A Different Conference Bingo (The 2016 CSCY conference)

I’ve just come back from Sheffield, where the 2016 Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth conference was taking place from Tuesday to Thursday. It was a Childhood Studies conference, focusing on the ‘social, biological and material dimensions of childhood and children’s everyday lives’.

This was my first Childhood Studies conference – I generally go to Children’s Literature conferences, but in the past three and a half years, save for a couple of articles, my research has reoriented itself towards neighbouring fields, such as the cultural sociology of childhood and of education, and the history of childhood. While I’m not an empirical researcher, I’m tending towards questions and topics close to Childhood Studies, and I read their journals; so I thought it was high time I went to one of their conferences.

This isn’t going to be a detailed report, but rather some thoughts on the interesting differences between Children’s Literature and Childhood Studies, as far as I can tell from my admittedly limited experience of the latter. Mostly, it was fascinating to see how different those two neighbouring fields are.

This can be visualised in a very scholarly way by looking at the completely different Conference Bingos. Here’s my Children’s Literature conference bingo:


At the Childhood Studies conference, however, I had no Conference Bingo in mind. I had to make it up as I went along, noting resonances, repetitions, funny little tics of language and turns of phrase that were new to me but extremely familiar to CSCY veterans. And there was interestingly very little overlap with current concerns in Children’s Literature studies. Here’s what struck me in particular.

  • Concerns with method

There was a lot of thinking about method going on, almost as a matter of course, both within presentations and in the Q&As. This is probably in part because so much of Childhood Studies is empirical, and so much of that empirical work ethnographic; method and methodologies, ethical considerations and the place of the researcher were constantly probed. This may seem simply like good practice, but it was clear that presenters weren’t just going through the motions; their reflections on method were indissociable from their conceptualisations and theoretical commitments, and practice, theory and method mingled fluidly, in a way that I haven’t really seen happening in Children’s Literature. Method, to put it simply, wasn’t a tool; it was always already thought.

This isn’t to pit Childhood Studies against Children’s Literature – it’s just an observation. If we need a ‘conversely,’ then I observed that at CSCY there was little to no engagement with the aesthetic aspects of the cultural objects studied. When children’s TV, books, films, etc. were observed, literary criticism, aesthetic visual analysis, film criticism, etc. were (at least in the talks I saw) not at all mobilised.

  •  Latourian frameworks, and ‘assemblages’

Granted, this was a conference focusing on the material and biological child, so, as one of the professors there rightly pointed out to me, it had Latour written all over it; and the Frenchman has been a reference for some major Childhood Studies thinkers for quite some time. But there are other theorisations of materiality; so it was interesting to see how much Latour and Actor-Network Theory specifically resonated in the field. It’s easy to see why; ‘the child’ is a textbook example of a Latourian (quasi)object, involved at the same time with many different types of other actants, objects, knowledges, etc. and irreducible to any in particular. Entanglement was one of the recurring keywords.

Another keyword was ‘assemblage’, pulled from a rather different tradition but used almost interchangeably, as far as I could tell, with ‘entanglement’, ‘networks’ or similar expressions.

  • Some unease with both traditional and emergent social categorisations

I didn’t see a lot of criticism of Latour, but in a brilliant presentation on children’s engagement with TV, Fiona Scott of Sheffield University highlighted the necessity to buttonhole Bourdieu once in a while, too, so as not to risk leaving class aside. That’s the problem with Latourian or equivalent approaches: fearing reductionism, it’s hard not to spend all your time describing relations, and shying away from explanations – especially from social causes.

I had a feeling that presenters were tiptoeing around explanations involving traditional social categories; they didn’t mention class, gender nor race as much as I would have thought. It was nothing like Children’s Literature, where such categories are hugely mobilised in analyses of texts. Similarly, I didn’t hear much about emergent categories. There was a little bit of disability studies. Strikingly, I heard the word ‘intersectionality’ uttered only once (obviously, I didn’t go to all the talks – I don’t have a Time-Turner); a major difference here from Children’s Literature.

Yet at the same time, almost inevitably the Q&As triggered reflection on gender, race, class, etc. I’m not sure if it’s because the conference theme kept those categories at bay, only for them to be reintroduced after the talks; or if it reflects some wider discomfort, or incompatibilities, within the apparently current ‘turn’ of Childhood Studies towards materiality.

  • No consensus on ‘agency’ and ‘voice’

Relatedly, the concepts of ‘agency’ and ‘voice’ of the child were in a paradoxical position. Routinely there were calls to transcend them or move beyond them; at the same time, I observed that those concepts were much-used in presentations by researchers who were also educators or teachers. In other words, there seemed to me to be an interesting discrepancy between the apparent theoretical obsolescence of these concepts, and their continued usefulness in pedagogical practice.

From a Children’s Literature perspective, that discussion maps nicely onto the question of child and adult ‘powers’ within and around the children’s text, which is of course one of my obsessive concerns. That’s where I saw, perhaps, the most resonances between the two fields.

  • Reflections on the constructedness of childhood are still important

I was expecting to find that ‘constructions of childhood’ was now a taboo expression in Childhood Studies, but I was happy to see that it was not the case, with the appropriate caveats in place. I think it was clear and uncontroversial that childhood remains a social construct – and one that is structuring for ‘people currently occupying the space socially defined as childhood’, in the words of Nigel Thomas in his keynote on the matter. Those meandering ways of saying ‘children’ are awkward, of course, but they show that the (important) work on reclaiming (as per above) the child’s ‘voice’ and ‘agency’, and the current work on the interconnectedness of children with everything, still allow for space to reflect on what effectively does construct childhood.

  • A lot of political and ethical commitment

Like Children’s Literature, I found Childhood Studies to be an intensely moral and political arena (in the good sense of the word). There was a lot of preoccupation for the future not just of the discipline but, quite literally, of humanity – a remarkable amount of comments and reflections on climate change, for instance – and of the role of children and researchers in this space. All the keynote speakers exhorted other researchers to be politically and ethically committed; they didn’t necessarily phrase it in that way, but it was very clear.

