book blog – our endgame revision and proofing

Barbara and I are now on final descent with our new writing book, Detox your writing. We’ll have it to the publisher sometime next week. Yippee.

Our process of final revision and proof-reading has been in several stages.

About three weeks ago I amalgamated all of our ten separate chapters into one text. I put the whole lot into a different font, so ‘the book’ appeared different from our draft chapters – and there had been several drafts.

I then added a title page and wrote the acknowledgements. The manuscript now looked like a real book. Then we knew we were really at the last stage.

I then worked on formatting and consistency issues – I went through the whole document checking for:

(1) consistency in the ways in which we had used, numbered and introduced break-out boxes, tables and figures
(2) consistency in referencing and citations. At this point I ensured that everything was in Endnote – I picked up a few things we’d missed including the inevitable page number here and there
(3) any permissions that we still needed – and got them where necessary
(4) spelling and grammar – I used the computer facility to re-check (but actually there weren’t really any major issues as we’d got most of this right in drafts)
(5) any obvious gaps in introductions, conclusions and transitions that we hadn’t come back to
(6) anywhere where there might be better or more examples added
(7) congruence between the ways in which we’d talked about the chapters in the introduction (we’d written this a long time ago) and the chapters as they now are.

While I was doing this Barbara made a list of chapter titles and headings, to check for consistency of style and for flow. The titles and headings should make sense on their own as an outline – they didn’t quite in a couple of cases. Barbara also looked at the basic moves in each chapter – the problem we were addressing, our reframing and the strategies we proposed – to see if they were still OK. We’d done lots of work on these but it’s always important to check. We then skyped about the work that Barbara had done, and made a further few adjustments to the whole text.

We’re working from a shared drop box so this second version of the whole text was carefully labelled so we can always differentiate between the versions – and work on the latest one.

Barbara then printed out the whole text and worked through it looking for:

(1) consistency in the ways in which we’d introduced people – first and second name, area of work and institution
(2) inadvertent rather than deliberate word repetition
(3) surplus words and paragraphs where we’d labored a point too much and needed to cut
(4) places where we’d got a bit cryptic and need to expand (not much of that)
(5) places where we’d introduced a key term before we’d actually explained it
(6) style issues – places where we could just say something better than we had (lots and lots of those).

She’s now tracking these changes in the document and highlighting anything that she thinks we need to talk about.

I’m following along a couple of chapters behind, checking on the changes she’s made, and adding any others of my own. I’m working on the screen, not on a print-out. I’m also particularly looking for consistency in the way we’ve added emphasis – I know there was originally a mix of italics and bold in the separate chapters and I’m not sure I got them all the first time through. She works on the document at different times to me, and we do need to make sure that we don’t overlap on my morning and her late afternoon.

We’ve already cut about three thousand words from the first version of the whole text and I’m interested to see what the overall tightening up will achieve. Less is good.

When we make any major-ish changes we’re emailing each other to say what we’ve done so we understand each other’s logic. We have a skype planned this coming weekend where we’ll compare notes, discuss any highlighted bits and make final decisions. I’ll then accept all changes, make another version of the text and we’ll have one final read-through and an email exchange.

I’ll then make the final version. I’ll format the manuscript in the way the publisher wants it, get together all of the accompanying files – permissions, pictures, tables and figures – and send it off.

That then will be it!! Well, it’ll be it until the copy-editor queries start to arrive. It’s always handy to have that other pair of eyes on the text but I don’t look forward to more fiddly bits …

Oh, and the inevitable discussion of the cover is now starting up.

Posted in Barbara Kamler, book writing, editing, proof-reading, revision | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

exorcise the inner “doctoral student” from your writing

Some of us can probably remember the film The Exorcist. It was one of those “demon child” films so popular in the 1970s. It featured Linda Blair as a possessed young teen – her green-slime spitting, 360 degree swiveling head and manic, gravelly-voiced Satanic torrent of abuse kept many who saw the film awake at night.

