“I’m Sorry I Wasn’t More Clear”: Gendered Pitfalls in Presentations–A Guest Post

The writer is a regular reader of TPII.


I’m a young, female, non-tenure-track faculty member and longtime reader of this blog. A few of its posts, specifically “The Top 5 Mistakes Women Make in Academic Settings,” “Stop Negotiating Like a Girl” and “The Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student (And how that’s killing you on the job market)” have had a lasting effect on my perception of women’s behavior in academia. These posts have made me painfully aware of how female academics continue to reproduce gender norms in professional settings through words and gestures. I now can’t help but regularly catch myself and my fellow female colleagues of all ages “acting like girls.”

Recently I was at a conference where I actually became distracted by the gendered conduct of the participants. This was a topic-based conference attended by a select group scholars of different institutional ranks, from postdocs to endowed chairs. 90% of the attendees identified as women and feminists and used gender as a critical lens in their research. I knew a handful of them as charismatic teachers and strong mentors who boldly challenged my arguments, at times, dismantling them on the spot. However, during their presentations, almost all of the participants made the kinds of mistakes that Karen identifies in her blog posts:

  1. Beginning a talk by undervaluing their work or apologizing – “I’m sorry that I can’t do justice to this material,” “I hope to make just a tiny contribution to this complex topic,” “When I was first approached to speak about this topic, I didn’t want to do it,” or “I’m now embarrassed by how under-theorized my talk is”
  2. Using “um” and “uh” too much
  3. Rushing through the talk and not making eye contact
  4. Doing the verbal upswing and the head tilt, sometimes at the same time
  5. Smiling or laughing while discussing serious topics
  6. Beginning a response to a question by apologizing – “I’m sorry, I probably wasn’t clear enough” or “I’m so sorry, it looks like I completely misinterpreted your article in my talk.”

I share these observations not to shame my unnamed colleagues but to continue to address these problems of public speaking and assertiveness as they manifest among female and otherwise marginalized scholars.

I’m still striving to unlearn my particular tendencies to undermine my work through language and demeanor. When complimented on a good presentation, I’ll sometimes say “Oh you really thought so?” or much worse, “No, it wasn’t! You’re just saying that.” Beyond the conference setting, I’ll deny that I’m a good teacher or won’t take credit for my part in organizing an event by saying “No, colleague X did all the real work!” This struggle to “toot my own horn” and to present myself professionally has especially high stakes for me as someone who lacks job security. I depend on department chairs to advocate for me in renewing my position and to write strong recommendation letters that portray me as a colleague instead of a subordinate.

As difficult as it is to unlearn habits, I find that awareness and behavioral intervention go a long way. Just identifying my personal gendered tics helps me to minimize them. Conferences, invited talks and campus visits are performative affairs that require preparation. As a result, they give us opportunities to rewrite scripts. I used to prefer giving “off the cuff” talks but discovered that when the material was relatively fresh my speech became peppered with a lot of “uhs” and “ums.” These days, I write out my presentations, but as talks, not papers. This way, I know exactly how I’m going to open, specifically reminding myself not to begin with an apology, excuse or compliment for the preceding presenter, such “Wow, that was such a great talk! I don’t know how I can possibly follow that!” I make sure that I leave myself time to take pauses and make eye-contact with the audience. When practicing my talk at home (or in my hotel room), I make a conscious effort to lift my eyes from the paper. Though I lose out on some of the spontaneity of an “off the cuff” presentation, I make up for this by giving a confident talk that, with enough rehearsal, sounds natural and engaging. I also mentally prepare for the Q&A, reminding myself to answer directly and, again, avoid apologizing.

The worst is when scholars respond to a question with “I’m sorry, I haven’t thought of that” or “Yes, I still need to do research on that.” I often begin my responses by thanking the person who posed a particularly relevant or challenging question. I don’t thank every single questioner, but thanking the people who ask hard questions shows confidence, as Karen describes in her post How Women Can Speak Better in Public: Stop Apologizing and Get a Career.  I can see way that it demonstrates that I am still in control, evaluating the quality of the questions before answering them.

In other words, I avoid some of the gendered pitfalls of communication by scripting my conference performances. By de-naturalizing women’s mistakes in an academic setting through observation and intervention, I manage to actually relax and have meaningful exchanges at academic conferences.


So You Have an Idea for an App? (#Postac Guest Post)

by Dr. Sean Miller
Co-founder, Ivy League Edge


In a recent post  on the The Professor Is In, Margy Horton described a conversation she had with a group of humanities PhDs about entrepreneurship. One participant asked whether Margy, Karen, and their ilk hadn’t already grabbed all the low hanging fruit. In other words, she wondered how many businesses where academics help fellow academics the market could bear. It’s a fair question, and Margy had an astute answer, in which she likened academic entrepreneurship to space colonization. She also provided a list of business ideas that extended beyond academics serving academics—brand consultancies, marketing firms, and writing consultation businesses, to name a few.

