Academic Research in the Wild

I don’t write much about my regular day job on my blog or talk about it on social media. For readers who don’t know, I currently work in victim services, providing information, support, and resources to crime victims. I can’t say very much about it for reasons of confidentiality etc etc etc, but that’s what I do in my life when I’m not writing, editing, tweeting, or taking photos of something.

Sometimes people ask me why a historian would be working as a victim advocate or how my PhD skills translate into working at a non-profit. Last year, I found myself at a work-related training with a bunch of people that I didn’t know. The woman seated next to me and I started talking. She asked me how I got into the field of victim advocacy. I hesitated, because I never really know how to talk about my PhD in my current job. I often feel awkward mentioning it and usually crack the old joke about being a recovering academic and move on.

One of the things that’s the most difficult about leaving academia is the very real sense of leaving behind a vital part of oneself. In academia, the boundaries between the personal and professional often vanish completely. Your research becomes much more than just a thing you’re kind of interested in and study; it is a deeply personal part of you. In academia, you talk about your research all the time. In my work in victim advocacy, I don’t have much opportunity to talk about the thing to which I devoted many years of my life to and still care about deeply. I’m still not quite sure how or when to talk about it to people.

That day, I decided to take a chance and tell her about not only about my personal story, but also about my research. I talked about my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala from 2004 to 2006. I told her about the many people I met who had family members disappeared or loved ones who were victims of political violence. Their stories weren’t mine, but they grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let go. I shared how I couldn’t stop thinking about their stories, even long after the end of my service. I went to graduate school because I wanted to understand what had happened to people and why.

 Generally I stop talking at this point, assuming that my short answer has satisfied my listener’s curiosity.

But my new colleague seemed interested, so I kept talking. I talked about the Guatemalan banana fields of the 1920s and how the United Fruit Company had a stranglehold on the national economy and politics. About how the 1944 revolution overthrew the military dictatorship and opened up an unprecedented ten years of democracy, known as the Ten Years of Spring. About the CIA-backed military coup of 1954 and the counterrevolution that followed. I talked about the how the violence escalated and the bodies piled up.I talked about the bloody years of the Rios Montt dictatorship and the support it received from the Reagan administration, even as human rights abuses grew. I talked about recent forensic anthropology efforts to reunite the remains of the dead with their families and communities. I talked about recent genocide trials and the testimonies of survivors of massacres. I talked about the legacies of the conflict, the continued impunity and how it fostered vigilante justice and lynching. I linked the violence of the conflict to the waves of Central American kids who had arrived to U.S. borders in 2014.

“I never knew any of this!” she said when I’d finished. “You should present this at next year’s state conference [for victim services]!”

So now I’m writing this non-academic abstract that touches on some of my work on Guatemala at large conference of victim service providers. I’m pitching it as an opportunity to think about how individual victimization always takes place within larger political, economic, social, and cultural structures, even if we can’t see them. To make it relevant for my audience, I’m planning to talk about some strategies for working with refugee and immigrant communities. As war, immigration, and refugee resettlement continue to be huge issues that appear in the news daily, I’m hoping that I can give people a new way to see the people with whom they work.  
I confess that I’d never pictured using my research in this way, but the chance to present at this conference resonated with my big goals. As I wrote last week, when you find yourself thrilled by doing something, think YES and write that down. I’ve presented research at a lot of academic research at different conferences. Conferences used to freak me out. The idea of reading a paper in front of a bunch of people ready to rip it to shreds used to terrify me. However, the more I presented, the more I liked it. As a sworn introvert, I was shocked to discover that I actually really enjoy public speaking. In fact, I’d like to be doing more of it in my life. I genuinely like taking those moments to connect with the audience to help them see the world in new ways.
Presenting my academic research to a non-academic audience will require some different strategies than the standard academic conference presentation. If accepted, the presentation will necessarily be more narrative than an academic paper. It also needs to focus on helping people see the world differently and solving a problem for people. It needs to be, in sum, something to the effect of a TED talk. As historian Megan Kate Nelson argues, there’s really no reason that historians have to present in the boring ways that we find ourselves doing at academic conferences.The magic of the TED talk is listening to someone present complex ideas (even obscure academic ones) in accessible language to general audiences in a compelling way. You walk away feeling like you have a new lens through which to see the world. Translating academic research for non-academic audiences seems like a skill I could learn. Maybe I could be doing something similar.

