Delivering a conference paper: supporting your colleagues with hearing impairments, or, there’s no point speaking if no one can hear.

“Approximately 9 million people in the UK have a hearing loss. This is approximately 19% of the total population or 1 in every 7 persons. Hearing loss increases sharply with age. About one third of the population aged between 60-70 years and three quarters of the population aged over seventy years have a hearing loss.”  Deafness – UK Statistics and Facts

For some reason, deafness is the neglected disability in the classroom and in conferences. Even though it is probably the commonest disability–and the one that is coming to most of you one day–it is routinely dismissed as a minor problem. Before I begin I want to emphasise that even though my own mother is deaf, and it’s her progressive hearing impairment I have inherited, I was every bit as blasé until it came to me.

NB: if you are Deaf or Hearing impaired and wish me to edit, clarify, add to the following please email me. This is a work in progress.

Edit: My attention has been brought to his fantastic post from Sarah Sparks about using a Cochlear Implant.


There are a number of key things to understand before I start.

  • Some people are born with hearing impairments, others gradually lose their hearing. The former if they are able/choose to use hearing aids, are likely to have very good mechanisms for dealing, and very high functioning hearing aids. The latter may be in the process of getting used to hearing aids which do strange things to sound; or may be waiting for upgrades as their hearing is changing. Both groups will have made choices about what they want to be able to hear and will have made some sacrifices. Hearing aids are, in their efficacy, less like spectacles than they are like a walking stick. Sarah Parker in the post I have linked to, describes them as prosthetics and that seems about right to me.
  • Different people have different impairment: older people tend to have high frequency deafness. I have low frequency deafness. It’s perfectly possible to have very acute hearing in one range and dreadful hearing in another.
  • Not all hearing is about volume: some hearing impairments are about interference (tinnitus) or processing disorders (what was that consonant you just made? do you know you sound like a really lovely babbling brook but I have no clue what you just said to me?).
  • Add any foreign accent and not only is hearing harder, but so is lip reading: I once had a student from country x who was used to lip reading her own country people speaking English; but in her class, the tutor was from a different country and her class mates were from around ten other countries and her well practiced lip reading just didn’t work.


  1. If you are organising a conference, make sure there are microphones in every single room. Avoid rooms with very high ceilings or glass on two sides.
    • Hearing aids are electronic devices that actually work better on electronic sound. No loud voice is as clear to someone with hearing aids as is a voice through a microphone.
    • If you are using a university setting, then the university owns them. Simple battery operated portable mics now cost below £50 a set. There is simply no excuse any more.
    • If it is a discussion panel, then you need one mic per person (max one between two).
    • You need a roving mic for the questions (everyone will be grateful for this, most people can’t hear if a question comes from someone in front of them).
    • All keynotes should be live captioned. (In an ideal world we’d live caption everything but it’s not cheap).
    • T-loops are good but not all of us use them for a range of reasons (including, if you have a t-loop next door my hearing aid would pick up next door’s meeting or their tv).
    • Consider Sign translation for the Deaf, but be aware that there is no “universal” Sign Language so that for international conferences you need to know the language of the user before you start, and that this will not help those with acquired deafness.
  2. If you are presenting there are generic tips here:
    • look up when you speak or read;
    • speak to the back of the room; do not turn your back when you are speaking;
    • do not cover your mouth when answering a question–some of us need to lip read;
    • don’t try to fit in too much: you may be able to speak faster, but your audience can’t hear faster;
    • put any data on to your slide, as this will help someone understand what you are talking about if they cannot hear it well;
    • put proper names on slides: much of our hearing (and this is true for everyone) is contextual, so I know what you have said because my brain fills in the gaps (when I use subtitles on the tv my brain is convinced I can “hear”); but this doesn’t work as well with proper names.
    • take important theoretical words or names slowly, even if you have said them a million times;
    • if you can, offer to circulate notes/slides in advance so that someone like me may read your paper and be in a position to ask questions (I have more than once followed a paper through someone’s twitter feed);
    • And finally use the microphone!!!!
  3. Learn how to use a microphone:
    • There are plenty of guides on the net, mostly for singers but everything they say is just as useful for speakers. Basically it needs to be close but not in front of your mouth: if it’s too close you will sound breathy. Do not do what one beloved friend does which is to wave it in front of his mouth so the sound goes in and out.
    • If offered a lapel mic take it; they are much better (if you are wearing a dress for a presentation, you will need a belt to put on to hang the mic from);
    • Teach others how to use microphone technique: if you are a supervisor, then when you teach people how to present make this part of the teaching.


