Managing Self-Motivation – A Couple of Ideas for Students

Apparently it is very typical to find yourself at an emotional and psychological low about two-thirds of a way through a project, whether it’s an undergraduate degree you’re working on or a PhD, or anything else. I wish I had known this sooner as it might have helped me throw a couple of things into perspective, as awareness of such trends usually does.

I did learn about this trend, however, and the reason I learnt about it was that I had already decided, somewhere at about the three-quarters of the way mark, that I needed to throw my mindset into hyper-positive drive if I was going to have a good chance of finishing strong with my degree.

Happily coinciding with New Year (always a great time to reevaluate and rejuvenate areas of your life), I set about researching and taking ownership of different strategies used by students and professionals to improve performance, boost confidence, and maintain a positive mindset.

As this blog post suggests, I found what I consider to be a couple of gold mines and, so far, I most of the ideas and strategies I found have been very effective. So here goes.

One of the best ideas I came across, I think, was the idea of treating your degree work like a job. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve run into this one before. And I do treat my degree work like my job. I know I’m accountable should I fail to hand in an assignment on time, to myself if no one else. I haven’t had much of a problem treating my degree as work, in a practical, everyday sense. But here’s something that I hadn’t thought about as a mature student and a freelance writer. There is a difference, at least for me, between treating my degree like a ‘job’ and treating it like my ‘business’. Not that you shouldn’t be entirely focused and productive in your job, but I do think there is a higher level of accountability that comes from being in the driver’s seat of your own business, speaking from experience here. Every time I go to work for someone else, I am determined to do my very best, to give my all, to really work for whatever reward I am getting for the use of my skills and so forth. But I do not control the particulars of what I’m doing and I get paid (in most cases) regardless of whether everyone else involved in the project shows up. Case in point: I was tutoring at a local school this last year and, although I was hired to finish out the term, and there were at least three students signed up to come and work with me after lunch on a Tuesday, not once did they actually turn up. Now, this was disappointing on many levels, not least because I was excited to teach the subject, but the outcome did not affect whether I got paid for my time. Because I still got paid, the experience of not actually having to perform didn’t tie into any serious consequences for me. Rewind to when I primarily worked as a freelance writer or to any instance when I was working with private clients for tutoring, and the outcome was very different. I might not have had to do any work because a client canceled a project or because they didn’t show up for a session, but I was still faced with the problem of having to find a way to maintain my own income for the given period. Usually I had to reorganize to work on another project and have it finished sooner or I would see about taking on another project. The point is that the type and level of accountability was different.

So one of the things I’ve tried to take from my experience as a freelancer is this idea about different types and levels of accountability. I’ve tried to apply it with my degree on the basis that I know what I want to do next. My undergraduate degree at Cambridge has always, to my mind, been a stepping stone into a graduate degree and into a career in academia. Everyone has different goals, of course, but the mood-boosting principle is widely applicable. Instead of focusing on the end result of the degree or project you are working on at the moment, instead of looking at graduation or the end of the project as the finish line, shift your gaze further out and focus on what comes next.

For me, this has had a massive impact on boosting my confidence and my mood. Although I have doubts about how I will perform in Cambridge tripos (the dreaded exams that determine the final outcome of my degree), I actually have very few doubts at the moment about my fitness for graduate work. In fact, this is one of the dilemmas I discussed with my tutor when I reached out for help from my college (in what is perhaps the subject for a later blog, by the way). To me, completing a dissertation and teaching classes, even organizing articles to publish in journals, is a whole different kettle of fish from tripos. To me, these things seem a whole lot easier.  Of course, I may change my tune when I am actually embroiled in the work, but I don’t have to worry about that now. Instead, I’ve really found it useful to focus on the bigger picture and use my enthusiasm for the next bit to motivate myself through this last stretch of my undergraduate experience.

Here’s what this means in practical terms: instead of focusing all of my time and energy on tripos and feeling guilty if I am not revising or reading for my upcoming exams, I have scheduled a couple of hours a week for myself to think about the work I want to do for my graduate degree. Incidentally, both of the dissertations I am writing for the final year of my undergraduate degree tie into my graduate work, too, so there is a nice symmetry to this. I’ve also made a point of following a slightly more conventional approach for reframing and refocusing, and I have set five minutes aside very day to visualize my goals and, most importantly, the prospect of achieving them.

