so you want to blog – should I write a guest post?

This mini-series is in response to numerous requests to say more about blogging. Your requests are my blogging agenda. 

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Why blog? Well, there are reasons.

Maybe you’ve heard, or been told, that blogging is a good way to reflect on your research, share your research and/or think in in public. That’s all pretty true. Maybe you have heard, or been told, that a side benefit of blogging is that it improves your academic writing. That’s often the case, but its not automatic, you have to work at any writing be it blog, thesis or journal. Maybe you’ve heard, or been told, that blogging is a good way to find some scholarly friends. That’s half right; you build networks when you do something alongside blogging – you tweet or Instagram alongside a blog.

Bu blogging is a big commitment. So maybe you have decided that you will begin by writing posts for other people’s blogs. This is a pretty shrewd strategy as it gives you the opportunity to try out this very particular kind of writing, and feel what it’s like having your writing open and available on the web. Guest posting also slipstreams on the readers that an existing blog already has – you have a ready-made audience and a potential network to ease into.

So how do you go about writing a guest post? Well here’s a few things to think about.

First of all, find your target blog. You can’t go past the general writing advice which tells you to think about audience and content together. So the most obvious thing about writing a blog post is having something to say and a clear idea of who might be interested in listening to/reading you. This means you need to find your readers. So you need to find a news-paper style blog that has the kind of readers who will be interested in what you have to say. This often isnt immediately obvious, but there may be something on the blogs you’re considering – a mission statement or  strap line -which indicates who are the intended readers. the content ought to tell you if these aren’t available.

Second – work out  the kind of post you are going to write. It helps to think a bit analytically about posts because they aren’t one thing, they are a family of small-ish texts.

  • There’s micro –posts of about 300-400 or so words which offer one point and elaborate it a little, often with hyper-links. Micro-posts are often meant to be read very quickly, but provide food for longer thought.
  • And then there’s the meso post, the version you see most often. Lots of blog posts are somewhere between 700-1300 words long. Something that you can read in a few minutes. They too usually make one point but they can say more about it. – They’ll use hyperlinks. Maybe make a few jokes. Add in a couple of references, diagrams, quotations.
  • And there’s the macro – long form blog posts which can run up to 4000 or so words. Macro posts have a point to make but generally either make a more substantive argument, or they tell a longer story. Macro posts may look like an academic paper with references and diagrammes/illustrations/figures, or like a literary essay, or like a magazine article. Macro posts are shorter than your average journal article and usually more informally written. But they do take more than a few minutes to read.

Sometimes blogs use all of these forms, but it is more common for them to stick to one. so check out what is the norm in the blog you are aiming for.

Thirdly, find out if the blog is interested in your guest post. If you are thinking about writing a guest post then of course you need to contact them– blogs often have an email or a contact form you can use or a named person with an email address. But  before you do this, you need to seriously think about what you are going to offer. What have you got to say that the blog will be interested in?

And the what-you-have-to-say is the key to writing a post. You’ll have noticed that when I was describing the three major post forms, I said each time that they made a point. A message that the writer wanted to convey. All posts of any length and style have a point to make.

And it’s good to communicate the point you want to make when you approach your target blog. Know the point and state the point right at the start.

So let’s get clear about communicating a point – it’s not a description. Let’s say you write to the blog editor –  Would you be interested in a post about my experiences of an online viva? That’s a description of the content, not the point about online vivas that you want to make. The editor may say yes or no to this. They may suggest that you write something and they will have a look. So you write a spec post and they say no, or they say, well maybe if you do these things to it, or well how about another version where you talk about it this way.

Or you might say Would you be interested in a post about my experience of an online viva? I want to tell people that it’s not as scary as some people think and there are some simple techniques you can use to make it work for you. So now the editor has a much better idea of what you want to write. If they aren’t interested they can say so. No time wasted on writing a post simply on spec.  Or the editor might say that would be of interest to us if you do… Or …we already have two posts on that topic and we would really need you to say something different and refer back to these. With any of these responses you have a much clearer steer on how to shape up the post.

So there was the other thing. Fourthly, your post has to be worth publishing. The point you make has to be interesting. It can’t be what everyone has already said. It can’t be well worn or tired.  Above all, it can’t be something that is already on your target blog. Your guest post has to either offer a new angle on a well-known topic or introduce a new topic.

So you’ve got all that covered. Point – check. Angle – check. Length of post – check. Email to blog editor – check. You’re ready to write.

Wait. Before you put hand to mouse you need to understand the style of post that is usually published on your target blog.  its helpful to read the last few posts – or the blog style guides if there is one – looking for the answer to this question:

Fifthly,  check out what kind of posts are usually published.

  • Are the posts intended to offer support? Are they in the form of advice – do they write to “you” and say you should or must do a listicle of things? Or does the writer describe what they do and suggest you might like to try it out? Or does the post feel it a bit like being in someone’s workshop or webinar because there is a combination of problem-description-strategies to try out?
  • Are the posts opinion pieces? How much evidence do they provide and what kind? What kind of persona do the writers take? Detached or passionate? Emotive, funny, outraged or reasoned and dis-passionate?
  • Are the posts reports of experience? Explanations of a useful resource, method or reading? Speculative development of theory? Creative play with an idea?

Then finally have a look at how the posts are written.

