Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Final post...? Course reflection

This blog has formed part of the assessment for the Advanced Technical Communications course at Sussex university, which I have to take as part of my first year of doctoral study in Informatics. Whether or not I will continue this blog after the course is finished, I am not sure yet. But this will be the final post in the blog that is relevant to the ATC course; it is a reflection on what I feel I have learnt during the course.

There were a number of different modules during the course - I will look at each one individually.
The purpose of this part of the course was to look at the role of blogs in a technical writing scenarios - something I had never encountered before so this was new information to me. I had previously regarded the role of blogs as a personal diary kept online, which may explain my bias towards keeping the blog as a personal record of thoughts and observations as opposed to a medium for communicating with a peer community. I still think this role of a blog has good value, in terms of self-reflection and recording progress. In the future I may keep a blog-style report of my work, of a more technical nature, although I think the suspicious side of my nature will mean I keep particular details only in offline records to which I can restrict the access. Not that I'm paranoid that people will steal my ideas... but a lot of the time, the information that is most useful for me to consult is the way my ideas progress over time. If I'm cautious of recording the exact details of my ideas, or try to present them in a publicly accessible form, I think I lose some of the usefulness in recording my ideas - some of the value that only becomes apparent over time.

Elevator Pitch
Even though I've only been here for two terms, I am already so used to the question 'So what is your research on?' I've stumbled around with various attempts at answers but never really given much thought to how I should answer this. I guess this is because it is usually friends or casual acquaintances that have asked me about my research so far. Now though, I have been thinking about times when I would really need to be able to present a strong view of my research, for example at conferences etc. So it was really quite useful to give this some thought and think of ways in which I could really make people interested.

I have to say that when asked about my DPhil study now, I still automatically say 'well i'm looking at Musical Creativity' or something similar, before using my prepped elevator pitch descriptions, but actually that seems to get people interested anyway as its quite unusual. But I'm trying to get out of that habit as well, as people get a bit confused at first when I talk about musical creativity. Well I guess my elevator pitch is a work in progress!

Technical posters
For this part of the course (and equally so for the paper writing - especially the abstract/title focus - and for the presentation modules) I had an actual project that I was working on (my voice separation project), that I was focussing on presenting to a peer community. This meant that I got real practical value out of these aspects of the course, in a here-and-now basis, as well as preparing for future occasions.

Although I am not presenting a poster for this voice separation project, the exercise of reducing my (then written and submitted) 4 pages of project paper to a poster format was an interesting process. I cut out so much detail from my poster, but was still guided by the text I had already written. On reflection, if I had produced the poster before the paper, I would have a less clear view of what I was trying to achieve, and the important aspects of my project. However I would probably have been able to represent these aspects in a more intuitive (probably more diagrammatic) format, rather than falling back on summarising the text I had already written.

At the point of producing a poster for other projects though, I think I will have a less defined idea of what the poster content covers (as the work will probably not be a finished and evaluated system, but more likely will be reports on a work in progress and initial results and evaluation). So I will be writing from a slightly different viewpoint. When I was creating this poster, I was still in the mindset of expressing the information about this project in a paper format. So the end result is a poster that I would probably need to change before displaying. This is a shame really as I was quite keen to produce a larger poster after the course conference, for display outside our office.

Seeing as I have had a poster proposal accepted for a conference in Brighton this summer :) , though, I will get plenty of chances to try this poster out again. I think in essence I reduced the information in my poster to the right amount, but tried to express it in the proverbial '1000 words' rather than the 'picture' (maybe 1000 words is an exaggeration!). So I should get that poster on my outside wall after all!

Paper writing
I had done a little study before on how to structure papers, so this part of the course was mostly reinforcing what I had already looked at, but the major point of interest for me here was the deep discussion into abstracts and titles.

Writing abstracts has always been a thing of mystery to me... it was great to have a real structure to follow (I work much better this way, I think!) and to see the exact point of the abstract. As a side point, it was interesting to look at abstracts I personally have found helpful or not helpful, and analyse them according to the exact information they present - this was quite illuminating!

I never really give much thought to the titles of what I write, but I did see in ATC how much rests on having a good title (especially looking at the papers listed for a conference in Music Tech, and judging each paper based on the title. It has had some effect - I have submitted two papers this year, and the first title was a bit poorer than the second (which were written before and after ATC, respectively) - not quite so concise and a bit techy.

1. Artificially Intelligent Accompaniment using Hidden Markov Models to Model Musical Structure.

2. Voice separation in polyphonic music: A data-driven approach.

The part where we looked at peer review papers was also fascinating for me, given that I had actual reviews of my first paper (very very short reviews!) and was glad to see that generally you would get much more feedback than I got!

I think I might have missed this part of the course due to writing up my paper for ICMC. Shame, would have been good! But I looked quickly through the slides online before my presentation.

As a side note, I tried something out with my slides for the mini conference - I went to a 'DPhil Skills' workshop presentation about Powerpoint slides which was very dismissive of using bullet points and instead advocated more readable slides (but still not much text - lots of pictures) and also the use of full statements for slide titles instead of short sentence fragments. I thought I'd try this out to some extent in my slides. I didn't get any feedback directly on that (yet...! but maybe I will) but it actually helped me a lot, with the titles, to see exactly the point I was making in that slide, and helped the construction of that slide as well, because everything on that slide had to back up that statement. I think I'll keep that to some extent, although I have to admit that the bullet point style is too easy to sneak back into the slides. I'll compromise slightly there!

Assessment sessions
The mini conference scenario, including the poster session and the series of talks, meant a lot of preparation work that I thankfully could use my ICMC paper for, but I'm glad that I could get the chance to do this mini conference. It was really helpful for simulating how conferences would work, and I feel quite a lot more confident about how things will be in my upcoming conferences now. Especially, the poster session has been demystified somewhat for me.

This course has been a lot more work than I would like it to have been! But it has been very useful, and I have to admit its been more useful than the previous term's 'Research Skills' course, which was also compulsory for first year DPhils. There are a lot of things about life as a researcher which I was very hazy about, such as what exactly posters were for and how conferences worked, and the whole cyclic nature of getting papers published, and I really felt that these were clarified for me. It was a very good atmosphere in which to ask some questions about these as well - in other arenas you almost feel like you should already know all about conferences etc, without having to ask seemingly 'dumb' questions.... but here I never felt like my questions were too 'dumb'. So overall - a bit invasive in terms of work (which is fair enough I guess for a course that also is a master's course so should have a corresponding workload) but the work was very helpful and worth the effort. Cheers Geraldine!

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