Alyssa's blog

Virtual Conferences

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Lots of conferences are being canceled or moved online right now, along with classes. Since I've been participating in virtual conferences on and off since 2013 (and working in online math education since 2010), this seems like an unfortunately useful time to talk about virtual conferences.

My first piece of advice on virtual conferences applies to everyone. Remember that a conference that originally intended to meet physically and will now move online is not the same as a conference that intended to be online all along, even if it looks somewhat similar in the end. There has been a disruption, and making the conference run as close to normally as possible probably isn't anyone's first priority. If you need to drop out, or if organizers need to fully cancel the conference, be understanding with each other and with yourselves. Similarly, if you do continue with a virtual conference, virtual presentation and virtual attendance, give yourself permission to be kind of bad at this. Accessibility is still important, but duplicating the exact experience people would get face-to-face is not. (Basically, the disabled people in your audience should be able to tell what your presentation is saying just as well as people without disabilities … but that doesn't mean anyone has to think it was a great presentation.)

Here is my advice for presenters who expected to present in person, but are now giving some sort of virtual presentation.

Find out what kind of virtual presentations you could choose to give. There are several possibilities, and different conferences will offer different options. The INSPIRe symposium lets presenters write a paper, create a poster or record a talk. Participants looked at or listened to each other's work, then discussed asynchronously on message boards or on blog comment threads. I always chose to write a paper, because writing is generally more accessible to me than speaking, but other people chose what worked for them. AAC in the Cloud uses Google Meet so people present in real time from their computers, and it's streamed (and saved) to YouTube. Questions and discussion took place in a Slack workspace. This conference felt more like a typical workshop presentation to me, just at a distance. Presenting in Second Life was a similar experience, though with a bit more setup from my end. Then there was the time I presented at Computers and Writing (not normally a remote conference) by recording my presentation ahead of time, which they then played during my panel. I've done that for the Society for Disability Studies and the Five Project as well. With this option, it's nice if you can arrange to be available for virtual chat while the video is played, or after, but I know it's not always possible.

Once you know what kind of virtual presentation format you're working with, think about how you can use it to tell people about your topic. Sometimes you'll want to do something creative with it. Sometimes (like probably now), you do not have the time or energy for anything complicated. Maybe you'll just record yourself giving the same basic talk you'd expected. Maybe you don't even have the energy for that and you're going to have a nice chat with attendees about your research over Zoom. You could hand over your notes and slides, then suggest attendees ask questions about whatever looks interesting -- use them to guide your presentation. If the conversation is text-based, you don't need to worry about them all talking at once!

And finally, go back to my first piece of advice for everyone: remember that this isn’t what you expected to be doing, and that now is not an easy time. Judge yourself and others accordingly.

Have you participated in virtual conferences before? How are you handling previously physical conferences that are now virtual?

Alyssa is a doctoral candidate in interdisciplinary neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

Image by Fleep Tuque used under a creative commons license.

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What Do We Do With All These Business Cards?

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Alyssa is a doctoral candidate in interdisciplinary neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

Having (and handing out) business cards can be a good strategy at conferences, not just when job hunting. Of course, when we're handing them out for strategic networking reasons, lots of other grad students are also handing out their business cards for the same reasons we are! Since these other graduate students are part of our peer networks, and since the professors we may want to connect with likely also have cards, we may well be going home with a pile of business cards. So, what can we do to make our (hopefully manageable) haul more useful?

One option, of course, is to make a smaller number of meaningful connections, rather than taking the card of everyone you possibly can. I like this method, because there's not much point to taking a card from someone I'm unlikely to actually follow up with. Too many cards can easily become academic clutter, even if I'd genuinely like to chat with everyone whose card I took. (To everyone I took a card from and never followed up: sorry! Yes, this is what went wrong.)

I also try to send my follow-up emails while I'm still at the conference, as an evening activity. I might use the send-later function so my email arrives in my new contact's in-box after they're home and checking email more regularly. If possible, though, I write my end of the follow-up the same day we had the conversation. This keeps the whole conversation fresher in my mind than waiting.

