safety and research

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Every now and then you read papers* by someone who has experienced violence during their fieldwork. Karen Ross, for instance, wrote about sexual violence in the field. She described the ways in which protecting herself from harassment and assault meant she had to adopt defensive behaviours that ran counter to the usual advice in research methods books – reduce distance to gain trust. For her, reducing distance did not produce trust, rather serious risks.

Imogen Clark and Andrea Grant discuss the need to start an uncomfortable conversation about the risks arising from researching in a new gender and sexual economy in which different understandings of reciprocity and exchange may be at play. Clark and Grant are very clear that the risks and violence they discuss happens everywhere. At home, and abroad. And violent attacks, in particular, are most likely to be carried out by acquaintances, not strangers. Clark and Grant discuss the guilt that a researcher can feel for putting themselves in a situation where she is assaulted.  This guilt was often accompanied by an acute sense of failure and even despair. How would she ever gather the data she needed to complete her thesis? Should she continue speaking to and meeting with potential (or, indeed, confirmed) assailants?

Clark and Grant are concerned that the potential for violence – physical, verbal or emotional – directed at researchers is rarely discussed in research training or in supervision. That’s my concern too.

But I’m also concerned about the effects of engaging with terrible situations.

It is not at all uncommon for researchers in the humanities and social sciences to want to research the experiences of survivors. Survivors of tragic one-off events or genocidal policies or war, or ongoing hostile policy agendas or hate-filled public behaviours. Or perhaps research into the toxic effects of everyday aggressions. You don’t have to look very far to see everyday aggressions, both macro and micro. Researchers who do this kind of work are usually driven by concerns for justice. Perhaps they have some experience of the topic of their research. But regardless of their own position, they are likely to encounter situations where they might experience strong emotional responses to the stories they hear and the events and contexts they come to understand.

As Ruth Behar says, it’s important that we don’t pretend that we don’t feel or care. But those emotions can end up causing us distress, anxiety and even trauma if we don’t look after ourselves. It’s important that researchers/we stay healthy physically and mentally. That’s about self-care.  That is enough on its own. But we also want to stay safe and healthy because we owe it to the survivors we’ve worked with to stay well so we can do their stories justice.

I suspect that fieldwork-related risk, safety, stress, anxiety and trauma are not well discussed in a lot of methods education. I’ve looked at the training courses I know about and not had a lot of joy in answering two basic questions – Where and how much are the risks of violence, trauma and stress arising from research discussed? (answer I haven’t a clue) Have I ever encountered this in researcher or supervisor training? (answer no)

Of course, fieldwork risks and post-fieldwork stress, anxiety and trauma are discussed in some locations and some texts (see for instance Helen Kara’s chapter on researcher well-being in her book Research Ethics in the Real World). And researcher safety and well-being is an increasingly important topic of conversation in disciplines like anthropology. But I reckon the university-wide conversation is patchy at best. It sits in tick-box in ethics forms or in anxious closed-door conversations in supervision.

The irony is that within universities we have disciplines which deal with risk, violence, stress and trauma. Professionals such as psychologists, social workers, counsellors – all of whom are educated in universities by our colleagues – have well-developed procedures for support and ongoing supervision to manage potentially tricky and damaging work-produced feelings and/or conditions. Why aren’t we routinely engaging these colleagues in research training?

It seems to me that there’s a much overdue public conversation about research-related safety, risks and trauma – but also a formal recognition that we actually have the resources available to us to take charge of structurally-produced consequences for researchers. If we have the wherewithal to make sensible institutional provisions to anticipate and deal with research-associated violence, risk, stress and trauma, why don’t we?

 And via Dr Kay Guccione: Check out the resources from Sheffield about emotionally demanding research

*See for instance a paper by Sinah Theres Kloß (paywalled), blog posts  here and here and here.

Photo by Lukas Juhas on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, ethics, ethics of care, trauma | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

what is “measured” writing?

