Graduate Dissertation Seminar / Structure and Reflections

This term, I have been teaching the Graduate Dissertation Seminar at UB for the first time.  It is a course designed by my colleague Neil Williams which aims to give students who are nearing the end of their coursework or who are at the ABD stage experience presenting their work, give them some feedback on the substance of their work, and—perhaps most importantly—give them feedback and instruction on their presentation skills.  While I tweaked some aspects of Neil’s course, most of the course structure is due directly to his design (my main tweak was to have APA-style presentations with commenters in the mix).  I am going to talk a bit about the structure of the class first, and then offer some reflections from this midway point of teaching it.

Course Structure:

In the class, we talk about a variety of issues that fall broadly under the heading of “professionalization”, and since a big part of being in the class is giving feedback to each other, I’ve been integrating discussions of our service roles in the profession as well.  Each student in the class has to do the each of the following discrete tasks during the term, in addition to attending the seminar and being an active participant in the discussion sessions after other students’ presentations:

  • One 45 minute paper presentation (ideally on material related to their planned dissertation topic)
  • One 25 minute APA-style presentation
  • Serve as a commenter on another student’s presentation
  • Two times during the term: write a referee report on another student’s longer paper

The initial scheduling of all the presentations and commenting and deadlines was a bit involved to sort out, but not all that painful.  The main things i had to try to make sure of were that people’s various tasks were spaced out reasonably and no student had all their tasks coming due at the same time.

For the time-tables, the short-paper must be sent to the commenter two weeks in advance of the week it will be presented, an the comments must be sent back one week in advance of the presentation.  This is more compressed than the time-tables we usually face for conferences, but not unreasonable for this exercise for our class.  Students presenting long papers have to distribute the long papers to the entire class the day before their presentation (in part to ensure that they are presenting a paper that exists in draft form, and not “winging it”), and referee reports are due to me one week after the paper has been distributed.  I don’t monitor the reports for accuracy of feedback or insight of criticisms or the like. I review them to ensure that students have followed the correct form of the referee report, conducted a good faith effort to write a report on the paper, and monitor for (presumably unintentional) problems with tone.  I pass those reports along, quasi-anonymized, to the author of the paper, with the instructions to not only take the feedback into account, but also to think about what the reports are doing that are more or less helpful to them as an author, so that when they are giving people feedback on work, they can craft their feedback in a way that is easier to take advantage of.

Each class meeting—after we address any logistics issues and make sure everyone is on the same page about upcoming deadlines—begins with the APA style presentation and comments and reply, followed by Q&A, and then feedback on their presentation. Then, we take a short break, and when we return, we have the longer “Job talk” style presentation, with Q&A, and then feedback.  Students must use a handout, (limited to one side of one page for APA-style presentation, allowing an optional second side for listing cases or for diagrams or quotes, and limited to two sides of one page for the longer presentation).  The time limits are strictly enforced (students are cut off, possibly mid-sentence, when the allotted time is reached). All students are expected to generally participate in Q&A, whether or not the topic of the paper is one they work on, or have antecedent interest in or familiarity with. This doesn’t mean they have to have a question every time for every paper, but, in general, everyone needs to do their part to make sure that no presentation encounters crickets during the Q&A session. Typically no follow-up questions are allowed.

After we conclude the presentation and discussion, we transition into feedback (on their handout, the structure of their presentation, their tone, their pacing, etc.). I offer my feedback first, before opening things up to their peers to provide feedback.  The watchword for this feedback is to “try to be Hufflepuff”.  Which is to say, keep in mind that getting feedback on a presentation one has just given in front of one’s peers is daunting and and nerve-wracking, and so, when you are criticizing someone in that situation, make sure you are speaking from a place of kindness and empathy.

Reflections on the Course So Far:

I am really happy with how the course has been going so far.  First off, I am learning a lot about what the students are working on, which is interesting in and of itself.  But more to the point of the course, I think getting students to think explicitly about some of these issues is really helpful for them.  I am often frustrated that the structure of graduate curricula is not simply reverse engineered from an enumeration of the skillsets our students will need to be deploying in their future employment.  For instance, if you built the graduate curriculum around the skills called for in the jobs we are preparing our students for, you would simply expect to see a much larger explicit focus on pedagogical training in graduate programs than we do in fact see on the whole.  You would expect to see at least some training in the skills required for doing a good job at the main sorts of service work we are expected to do (e.g. some explicit training in how to write a helpful referee report). And, you might expect to see some training in things like how to be effective at presenting your papers.  What makes a handout a useful complement to your talk, rather than a distraction from it. And so on.  So one thing I really like about this course, and am really happy with my department for adding it to our curriculum and with Neil for developing it the way he did, is that it just seems like the sort of thing that we ought to be doing for our students as part of their graduate educations

Some more pointed thoughts:

