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Graduate Seminar Training Days

Thursday 20 February 2014, 2-5pm, and Thursday 27 February 2014, 2-5pm

The ability to give seminar papers and other oral presentations in a professional manner is an essential aspect of academic life:  indeed, the ability to present information lucidly and persuasively is an asset in any career choice.  The goal of the Seminar Training Days is to give graduate students an opportunity to present a small portion of their research in a friendly environment.  Thus, participation in these events is expected of all first-year doctoral students.

 

What are the Seminar Training Days?

At the Seminar Training Days, each first-year graduate student presents a 15-minute paper to a group of peers and a moderator who is a member of the History Faculty.  Each presentation is followed by about 15 minutes of questions, comments and discussion.

What are the goals of the Seminar Training Days?

Participating in the Seminar Training Days is both an intellectual and a rhetorical challenge.  To present a paper, a student must select ideas and evidence and organize them in a lucid way.  The student should keep in mind that the audience will not be comprised of only specialists in the field. The student must decide what order, language and manner will make the presentation most effective.  It makes sense to think in advance about the physical aspects of presenting a paper (such as speed, pitch and volume of delivery and communication through eye-contact and gestures).  It is crucial to bear in mind the length of time available:  do not try to shoe-horn a 30-minute paper into a 15-minute slot; consider what it is possible and appropriate to cover in 15 minutes.  It is a good idea to rehearse your presentation aloud either by yourself or with a colleague or friend.

What should the presentation be about?

It is expected that the graduate student will present some aspect of their doctoral research.  The student must strike a balance between general ideas and specific evidence.  There are various ways of achieving a balance between conveying the wider historical significance of the topic and giving the discussion some depth and texture.  One might focus on methodological or theoretical issues that will need to be addressed during the course of doctoral research:  feel free to raise questions rather than provide definitive answers.  Or one might use a specific example (or examples) to illustrate a significant aspect of the doctoral topic or to explore a particular problem of method or approach.  Here are some of the presentation topics from past Seminar Training Days:

  • ‘Perceptions of women in early Irish society: the sources’
  • ‘Alcohol in colonial historiography: Issues and Approaches’
  • ‘Catholic apocalypticism in post-Reformation England, 1558-1625’
  • ‘Travel and haggling in the early modern phrasebook’
  • ‘War Rumour and State Control in Calcutta, 1939-45’
  • ‘Overspill and the impact of the Town Development Act, 1945-74’
  • ‘Current issues in research related to Paul the Deacon's homiliary’
  • ‘Interpretations and experiences of the Kenyan diaspora, 1960-2010’

As you can see, the title of the presentation need not be identical to the current official title of the dissertation project.

Should you use visual or presentation aids?

Presenters are under no obligation to illustrate the presentation with paper handouts, overhead projections or Powerpoint. Only use such aids if they will enhance the audience’s ability to follow and appreciate the presentation or if you wish to gain some experience in using them.

What is more important, content or style?

Both content and style are important.  The audience may ask questions or comment on both the content and style of the presentation. However, the particular advantage of the Seminar Training Days is that it provides an opportunity for a frank yet supportive discussion of presentation skills at a very early point in a young academic’s career.

Isn’t a 15-minute presentation rather short?

A skilful speaker adapts the presentation to the time allowed.  Academics give lectures that last 50 minutes or 75 minutes or other periods of time.  Conferences demand papers of 15 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, or longer.  Applicants to academic positions in the Faculty of History at Cambridge are often asked to encapsulate their entire academic career – past, present and future – in a talk of 15 minutes.  Historians are often asked by Melvyn Bragg or Andrew Marr to tell what is important about the Black Death, ‘common-sense philosophy’ or the Crimean war in a minute. It is possible to give a brilliant encapsulation of a complex topic in a brief period, and the feat is accomplished not simply by talking fast.

How are the Seminar Training Days organized?

For the Seminar Training Days, all first-year graduate students are divided into groups of about ten:  there are usually five or six groups each year.  The groups convene concurrently on both days.  Within each group, half the group presents its work on the first Training Day, and the other half presents its work on the second Training Day.  Therefore, it is essential that all participants attend the entirety of both Training Days.

How are the groups constituted?

Each group will comprise some students working on similar periods, places or problems and other students working on other periods, places or problems. Efforts are made to create the potential for fruitful discussion.  Presenters should not assume that the historical significance of their research will be immediately obvious to the others in the group. A brief explanation of where the research topic fits within a wider historical field, and what its special significance is, is more likely to engage the interest of the group than a paper that focuses only upon the details of the topic.  Equally, a paper that stays at too general a level will lack depth and fail to convince.

What about the discussion?

After each paper, the group will be invited, for about 15 minutes, to ask questions about the paper and make constructive comments about the presentation.  It is hoped that this will provide constructive criticism for the person giving the paper but that those listening will also benefit from exchanges among graduate students and between graduate students and senior members of the Faculty.  For this reason you are requested to stay for the whole of both afternoons.

What is the role of the moderator?

The moderator is an experienced member of the History Faculty.  Where possible, the same Faculty member will moderate both sessions for a given group.  The moderator will alert speakers if they go beyond the 15-minute limit.  The moderator will lead the feedback on the basis of their own extensive experience.  However, all members of the group are encouraged to ask questions and to give feedback.  The spirit of the Seminar Training Days is constructive observation; unconstructive or combative criticism is out of place.

What about refreshments?

There is a break for tea in the middle of each Training Day, and there is a drinks party at the conclusion of the second day.

RECAP FOR FIRST-YEAR STUDENTS

  • You are expected to present a short paper at the Seminar Training Days.
  • You are expected to attend both Training Days and to stay for the entire sessions.
  • You must speak for no more than 15 minutes.
  • You must consider how to engage the audience by both explaining the wider context and significance of the topic and deploying specific evidence.
  • You must consider the physical aspects of your presentation.
  • You should rehearse your presentation aloud either by yourself or with a colleague or friend.
  • Students in the past have found the Seminar Training Days to be enjoyable and not intimidating, and I do hope this will be your experience.

Natalia Mora-Sitja
Director of Graduate Training