Now, of course I’m not suggesting that there is anything about a PhD that is like this nail-bitingly scary film. Am I?

Well, many a doctoral thesis has left an examiner underwhelmed because it doesn’t seem to be written by an expert researcher. The writing is hesitant and deferential at the very times when the writer should be showing that they are assured and assertive. It’s as if the nearly doctor is possessed by an inner doctoral “student” whose writing is tentative, distant, impersonal, formal. And that “student” needs to be got rid of. 

So yes, I am saying that there is an exorcism needed when writing the PhD. It’s not an exorcism which features ritual recitations, candles and priests. It’s not one you get someone else to do. It’s an exorcism you have to do for yourself – although you can get some help from your friends. The exoticism I’m referring to is one which means hunting for, finding and removing the doctoral ”student” lurking within your thesis text.

How to do this? Well, here’s a few things to try out:

(1) The lurking doctoral “student” is risk averse, afraid to state their case. So, go through your text looking for all of the places where you have used words like “possibly”, “might”, “could” and would” and check whether these can be excised/removed. You may choose to keep some of these hedges  – but you may also decide to make some of your statements stronger and more confident.

(2) The lurking “doctoral student” is afraid to say things in their own words. They often hide behind the words of others. So, show your work to a colleague. Ask them to look for places where there are too many quotations and citations, places where you could provide your own explanation of other people’s work and offer your interpretation and evaluation. Rewrite these sections as if you were explaining them to your colleague. 

(3) The lurking “doctoral student” often writes difficult and complex sentences. Too many ideas jammed in together. Clunky writing that trips the reader up. So read some of your pages aloud. Does the reading sound as if it could be delivered as a key-note at a prestigious academic conference? Remind yourself what words and phrases are characteristic of the authoritative academic public speaker… Can you rewrite your pages using this kind of expert syntactical approach? Say it loud and proud.

(4) The lurking “doctoral student” feels as if they are writing in another’s voice. So, give some of your text to an academic colleague who knows you well. Ask them to find and mark a passage which they think “sounds like you”. Go through the passage(s) with them to work out what are the characteristics of this like-you writing – is it, for example, sentence length, variety in sentence construction and length, choice of terms, use of linguistic tools such as metaphor, the balance of active and passive voice, the judicious use of nominalized terms? Writer’s “voice” is largely conveyed through choice of language and the way in which sentences are constructed. Work around the like-you writing, spread its borders outwards.

(5) The lurking “doctoral student” writes for a reader they can’t imagine. So, choose a particularly difficult piece of writing, one you’re not happy with. Now rewrite it as if you are talking to a friend. Compare this more relaxed and informal writing with the original. What can you take from the second piece of text and bring into the first to make it less awkward and hard to read?

(6) The lurking “doctoral student” sees writing as a chore, or worse, as something to be endured. They are not prepared to practice the craft of writing. So, take some time out to look at the writing of others. Find your favorite writer and examine their prose to see how they construct paragraphs. Strip out the content from a passage you particularly admire to make a sentence skeleton, and then insert your own content. How did it “feel’ to take this rhetorical stance and present your work using this expert writing? Try to write a passage of your own taking the same rhetorical stance.

And of course writing other kinds of texts – blogs, media articles, short pieces for professional papers – all helps you to develop a sense of your own expertise and authority. Writing for a range of audiences and purposes is a very good way to develop your own expert researcher and exorcise the lurking “doctoral student” for good.

Note:
The idea of exorcism and the exercises in this post have been adapted from Chapter 4; Rankin, Elizabeth (2001) The work of writing. Insights and strategies for academics and professionals. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Posted in "doctoral student", academic writing, authority in writing, style, voice | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

lessons learned from a doctoral writing group

This is a guest post from Charlotte Wegener from Aalborg University, who worked with a group of peers to share their experiences of writing in the PhD.