This morning, I read a thoughtful piece in The Guardian by Daniel Jose Camacho. I loved reading it because the author used history (bonus points for it being the Latin American kind) to talk about how loudly talking about diversity doesn’t actually erase racism. He points to the indigenistas of Latin American in the early 1920s and how they attempted to talk about non-white people in a new way. Nevertheless, their rhetoric failed to alter structural racism and kept traditional white elites in power. I admired how the article linked our current discourse about diversity to a decisive anti-blackness. He analyzed a current problem we’re having using the past to provide people with a new way of looking at something.

It occurs to me that the opportunity to present my academic and personal knowledge about Guatemala to a non-academic audience is exactly the kind of thing I want to be doing in the world. I want to be answering current questions using my research on race, indigeneity, gender, fake science, mass media, and representation to help people understand the world better and solve real world problems. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like yet, but presenting my knowledge about violence in Guatemala to victim service providers seems like a good start.

#AHA16: Report from the Field

Today the 2016 American Historical Association annual meeting in Atlanta ended. The book exhibit has packed up (and I didn’t buy a single book!). The hotels are emptier. People attended panels wearing jeans and comfortable shoes rather than conference-wear.  I’ve taken off my name tag.

I’m not a longtime veteran of the AHA meeting. I’ve only been once before in 2014 and found it intimidating. This year, I knew what to expect, but I felt weird about it because it was my first time at the meeting as someone outside the academy. I’m pleased to report that it was an overall positive experience.


I presented my research in a poster format. People in the STEM fields know all about posters; historians, however, are just getting into the poster presentation game. Even though the traditional panel remains the gold standard for conference presentations, I wanted to try something new. (Although I confess that I was slightly disappointed that creating the poster did not involve either glue sticks or glitter.)

As it turns out, presenting a poster is great fun. Although there was less traffic than I’d hoped, several friends and acquaintances came by to see my poster and talk with me about my research. I liked the poster format better than the traditional panel, because it gave me a chance to have real conversations with people rather than awkward question and answer sessions.


Here’s what I learned about doing a poster session:

  • Use big font. Like, way bigger than you think.
  • Use a desktop publishing program (I used Scribus). Save in PDF format. Get it printed at a professional print shop in landscape rather than portrait mode. [We had 3x7 boards to tack the posters to—so, landscape rather than portrait would have been better.]
  • Think about the size of the poster. 48” x 78” is a very big poster. Like, way too big.
  • Have some interesting props. Also, cookies would help.
  • Have a summary of your research printed on a sheet of paper.
  • Wear comfortable shoes.
  • Do lots of shameless self promotion

Now I have to think about how to repurpose the poster. [Perhaps for my eventual book tour?]


I met so many amazing people! This year, I made contacts before I even got to the AHA and arranged to hang out with them. Having a list of people to find and meet made it easier to make meaningful connections with people.

The meeting can be intimidating. Walking up to total strangers and talking to them intimidates a lot of people, especially me. Fortunately, I stumbled on the perfect icebreaker. Instead of asking people about their research or what they studied, I asked people why they wanted to become historians in the first place. Many historians told me stories about their childhoods, mentioning how even as children, they’d wanted to understand and know what had happened in particular places in the past. Others told me stories about traveling to new places and becoming so intrigued that they wanted to continue to learn about places and people. Asking people about something other than their professional work let them talk about their own personal stories, which I found far more interesting than dry descriptions of their research.