Another option, which I use in combination with being selective about whose cards I take, is to write notes on the physical business cards. The card already has a name and contact information. I add some notes about the conversation that led to my asking for the card, or them offering it. These include answers to questions such as: What did we talk about? What do I want to follow up about? Which research interests do we have in common? Were there any shared identities we wanted to talk about? Was there a project we were considering collaboration on? By making sure I have the notes to remember why I wanted to get in touch with someone (which may only require answers to a couple of the questions above), I'm far more likely to actually do it, even if it takes a while. (I'm not going to remember what I wanted to follow up about several weeks later without notes. I might remember with notes.)

By using these methods together, they can support each other. When I can write emails in the evenings at the conference, my business card notes are still useful, because they help me remember which person goes with which email. And once I’ve sent the email, I can either note on their card that I wrote the email or get rid of the card. Following up with as many people as possible while I'm still at the conference gives me a shorter to-do list and fewer cards where I need to work from notes when I get home. Selectivity similarly helps keep the list shorter. And by following up each day, I make space in my head for the next day's meaningful connections. Between these methods, I eventually follow up on most connections I make at conferences.

What do you do with the business cards you collect?

[Image by Jo Morcom used under a Creative Commons license.]

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Choosing Your Conferences

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Alyssa is a doctoral candidate in interdisciplinary neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

Conferences can be a big part of academic life, and there's plenty of good advice around for getting the most out of them. Today, I'd like to discuss the first step in the conference process: choosing the right conference to attend.

There are several factors to consider here.

First, how relevant is the conference to your research and career goals? Between my work in disability studies, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), and neuroscience, all of which are themselves interdisciplinary, I can find relevance at a variety of conferences. Assistive technology conferences, AAC-specific conferences, disability studies conferences, neuroscience conferences and most conferences run by organizations with disability or communication and technology interest groups could be relevant to me. However, that's not all conferences. Most chemistry conferences aren't going to be especially useful to me. There may or may not be many presentations I'm especially interested in at a general graduate student conference -- it depends on the graduate students involved. At my university’s graduate conference, most of the presentations in my field are posters rather than panels, but they exist. I can look at previous year’s programs as a guide if they’re available.

Then, who else will most likely be at the conference? While my university's general graduate student conference tends to host presentations that are unlike my work, the people there are my fellow graduate students at my university. These are people worth knowing! Or, despite the relevance of my work to autism research -- my first journal article was in Autism in Adulthood -- I almost never go to autism conferences, because there's a tendency to segregate autistic people as somehow separate from autism researchers, and constantly challenging that is draining. The few I do attend are typically autistic-run.

The question of who else is at the conference ties in with the question of how big the conference is. I have attended conferences of a variety of sizes. The Society for Disability Studies is currently the largest it's ever been, having just registered a 500th member. At this size, there aren’t too many overlapping sessions to choose from, the venues can be smaller and I’m more likely to actually find the people I know who are also attending. Worldcon 2019 had over 4,000 attendees, exceeding the capacity of the Dublin convention center. There was always something going on, which was cool, but there were usually multiple things I’d have liked to have seen happening at the same time. I also had to move between two different venues, which was tricky. The International Communication Association has about 4,500 members, though I'm less certain about attendance numbers. I know it was huge, though they did manage to fit the conference proper into a single hotel. They had quite the variety of presentations, and they had the numbers to arrange smaller pre- and post-conferences for people with more specific interests. Both larger and smaller conferences have advantages, but it's nice to know which one I'm getting into when choosing a conference!

Now, where is this conference? Most of the time, a local conference will win out over a distant one on this measure, because travel costs money and takes time. However, if my travel is funded, I might prefer to take advantage of that and go a bit farther afield. The closest a conference can be, of course, is online. While the conversational part of conferences can be trickier to achieve online, it can be done. AAC in the Cloud uses a Slack server, with a general channel, a track-specific channel for each track and a presenter's channel to support conversations between attendees.

The question of location is tied to the question of affordability. How much does this conference cost? Is there a student discount? Will we need to pay for a hotel, or can we commute from home or stay with a friend? Since conference budgets are generally limited, do we want to spend them on one more expensive conference or several cheaper ones? Online conferences aren't guaranteed to be free, but sometimes they are. Free is a very good price for the graduate student budget!

