(re)framing “public engagement”

This is from something I wrote a long time ago, but it still seems to have relevance. My writing ‘voice’ betrays its origin in a formal academic publication. However, the notion that academic work and academics’ learning continues in, through and as a public conversation – as opposed to having “impact” or “engagement” – is something I (still) find compelling. 


Philosopher Linda Alcoff (2002) offers a comprehensive way of understanding the public obligations of scholarship. She notes that while in countries such as the USA and the UK public intellectual work can be at expense of career/tenure, this not the case in all countries – for example, Latin America has an expectation of scholarly engagement in public life. She argues that public work is devalued in the academy because it is seen as lacking rigor and challenge and often as compromised. But the term public intellectual is equated with elitism and with celebrity intellectuals who have made it onto primetime TV and newspaper columns. She proposes instead the notion of the ‘publicly engaged intellectual… who spends a significant portion of his or her time engaged with the non-academic public (p 524) in more local contexts (p. 525).

Alcoff proposes that there are three ways in which a publicly engaged intellectual can be understood:

  • as a permanent critic. But she says, there are dangers here. Advocacy is not only seen as compromised but is also often worthy of derision. The feminist social critic for example is almost always cast as a moral prude or a closet authoritarian. Therefore the permanent critic may be ineffective. Furthermore, the so-called independence of the university based critic is not necessarily any more intellectually autonomous than those who offer defense of organizations or specific agendas from ‘inside’ ‘Pure neutrality’ she argues, ‘is an illusion that excuses the refusal to engage in self-reflexivity’ (p. 527). And the fear of cooption which is expressed through the advocacy of independence assumes that ‘one can devise a politics free from potential cooptation’ (p. 528). Everyone argues from somewhere she suggests, and it behoves all who claim to speak on behalf of, or to, the public to consider where that is and what it stands for.
  • as a populariser. Alcoff is more approving of this category of action. A populariser is someone who has taken ideas from the academy and translates them for a wider public. Critics of popularising activities assert that this ‘sacrifices nuance and rigour in favour of clear examples and unambiguous claims’ (p. 528) This idea, Alcoff notes, is based in a normative idea of the academy as a pure monastery cut off from the world. While popularisers are seen as unoriginal and antitheoretical, Alcoff argues that the aim is valuable and need not sacrifice all nuance.
  • as a public theorist. This is Alcoff’s preferred position (and also mine). Alcoff comments that theoretical development and creativity do not just happen ‘back at the monastery‘ (p. 530) but happen in most walks of life. She argues for a notion of ‘doing theory in public’ (p. 531). As she puts it:

The public arena can be a space where intellectual work is done, where problems emerge to be addressed, and where knowledge and experience are gained that can address a variety of issues, such as speaking for others, labor/academic alliances, public and democratic deliberation, the nature of white or male supremacy and heterosexual … one can receive vital feedback (p. 530)

This is public activity in which one is simultaneously teaching and learning (p. 533) and contra to the view that what happens in public is the corruption of academic rigour, Alcoff suggests the reverse:

…publicly engaged work is actually one of the BEST sites from which to engage in at least certain kinds of intellectual work, not because one is merely applying and testing theory developed in the academy to the public domain nor because one can simply gather raw data from which to build theory, but rather because the public domain is sometimes the best or only place in which to alter one’s thoughts… and thus to engage in intellectual work. (p 533).

Alcoff conceives of knowledge ‘transfer’ or ‘mobilisation’, not as transmission, but as the testing of metaphors, beliefs and theories in and with the public. She sees the public domain as more than a sphere ‘for gathering data, proselytizing or popularizing’ (p. 534) but as a site where there can be reciprocity, conversations, debates and mutual respect.

This is a far cry from thinking that all we need to do with our research is to write a public engagement plan – a plan for how to tell various publics what we’ve done, and the implications for them, not us. 


Alcoff, L. M. (2002). Does the public intellectual have intellectual integrity? Metaphilosophy, 33(5), 521-534.

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writing the introduction to a journal article

So you want to write a journal article but are unsure about how to start it off? Well, here’s a few things to remember.

The introduction to your journal article must create a good impression. Readers get a strong view of the rest of the paper from the first couple of paragraphs. If your work is engaging, concise and well structured, then readers are encouraged to go on. On the other hand, if the introduction is poorly structured, doesn’t get to the point, and is either boring or too clever by half, then the reader may well decide that those two or three paragraphs were enough.  Quite enough.