Now, I’m not someone that tends to buy into every trend out there, but I also feel right now that there is a lot to be said for maintaining a morning and evening routine that are as regimented as possible. At least, I feel it is right for me, and it may be right for someone else who is struggling through the final stretch of a degree or project.

I did a bit of research before the start of the new year and found an app called Routinist and a short morning routine program on Amazon’s Alexa that have been really useful for helping me have a definite plan to start every day. Although I sometimes don’t need to use all of the time I have set aside for each activity, the point is that I have ended up doing them – healthy things like drinking water and herbal tea, taking five minutes to meditate and calm before starting work, stretching to boost my energy. I’ve managed to develop something of a yoga practice following this morning routine and I’ve also, for the last couple of weeks, managed to make progress on two fairly major personal goals – one to learn the piano and another to knit a scarf (yes, it’s each to their own). Not only has this been good in a long-term plan kind of way, but having two mini hobbies (I spend about 10 minutes on each every day), has been a really good way of taking a constructive break from work. I’m not sat in front of the TV or aimlessly lounging.

I am something of an enthusiast for good planners/calendars/to-do lists and I love a good organizer when I find one, so another thing I’ve consciously invested in to help me through the final phase of tripos is planners. And yes, I said planners.

There’s apparently a thing about writing down your goals and tasks versus having them on a computer, so I invested last year in two paper planners. One is a five minutes for busy people 90-day mood booster that asks me to write down a goal each day and an intention, things I’m grateful for, that sort of thing. It’s quick, it’s easy; okay it’s not strictly a ‘planner’ but it kind of is if you think back to that big picture idea.

A bit more practical was the second planner I got, the InnerGuide planner for 2018, which is basically a dated diary on steroids (particularly if you use it alongside the 90-day daily planner, which I intend to shortly). This is not a marketing exercise at all – let me stress that here. I don’t think you need to get any or all of these things and you can certainly find alternatives if you do decide to invest a bit of money in boosting your mood and confidence, but I have genuinely found these things helpful, so I’m mentioning them to at least give an example of what I am talking about.

The best thing about a planner like InnerGuide is actually that it asks you to write down annual, quarterly, and monthly goals, and this also draws you back to looking at the big picture. Having the opportunity to review how your day or week as gone and making that review process part of your daily or weekly routine is also, I think, hugely beneficial for keeping this in perspective. So if you don’t already, I would recommend finding someway to review your day or week and think back on what has gone well, what you want to change.

Lastly, and this is another planner type thing, I realized that when I was mainly working as a freelance writer, I was a fiend about project management. I had apps and programs on my computer at various times for managing different projects and tracking my progress, breaking down tasks, that sort of thing. Yet, I didn’t, until a couple of weeks ago, use the same thing with my degree. Specifically, I didn’t use a gant chart to manage my time, and, looking back, I think this is one of the reasons why I sometimes felt overwhelmed with how much I was trying to do alongside or as part of my degree. I wasn’t being desperately realistic about the hours in the day.

Now, you don’t have to go out and buy SG Project, but that’s what I used way back when and it has the advantage, for me, of being immensely familiar. Using it to organize my calendar every day is also a bonus, so whatever you go for in terms of project management, I think the key thing is to be able to transfer your tasks over to your calendar, to see exactly how many hours you have to spend on each task and see those hours projected on to your working day, week, month, etc.

As I understand it, project management strategies are more commonly touted for graduate students, who, by the sound of it, have a lot more to juggle than undergraduates, but I don’t see why it doesn’t help to get into the habit early and have a practice for realistically tracking your time on essays or extended projects. I’ve also used my project management to layout a revision program, organizing time to go over past exams, do practice essays, and learn quotes. I can’t promise, at this stage, that I will follow it to the letter, but I have done reasonably well so far at at least following its general shape. Most important of all, I’ve actually made progress on the bigger projects I have going on at the moment, and the smaller ones that will become part of the larger revision effort a month or two from now.

So there you have my 50 cent, or perhaps a bit more, on some of the strategies that might help to get you out of an end-of-degree slump or any other kind of slump, for that matter, that involves work. I figure if even one person is helped by this, it’s a win for me as far as paying it forward (and back) to the things and people who have helped me.

