Balancing research, work and family

I was at a postgraduate conference over the weekend and one of the external students asked about how people managed to do postgraduate studies whilst working full time. Last night, I didn’t get much sleep, so I’ve been feeling tired and I started to reflect on my work/research habits. This is what I came up with:

  • I am not a morning person, so I quickly begin to resent any activity that requires me to get out of bed much before 7 am. Therefore, setting an alarm so I could get up at 5.30 am to write would not be an option for me for more than a very short period of time, in a crisis.
  • I am quite happy to stay up late, but I find that there are some things I can’t do late at night (or when I’m sleep deprived).
    • I can’t do detailed textual analysis much after I’ve eaten my evening meal – especially if it requires me to work in Coptic
    • By about 9 pm, I am also past doing much in the way of creative new writing of any kind but can still write down things I’ve been thinking about earlier in the day for editing later
    • I can, however, proofread, check references and edit much later than this, although a time will come when I realise that I am skim-reading rather than checking for detail and I need to draw a line through the text and come back to it the next day.
    • I can file, staple and generally organise paper quite late into the evening.
    • I can also find and download references, export the citations into Endnote and even print paper copies if my laptop is talking to the printer at home.
    • I can play solitaire and contemplate what I’m going to write next when I am quite tired, but I need to make notes because my recall of my brilliant ideas won’t be as good if I’m tired.
  • FWIW, I also find that if I go to the gym after my evening meal, I can’t walk on a treadmill or ride an exercise bike as far or as fast as I can during the day.

So, I try as far as I can to match the research-related task that I am doing to the time of day and my energy levels. I do most of my text work in the mornings on the weekends and most of my sorting and filing of paperwork late in the evenings (or in front of TV, during the ad breaks). Fortunately, my job is such that I can do research-related work during the day sometimes, because I do work-related tasks in the evenings and on weekends.

Cleaning the bathroom is one of my agreed tasks around the house. Visitors to our home might well notice that our shower recess isn’t as clean and sparkly as it might be since I enrolled as a postgrad student. If they pointed this out, I would strike them from my list of friends immediately. :-)

Also, of course, I am not doing coursework, so I can fit my research in around my work commitments, rather than having to meet assessment deadlines. And I have a supportive husband, so the clothes and the dishes always get done. I have also discovered that lots of the casserole base sauces you can buy in bottles don’t taste too bad if you don’t have them too often and curries made from bottled pastes taste almost as good as those you make from scratch.

My family tell me that burritos from a kit aren’t as nice as home made enchiladas. I figure if they’re that desperate, they can all read the recipe book. However, when one child turns to the other when I come through the door and says “Who do you think this person is? She looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t quite place her,” I know it’s time to reorganise my commitments to spend more time at home but not in the study.

So far, I’m tracking reasonably well on my thesis timeline, so maybe I’m doing something right.

“Presentation” vs Reading

Mark Goodacre in his blogging about SBL San Diego, expresses frustration about people merely reading papers and calls for presentations instead. April DeConick disagrees, but I suspect that they may be saying more or less the same thing. Mark adds further thoughts, too.

Although I am a relative newcomer to the biblical studies research field, I’ve been attending conferences and presenting papers for quite a long time in my “previous lives”. My two pet peeves are the person who simply reads the manuscript that s/he plans to publish and the one who has five words written on the back of an envelope and has clearly not thought through how to present what they want to say or given any attention to the time it’s going to take.

On the one hand, the well-written academic paper is often boring and difficult to follow when read aloud because that’s not how it was designed to be accessed. The audience can’t re-read dense sections of an oral text to make sure they’ve followed your point. Audience members are more likely to lose the thread of long, complex sentences and wander off into their own thoughts. The person who is merely reading the text usually doesn’t make eye contact with the audience and has no idea whether the audience is following her or him, so they can’t add extra information, or skip sections that are clearly unnecessary.

On the other hand, if you only have 15 minutes to present and quite a bit that you’d like to say, it’s almost imperative to have a written script or you run the risk of either going overtime and earning the ire of the other presenters in the session and the session chair, or not covering everything you want to cover. And if you have an hour and you ramble all over the place, people will also lose the thread and will probably also feel as though you don’t think they’re important enough to prepare properly for.

And as someone who has been on the organising committee for a number of both national and international conferences, I also know that one of the criteria used for inviting keynote speakers is “has anyone heard her/him speak?” Organising committees don’t like getting feedback that the keynote speaker was boring and/or disorganised and a low point of the conference. It doesn’t feel like a good use of the money you’ve spent on getting them there. Some conference participants will also tell you that they feel they’ve wasted their money coming to the conference if your keynote speakers are poor presenters. “I could have stayed at home and read the proceedings.”

I would suggest that a good purpose-designed presentation is better from the audience perspective than even a competent reading of a paper designed for publication. However, listening to a paper that has been prepared to be read out loud and with which the reader is familiar enough to lift their eyes from time to time is better than sitting through a badly prepared and badly delivered presentation. The amount of preparation put in is possibly more important to how effective it is than whether its a read paper or a presentation, I think. I was sitting next to one of our university’s more effective presenters a month or so ago and he was mapping out a keynote address for a conference he is speaking to in July next year. He is presenting to a lay audience and he wants to make sure that he has time to think about presenting his material in a way that will be accessible to them!!