Perhaps the most inspiring bit of the conference for me was Spyros Spyrou‘s keynote, in which he highlighted the power of method to ‘create alternate realities’ – by which he meant, not alternate representations, but truly alternate realities; an effecting shaping of the world. Faced with that, we must resist relativism; we have an obligation to make ethical choices as to which realities we want to come into being.


So what’s my Conference Bingo for Childhood Studies? It can’t be complete nor representative, of course, from a sample of just one, but here’s a try, from my semi-outsider perspective:


(You will note that ‘As a parent’ is present in both.) With that in mind, I look forward to next year’s IRSCL conference at York University, Toronto (not to be confused with the far nicer superlatively better University of York, UK), whose theme is, appropriately, ‘Children’s Literature and Childhood Studies’.

An unearthly amount of voices, whispering: Creative Writing with Young and Even Younger Students

Last week, thirteen young teenagers and their English teacher took a coach from Hull to the University of York. What happened next will amaze you.

(How am I doing for buzzfeed-like academic blogging?)

What happened next for the students of Kelvin Hall was an afternoon of creative writing in the company of 2nd-year undergraduates, all enrolled in the Children and Literature module of the Education degree.

The group was composed of the most enthusiastic young storytellers and writers from Years 7-9 in the school – and the point was to get them to write, with the help of undergraduates who’d been taught for two terms about children’s literature in theory. This was an opportunity to interact in practice with actual young readers and producers of texts.

Each undergraduate was paired with one of the Kelvin Hall students (by some favourable twist of fate, they were in equal numbers) and the writing started…


They looked optimistic at first. Maybe it sounded like it was going to be easy.

Close Encounters with the Third Years

It wasn’t. (They looked happier at the end, though, I promise. This is their concentration face.)

The event had been organised by Amanda Naylor, who lectures that module at York, and by Ryan Eskrett, who teaches the children at Kelvin Hall. Two other English in Education lecturers, Nick McGuinn and me (Clementine) were there to help set up some of the writing activities.

Me, clearly trying to compensate with my long necklace for the lack of dangling card necklacey thing

Me, Amanda and Ryan. Nick isn’t on the picture because he was taking it, but as I realise now, clearly the true reason was that he wasn’t wearing a long-necklacey-thing likethe rest of the gang.

We got them to write flash fiction, which, in case you don’t know, is like short stories, but shorter. Like, really much shorter, we’re talking a story that’s as long as… No, no, not that long. No, really, even shorter. Almost there… Yep. Exactly.

Flash fiction is a really interesting kind of text to write because it forces you to condense into a very small space all the central ingredients of an actual story: characterisation, narrative arc, atmosphere, distinctive style. It’s hard. Anyone can be a novelist, but you have to a pretty good writer to write flash fiction.

To get into the mood, we started with the famous 6-word-memoir: your life, in six words or less.

Before you start accusing me of PowerPoint nepotism, I should specify that I have no idea who Sylvie Beauvais is, but she happens to write flash fiction.

Before you start accusing me of PowerPoint nepotism, I should specify that I have no idea who Sylvie Beauvais is, but she happens to write flash fiction.

Now, to be fair, one would expect that the younger you are, the easier it is to pack your life into six words. Presumably, a two-second-old child could just write ‘Born,’ and that would be about it (though it would doubtlessly trigger some media interest). But the undergraduates and high school students had apparently got much more to say than Ryan (‘Marking. Eat. Sleep. More marking’, was, I think, his memoir) or than myself (‘Still not writing real literature, sorry’):

A cocktail of strange and boring.

Maturely developed peculiar sample of youth.

I love coffee, coffee is life

(Bit concerned that a young teen should be drinking so much coffee already, but at least it’s not whiskey, I guess.)

Then, for the remaining hour and a bit, the Kelvin Hall students and our second-years worked on an actual flash fiction story – less than a page, for some less than half a page.


This picture is so picturesque I’m kind of worried about putting it online as it will doubtlessly be used by every university in the world in every single undergraduate handbook forever.


Thinking of things to write about (with a photographer on your right and an undergraduate on your left; but no pressure)


Pretty much what I’d like my life to be like: reclining on a comfortable chair while a nice young person types up my stories into a Word document.

At the end of the afternoon, each Kelvin Hall student had their own flash fiction story printed, and both groups seemed delighted with the experience. Amanda and Ryan’s idea of bringing high school and higher education students together was brilliant: original, fruitful, fun, and remarkably easy for the three of us as we just sat in the back of the class and talked about academisation while they worked.

Here’s a particularly spooky and atmospheric example of flash fiction, by Axel:

Thursday, 5th 1901.

Dear journal,

After investigating the manor in which my young brother, Marcus, vanished I found myself close to death (or worse). The manor which housed my loving sibling which is upon the Quaking Mountain that, I have uncovered, houses an insidious force. This hideous goliath resides within the terrain of the mountain which explains why it constantly shakes. This horrendously coloured colossus has a disturbing amount of extremities and an unearthly amount of voices, whispering.

I’ve learnt from the remains of my dearest brother and thousands of other small remains that this beast expels acidic vomit upon it’s hostages to devour its prey. The manifestation of pure malevolence calls itself ‘Eloth’. This crustacean-like being rasps horrific yet interesting conversations which echo through the cave, bouncing of the rocky walls. It’s dark in here but overtime my eyes have adjusted to this darkness. I can see the waxy remains of my brother staring back at me.

The creature is currently singing me a lullaby in its unknown language, in a way it is ethereal, I’m feeling the need to rest…

Disturbing amounts of extremities, horrific yet interesting conversations, acidic vomit: sounds uncannily like those parties after academic conference dinners. Interestingly, the students chose very many different genres to tell their stories, from diary entries to letters to tales to prose poetry. Flash fiction is very modulable, and the groups were extremely imaginative and open-minded in their choices.

This is just a little window on the kind of thing that goes on in universities, alongside all the life-saving, paradigm-shifting, Ted-talk-worthy things you hear about on the news. In-between all the big, muscular, über-funded customised random trolls – sorry – randomised controlled trials – there’s daily, small-scale, zero-budget events, involving local communities and real people – enthusiastic teachers and academics, motivated undergrads, keen children.

