Wednesday, August 24, 2011

20 uses for a giant novelty cheque

Despite the title I'm not going to write about 20 Uses for a Giant Novelty Cheque - partly because I can only think of one: wall decor. Though it does look quite impressive looming over my desk.

This year, once again, I participated in the Three Minute Thesis competition*. For those of you who don't know, the rules are simple, if challenging: one static slide (no transitions, no animation, no music), three minutes and three minutes only to communicate your thesis in language an intelligent but non-specialist audience is able to understand. The prizes: a t-shirt with a PhD comics design on the front for all, $100 book voucher for each of the two representatives from each faculty, $2000 for the winner of the University final as chosen by judges, $1000 for the people's choice winner as selected by the audience at the University final. The prize money is for "professional development" such as travel to a conference.

I won the People's choice! The most exciting part of which is, undoubtedly, the giant novelty cheque.

To tell the truth when I was considering entering the competition again this year I was a little reluctant. It seemed less important than other things I needed to do, and coming to the business end of the degree, I'm starting to drop everything I can ready to focus on the thesis. But the bottom line was that there was money on offer for travelling to a conference and without that money, I wouldn't be going to any of the three overseas conferences I had been accepted to present at, and I had already had to drop one conference in Australia because I couldn't afford to go.

Here's my slide by itself, for those who don't want to read the whole presentation (it'll only take 3 minutes, I promise!):

(click to see larger version)

This is my presentation turned into a slideshow:

In the end, it really, honestly, truly was an enjoyable experience with a number of unexpected take-away messages, both socially and directly in regards to my research.

1. Research students are research students
It was nice chatting to science students and business students and engineering students and law students and health sciences students. We share more in common than I had unconsciously assumed: the pressure of study, the looming deadline, rationalisation of our research in general and our degree in particular. We just never, ever cross paths, which is a pity. Outside of the university I have friends doing PhDs in Electrical Engineering, Psychology, Art, Developmental Studies, Environmental Engineering and other disciplines I keep forgetting. I just forgot that was the case and don't get to meet these people through university. I figure if the science and health science students don't find the humanities students irrelevant, if the humanities students don't find the engineering and science students boring and tedious, and if nobody hates the law and business students, then we must be one small step closer to world peace.

2. Writing is hard for everyone
I think I've spent so much time trying to explain why writing is particularly hard for music/jazz/performance students that I forgot that all students can relate to the fact that writing can be challenging for everyone in all degrees, particularly those in the majority which do not focus on writing as an object of study. Next time I'm talking to an interdisciplinary audience, I have to remember to put that fact front and centre. I know that I, as a BA graduate with a barely controlled addiction to reading, struggle to write well, to find the best structure and to string together the best words, juggling humility with assertiveness, and the words and opinions of others with my own. I've realised that basically the underlying assumption and message of my research is: write well and people will believe (almost) anything. I don't mean that it's all scheme and spin, but it's easier to adopt someone's ideas when they've written not just clearly but convincingly. And students will be more successful - at university and in the workforce - if they can write well.

3. Our individual research is merely one link in a chain
Listening to health science students talk about the restricted nature of their research - how they are examining one small application within a strictly controlled setting - and hearing them asked about the final public application of their research - which they may not have any part, let alone say, in - reminded me how all our research is one link in a chain. Personally my ultimate aim is to be able to say something useful for future music students about how to write about music. One line in my presentation is, "we need to explore the different ways of writing at university, first analytically, which is what I'm doing, and then pedagogically." Maybe it's not for me to apply my research to a pedagogical setting; afterall I am neither teacher nor musician. But what I do provides resources and information and structure for what other researchers, linguists, musicians, music educators and pedagogues might do later. If that isn't too hubristic to say.

4. Science as legitimation
One thing that this competition has reminded me is that science, in one form or another, is everywhere at university. Before the competition I didn't actually know the names of all the faculties. For the record they are: Sciences; Health Sciences; Engineering Computer and Mathematical Sciences; Humanities and Social Sciences; and Professions. Four out of five have "science" in their name although I won't go into the significance of pluralising. There was mention at one point, most probably unconsciously, of there being no "scientific" jargon allowed in our presentations. I immediately bristled and whispered to my (science faculty) neighbour that that meant linguistic jargon was acceptable - I could've thrown in "heteroglossia" and "nominalisation" and "ergative case" without violating the rules. Nevertheless we realise that while science is everywhere, university research involves more than science, and that is also valid.

I know the people organising the competitions are trying their hardest to encourage more competitors. I know for many grad students it's easy to say "I don't have time" and "it's not important". But at the end of the day I would encourage people to go in the competition. Being able to step back from being nose deep in my topic and remember why my research is relevant to its context and why it is interesting for anybody is good for my perspective, not to mention my self-esteem! And as one competitor pointed out last year, it helps you figure out what to say at a dinner party when someone says "So what do you do?" without making them glaze over at the word "linguistics".

*I will update this story with links as they become available.


  1. In my head I had it all planned that we would battle it out at the Nationals in Perth! Congratulations anyway - and if you get to the point where you can't afford rent on your PhD stipend, you can use your giant novelty cheque as a shelter!

  2. At the risk, or rather certainty, of repeating my tweet: congratulations! Based on the slideshow, your presentation seems fun and excellent, well deserving of a giant novelty cheque and the travel it will support.