My former doctoral peer group wrote a paper together about the dual process of academic writing and developing researcher identity. The paper is entitled Borrowing Brainpower – Sharing Insecurities (Wegener, Meier & Ingerslev, 2014). In the paper, we analyses one of our own peer sessions. The session was not initially intended as data. I recorded the session on my cell phone because I knew I needed a way of remembering and re-entering the discussion about a chapter for my dissertation which was being discussed that particular day. In our analysis of the sessions, we draw on three concepts proposed by Aitchison and Lee (2006): ‘mutuality’, ‘expertise’ and ‘writer identity’. ‘Mutuality’ refers to the delicate dynamics between power and difference at all levels of interaction such as the negotiation of group norms and the micro-dynamics of turn-taking. ‘Expertise’ refers to know-how that advances learning in a peer group. Expertise comes in multiple forms, depending on the type of group and the needs of its members. Thus, each peer group builds a shared repertoire of language and skills for analysing and describing texts. Finally, the concept of ‘writer identity’ in peer learning refers to questions of voice, authority and writer positioning, issues that invariably arise in writing groups over time and in relation to the research communities in which the doctoral studies are located.

Our experience as a peer group over three years serves as a backdrop for the analyses. However, we decided to zoom in on one specific session with the aim to show, not tell. While similar studies draw mainly on interview data referring to the peer processes, our paper provides first-hand and real-time data from the situated activity of peer learning. We thus aim to invite the reader into the everyday activities of both writing and identity formation in-progress.

I transcribed the one hour long recording and shared it with my peers. We started out by a selection of all dialogues in the transcript that addressed writing struggles and researcher identity. We decided to aim at combining these two aspects because the literature on doctoral writing and peer learning designates these as both critical and underexposed. We then developed the analysis through turn-taking and circulated the text over email several times while simultaneously reviewing the literature and reporting our insights gained from reading every time one of us passed on a new version of the manuscript. At long last, we came across the terms ‘mutuality, expertise and writer identity’ which enabled us to refine the analysis. Thus, our analytical strategy was mainly inductive though inspired by the literature.

Taking a break from one’s own project to read others people’s texts and meet with peers in writing groups may be unattractive for the reason that it is time consuming. However, our analysis shows that all members of a peer group build expertise, mutuality and identity, even though only one text is on the agenda at any given session. Building competencies as a peer reviewer is an important skill in academia, and a safe training environment reduces performance anxiety when the researcher eventually receives manuscripts for review from real journal editors. As a side effect, the reviewer role enables the student to decode what works well and to transfer these insights into his or her own writing.

It is important to mention that peer writing groups are not supportive or productive per se. Potential negative dynamics of peer interaction are over-intimacy, intrigues and non-productive power struggles. These kinds of peer group dynamics are obviously even more sensitive to report, especially from a first person perspective. Yet, they also need attention as they may explain why some doctoral students are reluctant to participate or choose to withdraw from peer groups.

Borrowing Brainpower – Sharing Insecurities, however, tells the story of how peer writing can be a crucial activity to make the doctoral journey a less lonely and less fearful experience. I hope the paper will encourage others to report from those sites and activities that support experiences of desire, delight and joy.

Wegener, C., Meier, N. & Ingerslev, K. (2014). Borrowing brainpower – sharing insecurities. Lessons learned from a doctoral peer writing group, Studies in Higher Education, ahead-of-print(1-14) (paywalled).

Posted in Charlotte Wegener, doctoral writing group | Tagged , | 3 Comments

where do blog ideas come from?

People often ask me how I maintain a blog. How do I manage to write a post twice a week? On top of all of the other writing too… How exactly does it happen?

My usual answer is that I’m simply addicted to writing. I write most days and always have done. I can’t remember not writing. But I’ve never been a diary-ing person. I wasn’t one of those teenage girls who wrote her daily secrets in a book kept under the mattress. I’ve just always written – stories, papers, bits and pieces of dialogue, letters, essays. So it’s not too hard to just make some of that daily writing blog posts. But that answer begs the questions of where the topics to write about come from.