And while they won’t feature on The Conversation, they stick in individual memories and bring a little bit more good to the world. That afternoon in the computer lab of Alcuin College, University of York, thirteen new stories were born.

Thank you Amanda and Ryan for setting up the event, and Nick for the pictures! Thank you also to the children and their parents who have given their permission to be featured on the pictures in this blog post, and to Axel for the stories.

Insulting the Child

From the academic-reading cave, here’s a little 1923 clipping from The Argonaut, a Californian journal that ran from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. I wasn’t even looking for anything children’s-literature related, but those things have a tendency to find me…

I’m sure anyone familiar with contemporary children’s literature debates will appreciate the lovely pluçachangeness of this opinion piece.


insulting2 insulting3 insulting4

‘Open Access’, 1. The Problem of ‘Power’.

Outreach, impact, open access – as academics, we’re constantly asked to make our research accessible to the general public, sometimes at great cost to us, whether in terms of time or of money. The latest obsession is with articles in open access. But I doubt many people who aren’t academics in the fields (and, to be frank, few people who are) would actually plough through many jargonny articles in their published form. Academic writing is hard; it makes assumptions about things you’re already supposed to know, because it mostly addresses people in the discipline.

So ‘opening them’ to everyone may be a start, but if few people can understand what’s in them and why it’s valuable without having at least done an undergraduate module on the subject, what’s the point? I’ve got absolutely nothing against jargon – people who are always complaining about academic jargon don’t realise that they all have jargon too in their own professional lives, which simply becomes transparent because they’re familiar with it. Jargon is just a battery of terms that make sense to people who know them. It’s not evil, it’s useful. But it is exclusive, by definition, and to make something ‘accessible’ you need to strip it of jargon – which means going through everything that lies underneath those terms again.

A nice solution to ‘open access’ that would actually make articles accessible – not just downloadable to your computer, but actually understandablewould be for academics to produce, every time they publish an article or a book, a jargon-free, simple summary of what it’s ‘about’, which readers could read to whether or not the article itself is accessible. Interesting exercise, too… I’ll try to do it here.


I’ll start with an old-ish article of mine, ‘The Problem of ‘Power’: Metacritical Implications of Aetonormativity for Children’s Literature Research’, which was published in Children’s Literature in Education in 2012. (The link goes to the journal website, which won’t help you if you don’t have access, I know.)

Let’s begin with…

1. The Title

(Yes, Massive Jargon Alert.)

‘The problem of power’: whatever comes before the colon can generally be ignored. It’s here for decoration, and will all make sense later.

‘Metacritical’: this is a term we use to mean that we’re being critical about our own critical practice. E.g: if I study a Jane Austen text, I’m doing criticism. If I study a whole body of critical texts about Jane Austen, I’m doing metacriticism. Yes, it may sound crazy to study ‘what other people have said about Jane Austen’, but it’s a major way of progressing as a discipline.

So here when I’m talking about ‘metacritical implications’, it means things we need to take into account when doing further criticism.

‘Aetonormativity’: This is children’s literature-specific jargon. I’ll get back to it soon.

‘Children’s literature research’: referring here to the literary study of texts written for children.

So the title means that there’s something about the concept of ‘aetonormativity’ – which I explain below – which should make us cautious when we analyse children’s books.

2. What’s the situation?

The article revolves around the concept of ‘aetonormativity’. Aetonormativity is a term invented by major children’s literature scholar Maria Nikolajeva and developed in her book Power, Voice and Subjectivity in Literature for Young Readers (2010). She’s written about it on her blog here, but I’ll sum it up here too:

Aetonormativity means the existence of an age-related norm: in this case, the norm of adulthood. In the Western world, when I say ‘a person’, this person will probably spring to your mind as an adult. Our society is organised with a vision of the ‘normal’ individual as an adult – from sizes of bus seats to the provision of special ‘child-friendly’ spaces (no one needs to tell you that the street is ‘adult-friendly’). Children, who are not yet adults – not yet ‘normal’ – cannot work, drive or vote, and they get special rights too and special protection. Children are the ‘other’ – here ‘other’ is academic jargon to mean a deviation from the norm.

Nikolajeva’s invention of the term is specifically in relation to children’s literature. In texts for children, she says, there is always an assumption that adulthood is the norm and that the child is ‘other’. Children are portrayed as lacking, as not-adults: not-working, not-sexual, not-mature, etc. Children’s texts are thus, most of the time, aetonormative.

Two important things here:

1) This term is inspired from other theories, in particular queer theory, which says that, in our society, heterosexuality is seen as the norm and homosexuality as the ‘other’ sexuality. It comes from a long history of research in other fields trying to highlight problematic power positions: Marxism, feminism to name only a couple.

2) Nikolajeva isn’t the only scholar to think that children’s literature is almost always aetonormative (= presents adulthood as ‘norm’ and childhood as ‘other’). This idea had been steadily growing in children’s literature research since the 1980s.

3. What’s the ‘problem’?

The ‘problem’ comes from the fact, as I see it, that many pieces of research which focus on the aetonormativity of children’s literature (= on the fact that it presents adulthood as a norm) tend to conclude that it means that children’s literature reinforces adult power. What I argue in the article is that we can (and indeed should) accept the general aetonormativity of children’s literature, but not conclude that it systematically disempowers the child.

This needs to be unpacked a little bit. Outside of the adult-child relationship, in most cases, the link between power and norm is quite logical. Being the ‘other’, the ‘different’, the ‘not-normal’, puts you in an underprivileged position. If you’re still surprised when you hear of a female CEO, it’s because you don’t take it fully for granted that women should be CEOs; because the ‘normal’ CEO implicitly comes to your mind as a man. Women need to overcome greater obstacles than most men in order to become CEOs, from individual to institutional prejudice.

However, what I argue in the article is that the child-adult relationship is not the same as the relationship between adult women and adult men, or between able and disabled adults, or between adults of different ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds. They certainly have features in common, but also central differences.

4. What makes it specific?

As I argue in the article, adults and children have different time frames, different temporalities, associated to them by culture, language, representations.