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Olivia’s ‘Lament of the Roast’

One thing lacking for a child of nine – opportunities to publish! Hence, I am offering space of my blog for my very brilliant, very lovely daughter until she is old enough to have a blog, as well as a room, of her own.

In case it’s not clear in the poem below, she loves roast!


But soft! What option on yonder menu stands?

It is a Thursday, and Roast is the main!

Alas, fair Roast! Kill the envious fish

That is otherwise made a stick and pail inside

When thou, dear Roast, art far more fair to me!

Be not usurped, since fish is yuckier

Its form but that of a processed stick of breaded crust

And none but fools do eat it; cast it off!

Roast is my favorite! O it is my love!

O that the dinner ladies knew it were!

Fingers and chips: what of that?

My eyes long for Roast and my stomach too!

I am too bold, ‘tis not for me to say!

The dinner ladies fairest in all heaven,

Have some business and do change the menu

‘Cause is a Thursday and but the end of term!

Roast, o Roast! Where art thou Roast?

Deny the menu and refuse the change

Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn it is Thursday

And I will no longer be a lunch eater!

‘Tis but thy substitute that is my enemy:

Thursday it is though Roast is not a menu option.

What’s fish fingers? Fish have not hand nor foot.

Nor arm nor leg nor any other part

We call a finger. O be some other option!

What’s in a finger? That which we eat on

any other Thursday would be a Roast!

So this Thursday’s choice would,

were it not fish fingers called,

retain that dear perfection which it owes

(with or without gravy)

And for this fish, which is no part of thee,

I demand Roast instead!!


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Valuing Truth…Or, A Review of ‘Denial’

The first thing I thought about after watching ‘Denial’ today was the timing of its release. How perfect, whether it is deliberate or not, that a film about the importance of truth and fact should appear when we are faced with such monstrosities as ‘alternative facts’ and, of course, Trump.

‘Denial’ dramatizes the story of Holocaust historian and college professor, Deborah Lipstadt, who was sued, along with publisher, by holocaust denier, David Irving (nb. I am not referring to Irving as an historian).

Irving sues Lipstadt for libel in Britain and such is the wisdom of British law (I’m being only marginally sarcastic here) that the defendant in such cases has the burden of proof. Enter a bunch of every smart lawyers (solicitors and barristers for British readers).

Long story short and to win her case, Lipstabt has to present evidence that proves the Holocaust happened. Her barrister, played by Tom Wilkinson, stresses the need for physical and forensic evidence in particular. Although there are survivors who want to testify and although Lipstadt herself wants to testify, her legal team insist that this is not the best way to go because it opens up the possibility that they might lose. Survivors don’t remember things accurately, says one lawyer. Another insists that, because Irving is acting as his own counsel, he would get to cross-examine and thereby humiliate Holocaust survivors.

The trial is massively drawn out and understandably tense. David Hare’s brilliant script brings out all of the emotional angst, I think, as well as Lipstadt’s frustration that history is being tried in a court of law.

The outcome of the film, and, of course, the trial, is a positive one for Lipstadt and, I would say, pretty much everyone else with a conscience and a brain. Irving is denounced as an anti-Semite and a racist. His work as an historian is also discredited on the evidence that he deliberately misrepresented historical facts to promote his anti-Semitic and pr0-Hitler agenda.

The meat of the film, though, hangs on its focus and the trial’s focus on Auschwitz. Apparently Auschwitz was the focus for Irving’s challenge for two reasons: one because it was the biggest death camp and two because it wasn’t originally built as a death camp. The logic goes something like this: prove Auschwitz wasn’t a death camp and you discredit the whole idea of the Holocaust. Because the burden of proof is on them, Lipstadt’s team has to visit the camp and collect evidence. At one point, Wilkinson’s character walks the perimeter of the camp and the distance from the SS headquarters to the gas chambers to challenge Irving’s claim that the gas chambers were used as air raid shelters.

The really interesting and I think quite topical aspect of this, though, is how we actually go about proving historical truth or even just everyday day truths that we all cling to and accept. Towards the end of the film, Lipstadt makes an important distinction between free speech and lying, saying that you are entitled to say what you like (i.e. you have freedom of speech) but you have to accept the consequences of what you say (i.e. if you want to exercise your freedom to say nasty things and misrepresent facts, you will be held accountable at some point).