Another question is whether or not this conference publishes proceedings or transactions, as records of the research presented at the conference. Depending on whether or not my results are publication-ready, I could have either preference. If the results are ready, but there are few enough of them to fit in conference proceedings (usually shorter in IEEE) instead of a full article, published proceedings are great. I might not want to bring a working paper to a conference that publishes its proceedings.

Even if a conference doesn't publish proceedings, there may be other ways it can support us in bringing papers to publication. The Society for Disability Studies has workshop papers as part of the conference, allowing authors to get feedback on papers from each other. While the conference isn't a publication outlet, this directed feedback can help us get ready for publication!

And of course, since we're graduate students, there's always the consideration of "what conference does my major professor want me to attend?" But if there's one we think is a good idea, we can probably suggest it, and we might not only go to the conferences our major professors tell us about. Plus, it's good to know how to think about conference choices after we graduate!

How do you choose which conferences to attend? Share in the comments below or on Twitter at @GradHacker.

[Image by Dion Hinchcliffe used under a creative commons license.]

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Sharing Your Research

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Alyssa is a doctoral candidate in interdisciplinary neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

So, you've worked long and hard on your research, gone through the process of peer review, corrected your proofs, and now you have a published article! (Or book chapter, or publication in some other format. Disciplinary conventions vary.) It's great, and you're celebrating, as you should. When my lab gets a paper out, our major professor takes us out for lunch, and it seems like the first author gets to choose where we go. It's been Thai food the last two times. Yum.

Definitely do the celebration part – you earned it. Once you've celebrated, there are more things to think about. I don't just mean the next research paper – you may well have started that before you submitted the one that just came out. I mean making sure the people who might use your research find out that it exists and can get at the paper so they can make that choice.

So, how can you share your work?

Post your work to field and topic-related forums. This includes sharing with research networks, but it's not necessarily just about sharing with research networks. If you're analyzing a novel or series that has an active fandom, you can share to fandom spaces. If you're working in a field that has aspects of both research and practice, you can join practice-oriented forums, participate, and share your work once you have it. Nearly half the requests for one augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) paper, which I wrote as a gap-in-the-lit class project, came from a single professionals-only Facebook group focused on the actual provision of communication supports for people with disabilities – ten times as many requests as I got from research-oriented groups and lists. Social media is your friend, here.

Remind people it's OK to ask authors for copies of their papers. Most journals allow authors to send copies of their papers to people who contact them to ask. Not everyone knows this, and people who do know can be reluctant to ask, for a variety of reasons. Telling people that it is, in fact, OK to ask may not lead to someone asking you for your paper – but it might lead to them asking someone for their paper. And someone else's suggestion may similarly lead a stranger to ask for a copy of your work. Attaching this reminder to share your work may also encourage people who would otherwise see the journal paywall and give up to ask you for a copy instead!

Keep track of requests for your papers. This isn't just about tracking impact, though committees might be interested in how many people have asked for copies of your work. This is a list of people who were interested enough in your work to ask you for a copy. If and when you publish a related paper, let them know. They may be interested again! As I'm writing this post, about one fifth of the full-text requests I've gotten for a more recent AAC-relevant paper have been in response to my batch-emailing everyone who gave me an email address when they asked for the last paper. (Keeping track of requests is also the reason I know this.)

Post pre-prints and/or accepted manuscripts. Many publishers let you post pre-prints (the paper you originally submitted) at any time, your accepted manuscript after they publish the final version (possibly with an embargo), or both. Depending on what someone needs your paper for, this may be enough. I try to get versions of record for anything I'm citing, just in case the bit I wanted to cite was changed, and the "official" copy may work better at a disability advocacy meeting, but an accepted manuscript may work as a guide to personal practices or to help you decide if you need the final published version. So, yes, I post my accepted manuscripts (and sometimes final copies, when it's allowed).

I don't actually know if any of these things will increase my "impact" in terms of typical academic measures like citation counts. Posting my accepted manuscripts for free probably will. Sharing my work outside academic networks and tracking requests might not, since my requests have mostly come from parents and professionals, not other academics. (The academics might have institutional access.) Regardless, that's not why I'm sharing my work this way. I'm sharing my work this way because I think research results should be available to anyone who could benefit from them. And doing these things definitely puts my research in more hands.