In brief: adults are of course powerful in some sense because they have a lot of ways of controlling children, and their power stems greatly from the fact that they’ve been alive for longer: they’re said to have ‘experience’, ‘authority’, ‘responsibility’, etc. However, and this is what I’m arguing, children are also perceived as powerful by adults – even though we may not want to recognise it – because they have a longer time left to them to act.

So perceptions of children by adults are associated with a vocabulary, metaphorical or not, which does express a specific kind of power: ‘potential’, ‘hope’, ‘promise’, etc. That power is future-bound, turned towards ‘tomorrow’, while adults draw their specific symbolic force from the fact that their time past is longer.

And too often, in research, the term ‘power’ is used to encompass everything – as if adults had all the dominance and children had nothing. Hence ‘the problem of power’. By using the term ‘power’ without defining it (and I say in the article that it’s rarely defined), we obscure forms of child power.

There are other differences between adult and child powers, I’m sure, but from my perspective this is the one that interests me: the difference in temporality which leads to different kinds of power.

I call adult power ‘authority’ and child power ‘might’, or potential – a power for the future, in opposition to the adult power which comes from the past.

I should say that this difference is to a great extent socially constructed, which means that there’s little about it that’s ‘natural’. Instead, this difference is mostly symbolic, having been fabricated, so to speak, by culture and society. Sure, children are factually younger than adults, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be perceived as having more potential. For instance, at a time when children often died before their twelfth birthday, it might not have been as prominent to think of them as full of potential.

5. OK, so children will (probably) live longer than adults and therefore are seen as having more potential; so what?

Well, firstly, it’s important to say that this difference – however basic it may sound – is actually not articulated that often in research, at least not to the extent that we can truly see that it’s a kind of power that the child has. Maybe because it’s seen as self-evident, but perhaps also because – as I argue in the article – well… maybe because we quite like, in fact, to think of us adults as more powerful.

Here’s the contradiction: the more we deplore that children’s literature is oppressive for the child and shows adult power over children, the more we manage to convince ourselves that it’s true – and the less we’re able to see child-specific forms of power.

Our positions as researchers are important here: we’re all adults. And we need to be conscious that it’s seductive for us adult researchers to keep repeating that adults are in power and children aren’t. Maybe we’re trying to avoid saying that actually, like most adults, we are a bit in awe of what children can do in the future and we can’t (because, to be brutal, we’ll be dead while they’re still alive).


So, in short, what I’m saying in the article is that aetonormativity (= the norm of adulthood) doesn’t lead necessarily to an excess of adult power, because there may be an ‘other’ power, that of the child (‘might’, ‘potential’). So when we talk of children’s literature as aetonormative, we must be careful not to obscure the child’s share of power; because, in the case of the adult-child relationship, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the ‘other’ is also ‘disempowered’.


This is where the article stops, but it’s a statement piece which accompanies all my later work, in particular in my academic book, which is coming out in January. In that book, I build up on the distinction between ‘might’ and ‘authority’ and I show how children’s books which apparently express adult ‘power’ actually make space for the child’s unpredictable action, his or her ‘potential’, in the future.



Phew! That was much harder than I thought it would be. It’s interesting because I thought that, since the idea at the centre of the article is quite simple – ‘children also have power, you know! They will be alive when you’re dead!’ – it would be the easiest of my articles to summarise. But no – it’s difficult to get there without having to go through everything in literary and cultural theory since the 1960s… and also without talking about children’s literature theory and criticism since the 1980s. I probably also made assumptions about a number of things – childhood and adulthood as constructed categories, for instance – which I shouldn’t have.

I might do a few more of those and see how it goes.


Last week I wrote a blog post deploring the fact that I couldn’t write slowly. In response, two of my friends suggested I blogged about how to be ‘productive’. I’m a bit ambivalent, since, as hinted in that blog post, ‘productivity’ has a dark side. It can be efficiently generated by the cultivation of guilt, worry about the future and insecurity in children from a young age (I’m looking at you, French educational system), as well as by inordinately high standards.

So my immediate sarcastic response was: Tip number one: set yourself irrationally high goals, self-flagellate every time you don’t work enough to attain them, find people who are much better than you and mull over how superior they are, and for good measure, add the threat of never finding a job. Your productivity will rocket, I promise.

Well, let that be a disclaimer: even though this is a ‘tips’ blog post, there are issues with ‘tips’ about productivity, just like there are issues with ‘tips’ about losing weight, for instance.

But here are a few things that I do find genuinely useful in increasing productivity, that is to say, in my case, getting (preferably good) words on the page, whether academic or fictional, and making sure they get published (i.e. editing, revising, referencing, etc); and doing teaching-related work.

  • Switching off the Internet entirely

Just as I’m writing this, a little (1) pops up on my Facebook tab. I have to check what it is, because it could be someone tagging a picture of me drunkly lap-dancing in a bar. Let’s see. No, it’s fine, it’s just someone I friended in 2008 mass-inviting all his Facebook acquaintances to sponsor his half-marathon on a space hopper. I’m never going to sponsor him, but I still read the whole description and end up wikipediaing the charity he’s space-hopping for, which knits socks and scarves for yellow-bellied marmots. I suddenly remember I have a blog post to write, but now a little (1) has appeared on the Outlook tab…

Sorry, what? Oh yes – the Internet. Let’s not write that blog post online – too distracting. Write it in a Word document instead. Internet can stay open behind Word. Oh no it can’t, because some idiot at Microsoft thought it would be an excellent idea to make Word vaguely translucent at the top, which means I can still distinguish the little (1)s through a half-hearted vapour of pixels.

Solution: turn it off altogether with Cold Turkey (SelfControl for Mac users). I couldn’t have written anything in the past two years without Cold Turkey. It didn’t even get a mention in my thesis acknowledgements, because I preferred to pretend that real humans such as my supervisor, friends and family were more responsible for its completion, which is a lie, however much I love them.

coldturkeyThose pieces of software only block the websites you want them to block, which means you can still use JStor and Project Muse, where procrastination opportunities are few (until you start typing up your own name to see what comes up and this does).