Of course, this distinction has very interesting implications for Trump’s presidency. After all, this is a guy who ran much of his campaign using ‘alternative facts,’ who now, as president, seems determined to promote false information or otherwise shut out the media and the public. It reminds us, I hope, that words have consequences. You can’t just say whatever you like and then not expect to be held accountable. The ‘pussy grabbing’ incident springs to mind here as perhaps one of the prime examples.

Unfortunately, such is the political system in the United States that the opportunities to hold Trump accountable, at the moment, seem few and far between. But what ‘Denial’ also reminds us is that reason can prevail and the systems we have in place to hold people accountable can and do work. Perhaps the recent immigration debacle also reminds us of this.

In any case, ‘Denial’ is a film that has a great deal to say about the times we’re living in and it is a heartfelt reminder of what is at stake.

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Meryl Streep and Jane Austen

I read Meryl Streep’s speech delivered at the Golden Globes before I saw it. That’s because, when I googled it, I came across a Guardian op-ed about how Streep had apparently made a disparaging remark about martial arts. Reading the speech or listening to it, it’s pretty clear she didn’t. Just as watching any of her films or TV performance – absolutely any of them – affirms the nonsense of Trump’s comment that she is ‘overrate.’

When I watched Streep’s speech, however, the first thing that came to mind was actually Jane Austen and a speech of Mr. Knightley’s in Emma in response to Emma’s cruelty towards Miss Bates. The circumstances are different: Miss Bates is a ridiculous old woman who talks rather too much and has known Emma all her life. Emma is otherwise a reasonably compassionate person – a far cry from Trump – but the argument is remarkably similar.

When Emma defenses herself by pointing out how ridiculous Miss Bates is, Knightley reminds Emma of her duty to be kind:

“[w]ere she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.”

I can’t be sure, but I would guess that Meryl Streep has read this at some point in her life…Donald Trump, not so much. In any case, this is where I went when I read and saw Streep’s speech, and I don’t think there’s anything overrated about channeling Austen, intentionally or otherwise.

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Picking Up After the Holidays

The kids and I returned to Cambridge this past Sunday. We arrived in London at 7am and managed to hop an early bus that got us into Cambridge by 11.30am. Because I happen to be a bit of a neat freak before I travel (I hate coming home to a dirty house) things were pretty organized when we arrived home. We had to unpack, of course, and with six suitcases between us, three large and three small, that was a sizable task. But we managed it and were all squared away, with food for dinner and milk for breakfast, by about 5pm. Stellar result.

Monday morning, however, the kids were back to school and I, ostensibly, was back to work. Granted my term doesn’t start for another couple of weeks but there’s everything from my dissertation to exam revision and the occasional article for me to keep busy with. I am rarely short of things to do.

Why, though, is there any point in relating all this in a blog? Well, because, like many people I suspect, I can find it pretty difficult to get back on to a schedule after a holiday. It’s particularly difficult, I think, when you have actually been away, even if it’s only for a long weekend. Being somewhere else necessitates a different schedule. Because we were in Texas, six hours behind, we had an entirely different schedule and there are at least a couple of days after we get back to the UK where I am shuffling appointments on my calendar because of the different timezones.

This is, however, about the fourth time that I have been back and forth between Cambridge and Texas since I started school and, with my unpacking brilliance as primary evidence, I think I have a fair handle on the whole business of picking up with work after a break. Perhaps it is because of the freelance writing. When you work from home, you rarely, if ever, get solid breaks. In fact, I would say I’ve probably only had real holidays as an adult since I started back at school and my year was structured for me around school terms. Sure, my kids’ school schedules have impacted my work schedule before now. I used to take time with them over the summer and Christmas especially. We would schedule to do things together, go to the park or the movies or whatever, during the day time, and I would mostly work at night. But being a night owl anyway and someone who likes to have time during the day to relax and catch up with friends, for instance, I never found the kids’ holidays to be that disruptive to my schedule.

School holidays are different now, though, because of the intensity of the work during term time. Cambridge (and Oxford) have notoriously short terms and they get away with it only because they work you hard over those eight-week (Michaelmas and Lent terms) and six-week (Easter terms) periods. Suffice to say, I’m not superwoman and I need a break by the end.