Thank you for reading this.

Please circulate it, and please, if you have good hearing, be an ally and join in demanding microphones and that people use them.


How to Finish Your PhD.

I see a lot of advice on completing PhDs (the latest was at The Guardian this week) but very little of it ever seems to explain how to actually finish one, in those last, awful throes of “when will I ever be done-ness” that means you can end up spending as much time on the final checks as you did writing several chapters.

Below is a link to a set of slides I take students through to help them finally get over those last hurdles with as little stress as possible. I’d note that I use the advice here for every book I write.

PhD Boot Camp

Farah Mendlesohn


2019 Diana Wynne Jones

Thanks to  fabulous response from fans, the Kickstarter for the Diana Wynne Jones conference covered the entire cost.


You can register for the conference/convention here.

We need conventional academic papers but we would be delighted to receive proposals for play readings, workshops, and other creative activities.

Calls for Papers

I have added a new page on which I will link calls for papers for events for which I am involved.

My current projects include:

and coming very soon a call for the next conference on Diana Wynne Jones, which has just reached it’s target for the deposit over on kickstarter.


When you really really want to read a book…..

It’s bad enough when you order a book and it turns out you can only pre-order it and it will arrive oh, months in the future that doesn’t feel real. But it’s even worse when you know that a book you are really excited about is just a smidgen away from being published and needs just a teeny fund raising boost.

That’s the case with my friend and colleague Adam Robert’s book, a collaboration (beyond the grave) with the author Anthony Burgess, to complete his book The Black Prince.

The book is over at Unbound, the crowdfunding/subscription publisher, and it is currently standing at 81%. It just needs 80 of you to sign up for the signed hardback, which comes with a free e-book, for £25.

Adam Roberts is one of the most interesting writers around. His work is deep, complex, frequently leaves me baffled and always challenged. You won’t regret purchasing this book.

Below I persuaded him to answer a few questions.

What is it about The Black Prince that attracted you to the manuscript?

It was the Anthony Burgess angle rather than the historical fiction angle that first drew me. Which is to say: it’s not that I had any great hankering to write a historical novel as such. But I’ve long been a fan of Burgess’s writing and when I chanced upon an interview he gave to the Paris Review in 1972 in which he said he was 90-pages into “a novel intended to express the feel of England in Edward III’s time, using Dos Passos’ devices”; a novel “about the Black Prince” I was intrigued. Writing medieval history via a writer as famously modern and experimental as Dos Passos—it’s a bold and I think brilliant idea. Burgess said: “I thought it might be amusing blatantly to steal the Camera Eye and the Newsreel devices from Dos Passos just to see how they might work, especially with the Black Death and Crécy and the Spanish campaign. The effect might be of the fourteenth century going on in another galaxy where language and literature had somehow got themselves into the twentieth century. The technique might make the historical characters look remote and rather comic—which is what I want.” The thought of (a big chunk of) an unpublished Burgess novel, and the thought that I might complete it, led me to the Burgess Institute and the Estate.

Why you? Why are you the best person to write this? No false modesty please!

A writer probably isn’t the best-placed person to have a clear view of his/her strengths, but still: there are, I think, consonances between the way Burgess wrote and the way I write—in part because reading Burgess as I was growing up influenced the sort of writer I became myself. So for instance: Burgess was an expert writer of pastiche, and could reproduce styles and idiolects brilliantly. That’s something I can do too: indeed, I don’t see ‘pastiche’ as a negative thing. Quite the reverse. So: to prepare for this novel I re-read Dos Passos’s “USA” and the complete run of Burgess’s writing, and then sat down to pastiche, as expertly as I could, Burgess-pasticheing-Dos-Passos. Just the technical challenge of that excited me. As I say I’m not the person best placed to say so, but it seemed to me I manage this. There are some other things: I share Burgess’s fascinating with literary form, and was able to do (to me) interesting things with the structure of the novel: Edward the Black Prince was by all accounts obsessed with the trinity, and the holy spirit, and I worked all sorts of threes, and nines, into the structure. But the main thing is that I really love Burgess, and that meant I could really immerse myself in the Burgess mode. I wanted to produce something of which, were he alive today, he could be proud. Or at least, not ashamed.