  • Pomodoroing through multiple projects

I do this when I work on very many projects that are all at different stages of development, because that’s when I’m most at risk of using the exciting ones as excuses to procrastinate on the others. The Pomodoro technique basically states that you should set yourself short spans of time for work, interspersed with breaks. Strictly speaking, it’s supposed to be 20 minutes, but that’s too short to do anything constructive in academic or fiction writing.

I make myself work generally for an hour or an hour and a half on many projects everyday, strictly interrupting the one I’m doing when time’s up (yes, even in the middle of a sentence) to start work on the next one (or take a break).

The pictures in this  post are beginning to make this look like a recipe blog

The pictures in this post are beginning to make this look like a recipe blog

Breaks can be used to check and reply to email, though it’s much better if you can actually force yourself not do anything at all.

I use the Pomodoro technique only when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the quantity and variety of different projects. It’s also much easier during student holidays, when there aren’t too many meetings, supervisions and essays to mark.

The good thing about this technique is that you never work long enough to get bored of the projects. If anything, it makes you frustrated when you have to stop – which means that the next day, you’re happy to find that piece of work again.

  •  Taking on more work, or setting earlier deadlines.

I find that productivity augments, rather than declines, when I’ve got more to do. This is, in part because although I can (on good days) focus intensely on writing or research for up to six or seven hours, it’s extremely rare when I can have that focus for one project. Paradoxically, taking on more projects and making sure you’ve always got one or two deadlines soonish makes me achieve more and feel happier.

  • Keeping a strict and very subdivided to-do list.

I list everything, even things like ‘reply to X’s email’ if I know it will take me more than 3 minutes to compose. If I have 20 undergrad essays to mark, I’ll list the names of all 20 people and cross them out as I go along. Purely psychological, of course, but those manageable tasks give the impression of being productive, which leads to actually being productive.

I also have 4+ separate to-do lists corresponding to different domains (fiction, admin, research, teaching, etc.), which avoids clutter. My to-do lists are on (virtual) post-it notes on my desktop, like (virtually) everyone else I know.

  • Doing either work or leisure activities

Wait but Why says it perfectly: there are two types of good weeks: days when you achieve something that ‘improves your future or that of others’ (even in small ways), and weeks of pleasure, leisure and enjoyment. Both at the same time makes for an ‘ideal’ week, which is rare.

And in-between, there’s a wearisome kind of activity, where you know you’re not actually having any fun, but you’re not doing anything particularly valuable either. This is the case, for instance, if you spend most of a day half-heartedly writing a few sentences, checking email, marking half an essay, checking the news, reading half a paper, checking the weather, etc. It’s tiring and makes you feel gross, while both real work and real leisure makes you invigorated and happy.

Real leisure: walking around the Cambridge Botanic Gardens

Real leisure: walking around the Cambridge Botanic Gardens

  • Picking the right times for small projects or admin tasks

It’s tempting to get small tasks or long tasks that don’t take much brainpower out of the way (i.e. filling in forms, doing tax returns etc.). But then you just end up wasting valuable energy, and possibly spending too much time on them out of a semi-conscious desire to procrastinate work on important stuff. Again, I find it useful to time those important but boring activities strictly, and stick them at moments of the day when you know you won’t be very switched-on anyway.

  • Using up as much available time as possible.

It’s hard to focus on anything when you know you’ve got to leave in 10 or 20 minutes, but with some tasks it’s entirely possible. I wrote most of this blog post in chunks of 5 or 10 minutes. I have a number of tasks on my to-do list that I know I can do in instalments, quickly dipping in and out when needed.

  • Sacrifice some things.

For instance, this blog and my French one. I don’t care (much) if I don’t have the time to deliver the weekly Wednesday post.

I’d be curious to hear what you do to increase productivity, and/or take issue with such blog posts as this one on ideological grounds.

Writing Slowly: Or, Investing in Research & Development

Two Fridays ago at Homerton College, we had a day-long symposium on children’s poetry. It was supposed to mix creative and academic approaches, so there was an hour-and-a-half, wonderful poetry-writing workshop by Redell Olsen, who is currently the Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellow at Cambridge.

We sat down in the orchard, and Redell gave us a series of writing exercises. Of course it involved writing, but it also involved taking in the space around us, the noises, the smells, the feel of the grass under our legs. Despite the brevity of the writing exercises, there was a kind of enforced patience in the workshop; an awareness of the world around, before and during the writing, an attention to detail, a weighing-up of possible options.

Homerton, under the sun

Homerton, under the sun

A lot of playfulness, too. Redell encouraged us [Green Party members may skip the next sentence] to pick up a fresh sheet of paper with each new exercise, and thus make each try just that – a try – and not a finished piece. Disposable writing, but not unimportant writing. Each try brought us closer to a personal mapping of the space we were in, of the sensations that it brought, and of their possible translations into literature or poetry.

I found this workshop truly revealing. I’m not a poet and I didn’t produce anything of any particular literary merit, but it shocked me to realise how fruitful it was to be able to write slowly, with breaks and pauses, with moments of observation.

In my two jobs – academic and fiction-writing – I can’t write slowly. I mean this in all the definitions of ‘can’t’: I seem to be organically unable to; it wouldn’t be manageable anyway even if I could; and I’m not ‘allowed’ to.

I suspect my inability to write slowly comes from a lifelong cultivation of speed-writing. Writing fast puts you at a clear advantage at school and at university, and it’s an essential skill as a young academic since we have to publish so much in order to be employable.

The habit is so deeply-rooted that I can’t even remember a time when I wrote slowly. At school I always finished exams early, sometimes an hour before the end. Whether for academic or fiction-writing, I’ve never missed a deadline. You’re very happy with this productivity until the rather sinister realisation creeps in that you’re writing fast out of dutifulness or anxiety, rather than enthusiasm or passion.

Mini-me, already annoyed at being interrupted in the middle of writing.

Mini-me, already annoyed at being interrupted in the middle of writing.

Positive reinforcement: being ‘prolific’ is a compliment; publishers want you to write a lot; in academia, your list of publications is your best asset. The faster you write, the more you produce; if your work is deemed of good enough quality, and there’s a lot of it, you will elicit admiration and praise. That’s enough to prevent you from questioning whether you could write very well rather than just well if only you slowed down a bit.