This year, over Christmas, I spent a lot of time catching up with TV shows I had missed. I read a couple of books that were completely unrelated to my course. I even took a day or two to go shopping and wander around Cambridge for the heck of it (who doesn’t like a trip to the Fitzwilliam?). Then there was Dallas and a whole three weeks plus with family, Christmas dinner, New Year’s Eve, and a whole slew of activities to keep my kids entertained. Although I was working (I was, I promise!), I wasn’t working anywhere near as much as I normally do or anywhere near as much as I need to now that the holiday period is over and I have had a fair amount of recovery time.

So how, then, do you pick up after the holidays or any other kind of break when the primary impetus has to come from you and not from a work-boss?

Here are a couple of suggestions that may apply to students as well as freelancers.

1. Make sure you plan your post-break work schedule ahead of time.

If I had to pick a number one tip for picking up after a break, this would be it. It is like planning and setting out a delicious breakfast to motivate yourself to get up early. By planning your schedule at least a week ahead of going back to work, you give yourself the chance to be inspired and excited about how productive you are going to be when you get going. You can also visualize time that you have to devote to non-work tasks and interests. For instance, I schedule time to spend with my kids as well as time to work. I also give myself two days off on Fridays and Saturdays, which is time that I use for reading and relaxing, but it is also nice to see that on a calendar moving forward

2. Go back to work on your body and your mind together.

Planning work is fine but why not pick up after a holiday by working on your physical and emotional fitness, too? This is particularly good when you starting up in a new year because you can align physical fitness and mental wellness goals to your resolutions.

In addition to making a work schedule, I laid out my training program for the half marathon I’m running in February. I also created a plan to work on mental wellness, including a schedule to practice playing the piano (which I am oh so bad at), to knit with my daughter (who wants to learn), and to practice Latin, with which I am hoping to develop a basic competence.

By setting out a program to work on physical and mental wellness goals, you give yourself something else other than work to get excited about after a break and you also give yourself at least a couple of other schedules to help boost your motivation and concentration.

3. Remind yourself what you want to achieve.

This is another tip that ties into New Years Resolutions if you have them or goal setting more generally, but another great strategy for picking up after the holidays is to remind yourself what it is you really want to do, what goals you have for your career or your education, and what progress you are going to make towards them as soon as you start working again.

If you haven’t already, write down your top goals (make them SMART goals if you possibly can) and post them somewhere that you can easily reference them when you need a spot of inspiration.

4. Reward yourself to motivate yourself.

Finally, make sure that you reward yourself for a job well done. Rewards can be end-of-day rewards or end-of-week rewards, project-specific or whatever you like. The point is that you are much likely to stay on target if you feel positive about your work. If you reward yourself for all the hard work you do, then you are doing much of the leg-work to frame a positive mindset about the whole process of going back to work and being focused.

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Presenting for Non-Presenters or Public Speaking for Those Who (Generally) Hate It!

Jerry Seinfeld made a  joke once about how profoundly people fear public speaking. I forget the precise set up but it was about a funeral and the punch line rested on the observation that most people are more worried about having to deliver the elegy than they are about being in the coffin.

Fear of public speaking is no joke, but, as someone who absolutely loathes such things (I even hate having to read aloud to a group of people), I have found that there are a couple of strategies for getting over the fear – at least temporarily and at least in certain circumstances.

I say, temporarily and in certain circumstances because the first tip I have in this off-the-cuff blog is all about circumstances – when and why you are speaking in the first place.

A few months after I was accepted to Cambridge, as I was more and more convinced that I wanted to have a career in academia, I realized that I was probably, at some point, going to need to go to one of the gazillion conferences that happen all over the world, hosted by universities and organizations like the Modern Language Association. I also realized, crucially, that I wanted to go to one or more of these conferences and that I had ideas for presentations that might fit one or more of the sessions.

Long story short, I decided to submit a couple of proposals and see what happened. Before I knew where I was, I had three positive responses and thus three conferences to which I was headed as a presenter.

My initial reaction was an oscillation between mild panic and moderate excitement. As an undergraduate/non-traditional student, I felt pretty lucky to have a three presentations lined up on my first try, but I wasn’t naive, I don’t think, about how much work it would take to get ready.