At the end of the introduction, you want your reader to read on, and read on with interest, not with a sense of impending doom, or simply out of duty. The introduction therefore has to say what the reader is going to encounter in the paper, as well as why it is important. While in some scholarly traditions it is customary to let the reader find out the point of the paper at the very end – ta da – this is not how the English tradition usually works. English language journals want the rationale for the paper, and its argument, flagged up at the start.

The introduction can actually be thought of as a kind of mini-thesis statement, with the what, why and how of the argument spelled out in advance of the extended version. The introduction generally lays out a kind of road-map for the

A simple introduction is often welcome

A simple introduction is often welcome

paper to come. It also lets the reader know broadly about the kinds of information and evidence that you will use to make your case in the paper.

Writing an introduction is difficult. You have to think about:

  • the question, problem or puzzle that you will pose at the outset, as well as
  • the answer, and
  • how the argument that constitutes your answer is to be staged.

At the same time, you also have to think about how you can make this opening compelling. You have to ask yourself how you will place your chosen question, problem or puzzle in a context the reader will understand. You need to consider: How broad or narrow should the context be – how local, how international, how discipline specific? Should the problem, question or puzzle be located in policy, practice or the state of scholarly debate – the literatures?

Then you have to consider the ways in which you will get the reader’s attention via a gripping opening sentence and/or the use of a provocation – an anecdote, snippet of empirical data, media headline, scenario, quotation or the like. And you must write this opener with authority – confidently and persuasively.

Writing a good introduction typically means “straightforward” writing. Not too many citations to trip the reader up. No extraordinarily long sentences with multiple ideas separated by commas and semicolons. Not too much passive voice and heavy use of nominalisation, so that the reader feels as if they are swallowing a particularly stodgy bowl of cold, day-old tapioca.

All of this? Questions, context, arguments, sequence and style as well? This is a big ask.

An introduction has a lot of work to do in few words. It is little wonder that people often stall on introductions. So how to approach the writing? 

In my writing courses I see people who are quite happy to get something workable, something “good enough” for the introduction – they write the introduction as a kind of place-holder – and then come back to it in subsequent edits to make it more convincing and attractive. But I also see people who can achieve a pretty good version of an introduction quite quickly, and they find that getting it “almost right” is necessary to set them up for the rest of the paper.

The thing is to find out what approach works for you.

You don’t want to end up stalled for days trying to get the most scintillating opening sentence possible. (You can always come back and rewrite!) Just remember that the most important thing to get sorted at the start is the road map, because that will help you write rest of the paper. And if you change you mind about the structure of the paper during the writing, you can always come back and adjust the introduction. Do keep saying to yourself “Nothing is carved in stone with a journal article until I send it off for publication!”

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academic creativity in the here and now

One of the benefits of a bit of down time is that the occasional thought comes to you, apparently from nowhere. Perhaps the thought might be the beginning of a new idea, perhaps an insight into an ongoing project, a new angle on something concerning. This post is one such occasional thought. It concerns a little ongoing worry that I have about the ways in which the notion of creativity and innovation is instrumentalised and made amenable to audit.

There’s a lot of interest in creativity and originality in research – it’s one of the tests of the doctorate, it makes for successful funding bids, it’s the elusive ‘quality’ that much cited publications often have. There are consistent ideas around about how you get to be creative  in writing and research – you bring ideas from other disciplines into your own, you take a set of little ideas and build them into something bigger, you problematise orthodoxies, ask naive questions, take an idea and apply it to a new situation … and so on…

Now these are all very sensible notions and I don’t want to suggest that they aren’t. However, they don’t quite get us to the point where we understand how innovative ideas actually happen.  And one of the places we can look for understandings about creative processes and practices is in the arts. The arts have a lot to teach all of us IMHO about how new ideas are actually produced. It is of course my research area and so it’s not surprising that I occasionally think about how my research might actually inform the rest of my academic work…

Here’s one tiny example of the ways in which arts practice might have something to offer academic work more generally. It’s “improv” – an approach used routinely in drama and also in music. We are all probably familiar with “improv” in music and drama – someone responds to a provocation on the spot, without preparation, using the resources they already have at their disposal. It is a kind of making-do. It’s a riffing on the usual, a doodle derived from a small single starting point.

But improv is not simply about action, it’s not just the extemporisation per se. Improv is also about thinking and feeling. It is the spontaneous, the playful, the now-ness of experience which is taken up and worked and reworked. This re-working does not have to be undertaken as an individual – it is often highly social – doing, thinking and feeling together with others. Improv often involves actions and interactions; the tangle of minds, bodies and emotions through a focus on what’s happening in the moment.