One thing that has changed since the last time I went to AHA is the way I use social media. Twitter is my social platform of choice; it has fundamentally changed the way that I network with people. I went to the Twitterstorian reception on Thursday. Armed with another very specific icebreaker (”Are you a Twitterstorian?”), I planned to meet as many Twitterstorians as possible. Meeting some of my Twitter followers in person was possibly the best part of the entire AHA. People who I’d only seen as tiny avatars were now real people! It was great fun to recognize Twitter followers and be recognized by my own followers. I had fun conversations in person with people who I’d only really known through their tweets. I’m looking forward to growing my Twitter following and also finding great new people to follow.

Behold! The power of the Twitter: Megan Kate Nelson, Jen Polk, and me hanging out!

Behold! The power of the Twitter: Megan Kate Nelson, Jen Polk, and me hanging out!


However, I was quite surprised to find that many people at the reception (and at the AHA in general) were not Twitterstorians. Many had great reservations about using Twitter or couldn’t see any reason to use Twitter. “I don’t have the time,” one historian told me. “I’ve just never seen the point,” another said. I was surprised by the amount of confusion over why scholars should use social media and how to use it effectively to network and share research. I’m thinking up a blog post specifically for historians about Twitter.

On Sunday, I attended a panel about how to use social media. An audience member asked how much personality we should show on Twitter or if we should instead use it in a strictly professional capacity. In truth, I’ve never had a clearly defined social media “strategy.” I’ve been tweeting since 2009 and my conversations have only become more engaging in recent years. I tweet about what’s important to me. My tweets span from tweets about writing, my business, what I’m reading, what’s happening in Latin America, news items I find interesting (especially higher education, academia, and student debt), and anything else that catches my fancy. For me, the personal and professional are never entirely separate.

At the meeting, I also talked with people interested in blogging but who weren’t quite sure how to get started. I still struggle with feeling like an actual blogger, even though I’ve now been writing regular blog posts for the better part of a year. I had to think for a bit about what advice I’d give, but it boils down to a few simple ideas:

  • Have a blogging schedule. Determine if you’ll post once a day, week, or month. Stick to your schedule.
  • Be excited about what you’re writing about. It is entirely possible to feel people’s enthusiasm for their subjects through their writing.
  • Write like a normal person. A blog post is a conversation, not an academic monograph.
  • Be YOU. Your posts do not have to be perfect.


I didn't apply for a single academic job this year. Nor did I go anywhere near the job center.

In preparing to go to the AHA, I’d felt a sense of sad nostalgia. I’d updated my CV, thinking about how I’d been a pretty good scholar and had done some interesting research. “I used to have so much potential,” I thought, feeling ashamed about not having an academic job. It seemed crazy to be on my way to an academic conference as a non-academic person.

My official name badge came without an institutional affiliation. I was relieved to see that it didn’t say “independent scholar.” Upon receiving it, I promptly defaced it with a Sharpie and added my Twitter handle.

My defaced (or enhanced?) name badge

My defaced (or enhanced?) name badge

 The lack of institutional affiliation and presence of my Twitter handle generated confusion more than once. Several people, unable to “place” me institutionally, asked me, “Um, so…what do you *do*?” The first few times this happened, I sputtered, trying to come up with some sort of acceptable explanation of why I was attending an academic conference when I so clearly lacked an academic job. ("'s complicated," I heard myself say at one point.) I finally hit on the perfect way to respond. I’d smile and simply say, “I help academics write better.” Reactions ranged from nervous but knowing laughter to, “You do? That’s so cool!” When I talked to people about how I helped writers, what I realized was that not only do I help academics write better, but I also help them feel better about themselves as writers. And that seems to me to be a worthy goal.

Overall, I'd have to say that this year's meeting was a success for me!

See you next year in Denver!

[Photo: interior of the atrium of the Atlanta Mariott Marquis, 2015]


The Conference Paper: Writing Meets Performing

The 2015 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association held its annual meeting last week in Puerto Rico. Although I didn’t go, several friends of mine presented their research. I started thinking about conference paper writing and why so many writers struggle with it.

Academic conference presentations include individual papers, round-tables, poster presentations, and workshops. The panel, made up of three or four individual papers, is still the most common format. At humanities conferences, panelists usually read their papers to the audience. Many people find conference presentations challenging because they are oral and visual performances of written research findings.  The presenter must connect the audience with his or her ideas.