(How) do you share your research? Why do those methods work for you?

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Making Conference Food More Inclusive

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Alyssa is a doctoral candidate in interdisciplinary neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

Conferences can be a big part of academic life. By participating in conferences, we can make connections with potential employers, meet collaborators and share our own work. Organizing a conference can be similarly helpful: we learn about conferences themselves and how to manage people and plan events. No matter whether you're organizing, presenting or attending a conference, you're going to need to eat. Some conferences provide information about local food options, others provide some meals directly and, sometimes, interest groups or other affiliated organizations will host events that provide food.

Conference-affiliated meals and mixers provide a valuable opportunity to talk to scholars in our fields, and it's important to make these events as accessible as possible. Different conferences address this issue in different ways. The Assistive Technology Conference of New England offers several options, including a vegetarian option, a gluten-free option, a nut-free option and a space to specify any other allergy. The last Society for Disability Studies conference I attended provided a single option that was vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free.

So, if you're organizing a conference and want to make food accessible, what can you do? Ensuring any provided meals include options that work with common dietary restrictions is a good idea, but it's not the only thing you can do. Some other ideas are:

Tell us what the rules are for bringing our own food. For some people, packing our own meals will be preferable. Maybe we need to eat something very specific. Maybe our restrictions are hard to explain -- my primary issue is actually with textures, and recipe choice can make the difference between my being able to eat something or not, even within variations of the "same" dish. Knowing if I can bring my own lunch with me helps me plan -- do I need to skip the session before/after the meeting to eat, or can I eat during the meeting as long as I have something edible with me?

Know what facilities can support people who are bringing their own food. Is there a fridge attendees can use? Is there a microwave attendees can use? Is there kitchen space available? I don't expect the answer to any of these questions to be yes, but I have attended conferences at universities where attendees had access to these facilities. If we're so lucky as to be able to cook for ourselves at your conference, or even to store and reheat our leftovers, let us know!

Tell us what the standard, vegetarian and any other options actually are. The vegetarian option is probably kosher and halal -- but some of the others might be, too. If you tell us what the options are, we'll know which is the best fit. Maybe the nut-free option is the one that's most likely to work for someone with chewing struggles. Maybe I just don't like mint, which is commonly used to season lamb but not pasta. Ideally, let us know ahead of time, but at the very least, make sure serving staff can tell us what an item actually is. Yes, I have been served conference food where staff could tell me what wasn't in it -- but not what it actually was. I still don't know what it was, and I did not eat it -- the unidentified or unknown food may not be ideal even for people without dietary restrictions.

Have ingredient lists available for the food options. For people with less common allergies, a talk with the chef may still be needed to confirm that there hasn't been any cross-contamination, but the ingredient list provides a starting point. This goes with knowing what the options are: if something doesn't normally have peppers in it, it's going to be easier to keep peppers away from it.

List local restaurants and grocery stores, including chains. Whatever else is true of chain restaurants, they're fairly consistent. For people with dietary restrictions, this means we can find an item we can eat at one place, then know we can eat something anywhere this chain is present. We can also go to the grocery store and get food for less money than the restaurants would charge.

Consider checking a religious calendar for observances that affect dietary restrictions. Last spring, I went to a meeting during Passover. There were several sandwich options, including vegetarian ones, which was great. But there were only sandwich options. Jews can't have bread during Passover. I did think ahead and pack my own lunch (see also: telling us the rules about outside food ahead of time), so I still got to eat, but Passover isn't a surprise. We can calculate when it falls as far out as we want and consider food that isn't bread. Or for the month of Ramadan, we can make food available before sunrise and after sunset.

What would make it easier for you to eat at conferences?

[Image by Percy Germany used under a Creative Commons license]

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Mindmapping(ish) to See Where You Fit

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Alyssa is a doctoral candidate in interdisciplinary neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

 

I see and hear the word interdisciplinary all the time. I think most graduate students do, though I might encounter it even more, since I'm in the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at the University of Rhode Island. Yes, this means my degree is going to say I have a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary neuroscience: neuroscience that happens when we cross multiple fields of study.