“This small Brooklyn classroom with a small group of ten was an ideal environment for suspending control and testing out what it’s actually like to try and not anticipate what’s coming next — to try to simply meet what’s next as it comes. It was amazing to realize that so many of our finely honed skills sets did not apply in this context. You can’t think forward, because it’s going to come from someone/somewhere else who hasn’t yet thought/unleashed it. They don’t even know what’s coming. Yet, you have to respond to what arises even when it’s from somewhere no one is expecting — and not what you expect or want it to be. This is the challenging and rich potential of improv. In these moments, you’re condemned (liberated?) to interconnectedness, as improv is inherently relational. No action or word stands alone. You must listen closely and riff off one another. Intentional communication is core to improv.

Improv demands you not isolate yourself, it’s impossible. There’s a pact at the core of the process — you’re never in it alone. The process is, essentially, a network. The phrase, “yes, and” summarizes a technique for generating more exchange, play, and responsiveness. Improv requires that you build off of what just happened, rather than go your own way with it. Together, we keep the “ball” up, moving, flowing, rather than having it settle into any one person’s trajectory. More simply, this form of serious play boils down to the question: how can we support each other in looking less stupid? With everyone watching everyone else’s back, ready to swoop in and take up the improvisation burden when it starts to sag to the floor, each player can actually inhabit the moment more fully. Each can pay better attention to the other players, and to the unfolding context. Paradoxically, bringing more personal energy to “emergency” (just now emerging) contexts demands that we be less self-absorbed.


Improv focuses on the NOW, but also the HERE. Immersed in the experience, working with a first impression/sensation/thought and seeing where it might go. Establishing the parameters of an event and seeing what might happen. The result might be something surprising, something amusing, something thought-provoking, something delightful… something creative, something innovative.

So you see, in my down time I’ve had the odd wonder about how the “improv” might be a resource for research and teaching in the performative higher education system. What might a focus on the here and now, the moment, the relational, the embodied, actually mean in practice? Is the “improv” one resource for thinking more hesitantly? for refusing specified outcomes, but just seeing where something leads? And is this actually exploring? investigating? being curiosity led?

Improv has an obvious connection with teaching where it stands opposed to predetermined learning outcomes, supporting instead a shared pursuit of an idea/ideas, following the unexpected, building understandings through collective actions/interactions. I’m not talking here about role plays or small instances where students are able to initiate an activity, but something bigger, based in the principles of here, now, interdependence and relationality.

And I’ve been wondering, how might “improv”also apply to research?  How would research trainers look on it? How would a project based in and on “improv” principles fare in funding schemes where we are required to specify, ahead of time, a sequence of predetermined activities? I wonder what might be gained if we did allow some people to do much more speculative “improv” research work….


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my holiday reading – not the usual

So it was winter graduation. And there in the front row, three academic women. Floppy hats, robes of various colours. Tut tutting as the Jimmy Choos and Laboutins and various cheaper copies, all towering heels, went teetering past to audience applause. “I don’t know how they do it. Think of their feet in a few years time,” we said to each other, looking down at our warm waterproof winter boots, our sensible low heels.

After the event I discussed this Old Scold behaviour with Thesis Whisperer. Jokingly I noted that perhaps the need to make much of the shoe came from a bit of clerical eroticism – the flash of an ankle beneath the hem of monkly robes, a glance of a slender wrist emerging from the flowing sleeves…  “It’s been done”, she said. “Oh” I said, “Of course.”

So to my holiday reading. True to my goal of not reading anything to do with my actual real research work, I have discovered Wardrobe Studies. Yes, it exists. Wardrobe Studies. And Dress Studies. And other literatures to do with clothes. It’s a whole new area to explore!!!

I have now bought:

And I now know that Sandra Weber has written the best thing about academic robes. The. Best. Thing. The best thing for me right now that is. Here’s a taster. With a rudeness warning, as some possibly lewd images are invoked, depending on your imagination. 

I never know what to wear under the robe (at the University of X, there are strict rules about what to wear underneath, but that is unusual.) Should I wear dark pants as I usually do, like the men do, seeking to blend in, first and foremost as a scholar, showing that women can wear the pants as well as the robes of the Academy? Or, should I stress and celebrate my womanhood, standing out from the sea of male scholars by wearing what they can’t (although perhaps a few them secretly would like to) – things like nylons, high heels, silky underwear and a skirt or dress? Should I dress all in black, my habitual choice, so that it is the Academic Robe that is featured? Or, for once, should I wear something silver or gold or bright red that distracts from the gown and features my fondness for fashion eccentricity?

Oh, what does it matter anyway? Whatever I choose is mostly hidden by the bulk of the robe. And so is my body, for that matter, something I am increasingly grateful for as the pounds slip on and the flesh sags and bulges in ways I had not anticipated when younger. Yes, to be honest, I sometimes find myself quite content to hide beneath the  gown. And, I hate to admit this, but I think my gown is rather nice. It has beautiful wide blue velvet stripes on the puffy sleeves and blue velvet borders on the front vertical edges. I unobtrusively stroke the soft velvet while seated on the stage, a way to calm and distract myself, I suppose.

Robed nudity is not an option that ever occurs to me, well, at least it didn’t until writing this piece. It can get so hot up under those stage-lights, that little or no clothes underneath might be a sensible choice if the darned robes weren’t so scratchy and flappy. But of course, in Western culture, nudity would not be read as a practical decision, would it? but rather as… as what? An erotic or exhibitionist act? A political stance? A way of privately subverting or mocking the whole meaning of the ceremony? A thumbing not of one’s nose but of one’s privates at the Academy? Perhaps there are some who entertain romantic or erotic notions of the naked academic (male or female) coyly reposing half robed on the leather couch in a twilight wood-panelled office, perhaps with a fire glowing in the stone hearth that seems requisite to such fantasies but so absent in the modern serviceability of our real university digs. (Weber, 2004,p. 101) 

And so it goes on. It’s a giggle, and thought provoking at the same time. Just the kind of distraction we should all be reading over the break. Something that’s academic, of course, nothing frivolous, but not academic as we know it. Well, not as we usually read.

I’m not suggesting you need to read this book, of course, just a book that is not what you’d normally allow the time for. Something that brings a laugh, a sideways idea, a new perspective.

Why not? Go on, you know you can.

Happy reading to you all. I hope your choices are/were as much fun as mine.

Reference. Weber, S ( 2004) Curse you Descartes! My academic gown, in  S. Weber and C Mitchell Eds. Not just any dress. Narratives of memory, body and identity. New York: Peter Lang. pp. 99-104



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patter’s year

Patter had a bit of a revamp this year.

Early on, the blog acquired a new URL, patthomson.net, and shucked off all gratuitous wordpress advertising. Much later, the signature image of desk and coffee cup was replaced with the current pic – an angle on the pile of author copies of my books. At the same time, I also added some gratuitous photos – of myself and some of the books – to the various pages associated with the blog.

I also changed the way that I use images to support posts. I now try to have a picture  associated with every post. Quite often this involves the use of an incongruous caption on an image, a small injection of something approaching humour. I’ve also used more vimeo clips and some slides.  I do intend to keep this multimedia approach going, and I hope to add even more variety this coming year.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve started a patter facebook page so that people can have posts sent to their fb timeline if they want. I will try to do something on linkd-in next year if I can bring myself to do it. I have some residual qualms about spreading myself all over every bit of social media – how much is too much? Perhaps I am kidding myself that by only engaging with a few platforms I’m not really into ruthless self promotion.

All those words. This year roughly 120,000 of them. That's nearly two books worth.

All those words. This year roughly 120,000 of them. That’s nearly two books worth.

I managed to use bits and pieces of some of the 488 patter posts in Barbara’s and my most recent writing book, Detox your writing, coming soon in Routledge. However, there is such a lot of material buried away in the patter archives. A lot. I am still thinking about how to make this more organised and more available.

The most popular readers’ post on patter is (still) the one which addresses aims and objectives, followed closely by methods and methodology, thesis conclusions and the term doctoral ‘student’.  My personal face post this year was the one about Profzillas. We all know at least one of them. I’d like to develop a whole academic menagerie, but I seem to have got a bit stuck after Prof Pinnocchio. I have to be a very careful, of course, that these caricatures don’t get too related to any individual, or I could be in big trouble.

I’ve begun a bit of a series of posts about things to do during your PhD, and I’m seriously  interested in guest posts on this topic. I really want people to write about and share their personal experiences. I’m not so interested in advice per se – the ten handy hints format – although Ive done a bit of this myself ( blush). There are lots of other blogs out there which take this approach and it’s not really what I want to focus on. I’d like to think that patter is mainly a place for sharing experiences and of course, building up a repertoire of strategies that you can choose from.

Patter remains a personal, largely pedagogical project. I’m always delighted to hear from people who have found bits of it useful, this helps me to keep going. And I’m thinking, during a bit of down time over the holiday period, what else to do with the blog next year. I’m wondering about more reviews of interesting bits of research and/or books. Maybe I can do some more work on my writing course slides and develop some of my own YouTube clips as well. I wonder about some interviews with academics – although I certainly don’t want to duplicate what already exists. I’m always pleased to have questions as they often lead to things I haven’t thought about before. I’m also very happy to have suggestions for things to cover – hint, hint.