Several major conferences now ask presenters to avoid reading their papers to the audience in order to make panels livelier. Being read to bores the audience. A conference presentation should be a talk with the audience, not a monologue. 

Even if unread, writing the paper is worthwhile because it gets the major ideas in order. Conference papers also sometimes find second lives as chapters in edited volumes of conference proceedings. Plenty of scholars recycle old conference papers into other projects.

Great conference papers require preparation. Many people write their papers on the plane en route to the conference. Some famous scholars routinely show up to conferences with jumbled ideas and formless papers ("So…I don’t really have a paper. These are just some ideas I’m playing around with…"), counting on their prestige to attract audiences. Most of us cannot pull off this kind of trick. Poor planning makes for confusing papers and boring presentations, no matter how impressive someone's credentials. Good writing takes time and work. The conference paper format is not an excuse for poor writing.

Gauge the length of the presentation. Most panels allow each speaker 15 to 20 minutes. Talking beyond the time limit annoys panelists, commentators, and the audience. One double-spaced page of text takes between two to two and a half minutes to read at a reasonable pace. A 15 to 20 minutes paper is eight to ten double spaced pages. Use this formula to figure out the length of your paper.

Novice conference paper writers often cram their entire research projects into ten pages, overwhelming the audience with a tsunami of information. Pick one idea and some interesting data that can be explained in fifteen minutes. This data should speak to a major debate in the field, rather than a specialized niche. Present a basic overview of the idea and its significance.

Most academic presentations (at least in the social sciences) follow a standard formula.  The blog Grad Hacker recommends the following in a great post on this:

  • A hook: a bit of narrative to get the ball rolling
  • The research question
  • Gap in the literature/how the paper fills this gap
  • Methodology
  • Discussion of findings/primary sources/data
  • Analysis
  • Conclusion

Audiences want to hear about your findings and analysis. The literature and methodology sections should be brief to allow more time for the good stuff. For example, in the field of history, we want to hear about the fascinating things you’ve found in the archive and what they mean.

Write a long first draft. You want to engage the audience, so consider addressing the audience directly and using the second person you. Revise and rewrite it. Cut as much as possible without changing the main idea or losing your voice. Trim the academic “fat”: get rid of jargon, adverbs, and unnecessary phrases. Don’t tell the audience what is interesting about your research (”It is interesting that…”); let listeners decide what is interesting. Remove unimportant details. Replace wordy sentences with short ones.

Find a trusted person (an editor, perhaps?) to review the paper. A good editor not only fixes grammar and syntax, but also judges the clarity of your ideas. If your editor doesn’t understand what you mean, your audience won’t either. Read your paper aloud. You will speak to an audience, so your writing should please the ear. Does it sound as melodious as an aria or does it make strange clunking noises like a jalopy? Revise the paper until it sings.

Practice the presentation until it sounds natural. Learn the proper pronunciation of difficult or foreign words. Vary your tone of voice, as a droning monotone lulls the audience to sleep. However, the conference presentation is not a performance art piece. I once saw a presentation in which the speaker used a different voice to represent each person in the text. The effect was jarring. Speak at a slow pace, as nervousness causes people to rush. You want to sound like a professional, confident version of YOU, not a stiff, starched you.

Some presenters choose to not to read their papers and to speak in a more casual and personal way. Presenting to an audience in without reading takes even greater practice. Prepare as you would for any public speaking event. Present to yourself in the mirror. Use index cards with your major points to stay on track. Practice the presentation many times.

Everyone likes seeing images. Using images with a presentation takes practice, as the images should correspond to the presentation’s major points and change every few minutes to hold the audience’s interest. Images without text are often the most effective. If you must use text, use at least 24 point font. Explain the text rather than reading it. Use bullet points rather than full sentences.

Conference paper writing, because of its oral and visual format, is a difficult genre to master. Most academic writing is designed to be read, rather than heard. Solid writing makes for effective content, while practice ensures great delivery. You're not just presenting your ideas--you're ultimately presenting YOU.