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I was recently part of a small discussion on another social media platform where someone reported that their supervisor had said their writing wasn’t sufficiently “measured’. Without seeing the actual work it was pretty hard to understand what the supervisor was concerned about. But everyone in the discussion knew that the term was vague, and therefore unhelpful.

But “your writing is not measured” is not an uncommon supervisor or reviewer comment. I wondered then, as I do whenever I hear it, what “measured” is code for. I could think of five possibilities.

The first. The text in question was not written in the third person, there wasn’t enough passive voice, and not enough multi-syllabled abstract nouns (nominalisations, or zombie nouns as Helen Sword calls them). In other words it didn’t read as ‘academic’. A lot of people think that academic writing has to be this way – passive voice, long sentences etc. Now, this style of writing is heavily criticised – many writing advice texts (Sword, Pinker, Billig) call for writing that is less complicated, that has a mix of short and long sentences, more active voice and far fewer nouny terms. But maybe this supervisor hadn’t read this good advice. Just because this advice is out there doesn’t mean that some supervisors have given up on convoluted and dense as the right way to write.

Following on, the second thought. The text didn’t have the right disciplinary flavour. Some disciplines, writing researchers tell us, are more characterised by personal feelings and value judgments. Writers in philosophy and education, for example, are more likely to express their own opinion than, say, those in engineering or biology. Perhaps this writer hadn’t written to disciplinary norms. Perhaps they hadn’t got the balance of personal feelings quite right. That’s hard and doesn’t always come straight away.

Or, third response, perhaps the writer was still in assignment writing mode and was more certain than is expected at doctoral level. They used too many strong boosters (clearly, definitely, absolutely, no doubt, extremely, obviously) and not enough hedges ( perhaps, somewhat, may, might, to an extent, possibility, almost). Strong boosters close down other possible interpretations, they leave little room for debate. They can make the writer seem overly assured, more sure of what they have to offer, when what is expected is something a little less assertive.

And fourth, maybe the writer just didn’t leave enough pointers in their text to critical thinking – they didn’t have enough references. They didn’t show that they had thought about possible counter-arguments. The supervisor was expecting to see sentences which started – alternatively, at the same time, however, on one hand and on the other, rather than, although, yet, conversely. Or perhaps the writer didn’t make their interpretations clear enough. They didn’t elucidate – in other words, to put it simply, to be precise – or give examples – here, specifically, in this instance, an illustration of this is.

And then finally. Measured. Yes. I recalled that my writing has sometimes been called journalistic. Too much personality, too much voice, too much idiosyncratic metaphor and style. This is of course why I like blogging. I like playing about with syntax – breaking the orthodoxies of the sentence and the paragraph. I enjoy mucking about with words, making up new terms, finding interesting analogies. And this is a choice on my part. I know perfectly well how to write a five sentence paragraph and the standard long academic sentence. I sometimes even write-this-way, particularly when writing for audit purposes (audit-oriented reviewers tend to be not-amused by experimentation). However, even when I’m playing with text, I do still take what I would call a measured stance towards the topic – I generally write to open up discussion rather than close it down. Did the supervisor confuse style with lack of substance, I wondered?

At the end of this chain of thoughts, I wondered about what advice I could offer. Like others in the discussion, I suggested that the writer go back and ask the supervisor to clarify. Ask them to show examples of “measured” prose and talk through its characteristics. I did suggest that the doctoral writer ask about boosters, hedges and critical markers, as well as whether there were enough references.

However, I don’t know what actually happened.

But I’m interested to know if anyone else has had the “not measured” comment about their writing, and if they were able to find out exactly what it meant. It‘s one of those elusive terms that suggest the presence of hidden rules and expectations. And we supervisors, bless us, often recognise a problem related to covert rule- breaking without being able to actually say precisely what the issues are.

And that’s about the lack of formal support for supervisor writing education, not individual inadequacy. Oh, don’t start me on that….