And I am thinking of going back to one post a week. I’ve thought about this before and not yet done it, but I might… I might. 


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a little break

Patter is now having a few days off over Christmas, as should you.

But I’ve been taken aback by the volume of things I’ve been sent by people who seem to expect that I will be available to write, revise, review and examine over the Christmas period. I’m not the only one, I know, whose had this experience. It seems to be part of the general pattern of the fast university that being away from the office always equates to being still at work. This is really not acceptable. We all need some down time.

The unwelcome requests are symptomatic of the speeding up/sped-up workplaces that universities have become. Academic  time appears to be infinitely elastic, stretching out to contain ever more expectations and tasks.   And some of us may be complicit with the need to-fit-everything-in. As Mark Carrigan argues:

  • Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.
  • Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs.
  • Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions. If we accept that priorities are invested with normative significance (i.e. they matter to us in direct and indirect ways) then prioritisation can be pleasurable. This can take the form of people who rely on deadlines to ensure things get done. More prosaically, it can undercut procrastination by leaving one with finite temporal resources to utilise for non-negotiable obligations.
  • Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully.

As a well trained “good girl”, this kind of performative buy-in is something I am much too prone to.

Yes a holiday. Much better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick, as Australians are prone to say.

Yes a holiday. Much better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick, as we Australians are prone to say.

However, as it happens, I’m taking a Southern hemisphere break this year and won’t be on deck for most of January. This is actually a postponed Northern summer break because I spent all of the actual summer, such as it was, writing a book.

I’ve got a few posts scheduled so Patter will keep going while I’m away from my desk.  You, dear reader, may not even notice I’m not here. And the two doctoral researchers who are trying to submit in January will of course be able to get my immediate attention by email, as will anything from my English house/home.

But everyone else is on notice that I’m not available. Really. Not. Available.

I hope that you too manage to have some time away from work and that the next few days are happy, healthy – and free of email, idiotic last minute demands and unreasonable expectations. Cheers.

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the proofreading – book update

Barbara and I have just finished the first round of fine-grained proofing on the type-set version of our new “Detox your writing” book.

Because we’ve done this proofing lark three times before, we now have a set routine. We first work on hard copy that we’ve printed from the PDF we’ve been sent. We each read the text right through, marking the errors and issues that we see – errors in pen and issues with post-its. We then talk through our separate readings. We have to do this talking by Skype of course because we are on opposite sides of the world. So each UK morning and Australian evening we talk for an hour or so, on a connection that varies wildly in quality. We always try to use video if we can, as it is more like our actual face to face, side by side writing. We can get through two chapters in each morning/evening session. We then have a final wrap-up conversation where we deal with any unresolved issues.

9780415820844For this book, we ‘ve had five conversations – ten chapters and a wrap up.  We’ve talked on five consecutive days, the last was the day before this post published.

During these five days Barbara want back and forward to her holiday house outside of Melbourne. It is very hot in Australia right now and the beginning of our Skypes were a brief update on the temperature. England on the other hand is dark, but not cold. During our conversations, my office became progressively lighter and this usually generated some minor moaning from me.

We have both been a bit shocked about what had  managed to slip through the iterative revisions and editing that we’d already done. We should have known that there would be more errors of course. But coming to terms with the sheer volume of things that needed fixing does seem to be something we have to learn every time. The quantum of additional things we didn’t see really confirms  that taking time away from the text is a Good Thing. We – and you –  need to have a rest from our writing and come back to it anew in order to see the mistakes, to finesse the text properly.

The other thing that is abundantly clear from our shared proofreading is that we often see different things. I am very attuned to repetition – not only where we use the same word too often and/or too close together but also when we make the same point too many times, the same point too many times. 🙄 I also seem to see where we need to reshuffle sentences in a paragraph to make it stronger and where our use of tense and pronouns need attention. Barbara is incredibly good at seeing where punctuation is awry, and when the focus of a sentence needs sharpening. She also tracks the continuity and wording of headings, subheadings, and titles of figures and diagrams. She tends to see different problems than I do 😛.  (And because we each see different things in our text it really makes me worry about anything I might do that is single authored!)

I keep the “master copy”of the manuscript. I am now transferring all of our corrections to the PDF to send this off to the publisher. I’m hoping to get this done in the next day or so. Then I can then relax.

Well, I can relax until it comes back just one more time for final, final proofing and indexing.

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