Communicating scholarship from left field

The results of the 2020 “Dance Your PhD” competition are in (for info, see here; for some of the videos, see here). The overall winners this year have won extra approval from 100% of preteen boys in my house. Not bad for atmospheric physicists who do simulations.

There’s so much to love about this competition, starting with the fact that it exists at all. But of course this kind of eccentric approach to communicating research is not just whimsical. Like the 3MT competition (3 minute thesis), Dance Your PhD can be hugely productive for researchers not despite but because of its constraints and creativity. I once asked a group of PhDs in chemistry to draw their research in a single cartoon panel, and the results were surprisingly information–not just to me but also, apparently, to them. Part of this may be due to the freedom to relax and just try something new, but I think more is gained from the constraints that these activities impose. By disallowing researchers from using the same old explanations, you can help them find new and often better ways to reach their various audiences (whether general or specialized).

The more I try these activities, the more I believe they actually work. I’ve often had grad students write their dissertation in six words (a version of the classic 6-word novel, not actually invented by Hemingway, by the way). It’s a quick but surprisingly challenging experiment that often yields clarifying results. One version for my own current project is this: “Science uses (and creates!) narrative forms.” I’ve also seen some fantastic results from having students write up their project as the blurb for a limited series that people would actually want to watch. Another trick I tried–perhaps my most interesting yet–was to get students to invent the perfect epigraph by whomever they want for their own dissertation; it was incredible to see how well these invented epigraphs got at and even uncovered the key concerns of the project. (I’m going ask my students for permission to reproduce some of these experiments here; stay tuned!).

I don’t imagine I’ll be asking my students to dance their dissertation, but I will certainly encourage them to watch the winning entries. Now, I’m going back into that rabbit hole myself.

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