Anyway, even if you do start wondering about that, it’s too late. It’s a vicious circle: the more you produce, the more you must keep producing; and if people find your work satisfactory and are simply concerned with how much of it you can produce, there is no incentive to experiment with writing other things, or writing more slowly. So you just keep going at an increasingly insane pace.

You might feel you’re plateauing at some point, and that the quality of your work is more or less always the same. But as long as it’s not actively decreasing, and that people are happy – well, you just keep writing as fast as usual, if not faster.

It gives rise to a kind of academic or literary Fordism whereby you get better and better at spotting superfluity in your own writing, and cutting down everything you spend too much time on. You become extremely efficient, sure, but the time you manage to save is never truly earned back for Research & Development, so to speak – it gets immediately reinvested in Production.

In this you are encouraged by Twitter, Facebook and tales of who got hired where thanks to how many publications. Writing is your job, so you must produce writing; if there’s no writing, you’re not a writer or a researcher.

Writing slowly, experimenting with writing, gradually becomes ‘disallowed’, simply because you stop considering it as work. It’s a free-time activity. And I, like many people, have very little free time. I have a full-time research position, but I take on too much teaching, like everyone else, so I don’t do research 100% of my work time. And then my actual free time is mostly taken up by fiction-writing, which, of course, is itself mostly taken up by checking layouts, editing, liaising with editors, checking roughs – so, not-writing. And of what little is left I need to use a lot to do fake free-time-activities which are in fact linked to my two jobs, such as reading, writing blog posts, doing school visits, etc.

Writing slowly and experimenting with writing is just something I can’t do anymore. I would love to claim that the poetry workshop changed my life for the better, that I’ve now decided to slow down and to take the time to write and to play around with different academic and literary styles, but that’s not the case at all.

I just don’t have the possibility to do so ‘right now’, because I’ve got to check layouts for a British book, edit another British book and a French one, write two YA novels (English+French), finish revising my monograph, finish the article I’m currently working on, write another 2 before the end of July (French+English), and somehow I also need to fit in writing another children’s book before the end of the summer.

So I’ll write slowly ‘when I have the time’, which is, as it is for most people, never. My investments in Research & Development dwindle and dwindle and dwindle – but the production line is going well, thank you.


The Duchess of Cambridge’s Guide to Essay-Writing

Summer’s coming, undergradate and MPhil dissertations are due soon, and it’s time to get articles sent to journals before the August and September lethargy gives peer-readers even more excuses to take 6 months over reviewing our 7000-word pieces of genius research.

It’s also the right weather for the sempiternally worshipped Duchess of Cambridge (DoC) to properly dazzle the world with her impeccable figure and flawless sense of style, so I thought I’d corner her for an interview about how we can transfer her otherworldly sartorial perfection to our academic writing.

CB. Hello, Your Cantabrigian Highness! How was Australia?

DoC. It was ever so interesting. Among other things, I discovered that giraffes have even longer tongues than the men who watched the slow oscillation of my sister’s derriere at my wedding.

CB. Right… Tell us, pray, o eternal empress of chic – what tips from your wardrobe and attitude can we apply to academic essay- and article-writing?

DoC. Well, to begin with, we must all agree that the ideal outfit is perfectly fitted, but of a lovely bright or pastel colour.

CB. Indeed, you are not a fan of baggy tops and maxiskirts in fifty shades of browns and greys. What’s the tip here?

DoC. My dear, the ideal article is carefully trimmed to fit exactly the subject matter – no fluffy extras, no bits of fabric hanging out here and there, and rigorously no asymmetry. Be scissor-happy: as close to the body of the essay as you can be. No blurry tulle or misty gauze: use honest, clear, tangible fabrics. But to counteract this rather severe tailoring, allow yourself a generally bold, bright, youthful, sharp tone of voice. White and black are to be kept for important occasions: black for paradigm-shifting articles, and pretty, lacy white lies for academic reviews of your friends or colleagues’ latest books.

CB. All of this should be monochromatic ?

DoC. Well, I do like monochrome, but accessories will help you ensure it doesn’t end up being monochord. Allow yourself little deviations from the overall tone – but only where it matters. A nice little controversial quotation to top your introduction like a curly fascinator, an interesting clutch to set off a dull paragraph towards the middle of the essay.

CB. And a grand, lyrical, flashy conclusion?

DoC. My goodness, no! It would attract attention solely onto itself, to the detriment of the body of work. Conclusions should be like my shoes: very bland, distanced enough from the ground that they’re not flat, but certainly no platforms. Let the essay speak for itself and end sensibly.

CB. That’s helpful, Your Highness, but some people would accuse you of taking too few risks. Aren’t we going to end up with a rather classical style?

DoC. This is where another rule comes into play: hair should be down unless absolutely necessary. This will add unexpectedness, a sense of welcome playfulness, a certain je ne sais quoi of unpredictability. Structure and plan everything, but always leave something unprepared – something for the winds of inspiration to frolic around with.

CB. Erm what? Your hair is unprepared?

DoC. *coughs* Well, it’s prepared in a special way that makes it feel natural and unexpected when the breeze plays around with it. Think of it as your scholarly background – all that knowledge that you’ve accumulated over the years. Some of it is already present in your structure – you’re consciously integrated those sources, you know you’ll mention them at some stage. But the rest is still there, maintained, curled and trimmed by years of taking notes, rereading them, forgetting them. Not exactly unprepared, but let’s say, artistically free-floating. A flick of the wind and ta-dah! who knows which idea might come and kiss your cheek when you think you’ve got your whole argument sorted?

CB. What is it with knees? Why do you rarely show your knees?

DoC. Knees are like transitions between subparts. They do all the hard work, but they are aesthetically displeasing and lack grace. Try to conceal them whenever possible. That said, should an impolite gust of wind ruffle your skirt as you get down from an airplane, the effect can be quite alluring; use this tip sparsely, to showcase, for a brief moment, the strength of those solid hinges of yours.

CB. What can you tell us about handling our ideas?

