Academic Travel 2: Getting There and Being There

This is part two in a series about what has worked for me during a year of busy academic travelling.

The First Great Western trains in the UK now have in-seat entertainment!

Part 2: Getting There and Being There.
In this post I’m going to cover plane (and train) travel, exploiting your accommodation, and your “kit”.

For the previous post: Part 1:  Preparing For The Trip.
[Updated 23/10/2011]

1. Don’t Write Your Talk on the Plane Mrs Jones

While it’s true that you can get a surprising amount of work done while sat in your seat at ten thousand metres up, the nature of that work should ideally never be the talk you’re about to give. Two reasons:

1. Your laptop can and will fail. This happened to me twice this summer: once at the very beginning of the trip, and once halfway through the conference but before I gave my talk. Both times my talk was done and safely saved to my Dropbox (more on that later), and it turned what could have been an absolute disaster into just a small annoyance.

2. Travel is stressful and unpredictable enough without leaving writing your talk until that 2/5/8/13 hour journey. And it doesn’t matter how long the journey, you really only have the battery life of your computer to get it done. You could be using that time to strategise your conference networking, reading papers to flesh out the fine points of your arguments, or watching a Drew Barrymore comedy on a tiny screen.

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Academic Travel 1: Preparing for the Trip

JR ticket from Osaka Umeda to Kansai Airport. The exit gate machines swallow your ticket so I took pictures of each one as I went in order to claim them on expenses.

This year I’ve been travelling a lot for work. It’s been deliberate — I decided that being mid-contract, 2011 was my best year to do all the conferences, talks, workshops, and courses (as both teacher and student) as I possibly could. Getting into the groove of semi-constant travelling, and getting into a routine that meant I wasn’t constantly forgetting my passport or being too jetlagged to remember my name, has been a learning experience. So I thought I’d blog about what has worked for me. I seem to have a lot to say on this topic so this’ll be a series, the first of which is Preparing For The Trip. There’s a lot of generic travel advice in this first bit, but I hope that’s useful too.

In this post I introduce you to:

1. The Amazing Conference Spreadsheets of Planning and Packing
2. The Delights of Two Pieces of Good Luggage, or, Why I Don’t Admire You and Your One-Bag
3. Packing So Hardcore Even My Naval Dad Was Impressed
UPDATED 23/10/2011

1. The Amazing Conference Spreadsheet

One of the delights of being an academic is the multitude of transferable skills one has to have (*insert wry grin*), including those of travel agent and event planner. This got a lot easier for me once I came up with the Amazing Conference Spreadsheet (ACS). This is a GoogleDoc spreadsheet with two parts.

The first is a PLANNER where every event, including potential and unconfirmed events, has a column in which I list the details of, and check off, various steps such as “enter business trip request form”, “book hotel”, “submit conference registration form”, “check out location on Streetview”, etc. I can look at this and at a glance see the things that are outstanding for a given trip. I also use it for keeping track of advances, and expenses on the go.

The second is a PACKING CHECKLIST tailored to business travel and includes things like “video cable connector for Mac”, “map of venue”, and “business cards”, but also includes each item I individually take, rather than a generic catchall like “Toiletries” or “Shoes”. If you, like me, are the kind of person who remembers the toothbrush but not the toothpaste, then this level of detail could work for you too. People often think I am organised. I’m not. I just have good coping strategies.

I’m more than happy to share a copy of these if anyone wants one, just let me know.
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The contextual vulva

Research blogging on: Howarth H, Sommer V & Jordan FM. (2010) Visual depictions of female genitalia differ depending on source. Medical Humanities 36: 75-79.

stairwell of daily express by fionajay


Possibly my favourite work email I’ve ever written was the one to the head of IT, notifying her that, in the interests of science, I needed to access websites like and Here’s why:

The internet is an amazing resource for scientists in all manner of domains, one of which is human variation. You might think that after a hundred years of cross-cultural investigations of human diversity, and a much longer period of anatomical observations, we would have a fair idea of the variability in genital morphology. But this kind of information, like so much else to do with our bodies–and especially their sexual characteristics–is just not readily available.

Stemming from that, we asked the question: do visual depictions of female genitalia differ, depending on the kind of source they are from? Are the images that we see in medical textbook illustrations different in proportions from those seen in internet pornography? What about feminist “celebrations” of female anatomy? These are important questions, because we construct our ideas about the range of normal variation through experience, and if women express concern that their bodies are not “normal” in some way, then health professionals need to be aware of how “normality” is constructed. Spoiler: we found differences, as I’ll explain below.