Taking classes from several departments is built into our program – there literally aren't enough neuroscience-coded courses to fulfill our requirements offered by actual departments (neuroscience is a program but not a department here). I've taken electives from electrical and biomedical engineering, communication disorders, statistics, and psychology. Others have used electives from physical therapy, biology, chemistry, biochemistry, and chemical engineering. Oh, and some of us took a course on no-boundary thinking that was listed under computer science.

In terms of conferences, the Society for Neuroscience is relevant for most of us. Beyond that, we're all going to different places. My lab-mates tend towards IEEE events – electrical and electronics engineering. As I write this, my last presentation was at WorldCon, a science fiction convention, and my next will be at the American Educational Studies Association.

Oh, and my teaching experience is mostly in mathematics, with a side of electronics and most recently, chemistry. All this has taught me about communication with people from varied disciplinary backgrounds. But now that I've gone and become an interdisciplinary academic, what kind of department would I fit in?

This is where mind mapping, concept mapping, or something similar comes in. In a mind map, you start with a central concept, and then you branch additional concepts or ideas off it in a hierarchical way. Any given idea, like "Education," can have sub-ideas, like "Special Education," "Online Education," or "Teacher Experiences." Here, I'm taking a field and then listing some areas of study within that field. Then, teacher experiences would include work like "Teaching with Augmentative and Alternative Communication" and "First Time Teaching."

The idea is to create a map of your work as it relates to your research interests and the fields of study that can host those interests. In practice, this may be multiple overlapping mind maps – "Teaching with Augmentative and Alternative Communication" also goes under "Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)", which could itself fall under communication disorders, communication and technology, or assistive technology. Disciplinary boundaries are messy, and if you're doing interdisciplinary work, any given item could fit in several places.

Some of these fields you'll be expecting. I'm in a neuroscience program, so I expect to have work that fits under neuroscience. Some of these fields may be surprises. I didn't expect communication to make sense, but AAC is about communication, and most of my AAC work fits. Making this kind of map can help illustrate how your work connects to (possibly unexpected) traditional fields of study and how your different projects connect to each other. The first can help you decide what kinds of departments it may make sense to apply to, when job hunting time comes around. Both can help you tell others what it is you do. Heck, I'm considering putting a neater version of the map on my website, when I get around to building one. If I need a map to figure out what it is I do, why should I assume other people can figure it out more easily?

[Image is one draft of Alyssa’s mindmap, created in MindMup]

How do you explain to others what you work on? How do you figure out where you fit?

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Business Genderqueer

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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

Let's be real. Wardrobe choices in graduate school can be tricky. Some of us dress more formally to teach. Others have felt the need to make more conservative fashion choices when teaching. When I taught math face-to-face, I wore a button-down shirt for at least the first day as an indicator that I was, in fact, the teacher. Later in the semester, I'd shift down to my everyday soft cotton T-shirt, black athletic pants and hiking sandals. In the chemistry lab, whatever shirt I wear is covered by my TA lab coat anyway, but long pants are strongly recommended and closed-toed shoes are required. My everyday wardrobe, including in the classroom, is perhaps more casual than that of most professors (though my university does have the occasional tenured professor in a T-shirt or hoodie -- I'm on the casual side of average, not an outlier), but it's simple and practical.

At conferences, there's a stronger expectation of formal dress. I see a lot more suits, ties, skirts, dresses and button-down shirts at conferences than I do in everyday gatherings of professors and graduate students. This is where I start running into real problems. Once we get more formal than T-shirts, which exist in "unisex" cuts, and athletic attire, where even cisgender women regularly buy from the men's section, clothing gets much more strongly gendered. I'm nonbinary. Now what?

I see a few main options.

One option is to ignore the expectation of formal dress entirely. And yes, I've done this. There is an existing picture of me in a T-shirt, shorts and no shoes at a conference, from the day I presented on one panel and moderated another one. You may get to see it on Conference Inference someday. Or, even though I'm going to be at the American Educational Studies Association conference on Halloween this year (sadly my presentation is Nov. 1), I'll likely spend the day in costume. I'm considering going as the horrible goose from the viral untitled goose game. (I've presented in costume before.)