 

 

Posted in academic writing, argument, boosters, disciplines, hedges, measured writing, nominalisation, passive voice, stance, thingification | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

make a poster then write your paper

Im quite a fan of the academic research poster. However, posters have a bad reputation in some quarters. They’re sometimes seen as a “less than” – less than a conference paper, a second rate public presentation.

Ever heard anyone say – Oh my paper didn’t get in the main conference papers but they offered me a poster instead. It’s not worth me going in that case. Sound familiar? Or perhaps – There’s a poster session on next. I can give that a miss. There won’t be anything much for me there. That too?

These are an unfair and ill-deserved rap in my view. But not uncommon.

Presenting a poster at a conference can be A Good Thing.

Of course, for that to happen, the conference needs to have dedicated a posters time slot. Posters ought not to be something that get squeezed in instead of lunch – no time allowed really does say to people, this conference has posters but we don’t really value them.

But if the conference has been conscious of posters, has set aside time and advertised the session(s), then you may well find that the people who come to see your poster – with you standing next to it with your paper or handout – will actually be really interested. They will want to talk. The poster offers you the opportunity to chat, and there’s more chance of finding out where interests overlap. And who knows where that may go.

The research poster has uses after the conference too. It can be displayed in your office or corridor so that people in your building can see what you are doing. Very often, we don’t know that much about what the people we work with are actually researching, and posters on display give us the chance to see – and then follow up. And it’s good for students and visitors too to come into a building and see the kinds of research work that is done there.

BUT…

There’s another use for posters too. And that’s as a strategy to prepare a paper. Yes, a poster is a great way to get yourself organised for writing the conference paper or journal article.

Now, I often talk about tiny text abstracts as a way to start off a paper. And of course there’s free writing, the Pomodoro, with its variations of looping, ink-shedding, and use of prompts. You can also storyboard or use Powerpoint to sort out your paper too.

But posters are another good strategy for starting writing. Designing a poster is a bit like an abstract except that its longer. You have to produce more words. A poster is often about a thousand words. That’s not really a lot.

The key to the poster as writing strategy is that you have to sort out

  • the title – something that tells a passer-by or prospective visitor to your stand what your work is about, and what you have to say. It helps if your title is more than simply descriptive, but also signals to a reader your take-home point.
  • the beginning and end. Sorting out what needs to go at the start and the finish happen together. The introduction and conclusion “shake hands”. Your paper is going to start with some kind of problem, puzzle or question which you answer at the end. Your introduction also needs to set the puzzle in its context – and that context is what the So What and Now What that arise from your conclusion will refer back to. See my poster below for a simple example. I use ‘the blank screen’ at the beginning and end.
  • the middle is simple. It’s how you get from the question, problem or puzzle to your conclusion. This process may be through sections which look at literature, methods and results, or it may be a narrative made up of words and pictures. Or anything in between. What’s in the middle often depends on your discipline, and what kind of research you are doing. But whatever the middle of your poster is, it’s what takes up most of the words, because that’s the new stuff that you’ve done.

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Designing a poster and sorting out the sections and key content of each of them takes some time. In my writing workshops we usually take a couple of days – with the first day working on the title and the abstract. Then comes the actual poster, which doesn’t have an abstract on it by the way. The poster takes just a few more hours.

And yippee. Once you’ve made your poster, you are well on your way to writing the paper proper. You’ve already got it there in miniature form. You’ve done the hard graft of sorting out the title and the staging of the argument or narrative. It’s not so difficult now to think about working on each section and enlarging them.

Posters can do a lot of work for you in preparing a paper if you commit to them.

Posted in academic writing, conference papers, planning a paper, poster | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

book writing – an occasional post

I’m up against what is now a very tight deadline. It would have been OK if I hadn’t been away from broadband for all of January when I was at home in Australia.

No wifi was an unforeseen glitch. It was largely down to the sheer inefficiency of the Australian telecommunications self-styled IT giant. Getting online involved numerous phone calls to the offshore call centre and a great deal of irritation. Even the view from my balcony (above) couldn’t get me past my crabbiness about being offline – I just couldn’t access my files. All efficiently stored on cloud before I left home in England.