Fortunately, the first of the three conferences was pretty small. It gave me the opportunity to warm up and get the feel of presenting to an audience of academics. I also had quite a bit of time to prepare and a two people – my wonderful HACC mentors – on hand to offer advice and a judgment-free zone to practice! The other two, though, were a different story. The second conference was a state-wide conference, definitely bigger than the first, which was also more niche. The third, SAMLA, was positively huge (SAMLA stands for South Atlantic Modern Languages Association so it was the conference for one of the branches of the MLA).

For someone who doesn’t like public speaking, though, the process of preparing for any conference is difficult, so here are the tips and tricks I’ve learned and applied, which may me helpful to others who, like me, don’t exactly relish the prospect of standing up in front of an audience.

(Note, I’ve never managed to picture the audience in their undergarments, so that’s not something I am going to recommend here, although others, apparently, swear by it!)

My very first suggestion to anyone who doesn’t like public speaking but actually wants to do it is to make sure that they commit to the decision. After I found out my proposals were accepted, after the initial excitement mingled with horror, I was periodically horrified at what I had signed up to do. However, I also got into the habit of telling myself I had, indeed, signed up for it. However nervous I got, it was still my choice to get up there and deliver my paper and that gave me a degree of control I hadn’t really had before when I had to deliver a speech or read something out in class.

My second suggestion is more general, and that is to prepare the heck out of your presentation. You’ve probably heard this before (I’ve certainly read articles that say this about public speaking). There’s no getting around the fact that preparation is absolutely the key to a successful presentation and preparation ways means work.

There’s no point working without a goal, though, so when you start to draft a presentation, it helps to be on point. The more focused you are, the more confident you will feel.

At the last conference I went to, I attended a seminar on public speaking delivered by a drama teacher. One of the first and best pieces of advice he gave about the process was about the very first step of preparation.

He asked the room to consider their very first step when preparing for a presentation.

After a few people threw out some random answers, he said that the first step should always be to answer the question: what it is you want your audience to know by the end of your talk?

Although I’ve yet to have the chance to use this piece of advice directly, I think it is absolutely the starting point that you should always have. Fortunately, I think, most people do have this starting point in mind when they start drafting a paper. You certainly have this mind when you are writing an article, if you have any experience whatsoever. Probably you also have it in mind when writing a paper for school.

When you start to think about this question for public speaking, though, you can start to work out how you need to organize your presentation, which, I think, is the next key step.

Organizing a presentation is different from organizing a piece of writing, though. This is something else that is really important to bear in mind. There is a huge difference  between writing a paper that you expect people to read and preparing something that you yourself are going to present to an audience because there are huge differences between the way people read and the way people listen.

Bearing in mind that you have an audience not a reader, you have to tailor your presentation so that it is easy to follow. The average person has a pretty poor attention span. He also don’t retain all that much information unless, by chance, he happens to be an auditory learner.

Since you can’t bank on having good listeners making up your entire your audience, you have to develop a paper that is really focused and easy to follow. That means that you have to think about the key points – say the top three things – that you want your audience to pick up on and remember.

You also have to then write-up your paper so that it is easy to follow. That means, in terms of your vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, that you keep things simple. Keep your sentences short. Harp on about your main points. Use cues to help your reader stay on top of your argument.

People in the humanities also have to learn to keep quotations to a minimum too. This was another piece of advice from the actor professor’s seminar that I definitely took away. He pointed out that people who throw tons of quotations at their audience create a number of problems for themselves. In particular, they make it difficult for people to follow what they are arguing. They also create an opportunity for the audience to lose focus. Even if you put a quote up on a projector or you have it on a handout – especially if you do either of those things – you have just invited your audience to check out and thereby sabotage your presentation.

You have to keep in mind the length of your paper, too, as this is going to affect everything from how you structure your argument to how you use examples. The more time you have, the more you can fit into your presentation but the easier it is to overwhelm your audience.

The length of your presentation – the time allotted to it – also determines the mode of presentation, how you actually present your work on the day. Now, there are pros and cons of reading your paper right off the page but the same can also be said for power points, using bullet points, or even trying to learn your presentation by heart. If you are nervous (and chances are you will be) you run the risk of losing your place or forgetting your lines if you don’t have your whole presentation mapped out in front of you. Personally, I don’t think I would want to redo any of the presentations I did without copies of my speeches on hand.  My first three presentations were all supposed to be between 15 and 20 minutes length and there is no way I could have winged it without my script to hand.