Yes, of course I sometimes struggle for ideas about what to write. I do keep a list of ideas I might write about. I do say that if pushed. However, what I don’t usually tell people is that I often don’t start a post with an actual worked out idea. Some posts I know in advance what I’ll say. Someone has asked me a question or I’ve decided there’s a writing problem I ought to say something about. But quite a lot of the time I start with a blank screen and a single word or two taken from my list, and I just start typing more words and playing with them. An idea soon takes over and I have a post of some kind. This kind of associational writing often means I go off to find some reading mid-way through; I’ve recalled a thought/idea/quotation which has then made its way into the writing.

For a long time I thought that this approach to generating ideas for posts was a pretty odd habit. I wanted to keep it quiet. But then I discovered that it is exactly what the late Ray Bradbury did. He wrote everyday, but more importantly, he always began a new story with nothing particular in mind. He did however keep a list of words which intrigued him – the meadow, the monster, the attic and so on… On the morning he was to begin a new story he sat down at his typewriter, randomly selected a word from the list – or perhaps was called to a word on the list – and then began typing associated words. Phrases and sentences and paragraphs followed this associative trail. He just wrote. And as he typed a story emerged.

This “playing around with words”, free associating, is a bit like the line drawings, the shuffling images, the rolling and punching down of clay that some artists use to being to begin a new work. You do something with the material, you mess about with it, and something comes into your mind.

Bradbury, a prolific writer, generally wrote the first draft of a new story in a day. It then took much longer for him to redraft and edit and redraft some more. Bradbury urged others to try out writing fast and in this associative way. Not all the time, but as a way to find an idea and develop it.

Run fast, stand still. This, the lesson from lizards. For all writers. Observe almost any survival creature, you see the same. Jump, run, freeze. In the ability to flick like an eyelash, crack like a whip, vanish like steam. Here this instant, gone the next – life teems the earth. And then that life is not rushing to escape, it is playing statues to do the same. See the humming bird, there not there. As thought arises and blinks off, so this thing of summer vapour, the clearing of cosmic throat, the fall of a leaf. And there it was – a whisper.

What can we writers learn from lizards, lift from birds? In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought, in delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-tapping.
Ray Bradbury (1990) Zen in the art of writing. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell editions p 13

I’m absolutely sure that this approach won’t work for everyone – although Bradbury seem to think that it will and that everyone should write this way. But it does work for me, although I can hardly compare my modest little posts with a Bradbury short story, novel or poem. But blog post writing is much more a creative process of fast working than any other academic writing I do. But having said that, I do often have a similar approach to pre-planning academic writing – this is where I just start typing around an idea, writing my way into an angle, an argument, a paper.

I don’t think of this as ‘free writing’, because the post has a set point to start with – the list – and a repeated associational technique. I hadn’t thought of this as deadfalling or tiger-tapping before I read Bradbury, but I do now. His seems a more purposeful notion to me than free writing although I’m sure that people will tell me it’s the same. Associational fast writing to me signals the process is about growing possibilities, letting an idea build up from just writing around and through an initial word or two.

Next time someone asks me how I manage to write two posts a week I think I’ll ‘fess up. I’m a frozen lizard most of the time, I’ll say, and then I just run. I’m a blink, a statue, a whisper, a throat clearing… I’ve got a minuscule and tiny little bit of Bradbury’s writing zen, and I exercise it regularly writing posts.

And the word that started this post off was ‘fast’.

Posted in blogging, pace, Ray Bradbury, word association | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

on not writing from the PhD

This is a guest post by Dr Mark Carrigan, Research Fellow at Centre for Social Ontology: socialontology.org, The University of Warwick and Digital Fellow at The Sociological Review: @thesocreview.