And then the glorious day when I finally had access.  I decided, very unwisely as it turned out, to celebrate by updating my bibliographic software. Despite all of the information about compatibility this new version wasn’t immediately in sync with my word processing software. More delay.  More emails and phone calls to the helpline which did indeed sort out the problem but – Merde!! Double Merde!!!!! More time lost from writing.

So I did what I could, which ended up being one measly chapter, not the four I had planned.

And a structural reorganisation. I often find that my initial ideas about book structures end up not being workable. They seem all OK when I send them off to the publisher. Then I get stuck into writing and that lovely plan just doesn’t seem right. On this January occasion, I had a few goes at a new structure and ended up writing the new first chapter.

Back at home in England and I found I had committed myself to write four entirely different book chapters for other people, all due within two months. I did manage to get these done as well as a revise and resubmit. But this was another two months lost to book writing. I found time to do some necessary reading but anxiety levels about the book’s due date were now on the rise.

So here I am now, having written the drafty draft of chapter two last week, working on chapter three. I aim to have this completed by Wednesday. Take out today for administrative work and other things I must do like references and reviews and that means I am writing like stink, to put not too fine a point on it, over the next two days.

And the problem is that I think that my nicely reworked structure still isn’t right. You see, I’m pretty sure that I now know all the bits that I need for the book. I’m a bit perturbed that there is more preliminary information than I had imagined in my reworked plan, but I can’t see how to leave any of it out. And I do know my argument. I think I have all of the ducks. I’m just not confident about how to line them up.

I can’t really afford to stop cranking out draft chapters otherwise I’ll never make the deadline. So I’m proceeding thinking that at some point there will be some very serious cut and paste reorganising of what I’ve already written.

I’ve been in this position before so I’m not as perturbed as I was the first time this happened. If I wasn’t quite so concerned about the impending hand-in date I’d be able to take a bit more pleasure in the creative aspects of this not-quite-sureness.

Because that’s really what it is. You can know your argument, do all the planning in the world (all of the tiny texts and storyboards and all of the reading notes to hand, and have done some of the writing ) and still find yourself in a position where you have to do some rethinking. Ironically, in my case, I have a sneaky suspicion that the next rethink might lead me back to something remarkably like my initial book proposal. Hey ho. So it goes.

The dawning of this-structure-isn’t-working feeling can happen when writing PhDs, when writing books and when writing journal articles. If it happens to you, you can choose to plod ahead with your initial plan or stop. My feeling is that I really don’t have much option but to follow my gut reaction and see where it leads me.

Ultimately you see, writing isn’t done to a formula. Even academic writing that conforms to a genre. It’s still about what you bring to it. What you imagine.

The act of writing is always about making the best sense that you can of your material and, yes, that may change as you develop your content in depth and detail. However, most academic writing is done to a deadline so there is always the question of balancing what ideally needs to be done with what realistically can be. That’s a juggle.

And that’s me right now, juggling what needs to be done and how it needs to be written and organised in the rapidly diminishing available time.

Wish me luck.

 

 

Posted in academic writing, book writing, deadline, time | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

proofreading tactics

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I am the world’s worst proofreader of my own work. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I am not alone. Almost everyone has difficulty reading their own work for errors. Mark Twain apparently said in a letter to Walter Bessant

You think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes & vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along. Sometimes, no matter how carefully we examine a text, it seems there’s always one more little blunder waiting to be discovered. (1898)

Not just me/us then.

Yet when we read other people’s work, the errors just leap off the page and we can’t ignore them. How come we can see their mistakes, and not ours?

There is an explanation for our inability to see what we have written. Psychologists call this perceptual set. That’s a tendency to notice some things and not others. We take in some sensory data and screen out the rest. We are literally ‘set’ to see/hear things in a particular way.