As a general rule, I would suggest that if you are speaking for anything more than 5 minutes, even if you can memorize like a champ, you need to have a print copy available just in case.

There is, however, a big difference between having your paper in front of you and being one of those people who reads out in a monotone, head down, eyes fixed. That person is not an effective presenter either.

The good news is that you can still have your paper in front of you and avoid these presentation faux pas. I’m also proud to say that I figured this one out on my own and before my first presentation.

When it comes to printing out your presentation, instead of printing it as you would an essay, laying it out on the page all need, paragraphs perfectly organized, 12pt Times New Roman font, throw convention to the wind and layout your text as if it were a script. Break up the paragraphs. You don’t need them. Blow up the text into a size that is easier to read, such as 14 or 16.

Once you’ve done this, you need to take a pencil or pen and mark it up. Read through the speech and note where you pause or where you can look up at your audience (note, you should try to do this every couple of lines, not only because eye contact is good for you but because it will force you to slow down).

With a marked up script in hand (and a back up copy just in case), you can start practicing your presentation. I would recommend reading it through at least a couple of times before you present. And when I say a couple, I mean at least five or six.

You must also make sure that you are hitting your time. People often get grumble about presentations that run on (as most do) and a presentation that is too short (say, 15 minutes when you had 20), can be something of a missed opportunity. Because you will read faster in front of an audience than you do when you are practicing, make sure that you actually read out your paper before a friend or colleague before hand. Not only can you practice pausing and making eye contract in a relatively neutral environment, but you can also get what is usually a better sense of timing.

The more you practice presenting your speech, the more confident you will be on the day, but here are a couple of last-minute things you can do to boost your confidence. First, if you can, go to the room where you are going to be presenting and take a look around. Find out where you are going to stand. See if there is a podium or a lectern that you can use (note, they can be a great prop when you are nervous). Second, take a few minutes to yourself to breathe and relax. You don’t have to go into a full on meditation, but concentrating on your breath for a couple of minutes before you present is a great way to relax.

Last but not least, always try to enjoy yourself. If you tell yourself on the day that you are going to hate it, you probably will. But if you take charge of that negative self-talk and (see earlier tip) remind yourself that it is something you actually want to do, chances are you will be absolutely fine and you will actually have fun!

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‘To Walk Invisible’ Review

I know you’re not supposed to post to many blogs one after the other, but I figured reviews might just constitute an exception to such a rule because they are often time sensitive. This one, in particular, because it is about a BBC Christmas Special, is perhaps especially time sensitive. I will state my goal here and now, which is that as many people as possible should watch this 90-minute show. Yes, it’s a definite must. Before you even delve into this review, spoiler alert, I’m telling you the conclusion, which is that you must watch it. Watch it now!

To Walk Invisible, for anyone who doesn’t already know, is the BBC’s much anticipated drama about the Brontë sisters (note the umlaut, the Brontë Journal is very particular about it!).

The Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily, and Anne – were, of course, a literary sensation. Indeed, they still are. I was writing about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for school last term, I wrote an article about Jane Eyre for The Brontë Journal last year, and I was compelled to reread Wuthering Heights because, well, it’s bloody brilliant and why not?

All three sisters were literary geniuses. That goes without saying. But their story is all the more remarkable because they were women and because they lived in such relative obscurity. Anyone who has been to Haworth knows just how remote it is – and how insanely windy! Actually, the ambiance explains the dominant tone of the sisters’ writing. Although it is a very beautiful area, it is wild and rugged. The sisters walked everywhere on the mores and we can only really imagine today what that would have been like – now that we have the benefit of very well trodden pathways and cell phones with GPS signals that just about hold out, even when we are all the way down at somewhere like the Brontë Seat. I am sure that the landscape fed their genius. But just as the Brontë’s were geniuses and their story was extraordinary, it is difficult to imagine what life must have been like at the Parsonage. The personalities of the three sisters are, despite accounts such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë and the various trinkets on display in the Brontë Parsonage, quite elusive. At least, I think, until now.