This study was part of a wider project aimed at understanding variation and preferences regarding female genital morphology undertaken by Helena Howarth for her masters thesis at UCL, co-supervised by Volker Sommer and and myself. Only a few studies had measured actual female genitalia to try and get real-world estimates of the range of female morphology. Helena had the insight that readily-available internet pornography wasn’t simply a tremendous source of measurable variation, but that it might be a  contributing factor to our perceptions of normality.

Helena gathered a hefty amount of image data for her project, trawling through libraries, and finding internet images that she could take measurements from morphological landmarks – for example, the length of the labia minora, or the distance from the clitoris to the perineum. For my part in doing inter-rater reliability measurements, I can attest that this is about as far from “oh wow, surfing the internet for porn at work” as one can get.

What did we find? Two major things. First, that labial protuberance–how much the inner labial lips protrude from between the larger labia majora–was significantly less in the online pornography sample compared to that in the  feminist publications, with medical illustrations falling somewhere in between. Second, there was a less varied range in organ proportions in the pornography sample; all the measurements were highly correlated with one another, but this wasn’t the case in the other two sources.

What does this mean? As we stated in the abstract, there are public health implications:

Women and health professionals should be aware that specific sources of imagery may depict different types of genital morphology and may not accurately reflect true variation in the population, and consultations for genital surgeries should include discussion about the actual and perceived range of variation in female genital morphology.

It’s interesting that the feature we found that was most different (labial protruberance) is also the one that is most commonly requested in elective/cosmetic genital surgery. There has been a great deal of media attention paid to the rise in these surgeries in recent years, and responses that somewhat dismissively attribute this to fashion, unattainable body ideals or partner-pressure are not helpful. We suggested that it was important to explore how women arrived at their ideas about normality:

Genital variation is understudied, and we strongly encourage scientific and educational/artistic initiatives that promote clinical and popular understanding of the range of variation in genital morphology. Here, we were concerned with depictions in sources that may shape the perceived range of variation, therefore imagery samples are justified, but measurements of genital morphology should ideally be taken directly from life.

Some of those initiatives include the four great papers below; the work by the New View Campaign challenging the medicalisation of sex; and other public or online initiatives such as All About My Vagina, I’ll Show You Mine, Design-A-Vagina, amongst others I’ve surely missed (let me know!).

Here’s a link to the pdf of our paper. The journal, Medical Humanities, also published another paper by Shelley Wall on normativity in images of genitalia, focusing on intersex conditions, and both were featured in an accompanying editorial piece.

[1] Basaran et al. Characteristics of external genitalia in pre- and postmenopausal women. Climacteric (2008) vol. 11 (5) 416-421
[2] Lloyd et al. Female genital appearance: “normality” unfolds. BJOG : an international journal of obstetrics and gynaecology (2005) vol. 112 (5) 643-6
[3] Liao et al. Labial surgery for well women: a review of the literature. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology (2010) vol. 117 (1) 20-25
[4] Schick et al. Evulvalution: The Portrayal of Women’s External Genitalia and Physique Across Time and the Current Barbie Doll Ideals. J Sex Res (2009) 1-9

The tasteful metaphorical picture above is actually the stairwell of the Daily Express building in London.


on culture and language [scrapbook]

If it can be shown that culture has an innate form, a series of contours, quite apart from subject-matter of any description whatsoever, we have a something in culture that may serve as a term of comparison with and possibly a means of relating it to language. But until such purely formal patterns of culture are discovered and laid bare, we shall do well to hold the drifts of language and of culture to be non-comparable and unrelated processes.

Sapir (1921) Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech.

on the use of anthropology [scrapbook]

From 1936:

“Anthropology shares with history the feature of never having seriously held the opinion it is of practical utility, but of assuming that its end of understanding is sufficient justification in itself.”

A.L. Kroeber, “So-called Social Science”

on cultural determinism [scrapbook]

Benedict, in Patterns of Culture

” Society in its full sense […] is never an entity separable from the individuals who compose it. No individual can arrive at even the threshold of his potentialities without a culture in which he participates.