Can you elaborate on the links you see between historical and science fiction?

There’s a lot I could say in answer to this, but to be brief: both sorts of writing have to build their worlds, in ways neither obtrusive nor false. Both have to find ways of estranging their characters from the assumptions of their readers—medieval people really weren’t just 21st-century people in funny clothes, just as aliens really need to be more than human beings with pointy-ears or crumpled-foreheads—without pulling them so far out of the contemporary frame that readers lose the ability to empathise with and care about those characters. Writing the novel proved a fascinating business for me, actually. When writing SF it’s usually possible to shuffle the terms of the world, or the parameters of the physics, if they get too constraining of your story. I’m not advocating the completely untrammelled hand-wave as the basis of writing SF, but one of the attractions of writing in a fantastic idiom is that it just offers the writer more imaginative freedom. Writing a proper historical novel was something else. I read pretty widely in the history of the period—Jonathan Sumption’s multivolume history “The Hundred Years War” is very good—and poked and pried, but I found weird little gaps that my reading refused to fill. For instance: there’s a lot of stuff about how knights fought on 14th-century battlefields, and some stuff about how ordinary soldiers fought, ground troops and archers and so on. But let’s say you want to know exactly how the chain of command functioned, in the heat of battle. Are there, let’s say, medieval equivalents to modern NCOs? How, exactly, did sergeants or ensigns (Shakespeare’s Ancient Pistol = Ensign Pistol) liaise between the high command and the men? Were orders written on bits of paper and taken by riders to the front, as happened in the 19th-century? We know that trumpets were used to announce advances and so on, but were there whole descants of different musical parpings telling bodies of men to wheel, stand, retreat, fire arrows and so on? There are libraryfuls of books of military history, but lots of this nitty gritty is surprisingly elusive—or at least I found it so—and you need to know it if you’re going to write it from the grunts’-eye view. Some of it falls into the “we honestly don’t know”, because the written records from that time are really only interested in what the posh nobs were doing, on their champing-stamping heroic steeds, and the accounts of battles tend to be inflected by chivalric codes anyway. In a SF text you can simply fill that gap; but writing a historical novel is a much more painstaking business.

To order your copy of The Black Prince by Anthony Burgess and Adam Roberts, go to the project page at Unbound.

We have a title!

When this project started I didn’t have to have a title. The book was part of a series and it would be known simply by the name of author. It was only once I submitted the book that we realised that calling it simply Robert A. Heinlein would not make it terribly searchable in the e-book stores.

One of the comments I’ve frequently made, is that in some ways I have been channelling the great man himself. Verbosity, intemperance, etc etc. But nowhere has this been truer than my inability to come up with a title. Heinlein had a terrible ear for titles. Most of his stories were titled by magazine editors, and most of his adult novels were titled by Virginia. His original title for Number of the Beast, for example, was The Panki-Barsoom Number of the Beast, or even just Panki-Barsoom.

So I did what Heinlein did and outsourced the problem, in this case to many friends on facebook. I assembled 12 titles, submitted them to Unbound, and after some back and forth as our ideas changed we finally settled last week

And the title is…..

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein.


release date: March 2019


Despite what it says all posts here are by me, Farah. I only realised this evening that they are “authored” by EF James. That would be the beloved, the person who spell checks and fact checks my work and also makes sure all the footnotes are formatted properly.  This time round he has done so much work on the book that he gets an editorial credit. Fair’s fair.

I’m off to the University of Chichester tomorrow to do a couple of talks, one on Jewish fantasy writing which I first gave in Vienna last year, and which is still very much a work in progress. The other, less formal, is on Heinlein (inevitably). I was asked to send a story in that I wanted to talk about to send in The Green Hills of Earth. I was really touched to find in the next email I received that the story still has the power to move when read for the first time.