There are two kinds of perceptual set errors:

  • selector error. This is when we already have expectations about what we are about to see/hear and this expectation focuses our attention – we see/hear what we are anticipating. So this is a case of I read what I know I meant to write.
  • interpreter error. This is when we take pre-existing understandings of data – categories, inferences, meanings – and apply them to the data we are presented with. So this is a case of This means what I think it means.

Now, perception is a complicated thing and all kinds of factors are said to be involved. Some, for instance, are cultural and some are simply to do with the way that we feel at the time.

Psychologists have had all kinds of fun experimenting with perceptual set – we are more likely to interpret ambiguous pictures as animals if we have been shown animal pictures beforehand. If we are hungry everything reminds us of food… well, you get the picture.

The major point for us as writers is that our perceptual set means that we can just fail to notice printing or writing errors because we expect to see particular words in a particular order, spelled in a particular way. And we see what we think is there. Just as Twain said.

And the implication of perceptual set is that we need to do something to break through our expectations. We need to jolt ourselves out of our mindset to become open to seeing the unexpected.

In proofreading there are some key ways to do the jolt – but they don’t all work for everyone every time.

Here are seven suggestions to try out:

  • Take a break. Step away from the manuscript and wait for a couple of weeks and come back again. Time does give you some distance on what you’ve done.
  • Get some algorithmic help. Spellcheck and Grammarly can do some of the work for you – if not all.
  • Change the medium and appearance. Print out the manuscript rather than look at it on the screen. Use a different font and a different colour ink or paper.
  • Change order. Read the manuscript backwards or in random order.
  • Use another sense. Swap from eyes to ears. Read the manuscript aloud to yourself – or get the computer to read it out to you.
  • Look for one problem at a time. Check your known writing tics, search for consistency in the ways you have used pronouns – we, you, I. Look at sentence structure (too long, same length, repetitious beginnings, etc). Then word repetition and next word choice. Then look for spelling and punctuation issues. And finally, check the referencing.

Or

  • Set up a proofreading deal with a friend. Read each other’s work simply for typos, spellos and grammar. ( My preferred option!)

 But you need to do something. You can’t assume you’ll see the mistakes in your own writing. These seven tactics are a beginning repertoire to deal with perceptual (mind) set.

PS. And yes long-time patter readers, I’ve written about this before. But it was a long-time ago – and a reminder probably doesn’t hurt.

Posted in academic writing, proofreading | Tagged , | 2 Comments

going to a huge conference

I’m at a conference. A huge, utterly ginormous, gobsmackingly giant North American conference. As only the North Americans can do. It takes up a whole downtown conference centre and the meeting rooms of two additional hotels. The five-day conference runs from 8 am till 7 or 8 pm each night with no set break times.

A monstrous fifteen thousand or so people manoeuvre their way through the programme, trek from venue to venue, orienteer their way to their next room, queue for coffee in between sessions, and hope to find somewhere to sit for lunch. There are multiple and simultaneous keynotes, lectures, workshops and symposia as well as papers.

Every hour and a half, most of these fifteen thousand people get up and move. Each individual presentation is between thirty and twenty minutes long and ninety minute sessions operate to time – there is always a session after yours and people are anxious to get in and get set up. Prepare for the crowds, lifts that have stopped working, escalators and general hustle-bustle.

So this is actually a research town. A town that’s much bigger than your average village. The British town is officially between 1,000 and 100,000 people. This conference is getting on to be what would be classified as a large town, as large starts at 20,000. Just think what it takes to make a town function. Conferences as large as this take years in the planning and have large logistical teams to make sure that people can get registered, housed, and timetabled. They don’t always get everything right, and there are the inevitable cancellations, changes and complaints to deal with before, during and after the actual event.

This Sumo size conference is not just about giving papers. This is academic business writ large. There are meetings of journal Editorial boards and sessions where you can meet the Editors of just about every journal in the field. There are hiring sessions where you can meet and greet prospective employers and try to impress them with your suited bootedness and gorgeously laid out portfolio. And there are social events. Publishers hold receptions, as do various universities. You are supposed to have invitations to such events, not gatecrash, as they are primarily intended to provide an opportunity for colleagues to meet up in the middle of a busy conference schedule.