As we academics contemplate the post-ac landscape, we’re faced with the question that all freelancers face: will people want what I have to offer? And as educators, when brainstorming viable business ideas, we tend to gravitate towards services—like the ones Margy listed—as opposed to products. This post is for those of you who feel the entrepreneurial itch, but are considering how to make and sell products, rather than or addition to services. To get more specific, this is for those of you who consider yourselves fairly tech-savvy, but not necessarily hackers by nature.

A bit of background: Academia was my third career. After college, I worked for a number of years as a network engineer. Then I tried my hand at teaching English overseas. I graduated from the University of London in 2010 with a PhD in English. Shortly afterwards, I landed a two-year research postdoc at Nanyang Technological University. While there, I published an adaptation of my doctoral thesis, on the cultural currency of string theory as a scientific imaginary, with the University of Michigan Press. But like most newly minted PhDs, I didn’t find a permanent academic post. So I got a job back home in Portland, Oregon as a software trainer. It was while toiling away at that relatively unfulfilling job that I worked up the nerve to strike out on my own as an entrepreneur. I had an idea for an app that would teach high school students how to read with critical acumen. Inspired by a passage from Roland Barthes, I called it Readerly.

In light of this new venture, I’m struck by the naiveté of the question posed to Margy. As I’m sure Karen and her post-ac consultants can attest, when it comes to starting a business, there is no low hanging fruit! It takes creativity, dogged persistence, and most importantly, courage. Many of us think we have a great idea for a product or service—a ton of great ideas. But the fact of the matter is that ideas are cheap. It’s the execution that counts. The appeal of making products, though, is that they, unlike labor billed hourly, can scale. Make a product once, sell it a hundred thousand times. And we happen to be living in a Golden Age of opportunity for a particular kind of product, namely, software.

To make software, though, you have to know how to code. Oddly enough, during all those years in IT, I managed to avoid learning how to code. I was blocked, perhaps akin to writer’s block. This app idea was the impetus to finally stick my neck out and learn to do it. I found a great tool for reluctant hackers called LiveCode. It’s an application development platform that features an easy-to-understand natural language script—and ports to all the major operating systems. With one code base, you can build apps for the iPhone, Android, Mac, Windows, and soon, HTML5. After a couple false starts, I quit my job and threw myself full-time into coding. Four months later, I’m happy to say I have 2 apps just about ready for the market, Readerly, and Foyl, an app that helps high school students prepare for their college interviews.

The patron saint of Silicon Valley, Paul Graham, is fond of saying, “A startup is a company designed to grow fast.” To grow fast, a company needs to sell something that scales—that serves a critical mass of people simultaneously, even when its creators have gone to bed. Software can do just that, whether it’s an app or SaaS, software as a service, delivered via a web browser and purchased by subscription.

Unfortunately, what we as entrepreneurs think potential customers want and what they’re actually willing to pay for, more often than not, don’t align. This is where the wisdom of Silicon Valley’s other patron saint, Eric Ries comes in. Ries is the most prominent advocate of the lean startup method, which he defines as “a scientific approach to creating and managing startups and get a desired product to customers’ hands faster.” It’s essence is a tight cycle of product development. You get what’s called a minimum viable product (or MVP) out on the market as quickly and cheaply as possible. Then you seek out what he calls “validated learning—a rigorous method for demonstrating progress when one is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty.” Startups use the results from experiments based on small product variations to tweak the product in order to fuel the engine of growth. Ries calls this the “lean startup process,” a virtuous circle of “learn, build, measure.”

What I’m learning in my ongoing adventure in software development is that, if we academics have the gumption, we’re well positioned to succeed. Software development requires three overlapping skills: you need to know how to code, to design, and to write. These skills can be learned. We’re all excellent learners. And coding, unlike writing, holds a certain satisfaction in that it either works or it doesn’t. There’s really no wrangling over hermeneutics. Learn, build, measure. Rinse and repeat.

So, you have a great idea for an app? What I suggest is that you spend a few days shopping around for a development platform. Then take a deep breath and dive right in. Start making your own apps—simple ones as first, then work towards making your great idea a reality. I recommend LiveCode. Or you can try your hand at the internet standard, JavaScript, through a learning website like Codecademy. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, with a little effort, you could be building basic apps with LiveCode in a matter of hours.

I’ll talk more in future posts about the ins-and-outs of software development and internet marketing. Take a moment to answer the following questions in Comments section below. What’s your idea for an app? If you haven’t started building it, what’s holding you back?

