Slam PhD forces academics to get to the point


Students in Cork are employing a Japanese method of presentation called Pecha Kucha to make their research more accessible

THE SCHOOL of English at University College Cork this week attempted to reverse the public perception of their PhD students as pasty-faced bookworms who only ever surface from the bowels of the library’s archives to cash the occasional scholarship cheque.

Prompted by Orla Murphy and Cal Duggan, the college asked students to present their work in a unique and accessible way to second-level students and members of the general public. The method chosen was called Pecha Kucha, and it limits the presenter to explaining their work in a PowerPoint presentation with 20 slides and imposing a time limit of 20 seconds narrative per slide.That gave each student six minutes and 40 seconds to relay, in straightforward and accessible terms, highly academic work, often running to hundreds of thousands words.

“We are trying to present this work to the ordinary lay people so they can see what academics do,” said Duggan.  “The challenge to the student is to make their research accessible. The reality is that, with their PhDs, a lot of them will never be read, except by their external examiners.

“The method started about three years ago in Tokyo [among] a group of architects. Architects can be very long-winded, but the restrictive method totally concentrates the mind. It is a useful exercise for the students, as what it does is force literary people to bring their work down to basic points.”

Students at various stages of completing their postgraduate studies presented their work. Some, including Ian Murphy, were just starting out. Murphy intends to look at the area of film, philosophy and aesthetics.

“I saw a poster for the film Blue Velvet in a video shop when I was six years old,” he says, explaining what sparked his interest in the area. “It led me to ask my parents, ‘What is sadomasochism?’”

His influences and manner of critical thinking come from a wide range of areas of his life, he says, from listening to music, reading poetry and even “arguing with friends in the pub”.

Laura Pomeroy used slides to great effect to explain her intended study on the Irish writer Mary Davenport O’Neill, who, Pomeroy says, hasn’t received as much literary and scholarly research as other writers of her generation.

Siobhan Higgins took us through an at times graphic presentation looking at how Anglo-Dutch relations impacted on the development of early modern literature.

Donna Alexander’s studies on Chicano literature resulted in her attempting to learn Spanish and to closely examine several Native American writers. She told us she struggled with the term “American studies” and wanted to use the broader term “Americas Studies”.  Her initial interest in this area of literature didn’t arise from hours trawling ancient texts or chancing upon some forgotten poet: it was inspired by the US rock band Rage Against the Machine.

“I came across the word Chicano in a biography of their lead singer,” she said, and her studies led from there.

There is a strong outreach element to the process, says Murphy, the course lecturer, but it also helps to prepare students for professional life.

“You hear about these types of events for poetry slams and the format is often used for creative events. To be honest you don’t really see the academic and the creative together or hear about PhD slams that often.

“We now have 55 PhD students in the school of English. There are not many academic jobs so they may end up working in cultural fields or the heritage industry, or in areas such as librarianship or journalism.”

Murphy says the academic world needs to move away from the image of academic students talking just to each other. “The hope is that, with these events, we show them as vibrant and engaged people with a range of critical and presentation skills,” she said.