It is largely because of the traditional acceptance of a conflict between society and the individual that emphasis upon cultural behaviour is so often interpreted as a denial of the autonomy of the individual. […] Anthropology is often believed to be a counsel of despair which makes untenable a beneficent human illusion. But no anthropologist with a background of experience of other cultures has ever believed that individuals were automatons, mechanically carrying out the decrees of their civilization. No culture yet observed has been able to eradicate the differences in the temperament of the the persons who compose it.”

1989 (1934), p. 253

Starter for 10: Mike Dickison

What with the interdisciplinary thing, I know some delightful and interesting people in quite disparate fields. Starter for 10 is a semi-regular (monthly) series of peer interviews, with questions both serious and trivial for your edification.

This month’s interview is with Dr Mike Dickison, who wears many awesome hats: comparative fossil biologist, teacher of and advocate for effective science visualisation and presentation, ukulele player, and lately, earthquake blogger. I met Mike by sending him fangirl email about Pictures of Numbers, his science-visualisation project, and discovered that not only did we know people in common (as you do in New Zealand evolutionary circles) but we were both moved to tears at bad Powerpoint. If you do nothing else today, watch Mike’s Big Bird presentation – your life will be immeasurably improved.

1. In the little space for “occupation” on immigration cards at airports, what do you write?

Teacher. One of the principal benefits of the PhD has been the ability to put “Dr” Mike on airline boarding passes. Though nobody checks, so I could just as well choose “Reverend” or “Admiral”.

2. Give me your conference tea-break pitch: “…and what do you work on?”

My doctoral research was on the scaling of bones and eggs of giant flightless birds, including why the kiwi has such a disproportionately large egg. Currently I’m interested in working with other scientists on improving data presentation—not complicated issues of visualisation, which get all the attention, but simple visual thinking, which can be challenging for academics used to solving all problems with words.

3. What’s your origin story – how did you end up in your field? Was there a defining moment, or person, or something else that steered you?

Working as a technician in the National Museum of New Zealand, I saw the ornithologist Phil Millener identify bones of pigeons and ducks to species with a quick glance, which seemed almost a supernatural power. I was always fascinated by the art of reconstruction and extrapolation from fossil material. I also believed strongly in the importance of science communication, and worked in exhibition development before leaving to, eventually, teach graphic design and typography. But then I realised that might also involve teaching Microsoft Word for the rest of my life, so I applied for grad school at Duke, which let me hang out for years with some very smart people, and measure bones in museums (my kind of field work). Now I’m back in NZ, and curiously part of my job involves teaching dissertation formatting with, yes, Microsoft Word.

4. Your website (one of them …) is Tell me about your favourite giant flightless bird.

The adzebill (Aptornis) isn’t well-known, but was really peculiar. Extinct, like all the best flightless birds. Something like a giant rail, it had huge cervical vertabrae for muscle attachment, and tendons in its tarsus so well-developed they were enclosed in a bony tube. A digging, chiselling ground predator. [FJ: Looks like it would feed a family for a week] Moa get all the attention, but New Zealand was, and to some extent is, still full of crazy flightless birds.

5. For a month, you get to do a job-swap. What would you do?

Actor in a decent theatre company production of Shakespeare or Stoppard. [FJ: *heart* Stoppard] I nearly answered “making croissants in an artisan bakery” but that would probably ruin croissants for me for life.

6. Too much time, money and intellect has been wasted researching what?

Keeping it just to my own field, there are too many allometric studies of simple scaling trends without a good analysis of what these trends mean and how they might have developed. It’s easy to just plot a measurement against body mass, but that doesn’t say much. Also, while alpha taxonomy is important, and there are huge numbers of undescribed bones sitting in boxes in museums, we need to be looking at overall patterns now—we have enough data. There are plenty of sensible questions, like why do some groups of birds go flightless and not others? Why do some disperse across the Pacific better than others? Why are there no flightless bats? Why didn’t elephant birds get as big as elephants? What kind of bird is Big Bird—wait, I did that one. I think there should be more papers published with questions as titles, but I’m old-fashioned. [FJ: Only if they ANSWER the question though. Hate false advertising.]

7. Recommend for me (a) a good pop-science book (b) a good history/philosophy/politics book and (c) a poem.

a) It seems an obvious choice, but Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is the one book I would recommend to a humanities-educated person who wanted to know what was up with science. Bryson makes everything approachable and gets almost nothing wrong. I would love to teach an entire year of General Science with this as the text.

b) Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian. I’m not a fan of Hitchens’s recent political decisions, but while reading this I was constantly copying down wise and brilliant lines. [FJ: never knew there was an “Art of Mentoring” series]

c) Auden’s The More Loving One, a poem all scientists can respond to.