  • The fact that we have nine students working on pretty disparate topics was prima facie worrisome, but turns out to be a boon.  It is really, really, helpful to have an audience that includes people without much background on a topic, when you want to be giving someone feedback on how clearly they were able to cover the exposition of a debate or position. And while some presentation contexts will consist of mostly specialists (APA colloquia sessions and topical conferences tend to have audiences who are mostly already interested in the topic of the talk), lots of other contexts (job talks, regional conferences, grad conferences, etc.) often have pretty diverse audiences in terms of background and interests, and being able to pitch your talk to smart people who just aren’t familiar with the background of your talk is a really important skill.
  • Different sub-areas each seem to have their own set of hazards that people working in those areas need to be aware of.  For some areas, the material is very technical, and the risk is losing any non-technicians in the audience if you can’t ground your talk in something concrete pretty early on. For others, it is a distinctive set of jargon or vocabulary that needs to be unpacked for audiences that don’t have familiarity with it. For some it is alternative methodologies that need to be repackaged for audiences that don’t know how to understand them.  As noted, this class really helps draw out these things, since logic specialists are presenting to a room with historians, continental philosophers, aestheticians, ethicists, philosophers of science, etc. and vice versa.  The dissertation phase is often a phase where one principally interacts only with other specialists in their area, and can easily lose track of how to present their ideas to people outside that sub-discipline.
  • Talking to students about tone seems like something that is really important, and not done frequently enough.  People have a tendency to form snap judgments about people based on the tone in which they, say, ask a question at a conference, and more or less the same question asked one way can prompt someone to think “oh, that jerk has such a high opinion of themselves, and they think they know everything, ugh” while asked a different way would simply prompt the thought, “that was an interesting question, maybe I’ll follow up with them about it after the talk.”  So, I’ve been pointing out to students when, e.g. their referee report reads like they are writing comments for an undergraduate in their class, rather than providing feedback to a presumed peer.
  • The students have been pretty good on the whole at being Hufflepuff about their feedback to each other.  They often highlight what they thought was particularly well done in the presentations, rather than simply focusing on criticisms. I could probably stand to take some lessons from them on this.
  • One thing I haven’t been doing, but would like to do, is focusing on how to ask good questions during Q&A.  Ideally, I’d like to come up with some guidelines for what sorts of questions to ask during Q&A.  I know that I don’t like when questions seem to be about “point-scoring”, but this is something that I need to think more about before I have really worked out views on all this.  I do think it is important for people to appreciate the importance of constructive questions (which are going to be questions that share at least some key presuppositions of the person giving the talk), as opposed to simply questions that challenge the position of the paper, but this is something I need to think more about.
  • I am giving people a lot of feedback on these things, but its not like i got a lot of explicit training about this stuff. Nor do I think I am some sort of savant who just magically knows all of it.  So, do I know what I am talking about? Maybe? A bit? I mean, I have been thinking about these issues a lot, and I do encourage the students to take my feedback with a grain of salt, and balance it against the feedback they are getting from other students.  Mostly, I think getting the students to think about these issues is valuable, and I hope that the advice i am giving is useful above and beyond that, but I don’t think I have some perfect insights into all of these issues.

Lastly, here are some of the things that have come up a bunch that I am trying to instill into my students in this class:

Cardinal Sins for Presentations in Graduate Dissertation Seminar (partial list):

  1. Running over your allotted time. I think this is disrespectful to the audience, as it typically requires cutting into the Q&A, which is sort of like telling the audience that you don’t care about getting their feedback on your work, you just wanted them to listen to you talk.  No one will be upset about a good talk that ends a few minutes early, but a great talk that goes long could easily leave you with angry audience members.
  2. Reading your paper (rather than presenting your paper).  Reading a paper out loud so that it is easy to follow and engaging for the audience is a difficult skill that very few people have.  Most of us are far, far better at talking extemporaneously (even if it feels more comfortable to us to read).  While I don’t have a blanket condemnation of this practice in the wild, I do forbid it for the students’ presentations in this class, and think presenting rather than reading will serve most of them much better overall.
  3. Undermining your commenter (e.g. by omitting or correcting things that are addressed in the comments). This is disrespectful to the commenter, and contrary to the norms of presentations, but a surprising number of people in the profession don’t realize this, and think that if the point made in the comments is a good one, they should *correct* the paper when they present it.  Of course, then the commenter looks silly talking about an issue in the paper that doesn’t exist.  This is easy to avoid if you are reading your paper, because then you can just read the version you gave to the commenter. But if you present the paper rather than reading, it means you have to make a note to present in a way that ensures your commenter’s comments will still make sense.
  4. Not having a handout (this might be somewhat controversial).  If your talk is longer than five minutes, then, even people with very good memories will not be able to recall the beginning of your talk in sufficient detail when your talk is over.  Even if you are using a powerpoint, it is not helpful to the audience member who wants to compare the claim made on slide 4 and slide 15, because they can only see slide 4 again once they have already been called on to ask their question.  So, I think one should always remember that your handout is not just for following along during the talk, but for helping the audience remember how the beginning and middle of the talk proceeded, when they are thinking back on the talk.
  5. Cramming too much on your handout.  Distracts the audience, leads you to omit addressing things on the handout, and prevents the handout from doing a good job of conveying the relative importance of the things you are covering in your talk (which is signaled in part by which things were important enough to be included on the handout).

Two Pieces of Really General Advice:

  1. Begin your talk by stating the goals/objectives of the talk.  Lots of talks go off the rails simply because of mismatched understanding of what the speaker is up to.  The audience thinks the speaker is trying to show that a given view is untenable, the speaker just means to be showing that one argument for the view is unpersuasive (but happens to also think the view is untenable), this confusion bleeds into the talk and the Q&A, and so, instead of focusing on the speaker’s interesting challenge to the argument for that view, everything gets bogged down into a discussion of some other argument for that view.  That can be avoided if the speaker opens with explicitly telling the audience where the goalposts are being set, so that they audience knows how to determine if the speaker’s argument has been successful.
  2. Clearly demarcate your contributions. When you are entrenched in a debate, you are so familiar with which problems/solutions/etc. are “out there” in the literature, that you don’t always think to make explicit “this is the part that I came up with”, because your advisor or another specialist would spot it in an instant. But for any talk where your audience isn’t just specialists, it is really important that you signal to them which parts of your talk are you catching them up on a debate that was already happening, and which parts are your contributions to the debate.

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