To Walk Invisible is the brainchild of Sally Wainwright, the very wonderful lady behind dramas such as Happy Valley and Last Tango In Halifax (and if you know the former show, in particular, you will spot a few familiar faces in To Walk Invisible) and, probably, the heiress to the legacy of Lynda La Plante. Since it is pretty safely a drama rather than, say, a docu-drama (like an earlier effort focusing on the Brontës now only available on Netflix), there’s obvious artistic license at work. The result, however, is a really compelling and probably quite realistic portrait of the three sisters in the period immediately before and after they decided to write, which was a decision made in part because the sisters realized that their brother, Branwell, was not going to be much good at supporting them when their aged father finally died (ironically, the Reverend Patrick Brontë outlived all of his children).

Wainwright’s drama concentrates on the dilemma the sisters faced because they were female and because they had an elder brother who was expected to raise the family’s fortunes. She is, I think, very clever about showing the subtlety of the gender bias to which the sisters were no doubt subject and which, to an extent, perhaps led Patrick Branwell to indulge his son’s alcoholism. In Wainwright’s portrait, Patrick Brontë is very much an enabler, with Emily, in particular, trying to take a stand and point out how dangerous it is.

As Branwell spirals out of control, though, the sisters become increasingly determined to succeed. Wainwright does a good job, too, I think, at suggesting how the sisters generated material. She manages to nudge to the autobiographical elements in Jane Eyre towards the end, with a humbled Patrick Brontë nothing that little Helen Burns is modeled on the oldest Brontë daughter, Maria, who died along with the second eldest, Elizabeth, after a stint at a boarding school not, it seems, wholly dissimilar from the initial portrait of Lowood. Emily also points out to her sisters that she might never have developed the character of Hindley Earnshaw if she had not had such a compelling example of an alcoholic (though, per a recent conference, Victorians didn’t use that word!) to inspire her.

What I found most compelling about the whole production, though, was the way in which Wainwright handled the presentation of the sisters’ writing and publication efforts. It is a cliché at this point to suggest that it is difficult to write compelling dramas about writers – trying to make it interesting to watch people who have, as my ex-husband used to say, a rich internal life, often seems like a pointless exercise. Wainwright, however, shows that it isn’t. In fact, she shows that you can do it and you can do it well, by drawing out the words that such people carry about in their heads before they eventually let them out on the page.

To Walk Invisible was filmed on location in Haworth, too, which is yet another bonus of the series, at least for me. I will betray two personal biases at this point. The first is that I actually spend a good deal of my childhood around Haworth. My grandmother lived in Colne, which is maybe half an hour away. Her sister, my great-aunt, also lived probably about the same distance from Haworth and, especially when we lived in Clitheroe (in Lancashire), my brother and I would often be carted off to Wycoller, this is supposed to be the location for Ferndean Manor in Jane Eyre. So far, I’ve visited the Brontë Parsonage about six times, too, which, given that I left England at 18 and didn’t come back at all until I was 28, is pretty impressive, I think. I even too my kids up there this summer as part of our whirlwind literary tour of England (Part II). I also wrote about the Brontë sisters when I was about ten, producing what was probably my first every book. I even remember the feedback from my English teacher, who pointed out that twenty-eight was actually not all that young by Victorian standards in response to my comment that the Brontë sisters (except Charlotte) did not have the opportunity to get married because they died young!

Anyway, the second bias of mine relevant to this show has to do with my own literary ambitions. About a year ago, I finished (properly finished) a novel about George Eliot, the motivation for which, far from being especially literary, was my desire to see, one day, a film about Eliot’s life, which, I think, would make a cracking good film or BBC series (hint, hint Sally Wainwright!). But watching the utterly abysmal Quiet Passion (the only saving grace was Jennifer Ehle), I felt I was seeing absolutely everything that could go wrong with such a drama – short, perhaps, a cringe-worthy sex scene (apparently Terence Davis also missed the cue that Dickinson was pretty into ‘Wild Nights, Wild Nights!’ – “rowing in Eden” and all that…as my favorite professor of all time said during our glorious Dickinson class…picture it!).

But, by way of conclusion, since I’m about to go and watch Jackie, let me say this Sally Wainwright, you have restored my faith! To Walk Invisible was an absolutely brilliant production – 90 minutes of pure heaven, still available on the BBC iPlayer.



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