8. So, you’re a ukulele player (and author of Kiwi Ukulele) What are you playing at the moment? Any Lady Gaga? Do Radiohead translate?

Almost half my repertoire at the moment is the Mountain Goats, and the rest mostly indie rock. I don’t like Hawaiiian music. There’s a nice ukulele cover of Poker Face on YouTube. No Surprises is my favourite Radiohead song on uke, but Street Spirit and Fake Plastic Trees work well too. The ukulele is the litmus test of a good tune.

9. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, would you consider it worthwhile to write a book [on your field]?

These days I would never write JUST a book about anything. My future book projects will work best as e-books linked to websites, possibly with some video, pretentious as that sounds. (How long, by the way, before we lose the hyphen in e-books, the way we have with email?) [FJ: my prediction is that it’ll take longer for phonetic reasons: ebook looks like it rhymes with eh-duke]

10. Finally, what’s your absolute number one science-presentation peeve? Mine are those horrible excel colours on bar charts.

The Scientist’s Rainbow: using every colour in the visual spectrum to convey a simple one-dimensional gradient. Which promptly disappears as soon as one prints, because, oops, we don’t all have colour printers on our desks yet.

Science-folk: do check out Mike’s Pictures of Numbers for tips/advice/makeovers of charts, graphs and visual information.

Polynesian Lexicon Online

I’ve been meaning to pimp this: POLLEX is online! Simon says:

I’d just like to announce that Ross Clark and I have placed the POLLEX (Polynesian lexicon) database online at POLLEX-Online currently contains 55,183 reflexes with 4,746 reconstructions from 68 languages.

An awesome resource for anyone interested in the Pacific, comparative and historical linguistics, and Polynesian culture history. Databases are what will transform linguistics.

on classification [scrapbook]

Darwin, in The Descent of Man

Every naturalist who has had the misfortune to undertake the description of a group of highly varying organisms, has encountered cases (I speak after experience) precisely like that of man; and if of a cautious disposition, he will end by uniting all the forms which graduate into each other as a single species; for he will say to himself that he has no right to give names to objects which he cannot define.

1871, 1st ed. vol 1, p. 226-7

An ethnography of grant review

Over the last couple of weekend lunches I’ve read Michéle Lamont’s  How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. Here’s the (slightly hype-y) blurb from Harvard University Press:

Excellence. Originality. Intelligence. Everyone in academia stresses quality. But what exactly is it, and how do professors identify it? In the academic evaluation system known as “peer review,” highly respected professors pass judgment, usually confidentially, on the work of others. But only those present in the deliberative chambers know exactly what is said. Michèle Lamont observed deliberations for fellowships and research grants, and interviewed panel members at length. In How Professors Think, she reveals what she discovered about this secretive, powerful, peculiar world.

I think “peculiar” is the most apt of the adjectives in that last sentence, because Lamont didn’t really address the interface between the grant-review process and the outcomes – it was more concerned with the processes of deliberation and the construction of norms of quality that go on. A really interesting read, particularly if you are US-based social scientist (the “study population”). I found myself itching to know more about the cultural differences that might occur, between for example the US, the UK, and Europe; or between the social sciences as construed in the book (from economics to English literature) and the behavioural and life sciences (psychology, biological anthropology, biology). But those are interests motivated by my own disciplinary and geographic situation.

I took two things away from the book: the first, Lamont’s message that quality/excellence are a bit ineffable, but that in general people “know it when they see it”, regardless of disciplinary background. The second was that there are two levels of the process that the applicant has no control over: the  mix of people and perspectives on a grant review committee, and the alchemy of how they reach their decisions about what is quality and deserves to be funded and what is not. These seem to be almost completely unpredictable, and would encourage me, if a grant proposal were rejected somewhere or sometime, to resubmit it elsewhere.

The book is very readable, with a great mix of synthetic commentary and verbatim quotes from the reviewer participants. Gave me a real insight into the decision-making criteria used by more interpretive disciplines/individuals, too.

Note: have been travelling and busy, but a return to regular postings next week. Starter for 10 will go monthly from now on, too.