On March 26th 2014 I finally submitted my thesis for the PhD I had begun almost six years earlier. The event itself was somewhat anticlimactic after a false start the day before when ebullience at having finished gave way to irritation upon realising I’d misread the formatting guidelines and had to get my thesis reprinted. Thus I shuffled into University House the following day, somewhat hungover, with my now correctly printed thesis only to be told that I was in the wrong place and had to make my way across campus if I wanted the university to take receipt of this document which had dominated my life for the past six years. In retrospect this subdued comedy of errors seems rather appropriate because it helped detract from what might otherwise have been unreasonable expectations about how I would feel once it was over. I never really liked being a PhD student yet I never wanted to let go of my thesis. I felt about it rather like this panda feels about his green ball:

panda

I’d got used to sitting with it. It’s simply what I was doing: sitting with my green ball. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable and at times it became downright tedious. But it was comfortable and familiar to an extent that made the impending reality of it being snatched away from me feel bizarrely traumatic. But in reality, it wasn’t snatched away, as much as the belittling objectivity of a final deadline from the university made it seem as if it would be. From the mildly chaotic handing in process through to a six month long wait for a viva and the weirdly familiar process of getting a library copy printed and going to hand this in, it simply rolled away from me in a manner I was only dimly aware of at the time. This thing that had provided such structure to my life since the age of 23 faded slowly into the distance until I one day discovered that I was Dr. Carrigan giving a lecture to a room full of masters students. That first lecture on the masters module I convened was the closest thing I’ve experienced to a culmination of the process and it wasn’t all that close. The graduation ceremony was another occasion on which to wear a suit that doesn’t fit me properly, coupled with an ever sillier hat perched upon my head than last time.

The point of this naval-gazing is to address a question Patter asked me after a conversation on Twitter: why I am so averse to going back to publish from my PhD? It’s been over a year since I handed it in and yet a begrudging cover-to-cover reading the day before my viva is the only point at which I’ve looked at in this time. This was the double sided misprint which my false start at handing in left me with, a document I scrawled upon before relegating to the corner of my book shelf. The slightly diminished status of the volume feels oddly appropriate and yet mildly upsetting. Oddly enough for someone who once agonised over whether instrumentalism would win out in deciding what to do with my PhD thesis (http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/12530) I now find myself struggling to motivate myself to do anything with it.

When I say ‘my PhD’ what do I actually mean? It occurs to me that it was both process and outcome. It’s something I did for six years, entirely subjugating every other aspect of my life to it, but it’s also the outcome of that process. This lends the document itself a tremendously ambiguous status which I think goes some way to explaining my reluctance to part with at the time of submission. I’ve never known quite how to feel about it, least of all when the university was telling me I had to finally hand it over or they’d kick me out.

My PhD has its material existence as sheets of paper, sequentially bound together according to a strict rubric, upon which its intellectual content is inscribed. But it also has a more spectral existence, something which postmodernists might describe as hauntalogical: its existence as a physical document brings to a close all which came before it and yet these angst-ridden years linger on through the physicality of those pages. As a marker of intellectual progress, it captures all the mistakes I made and grants an acidulous permanence to the missteps which I realise on a reflective level are an unavoidable part of the process. But it was also the horizon of that progress, as well as my life as a whole during that time in which so much happened to make me the person I am now, some fantastic, a little that was truly terrible and much that was simply tedious. In view of this, the materiality of the thesis seems almost pathetically mundane to me.

I can’t imagine ever feeling comfortable with my PhD. It’s not that I think it’s a bad PhD… it’s an unusual piece of work but I’ve had enough people I respect understand what I was trying to do for me to feel confident that it has intellectual value. But the document itself feels so unendingly strange to me, even now over a year later when I find myself reflecting on it for the first time in weeks, I’d like nothing more than to leave it in the past as an awkward and confusing encounter I doubt I’ll ever be sure what to make of. In spite of this, I know my PhD will in reality follow me wherever I go, intensifying my avoidance in the knowledge that I can’t ever entirely avoid it. I might very well end up producing the handful of journal articles which could very easily be adapted from my thesis. I don’t really want to though and the evidence thus far suggests I probably won’t. Hopefully in writing this I’ve helped explain why this is the case and I’m curious to know if others share my antipathy towards something which the culture of the academy suggests we should be proud of.