Update – the key to making real sense of the above paragraph is that I was sitting next to the person concerned on the plane while we were travelling from Armidale to Sydney. :-)

Biblioblogs listing

In the course of looking at my blog stats this morning, I noticed a link to here from John Hobbins’ Ancient Hebrew Poetry blog and wondered why, seeing I never write anything about ancient Hebrew poetry. I discovered that as well as doing the latest Biblical Studies Carnival, he has produced a really amazing list of bible-related blogs which, of course, includes mine. There appear to be two listings – one which divides the blogs into categories – “very insightful laypeople”, “students”, “professors” etc, and another that is simply alphabetical.

Very well worth a visit, unless you’re trying to work to a deadline that doesn’t allow the luxury of surfing the web!

DeConick’s “Thirteenth Apostle”

As some will be aware, I was working at Rice University when April DeConick’s new book The Thirteenth Apostle was in the final stages of preparation. I proofread the main body of the text and one or two of the appendices that April was preparing. I was impressed enough to want my own copy of the final book, even though Gospel of Judas isn’t my particular area of specialty, because it contains a very good overview of Gnosticism and a number of other useful features as well as the commentary on the text of the Gospel.

I looked at the Coptic text of the relevant passages and read her arguments for her interpretation of the text through very carefully and they make sense to me. I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of my own copy – it’s due within the next few days – and plan to write a review once I’ve finished writing the conference paper that’s been hanging over my head for the last several weeks. In the meantime, you might like to look at the review on the Baptist Press website that also includes a report of an interview between April and Gregory Tomlin. My only criticism of it is that it lists the Gospel of Thomas as a Gnostic text and I don’t agree with this! You might also like to read what she has to say about her translation and about the problems that scholars are having in gaining access to the facsimiles of the text.

Update 9 Nov

My copy has arrived and I am very surprised.  I really thought I was going to get a paperback, but it’s hardcover.  I cannot believe that I paid $13.57 US for a hardcover new release book!  Of course, the postage and handling were almost as much as the book itself, but it’s still amazingly reasonably priced, especially given the very favourable exchange rate at the moment.  The last DeConick book I bought cost waaaaaaay more. :-)

Wisdom from the past

I was recently taken by something that R McLean Wilson wrote in his very early Studies in the Gospel of Thomas (A R Mowbray and Co, London, 1960). He introduces his consideration of the Gnostic element in Thomas by saying:

In the study of an ancient document much depends upon the pre-suppositions with which we begin, on the questions with which we approach the examination of the text.(p 14)

He goes on to say that if you concentrate on details and isolate passages from one another, while you may produce useful information, you may also miss the “range and sweep” of the document. General impressions acquired by looking at the text as a whole, however, may be misleading if not combined with a detailed examination. As Wilson so rightly states, if you start with the assumption that Thomas is dependent on the Synoptics, you can find evidence for dependence, and if you start with the assumption that it’s independent, many of the same things will provide evidence for that, so your initial assumptions are important.

I think Wilson’s comment is sound advice for all studies of ancient text. The challenge is to approach texts with a reasonably open mind and to look at the problematic elements and ask “What sorts of things might cause/explain this? Which of these is most likely and why? What are the minimum conditions that need to apply in order for explanation A to be true? And explanation B? And C, if there is a C? If it doesn’t fulfill either/any of the minimum conditions, what have I missed?”

I try to use this methodology on all occasions and hope that I am usually successful. :-)

Assertions, arguments and presenting your research

Over on kata ta biblia, Patrick McCullough talks about assertions vs arguments and quotes Marianne Meye Thompson from Fuller. Along with much with which I agree he says that ‘She points out that you should never say “I think that” or “in my opinion,” but should rather give reasonings and simply remove those phrases’.

This is a convention in academic writing that has always made me uncomfortable when I am presenting original research or critiquing another person’s work in a public forum rather than simply writing a review of the literature.

If Bloggs, whose scholarship I generally respect, has says something with which I disagree, I would much rather say “In my opinion (or it seems to me that) in presenting this argument, Bloggs has overlooked X, because…”, rather than simply “In presenting this argument, Bloggs has overlooked X, because…”. I think that the “in my opinion…” softens my critique enough to give Bloggs the opportunity to say “Redman presents an interesting perspective and one that I had not previously considered…” rather than feeling the need to “come out fighting” to justify what s/he has said. I like dialogue and I think that the occasional “in my opinion” facilitates dialogue.

It also strikes me as somewhat dishonest to present something that is my own tentative opinion without indicating in some way that I am not articulating mainstream consensus, and I know it. And on the other hand, if I think that what I am about to articulate is exciting and groundbreaking work, I don’t want to say just that this is true because… I want to be able to at least give the reader a hint that this is new and different.

Meye Thompson’s position is, of course, the convention in the field and I am still a student, so that’s the way I write, despite my personal inclinations. Of course, you don’t want to overdo the “it seems to me”s or you run the risk of being thought opinionated, which would never do. :-) YMMV, of course.