DoC. Take inspiration from the way in which I artfully handle little Prince George to show him around to my people: from all different angles, and apparently effortlessly. It looks like a nine-month-old healthy baby isn’t at all too heavy for my impossibly delicate arms. Cultivate that style. Show all the facets of your ideas, trying to make it sound like it’s very easy to hold them for a long time in improbable positions.

CB. Is it always necessary to remind everyone of your status by constantly flashing your  tacky diamond and sapphire engagement ring?

DoC. Yes, dear. It’s called a self-citation. You’ll see when you’ve got actual work to show for your importance in the field: you’ll refer to it absolutely all the time. You’ll find, in fact, that I’m being quite restrained, only alluding to my status in one place per outfit. Of course, you can’t do that yet, because you’re a nobody who hasn’t yet done anything worthy of unsubtle allusions.

‘I refer you to my previous work in the field’

CB. Thanks for that. A final question, Your Royal Youness. People like me have days when they have pimples, or scruffy hair, or really no wish to squeeze our feet into high heels. For some of us, it’s every single day. What can we do if we really can’t follow your example, o grand guru of demure fashion?

DoC. I’m not interested in such people. I’m sure they can find their own style guide to follow. Go ask Lady Gaga, I heard she coached Slavoj Zizek.

Thank you, tabloidal deity, for granting us half an hour of your busy schedule. She has now returned to the hyperactive nothingness of her royal duties, leaving us with some hope that we shall one day find true love, in the form of a permanent and salaried position, within some academic establishment. And perhaps we will soon parade, in front of a crowd of excited journalists politely complimentary colleagues, a cuboid baby freshly delivered by an academic press.

Turning the thesis into a book

This is me a little while ago, having just passed my PhD viva:

phdday(The boyfriend would kill me if I put a picture of his face on my blog so I decided to replace it by another face I also like (and which, coincidentally or not, looks pretty much exactly like him (and yes I know, I’m a genius at Photoshop.)))

This is me a few months later with the hard-bound multicoloured thesis:

Look at that self-satisfied little face. Blessed be the innocent.

Look at that self-satisfied little face. Oh if I had known.

At the time, in the words of J.K. Rowling, all was well. I had passed the viva, the thesis was bound and was going to write the Book from the PhD which I already had signed a contract for.


which at the time sounded very very faraway (this was July 1st; deadline January 31st).

‘OH I’VE GOT AGES!’ she said at the time.

‘I will have all the time in the world to turn the thesis into that perfect thing it was supposed to be!’ she said at the time.

And the PhD viva was mostly about what I should change in order to turn the thesis into a book anyway. So I felt Guided, Secure and Happy.

Please don’t think I procrastinated and didn’t start working on the Book immediately. I barely took two weeks off after my viva and then started working on the Book. But somehow it’s already November The Endth and this is what I’m looking like now:

blobfishThe book is not going well, people. But this is the opportunity for me to theorise about book-writing from the thesis (hurrah). And this is what, according to my theorisation, I’m doing wrong:

  • I’ve basically decided to rewrite the whole thesis. I’m only going to be reusing something like a quarter of it, and most of it completely transformed. It’s a stupid idea.
  • I somehow seem to be acting as if this is the only academic book I’ll ever write in my life. I’m therefore cramming every single thought I’ve ever had about children’s literature into it. It’s a stupid idea.
  • I’m panicking that I’m running out of time, therefore I’m writing faster than I should, therefore it’s not good writing. It’s a stupid idea.
  • I’ve taken on zillions of hours of teaching and lecturing and marking and doing tons of other things which are preventing me from writing the book. It’s a stupid idea.
  • I randomly decided to spend two weeks writing an article on something completely unrelated. It’s a stupid idea.
  • I randomly became interested in a different theory which will not in any way find its way into the book, instead of working on the theories that are important for the book. It’s a stupid idea.
  • I keep whining about the book. It’s a stupid idea.

Yes, the whole thing is currently driving me insane. Of course there’s a voice in my head (aka that of my ex-supervisor) which helps me a bit:

completelynormal2So yes, I know it’s completely normal. It’s still terrifying. Some days I feel like I’ve said all I’ve got to say, and I still have forty thousand words to write. Some days I feel like I’ll never be able to cram all I’ve got to say in forty thousand words. Some days I want to restructure the whole thing entirely, some days I just think ‘whatever, let’s just take the old structure from the thesis and be done with it’.

My main problem is that the book presents a theoretical model articulating several different concepts, and I’m finding it really hard to do without a super-long overall introduction. It’s pretty hard, too, to introduce the different parametres of the theory as I go along, because they’re all related to one another. I also feel like I’m being extremely repetitive in my effort to be understood. I also feel like I’m being very descriptive when I talk about the philosophical system I’m using.

And why wasn’t that a problem for the thesis itself? Because a thesis is an academic exercise, where it’s perfectly acceptable to have a very long intro that spells out your theoretical framework, explains what you’re going to do, what your methodology is, etc. And it doesn’t matter if you repeat yourself a bit because it shows that you’re signposting your work. But in real academic books you can’t do that because it’s ferociously boring and not good practice.

When I submitted my thesis I wrote about the pain of realising that it’s never going to be what it should have been (see “How my real thesis was kidnapped by trolls“) (oh God, typing this last sentence I Freudianistically wrote “How my real life was kidnapped by trolls”). I’m having, predictably, the same symptoms now. Even if I hated the thesis in the end, I was still hopeful it would be turned into a Perfect Book. And it’s not going to happen, of course. It will always be a draft in my mind.

For now I’ve made a list of Things to Remember When I’m Having an Acute Book Crisis:

  • It’s completely normal.
  • No academic book is a perfect and coherent whole, without repetitions, clear and concise all the way, and revolutionary in both form and content (that’s definitely true).
  • I’m twenty-four and it’s my first academic book so people will be nice to me (HA. SURE.)
  • The reviewers will have good advice and recommendations to make it better (if they don’t reject it outright).
  • There are some good ideas in there.
  • The publishers won’t let me publish something completely rubbish.
  • There will be other books, articles, talks and ideas.
  • The sun will die one day and swallow up the Earth and everything that has ever lived in it, including the ruins of our long-extinct civilisation.