Posted in Mark Carrigan, PhD, postdoc | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

the PhD = acquiring know how

We all know the term “know how” – if you have it, you can ‘do stuff’, because you have the required skills and expertise.

Common sense suggests that the skills and expertise acquired during the PhD are those of doing research – designing a credible project; doing that project in ways that are defensible; communicating the research results in a text; and then defending the project, the results and the claims for a knowledge contribution. This is the know how that research training programmes aim to ‘teach’, and supervisors are there to support and guide.

However, the know-how that is to be acquired during the PhD is actually more than this. Doing a doctorate is not simply a matter of skills and expertise. It’s also about being able to participate in the conversations and practices of the scholarly community – even if this community is one you don’t intend to stay in after the PhD is over.

Some people understand know how as participation in a ‘community of practice’(1) in which you learn what you are already actually doing. Sound familiar? A lot of the PhD feels like this. But, regardless of how you theorise it, doing a PhD is actually not simply about learning the various hidden rules of academic research and writing. It is that, but more. It is also about learning the wider conventions of scholarly work in the academy, and how that work gets done via various forms of presentation, representation and conversation. In other words, doctoral researchers need to become savvy about and adept in the ways in which the myriad and diverse transactions and interactions between scholars are staged. These are community practices which matter.

As Ken Hyland (2000) has observed, doctoral researchers must not only learn how to use the specialised terminology of their specific discipline but also learn how speak in ways that will be understood and deemed appropriate within their community.  So this means learning about the key players in existing conversations and the ways in which their work and words are referred to. And it means learning about the relations between experienced members of the particular disciplinary community, and how the relations within whole community – with its various levels of expertise from new entrant to senior member – are managed.

This wider task of acquiring know how is often at the heart of PhD shared stories. People talk about the combined struggle of doing the research, writing the text, and becoming a scholar – the process that Barbara and I call text work/identity work. Told and written by doctoral researchers, and those past the examination, such shared stories allow writers to reflect on the plethora of non-textual strategies and research moves that they had to learn. For example:

• How do you learn how to present work to others in response to the question, “What is your PhD about?”

• How do you learn to refer in conversation to the writings of other people, writings that were vital to your research, without sounding like an essay or a try-hard or someone not sure about themselves and what they are doing?

• How can you explain your research in ways that don’t end up in an unwanted supervision session, rather than a more equal scholarly conversation?

For some helpful, focused, PhD know how stories, I often send people to the library to find the book “Learning the literacy practices of graduate school. Insider’s reflections on academic enculturation” edited by Christine Casanave and Ziaoming Li. Many of the chapters are written by postgraduate researchers and their supervisors, some by PhDs or post docs reflecting on their experiences. And a serious number of the chapters are written by PhDs whose first language is not English; they faced an additional range of cultural know how challenges. All of the contributions focus specifically on the kinds of textual and conversational difficulties that the writers experienced during their doctorates, the questions that they were afraid to ask and the ones they did ask, and the strategies that they developed to develop scholarly know how.

All of the writers experienced aspects of their postgraduate years as “secret business”. Some writers use the metaphor of doing the PhD as coming to a foreign territory; this helps them to think about the tangled set of specialised language, cultural conventions and vernacular expressions that they had to learn. Tracey Costley, at the time of writing her chapter enrolled in a PhD in a London university, reported her experiences of shifting from thinking about “know that” to know how:

I tried to stand back from all that was going on around me and began to take a look at what people were doing to see if I could understand what was going on, just as a tourist might do. In this light, everything became a learning opportunity. I realised that I usually sat in seminars and conference presentations concentrating on what was being said as opposed to the how of what was being said. I realised I paid no real attention to the language techniques people use to structure and present their ideas. As I began to listen for more than content I began to hear the ways in which people pose questions, make reference to publications, and generally take control of the topic at hand.