There’s also the book exhibition where every known academic press in the field has a stall. There are research companies and technology businesses represented too. My conference has ninety-nine booths altogether. Exhibitors are only supposed to display books that have been published in the last year. If you ever wanted to see academic productivity on display here it is. How did one discipline write so much in one year, I think to myself. Again. (And I must admit to feeling as if there is no point writing anything to add to this library.)

I always have two questions about conferences this big. One. Is a conference this monstrous worth going to? And a related point – Two. How does anyone make their way through this kind of event?

I guess the answer to the first question depends on whether you really do have to go. If you are in the US then this conference is just about mandatory. And if you’re elsewhere, then it is interesting to go at least once so you can see and experience just what a big academic conference is like. I went every year for a while but then got tired of it. I haven’t been for nearly ten years and I’m really only going to this one because it’s in Toronto and I can do other academic business at the same time. And to be fair, the conference is pretty competitive to get into, so there is some prestige in getting your paper through the reviewing process. This may matter a lot to some people for job-getting and promotion.

But I reckon whether you are there for the experience or because you must, then there are a few things you really do need to do in order to make the whole shebang manageable.

Get organised. That’s the mantra. Sort as much out in advance as you can.

If you don’t want to feel completely alienated from the entire conference, spending your five days wandering lonely as the proverbial cloud looking for someone you might know, go with some friends, or organise to meet some people you know while you’re there. Line up a couple of social events and dinners.

Read the programme in advance. Most conferences give you the option of a hard copy programme or digital and either one is helpful for pre-organisation. Online programmes are usually available a few weeks beforehand. Sort out your timetable and where you want to be when. Consult the conference map. Plot your routes as well if it looks as if getting to places will be tricky.

It’s good to find a special interest group or two that you want to follow. Most SIGs are programmed in the same set of rooms for the whole conference. Communities of academics gather around special interest groups – there can be ongoing conversations as presenters often refer back to other presentations and discussions continue between sessions. SIGs are a great place to meet like-minded people to share ideas and, well who knows what might follow from that.

Prepare for queues for food, and water. Bring a water bottle. It’s easier to refill than buy new bottles all the time. Bring some emergency food with you in case the queue is too long, what’s left looks disgusting or they’ve simply run out. Locate a couple of coffee places outside of the conference venue and get your re-useable cup ready. You can’t really prepare for loo queues other than plan not to go to every session – the ladies are always going to be more available during session times. Oh, and a small pack of tissues too, just in case the loo paper situation is desperate.

Also consider your clothes. If you’re meeting publishers or hirers then, of course, you have to look smartish. But you do need to think about just being at the conference too. Shoes you can walk and stand in – sometimes the sessions you go to will be standing room only. Comfort – sometimes you might have to sit on the floor, you may need layers to cope with the aircon inside and the weather out. A decent bag that is not going to give you backache or shoulder problems and that will hold your supplies as well as papers and books.

Making connections. Business cards are helpful in big conferences. It’s a simple way to provide your contact details to people. And, if the presenter doesn’t have a paper but says you can email them for a copy, jot your name on your business card with “email title of paper please” and hand it to them. That’s if you don’t want to have a conversation or if you can’t interrupt the conversation they’re already in.

There’s more you can do to make big conferences work for you too. I always take some time out to visit the city that my conference is in, usually it’s a gallery or museum or a mandatory must-see local landmark. Otherwise, if you’re in a corporate hotel and a big conference centre, you could just be anywhere.

I’m treating my conference as a writing retreat. So I’m going to a couple of sessions each day, keeping social events to a minimum and writing every day. It doesn’t feel as much like being at a conference, but it’s certainly productive!

 

Posted in academic writing, conference, conference app, conference presentation, conference survival tips | Tagged , , | 7 Comments