The last of which is the only truly comforting one.

Anyway, I’ll keep you updated on how it’s progressing (or not). In the meantime I need to stop blogging and start drafting again and leave you with this memegenerated kernel of wisdom.


PowerPoint in academic conferences (from abstinence to incontinence)

This isn’t a blog post on ‘how to use PowerPoint’. I’m no PowerPoint expert, and anyway I’m often too lazy to put together properly thought-through PowerPoint presentations for conferences. But I’ve been pondering about the different uses of PowerPoint I’ve witnessed and/or tried, so here are some brief thoughts on their strengths and weaknesses.

1) No PowerPoint

If you’re not over a hundred years old, then not using PowerPoint means either you think you’re God, or you actually are. I’ve listened to exceptional presentations not using PowerPoint. I’ve also listened to atrocious ones. I think it attracts both ends of the spectrum: outstanding people and terrible ones; the brightest and the laziest; the most captivating and the dullest.


The correct reaction to a presenter saying, ‘I don’t have a PowerPoint for you today…’

  • Not having a PowerPoint immediately gets you some negative karma from 90% of the audience.
  • Such presentations can be a pretext for reading an article tailored for publication rather than a paper tailored for a conference, which is a terrible idea.


  • If you do it well, it’s extremely impressive.
  • If you do it well, we’ll all remember your ideas.

People whose non-PowerPointed presentations I like are those who go the extra mile to structure and signpost their talk very carefully, compensating for the lack of visual anchoring. People whose non-PowerPointed presentations I hate are those who take it as a pretext for endless digression. You must be über-rigorous and have some seriously good ideas if you want to convince the audience that they wouldn’t have benefited from any slideshow. (You must also be prepared to see some people closing their eyes or doodling – which probably means they’re much more focused than if you were flashing lots of pretty pictures.)

2) The (almost-)all-pictures PowerPoint

Some people use PowerPoint as visual stimulus, but don’t want to distract from the verbal content of their talk by providing words or sentences on the screen. Their PowerPoint shows a book cover while they discuss the book, or a painting of a reading child while they discuss children’s literature.

While not necessary in any way, those decorative PowerPoints provide staring material.


  • Like number 1, they can be a pretext for people to read off an article to which they’ve added some pictures, rather than a proper conference paper.


  • With a bit of imagination, it can become extremely interesting.

Yes: it’s wonderful when this type of presentation – with a little help from picturebook theory! – offers the opportunity to have interesting gaps between the verbal and the visual – between the text you read and the pictures you show. This can create surprise and laughter, and tremendously increase audience interest.

A good example is Scott McCloud’s Ted Talk on comics – obviously, as a comic artist and theorist himself, McCloud knows better than anyone how to take advantage of the gap between words and pictures.

The trick to get a laugh is to avoid mentioning the picture. Pretend it doesn’t exist and has a life of its own. In a talk I did a while ago, I was saying that adults don’t read children’s books like children do, and meanwhile the picture on the screen was this one.

bush-book-backwardsThe hope is that the part of the audience that’s asleep will be woken up by the part of the audience that sniggers.

3) The ‘hybrid’ PowerPoint: where words and pictures meet

This is the type of PowerPoint I usually do: more pictures than words, but still a healthy dose of verbal signposting – which stage I’m at, which concept I’m discussing. If I read an important quote, I will have it written too so the audience can follow. This type of PowerPoint is pretty good, I think, for people who, like me, have a problem with speaking a bit too fast (that’s an understatement in my case). The PowerPoint ‘underlines’, so to speak, some important concepts and quotations from the presentation.


  • It can feel like it’s just ‘crumbs’ of the presentation, keywords and key pictures but not much around them.


  • Personally, I feel this is the Goldilocks of PowerPoint: just enough visual stimulation in the form of pictures, just enough handpicked information from the verbal material. It seems to be the type most people go for, too, which creates a feeling of familiarity from the audience.

4) More words than pictures: the verbose PowerPoint

This is the PowerPoint strategy adopted by overcontrolling people who really don’t want their audience to miss anything. This type can go from the relatively word-heavy to the frankly verbose, and it’s generally a lot of quotations, bullet points with the central information of each paragraph, complete references for every sentence cited, etc. Generally the structure of the presentation will also be part of this, so everything is full of Roman and Arabic numerals fighting for every last bit of blank space. It is likely that there will be a slide for acknowledgements listing every funding body, anyone who once approached the presenter while s/he was preparing for the talk, and almost everyone else.

The presenter is generally a former or future schoolteacher, or should be one. S/he is certainly very pedagogical.


  • The PowerPoint can easily be put online as is, since it will work essentially as a paper in its own right.
  • You don’t have to listen to the presenter, you can just do what you usually do very well, i.e. read by yourself.


  • See strengths.

As you can tell, I’m not a huge fan of those.

5) The psychedelic PowerPoint of the person who should be working for Pixar.

Also known as the Prezi user, but some PowerPoint presentations I’ve seen have been so full of whirls and twirls and unidentified flying objects that they do just as well. These are the kind of presentations that give you proper vertigo, emit stroboscopic light, trigger three-day migraines if not epileptic fits, and make the scene of the destruction of the Death Star by Luke Skywalker feel a bit slow and lazy in comparison.

Those PowerPoints seem to be implying that a book cover that doesn’t reach its dedicated part on the screen by first dancing the Macarena for ten seconds will not fully imprint itself on the minds of the viewers. They are often full of videos which will rarely play as the presenter intends it, and will require two technicians to be called from the other side of the faculty while everyone in the audience is checking Facebook on Eduroam.


  • You will amuse and entertain.
  • It’s a fun reason to procrastinate actually working on the paper.
  • At least some people will be seeing a presentation like this for the first time.


  • Statistically speaking, I have observed that these are rarely accompanied by good papers, but I’m willing to be challenged on this.
  • So much distraction that the audience might be more interested in the next somersault of the Papyrus subtitle than by what you have to say.

Here are my thoughts on the matter. Feel free to share your own strategies and preferences.