Another option is to do drag. In situations where openly playing with gender is accepted, I can enjoy dressing up as another gender, but that's not ideal for conferences where I'd be doing drag while pretending that I'm doing no such thing. So, while I recognize the option, I don't like to use it for conferences. (You could argue that I used the drag option for the beginnings of my math classes, though -- everything visible came from the men’s section on those days, including the dress shoes.)

A third option is to figure out what business genderqueer means, in terms of dress. Business casual is a thing. Business formal is a thing. But what's business genderqueer?

I don't think there's just one answer to that question. There may be as many answers as there are people who need to answer it, plus some extra for people who find multiple solutions. But for me, mixing and matching is one answer. Get a suit out of the men's section, but replace the dress shirt with one of the rare dresses I can wear. Dress shirt and suit jacket from the men's section, basic black skirt. Because people tend to assume strangers are one binary gender or the other and femininity is more marked than masculinity, I still get misread as a woman when I use these combinations … but that's likely no matter what I wear. Even when all my visible clothing came from the men's section, I was misread as a woman, and it still felt like doing drag because I'm not a man, either!

And no, I don't wear makeup. I know it's very nearly a professional requirement for women, but 1) no number of other people mistaking me for a woman is going to turn me into one, and 2) I'm generally more interested in challenging sexist standards than bending to them. When I don’t follow the implicit expectations of what women should do, I sometimes find myself on the receiving end of advice on how to do so, like people offering to help me with makeup or asking when, not if, I plan to start shaving my legs. I’m autistic, so saying the implicit part out loud to make sure I know it exists is reasonable, but these particular expectations bounced off me as irrelevant because I’m not a woman. I just think challenging these expectations is a more morally correct defense than saying I’m not a woman, because sexist standards are bad whether or not they apply to me. (It’s also more effective, because outsiders are going to try to apply these standards regardless.)

How do you navigate expectations of formal dress?

[The picture is of Alyssa wearing a suit jacket, dress pants and dress shoes from the men’s section with a knee-length purple dress, as one attempt at business genderqueer. The picture was taken at the International Communication Association conference in Washington, D.C.]

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Improv for Presentations

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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

Presenting to a group, taken broadly, is a big part of what we do as graduate students. By presenting to a group, I don't just mean conference presentations and dissertation/proposal presentations. A project presentation for a class falls under this category, and frankly, so does teaching a class. Some teaching will be more interactive, like labs, and other teaching may be less so, like lectures, but it's still a presentation given to a group.

Because this is such a big part of what we do, there's a lot of presentation advice to be had. For conferences, it's good to remember that we don't need to simply read from a paper. In fact, since a presentation isn't a paper, it's probably better not to! We can speak from notes and include audio and visual aids, instead. And of course, practicing our presentations comes almost universally recommended.

Because of how speech works (and doesn't work) for me, I can't practice my conference presentations ahead of time, and my only presentation scripts are from presentations I've given with Proloquo4Text, an iOS speech-generating program. Besides, I'm not going to run an hour class lecture ahead of time before every class I teach. The preparation-to-presentation time ratio that allows dry runs for conferences isn't practical when teaching a class that runs for an hour three times a week.

What I've found very helpful in handling both my inability to do dry runs of my presentations and the universal struggle to predict the questions people will ask is participating in improv, short for improvised theater. During an improvised scene, the point is that no one knows what's coming next, but all the actors have experiences to draw on while creating stories together.

Obviously, the stories we tell at improv aren't the same ones we tell in academic presentations. I’m not acting as a very lost pirate in the jungle while teaching chemistry (I hope). But the skills transfer. By doing improv, I've:

  • Gotten more comfortable failing in public. If you give enough presentations, you're going to give one that isn't very good. If you do enough improv scenes, you're going to do one (or many) that aren't very good. More experiences failing in public can reduce the fear of doing so.
  • Practiced responding to the unexpected. I can't predict the questions people will ask me, as a teacher or as a conference presenter. I've tried, and I'm always way off. I think that's a function of knowing the topic I'm presenting on, while my audience doesn't yet. For this reason, I've found it more effective to get good at responding to unexpected questions than to practice responding to any specific question I might expect to receive.
  • Practiced performing without rehearsal. Most of us will work hard to avoid giving conference presentations without rehearsal, but teaching without rehearsal is pretty normal. Practicality demands it, but it's scary if you're not used to it. Improv gets you used to it in a way scripted theater doesn't.
  • Practiced performing without preparation or notes. When I give a conference presentation, I have notes, and I've prepared. Compared to having to perform without either of those things, the conference presentation is now easy.

​Some of these benefits may be more important because of my speech and communication needs, but I think most of them are still helpful for most graduate students. It's also nice to have a hobby that isn't research related, even if it helps my presentations as a side benefit. So on any given Friday night, I'm likely to be at (or in) the weekly improv show, looking rather silly in public.

How do you handle the unexpected in your presentations? Share your ideas in the comments below.

[Image by Benjamin Ragheb, used under a Creative Commons license.]

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Wrapping up the Disability in Grad School Series

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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

My loose series about disability in graduate school has been running for a while now. I didn't realize quite how long it was going to get when I started it—I knew I wanted to tell professors that their disabled students and colleagues are paying attention when they talk about disability or about other disabled people. I also knew I wanted to explain why the accommodations talk can be scary as a student. My musings on how "out" I need to be in order to get and use my accommodations and how this depends on both my specific accommodations and the design of the class had been bouncing around in my head a while.

However, I didn't have ideas for the other posts in the series until later. My discussion of disclosure (and non-disclosure) as a teacher only exists because Patrick asked me about it while I was writing about accommodations! My augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and autism awareness month posts came up because the series was ongoing during the relevant awareness months.

Sometimes it's been fun, and sometimes it's felt more like sitting down at the keyboard to bleed. But now I'm wrapping up the series, so here's some things I'd like you to take away from it all:

Disabled people aren't a monolith: we're all different humans, whether or not we have the same labels. What worked for your one student with Condition XYZ 10 years ago might not be what your colleague with Condition XYZ needs today, and even if you’ve been teaching for 40 years, you may still encounter a student with an accommodation you’ve never heard of before. (That student might be me.) Supports, services, and accommodations aren’t stagnant either: some of the AAC options I use existed 40 years ago, like pens and paper, but others like Proloquo4Text, a text-based AAC application I used to give a recent presentation, are only 6 years old. The increased availability of screen readers has decreased (but not eliminated) demand for course materials in Braille, and similar technology helps many students with dyslexia.

Disabled people in academia aren’t just students. For example, I’m also a teacher. Whether or not I tell my students I’m disabled, I’m still a disabled teacher! When we talk about disability in the classroom, we tend to just think about students, but yes, teachers with disabilities exist. And we deal with a lot of discriminatory bureaucratic nonsense while trying to exist.  

Our conditions and abilities can vary over time. What we can do one day may not be the same as what we can do the next day, and how disabled we “look” at any given time may not correlate well with how much we can get done at the time. When it comes to important events (like comprehensive exams) it’s best to plan and accommodate for greater support needs, even if they turn out not to have been needed.

Flexibility is a double-edged sword. Yes, we need to be able to avoid or leave inaccessible environments. No, the fact that we’re allowed to leave inaccessible environments doesn’t make the inaccessibility okay, but that sort of exception does help systems get away without making structural changes.  

Even if you don't think you're talking about the disabled colleague or student you're talking to, we pay attention to how you talk about disability and accommodations. If, for example, you see someone else's varying abilities and ask if they're faking their bad days, we may wonder if you think the same thing about us!

The ways other people react to disability can mean we lose some autonomy, some privacy, or both. This includes situations when accessing our accommodations outs us as disabled. Frankly, this includes getting accommodations at all, which involves giving people some of our medical records. Universal design is a good idea, and maybe some accessibility measures can happen informally.

This isn’t everything. It couldn’t be. It just means I'm done writing articles for this site that are mainly about my being disabled in graduate school. Disability studies in education is a whole field and while I’m wrapping up this blog series, I’m not done writing about disability. I'm still disabled, so I'm still going to look for information about disability in my assistantship contract and ask my union for clarification. I still do disability-related research, which means I'm doing literature reviews (and finding gaps in the literature) in disability-related topics. I’ll still post occasionally about this topic on my personal blog and I promised AssistiveWare, the company behind one of my AAC apps, more blog posts about my perspective as an AAC user who also does AAC research. Oh, and there’s always my Academia.edu page. If you’ve found my discussions of disability in higher education interesting, there’s plenty more to be found.

[Picture of their laptop, ear defenders, and assortment of fidget objects by Alyssa]

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Disabled in Graduate School: History and Progress

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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.

Today, I want to talk about how understandings of disability and disabled people in higher education have changed (and how they haven't). Over time, the number of disabled students making it to college (and therefore having even the possibility of entering academia or becoming teachers) has increased. Laws like the ADA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) help with that. It's actually codified in U.S. law that "Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society." That's more progressive than most of what I hear about disability outside activist circles.

Of course, some of us went to college before these laws passed. Ed Roberts was well-known within disability rights movements because he attended UC Berkeley as a polio survivor starting in 1962, sleeping in an iron lung in a hospital wing, and then stayed involved in disability rights until his death in 1995. And the first diagnosed autistic person in the U.S. to go to college was  none other than the first diagnosed autistic person in the USA. He graduated in 1958 with a degree in French. It wasn't as common for disabled people to go to college, and colleges could just decide they didn't want to have disabled attendees, but some of us did go.

In 1973, programs receiving federal funding (including many academic institutions) were banned from discriminating solely on the basis of disability by section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. It's not until 1990 that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would ban disability discrimination and set certain requirements for accessibility that applied even when federal funding wasn’t involved. The ADA came with a bunch of disabled people crawling up the steps of the Capitol to highlight barriers to full participation, like stairs at a building's only public entrance. Now, in those situations, people who use wheelchairs might get in through the loading dock or the back staff entrance. Still a pain, but they can technically make it into the building.

I'm younger than the ADA, but not by much. It has, in theory and sometimes practice, protected me all my life. I use alternative communication methods as a student, teacher, and researcher, and the ADA is the law backing the disability services office at my school when it tells professors to let me do that. It also backed up the U.S. side of my study abroad program when they told some Tianjin Normal University administrators that no, they could not rescind my acceptance after finding out I'm autistic. It didn't keep those administrators from looking for reasons to have me sent home throughout my time there, but it helped the U.S. side keep them from actually enforcing their opinion that people like me shouldn't be in college.

That doesn't mean everything is solved. I still had to deal with administrators who wanted me out of their program for being autistic. I still take extra steps in order to use my communication supports, because accommodations are still retrofits. Depending on course policies, using accommodations can mean all our classmates know we're disabled. We're still taught to hide our needs, even though doing so can get us accused of having faked them all along. We still get shuffled out, through management and obstacles that aren't obviously related to our disabilities. Even if we are dealing with something clearly illegal, enforcement depends on lawsuits. And even though it's illegal, yes, people deal with the same nonsense here that I dealt with in China. Plenty of people bet successfully on the idea that disabled people don't usually have the time, energy, or resources to sue them over violations of disability law. If a disabled person dealing with access barriers or more overt discrimination isn't up for a lawsuit, there usually isn't anything else we can do. I’ve learned to look for some grad-specific tools: because I read my contract, talked to my union, and had them actually listen, I could go through the bureaucratic hassle of the grievance process if I had an issue related to my graduate assistant duties.

The existence of the ADA and its progeny means there has been progress. Legal action is an option now. An exhausting, messy option that's just several more piles of nonsense to deal with, but an option nevertheless. It means more disabled people who want to go to college or grad school are making it in the door. About 22% of freshmen said they had some sort of learning or psychological disability in a recent survey, which is close to the general population rate of these disabilities. That is progress.  And where do we go from here? I’d like to see more accessibility options made standard, so we don’t need to go through lots of paperwork before using them. I’d like to see more classes that are designed so we aren’t expected to leave our assistive technology at the door (or out ourselves by asking for an exception.)

[Image by Alex Cowan used under a Creative Commons License.]

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