Similarly I started to make comparable observations in texts. Instead of reading for content alone, I started to look at the different devices people use to structure their work and present their arguments. For example, how do writers make reference to other texts and how do they use references to make their own stances and positions clear? How are arguments signposted, supported, and developed across texts, and how to people introduce the theoretical backgrounds from which they are drawing? This focus on form raised my awareness of the ways in which both writers and speakers handle the literature and concepts they are using and how these formal features are used to scaffold their ideas and ultimately their voices.

That’s a long extract I know, but I wanted to give a flavour of the focused reflections that are in the various book chapters, and the ways in which they variously unpack the question of what is involved in scholarly ‘know how’. Costley for instance addresses the kinds of meta discourse typically used in scholarly talk. She shows how getting on top of the talk also helped her writing.

The chapters in the book all show the importance of attending carefully to the question of know how, in order to accomplish the text work/identity work required for successful PhD completion – which is, as the writers in the book say, creates safe passage into an academic community of practice, and the scholarly conversation.

Note:

(1) Jean Lave, an anthropologist, draws on studies of tailors and their apprentices in order to develop insights into know how, including know how in research training. If you have fifty minutes  to spare, you might want to watch Jean Lave talking about communities of practice and learning to be, do, speak and write, via apprenticeship.

Reference:

Tracey Costley ( 2008) Finding and owning your academic voice in Casanave, C and Li, X Eds “Learning the literacy practices of graduate school. Insider’s reflections on academic enculturation pp 74-87 Michigan: The University of Michigan Press

Posted in communities of practice, Jean Lave, Ken Hyland, know how, Tracey Costley | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

post conference reflections – on networking and “reporting back”

As always, after coming home from a conference I’m in a swirl of muddled ideas. I have some obligations to contact people and send things, and there’s some further follow up work to do. I’ve also inadvertently been thinking about the conference connections with research practice.

I’ve been thinking about the process of network-ing. A number of conference people, including me, are in the process of forming a new European arts education research network. This was actually our third meeting and we have another coming up in November. Because we don’t exist in any formal sense yet, we can’t get any funding, so we need to piggy-back on other occasions such as this event at Wildbath Kreuth. At the same time, we actually have to do something. Networks are based on activity not planning, so some people in our group are putting in quite a lot of work to develop an infrastructure and a preliminary project that will make the network a network. At the same time, each of us also has to initiate some kind of activity in our own countries, again without funding. Personal connections are clearly paramount in all of this and the “founding members” of the new network are inevitably going to look a bit like a snowball research sample. Not everyone who ought to be there will be, and from outside, it might be a bit hard to locate the reasons for the founding members being who they are!

I’ve also thought about the (generally dreadful) processes of working groups reporting back to plenary sessions. No matter how slick the drawings, or how detailed the notes, or how passionate the speaker, it seems that reporting back in an interesting way is a pretty scarcely distributed skill. I’m sure we’ve all sat through long sessions in which appointed reporters did their very best to sum up a rather rambling discussion in which various points of view are put. 

I saw one person at this conference report back in  a more elegant way. In his first report back he said – ”I’m going to say three things that I saw as the most important in the discussion” – he then gave a succinct two minutes about each point. The second time he spoke he said – “There were five words that summarised the discussions…. “ He then offered a theme such as “ the local” and spoke for a minute or so on each theme.

This person treated the notes of the discussion as if they were data. Rather than offer a summary of everything that was said, he moved “up” a level to find some major patterns – that is, he analysed what was said – and reported those patterns in a way that was both succinct and engaging. He applied some basic social science data analysis practice – that of pattern finding – to the task of reporting back. 

It now seems to me that reporting back is another of those hidden conference “skills” that could be talked about more. If it can be though of as analogous to what we already know how to do with data, then perhaps more of us can find ways to draw out the big pictures from our collegial conversations.

Perhaps there is a need for an equivalent to the Three Minute Thesis here. People could learn to report back, opting for major points and arguments, within a limited time period, rather than going for coverage and a rehash of everything that was said. We could also practice succinct reporting back rather than just going on and on and on and on… Zzzzzzz

Posted in conference, networking, reporting back, Wildebath Kreuth | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments