There is something ineffably frustrating about trying to turn a thesis chapter into a twenty minute conference-style presentation. You have a whole chapter that you have loving and thoughtfully structured so it leads the reader gently through your train of thought and argument at a leisurely but clearly-marked pace – and now you have to chop out the ‘best bits’, the strongest arguments, reframe your organisational material to provide enough background for the arguments you are going to present, and tearfully wave farewell to all the other sections you have lovingly laboured over. In fact, one colleague has told me that she’s only ever tried to do it once, and that was such an off-putting experience that she has sworn off ever doing it again.
I have only had to go through this process once before myself, when I presented a chunk of chapter one of my thesis at the Oikos-Familia conference in Sweden, and it was jolly hard then. (If you’re interested, you can read my abstract here.) That was especially tricky, because I had to explain quite a complicated chunk of Stoic philosophy to a non-philosophical audience for them to be able to understand my argument; that was quite a significant challenge for me as one of my central tenets about my work is that you shouldn’t have to be trained to the eyeballs in ancient philosophy to be able to access philosophical material in Seneca. It seemed to go alright, anyway.
This time, I am trying to chunk out a segment of chapter three, which looks at Seneca’s views on marriage through the De Matrimonio, the best example of an underloved text that I can think of. This is partially because of what might be frankly called its dodgy textual transmission record, which has frightened off a lot of classicists – our only surviving fragments are in St. Jerome’s Against Jovinian which is, shall we say, a tad on the polemic side. It doesn’t help that the text has been more or less untouched since Bickel wrote an incredibly long treatise on it in Latin in 1915. Thankfully, Delarue has done more recent work to try and establish the state of the text, and he now has an article on this very subject. This means I don’t have to worry about questions of textual criticism, and can leave them to the experts, but I can start to look for a systematic account of Seneca’s Stoic understanding of marriage within the fragments. You may not think this sounds exciting, but believe me, nobody has done it yet, which is a crying shame as it leaves a massive hole in our knowledge about Seneca’s thoughts on this sort of thing. (Given the mild obsession academia occasionally demonstrates with how many times Seneca was married, you’d have thought it would get more press.)
So, to turn this into a talk, all the long quotations have to come out of the text and onto a handout instead. Various sections of discussion have completely been cut – thankfully this chapter was broken down into clearly delineated thematic sections, making this a bit easier than it could have been. All discussion of pudicitia is now gone, which is a bit sad, but it would need more Stoic theoretical underpinning than I’ve got space for. I have, however, fought quite hard to retain the passage that discusses the ancient bra, if only to keep the talk lively. I’m trying to make sure I have enough material in there to keep my audience interested, as I am primarily going to be addressing historians rather than philosophers – which means trimming, trimming, trimming my philosophical analysis down to the bare bones and making sure I include all my juicy social history material.
Of course, while going through this process you end going through all the hoops of academic self-doubt that are symptomatic of good old-fashioned imposter syndrome. Is this too simple? Is it too uncomplicated, lacking sufficient buttressing defensive jargon? Is my paper just rehashing things that have already been said? Does the argument still work? Did I have an argument in the first place? Of course, when these worries come to the fore, there’s nothing to do but ignore them and soldier on – you know your work has value, or else you wouldn’t be giving the talk in the first place.
The final hoop to jump through is, of course, creating the talk handout. Hopefully you’ve got all the text you want handy to copy and paste from your chapter into your handout, but you find yourself having to do a lot of extra glossing as you now have to speak for passages which used to speak for themselves. You may find the change of emphasis means you need extra quotes that previously you didn’t need the full text for. And then you get to dig through your thesis bibliography and pull out every reference that might be suitable to have on the handout, which normally involves a bit of elbow grease.
I still love my work and the texts I work on, of course. But transforming a thesis chapter into a twenty minute talk is a special kind of challenge that writing a conference paper from scratch doesn’t match – and I’m jolly glad that this one is almost finished.