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3-Minute Trips Down Memory Lane

Our last update came just before the Ontario Provincial Championships of the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. It’s since passed and I’m happy to report that it was incredible fun. In addition to taking in thirty snippets of astonishing research (whose variety Windsor contestant Chris Allan and I agreed was best described by analogy to “a box of Timbits”) I gleaned some insight from the judges and contestants about something that, in retrospect, would have made a fantastic entry and meta-commentary on the event – memorization and the performative aspect of public speaking.

(Side note: There actually was one presentation that cleverly reflected on the conditions of the competition itself, which was from Kamilla Pietrzyk, a PhD student in Political Science at York, whose talk was entitled “Fast Activism: Changing the world in the age of distraction.” Kamilla wryly urged us to slow down in our lives as she capably raced through a ninety second summary of her research; her irony was lost on no one.)

Like an oblivious neighbor who invites themselves into your backyard party, I threw out my manners and sat down for a spell with almost every table at the post-event dinner. Hanging with Ryerson, I asked the exceptionally well coiffed Thomas Tiveron (his hair slicked, he pulled together the look with a blue vest and gold tie in Ryerson’s colours) about his technique for a flawless delivery. Inclining my head conspiratorially, I said, basically, What the hell, man? How did you do that? He leaned back coolly and replied “Nothing special – I mean, I memorize just about everything without trying.” Without trying. I allowed a mixture of admiration and self-reproach to register on my face by way of thanks for the advice and promptly left.

Over at the table where Guelph had joined forces with Queen’s Ryley Beddoe and her supporters, Krista Mitchnick, an MSc student in Guelph’s Psychology/Neuroscience program, gave some more concrete advice about her memorization techniques. Krista had a background in competitive dance, so the idea of perfecting and performing something for the scrutinizing eyes of others was nothing unfamiliar. For her, the trick was visualization. In my notes from this night, I have jotted down by Krista’s name “ERP” in what is, for me, surprisingly clear script. Either this is the abandoned segment of an aborted word, or, before we cut her off by agreeing as a table that interpretive dance would have been a better mnemonic, Krista was about to gesture toward a phenomenon called “event-related potential (ERP).” Wikipedia tells me that ERP “is the measured brain response that is the direct result of a specific sensory, cognitive, or motor event.” ERP. Well, whatever it was actually meant to refer to, I’ve got a handy new way of conceptualizing memorization as a systematic process, which I find especially nifty because I’ve become obsessed lately with the shorthanding of concepts.

Finally, as I intercepted competition judge Hugh Christie in the lobby, I became aware of the performative nature of what I myself was doing in that moment, and blanked on all the questions that are typically bubbling up under my polite expression. But the affable and accomplished trial lawyer had a gem to offer anyway, from his experience evaluating young lawyers developing their skills through mock trials. The crucial question, he said, was: can you convey a complete sense of confidence, without being strident? I wondered in that moment if any of the competitors had gone off their plans but had been saved, imperceptibly, by their sheer coolness. The evening was over, so I may never find out (unless they happen to Google themselves and decide to weigh in through a comment thread…?) but I’m at least equipped with a good question as a spectator in next year’s 3MT season.

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