their personality when acting in an expert position, which is maybe because they are afraid of not to be taken seriously otherwise. I don’t want to end up falling into this pit, so I also want to thank you for showing an empowering example that it is possible to be a professional without burying yourself under a role.

For whatever reason, this feedback from an incredibly bright young student represents one of the most powerful indicators that I’m doing what I should be doing. What I was intended to do. And, perhaps, something I’m truly good at. If my classroom example encourages young women scholars to be themselves regardless of stereotypes and expectations, all the better.

Indeed. As a graduate student, as a young career professional and later as a mid-career professional, I didn’t always feel sufficiently empowered to be me. Perhaps the greatest gift this gig has offered me is a way to find my own voice and to apply that voice to providing guidance to others. Without consciously realising it, my own voice appears more genuine and more authentic than it’s ever been before. And, oddly, more confident.

I love my job. Truly. But, this personal metamorphosis was so entirely unintended, yet I completely welcome it. And, can only hope that it continues. At the very least, I hope my own metamorphosis allows others to transform as well…

 

 

Read to write

Style guides of various sorts from my own library.

Style guides of various sorts from my own library.

In my Academic Writing class, my students often ask what they can/should do to improve their writing aside from learning grammar and stylistic conventions in English. Aside from referring them to the various style guides around, my answer never waivers: ‘Read. Read as much as you can from writers who write well and writers you admire and enjoy.’ The clever sods typically follow-up my response with a question that inevitably stumps me: ‘Who should we read? What books do you recommend?’

So many amazing writers , both contemporary and historical, provide excellent examples of clear, clean and crisp writing it’s a challenge to come up with a list of any kind. Given that so many others have created their own lists of ‘must-reads’, it feels weird providing my own answer this question let alone that anyone is genuinely interested in my response. But, as their guide in all matters related to Academic Writing, I have thought about this quite a lot since returning to the classroom. At the very least, here’s hoping I’ve added to their holiday reading list and possibly provided them with a few gems previously unknown to them.

Given how often I get this question, I decided to put together a list (and link) that I can refer them to.

So, who should my students read?

Typically, when I’m asked I immediately respond with John Irving. To me, anything written by John Irving is a) brilliant; b) weird and slightly surreal; and, most importantly, c) exceptionally well-written. I tell my students to read anything he’s written (because I love him), although my favourites consist of The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read each of these books over the years. I love them each time. His characters are always tragically and bizarrely flawed. But, it’s the writing that astounds me anew every time. Mr Irving’s use of language and style combined keep me reading him, even when the stories fell well short of my hopes. In short, I love his writing—stories and characters aside.

In terms of other writers who provide excellent examples of style and language, here’s my full list (I supplement my own list with recommendations from friends gathered in Facebooklandiastan below). This inventory is in no particular order.

  • John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules, but anything really.
  • A S Byatt: Possession.
  • Haruki Murakami: Anything goes. Despite being translated into English, because Mr Murakami knows English so well, I suspect he plays a significant role in the translations of his books and short stories into English. He’s a masterful story-teller, and has a brilliant translator.
  • Alice Walker: The Temple of My Familiar.
  • Vikram Seth: An Equal Music is perhaps one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. This book moves me to tears, quickly advancing to uncontrollable sobbing during several passages. Absolutely incredible writing and an exceptionally example of carefully placed phrases, words and punctuation.
  • Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man & The Sea are my favourites. But, just about anything Papa ever wrote is worthy of reading and demonstrates simple eloquence in all its brilliance.
  • Maya Angelo: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
  • Norman Rush: Mating — another incredibly beautifully crafted piece of writing which earned Mr Rush the National Book Award.
  • Ian McEwan: Atonement.
  • David Sedaris: Just about anything ever written as well.
  • Edward Abbey: Dessert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang.
  • Toni Morrison: Beloved.
  • Alice Munro: Just about anything she wrote.
  • Paul Farmer: As my discipline-specific idol, I love his entire body of works. But, he’s also an exceptional writer, academic or otherwise. AIDS and Accusation was one of the most important works of his which still resonates with me roughly 20 years after I first read it.

Now, the recommendations from others. Friends from all walks of life provided the following list. I’ve placed an * next to those I fully agree with and neglected to include in my list. If you have additional writers or titles that you think belong here, please share them!

  • Charles Dickens for his beautiful eloquence. (Interestingly, John Irving loves Dickens; Dickens is not a favourite of mine).
  • Kurt Vonnegut*: I haven’t read any Vonnegut since high school, but I love him still. 
  • Stephen King: Despite borrowing from his own book on writing for my class, specifically his insistence on the active voice, I don’t find his writing that compelling. But, it is incredibly sound technically, and, undoubtedly the man has a wicked imagination.
  • Ursula la Guin
  • Richard Dawkins* ‘makes science easy to read without trivialising it’, commented one friend. I fully agree. I haven’t read much of him since I left graduate school. He’s incredibly eloquent as a speaker and writer both, and bloody brilliant.
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • Anne Rice for her prose. Again, not one of my favourite writers, but that’s mostly because I’m admittedly a snob.
  • Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor and chemist. I’ve not read anything by him, but will do.
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • George Orwell*
  • David Lodge: Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work.
  • Julian Barnes* — I can’t remember which book it was that I read first. But, I love Julian Barnes. Amazing writing.
  • Jane Austen: just about everything. 
  • PG Wodehouse
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Isaac Asimov
  • TC Boyle*: I’ve read both Drop City and A Friend of the Earth and loved both.
  • P J O’Rourke
  • Barbara Trapido
  • Christopher Hitchens*
  • Mark Twain: Rather embarrassing that I neglected to include him in my list, given that I adore him and grew up not far from Hannibal, Missouri. 
  • Henry Miller
  • James Joyce: Dubliners
  • Christopher Brookmyre
  • Arundati Roy*
  • Salman Rushdie*
  • Marmon Silko
  • Michael Chabon
  • Margaret Atwood*
  • Donna Tartt: The Secret History seems to be a favourite amongst others.
  • Hunter S Thompson*
  • Douglas Adams*
  • Terry Pratchett: According to one friend, you should start with Guards! Guards! and move onward through his catalogue.
  • Spider Robinson
  • David McCullough
  • Gina Berriault
  • Joy Williams
  • Richard Yates
  • John Cheever
  • Virginia Woolf*: A Room of One’s Own
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Bertrand Russell*
  • Harold Pinter
  • J M Barrie
  • Alan Bennett
  • Jean Paul Sartre
  • Albert Camus
  • Conan Doyle
  • Russell Brand
  • Truman Capote*: In Cold Blood. What an absolutely amazing piece of writing.
  • Richard Feynman: QED and Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman were both recommended.
  • Gloria Naylor
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • James Lee Burke
  • Marilynn Robinson
  • Sherman Alexie
  • Nicholas Kristof
  • David Brooks