My Graduate School Debt and Post-Ac Life (A Guest Post)

This post is by Honey Smith (pseudonym), a staff writer for the personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly.


By the time I finished my PhD program in rhetoric and composition, I was geographically bound by my partner’s job — as an attorney, he made much more than an English professor ever would. None of the institutions of higher ed in the area where he was working happened to be hiring a tenure-track position in my subspecialty the first year I looked. I compromised by getting an alt-ac position managing graduate programs at a large state university in the town where my partner was working, and taking a year to revise my already-defended dissertation.

The thinking was that I wouldn’t have to deal with the uncertainty of life as an adjunct while attempting the job market again. Not only would I be guaranteed a steady paycheck, I’d have the same retirement benefits and health insurance as faculty at the university where I was working. I’d be underpaid of course (but aren’t many faculty, also?), but I’d be going on the market not just ABD, but having already successfully defended. Unfortunately, I was hired to manage those graduate programs in July 2008. Can you guess what happened next?

If you guessed the Great Recession, you guessed right. Mere weeks after I was hired, the university where I worked implemented a hiring freeze. Tenure-track searches around the country dried up, turning my academic job search into an exercise in futility. Next came furlough (read: a 10% pay cut). I had over $15,000 in credit card debt and just over $100,000 in student loan debt, and I was making less than $40,000 per year. Sometimes I cried at the grocery store because I didn’t know how I’d pay for food, and once I didn’t wash my hair for a month because I couldn’t afford shampoo. In desperation, I turned to personal finance blogs to help me gain some traction over my situation.

As a result of what I learned on those blogs, my partner and I moved from a three-bedroom house in the suburbs to a two-bedroom condo less than five miles from my job. I became a whiz with the slow-cooker and brought my lunch to work every day. I started couponing (though I never quite became an extreme couponer!) and buying generics. I put my student loans in forbearance for a year to focus on my credit card debt.

Four years later, my partner and I were married and my credit card debt was gone, though the needle on my student loan debt hadn’t really budged. There was that year of forbearance, and in addition I am on an extended graduated payment plan (I believe they stopped offering these around the time IBR plans became popular). This meant that while my payments would rise every two years over the course of a 25-year repayment, in the early years I was paying about $350 per month. This was not even enough to cover interest.

Just before my wedding, a favorite PF blog of mine called Get Rich Slowly announced that one of its writers was leaving the site. I emailed the blogger who ran it and asked if they were looking for a replacement. He allowed me to audition, and I was eventually offered the gig: two blog posts a month with an in-the-trenches, newbie-learning-the-ropes perspective. He told me I’d need to have a thick skin, and boy howdy was he right.

My post on how I accumulated my student loan debt got over 300 comments. Some comments from other student loan debtors commiserated with my situation or lauded my bravery in blogging about such a topic. However, the vast majority of The Interwebs seemed to agree that I was stupid, irresponsible, and selfish. While the blogging didn’t allow me to close the door on my debt, it did open a window into the world of side gigs. I started hustling, and between my day job and my expanding nights-and-weekends work writing web content, soon I was earning enough to give myself some breathing room.

By that time, however, I’d gone stale on the tenure-track job market. I’d let my research slide while focusing on writing that paid, and I hadn’t taught a class in years. That was fine with me, though. I had an alt-ac career I loved in a city that I no longer wanted to leave. Furlough was a thing of the past, and eventually I even got a modest raise.

Slowly, however, I realized that alt-ac life wasn’t a bed of roses. Despite a more than 30% increase in responsibilities, I only received two raises in seven years (and honestly one of them could barely be called a raise at just over $800/year!). The graduate students I worked with found my help invaluable, but I felt like the faculty in my department didn’t respect my expertise even though I was just as credentialed as they were. I applied for other positions on campus and used my performance evaluation to advocate for a promotion, but was getting nowhere.

So I started applying for jobs in the “real world” (not MTV). I was eventually offered a position editing search-engine optimized (SEO) content for professionals and small businesses. It paid almost 30% more than I had been making and I’d always thought of myself as a writer at heart, so I leapt at the chance. I’m still in the early stages of my new post-ac life, but not only is my compensation more aligned with my abilities, I’m part of a team and no longer ruled by the academic year. This means there are people who can cover for me if I go on vacation, and I’m no longer bound by things like application season, recruitment season, or fall welcome.

Now that I’m in the non-academic world, I find it interesting that I was intimidated by it for so long. Having spent years cultivating an inferiority complex, I’m now surrounded by people who find my academic credential rare and impressive. My skill set is considered unique and valuable — and when I say valuable, I mean there’s an appropriate dollar amount associated with it! I’m finally starting to make rapid headway on my debt and I couldn’t be more excited for life as a post-ac.