  • How present is the writer in the text? Do they write as “I”? Do they tell you a little about themselves or their experiences? Does the story of the experience carry the point?
  • Do the posts have a strong author “voice”? How is this established? How formal is the language? How much everyday language is used? Does the writing sound a lot like a conversation at a local cafe or is it closer to an academic journal? ( How much specialist terminology is used? How long are the sentences? What is the balance of active to passive voice? Use of metaphors and similes? Catchy phrases? )
  • How do posts end – with a call to action? with things that the reader can or should do? with resources?
  • How is supporting information presented  with the post – as references, in visual form, as hyper-links?

Once you have the answer to these questions, you have a much clearer idea of how to approach a blog and then write something that is likely to be published.

You may decide to give up at this point – nah, come on you’ve got this far – or you decide that writing a guest post is for you. Yay!! Now you just need to write it, right?/write it right. Still  a little bit more to think about in the writing …

And that’s the next post in this little mini-series. Writing the guest blog post.

 

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Posted in academic blogging, academic writing, blogging, blogging about blogging, guest post, research blogging | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

groundhog day in bookland

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YEP. SURE. ANOTHER REVISION COMING UP.

The lockdown has disrupted our lives in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. Some changes are big. Some little. One of the little things that has affected me is to do with book publication.

You may have noticed that many academic book publishers are currently selling mostly ebooks. Many of the warehouses that send out academic books have furloughed their staff and/or are not equipped for people to work safely. So no hard copies. If you look at academic publishers’ websites you’ll also see that many are having discounted sales – they would have lowered prices at conferences, but they’re now cancelled, so the reduced prices are now more widely available.

But my concern is not so much with publishers, but with authors.

Some people had their books published right at the start of lockdown. Sadly, it’s all been a bit tricky for those with very new publications. No conferences with book stalls and book launches and cheap wine and heavily fortified orange juice. No opportunities to present the conference papers that provide the opportunity to hold the book up and/or display it on the powerpoint. We’re working at home so no opportunities to put flyers in colleagues’ pigeonholes. And there are only so many times you can put the fact that you’ve got a new book out onto social media.

I really feel for people with new books. It’s always a pleasure to hold a new book in your hands. It is particularly sweet if this is a first book. And it’s just not the same with an ebook. You can’t feel it, smell it, send it to your Mum.

And you really want to celebrate a book. Finishing a book is a big undertaking. Whether it’s a monograph or an edited collection, a book takes a significant bit of your life to get done. So you want an opportunity to mark the completion of the project. It’s here. It’s real. It’s a book. But now it is – and it isn’t. Some people are organising online book launches and this is one way to have a distanced party for the writing achievement.

Other people have had their book publication dates extended. I’m one of those people. My latest book would have been published this week. Not happening. That’s disappointing largely because I had been anticipating a little book celebration of my own at the end of the academic year.

Instead, the book will see the light of day in September. The publisher asked if I was OK with this and I was. I think it’s really sensible. The book is more likely to have some traction if it coincides with academic life moving partly off line.   But because it’s one of those books that addresses current politics and policies the book can’t simply refer to life before lockdown. The text now has to take account of Covid19.

Fortunately it’s not a complete revision. I’m not at all sure I could raise the energy to go back to yet another complete text revision. The publisher asked me to write a new preface which linked the pandemic with the contents of the book. This wasn’t hard. I chose an example from lockdown to make the connections with the already written content and duly sent it in a couple of weeks ago. But alas, while I’d picked an apt example, events have moved on again and I have now had to update the new preface to take account of further changes. Deja vu. Deja vu all over again.

There’ll come a time when I can’t do this updating anymore, and the book just has to go to print. But right now, I feel like I’m stuck in book groundhog day with the text coming back and coming back, even though I want to move on.

I need to move on. That’s in part because I’ve got a co-written book finishing off right now. Fortunately my co-author and I have been able to take account of the pandemic and write it into our text. Much of what we social scientists write from now on won’t be able to ignore the lockdown and the changes it’s brought and the changes that still need to happen. Our timing with this book is not too bad.

But finishing off any book is like finishing off a marathon. There’s always a summoning of the will and a last focused effort to get it to the ( dead)line. A final book effort is about last revisions, textual finessing and then editing and proofing, trying to anticipate where the copy editor might come back to ask for more information.

I’ve discovered I don’t much like having two books on the go at once. I can cope with a book and simultaneous papers and blog posts. But a book requires a particular level of immersion in argument – I tend to think of this as the book taking up a lot of room in my head and heart. Just like a PhD thesis. I like to close one big text off and then move on to the next. I’ve found I don’t have quite enough head-heart room for two nearly finished books at the same time. It’s like running the end of two marathons at once in some kind of weird parallel reality.

But hey ho. Both books will be done by mid-July. One actually being printed and the other starting its six month journey through to printing. So done and done-ish.

And then it’ll  be time to turn to ordinary academic work, providing the pandemic behaves itself and I/we can face up to what the next academic year brings – fewer colleagues, fewer students perhaps, certainly less money… much bigger challenges than my little publishing worries.

 

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Posted in academic book, academic writing, book writing, pandemic, revision | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

reading against the literatures – #litreview

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Advice on literature reviews pretty well always say something like – the literature review should say what’s already been said about your topic – or – you need to bring together the particular literatures that your study is going to use.

I say this kind of thing myself. But the trouble with this advice is that it ignores/overlooks/downplays the ways in which fields of knowledge have historically been constructed.

Some writing advice, including mine, also often says situating your study in a field means understanding the development, key figures and key debates in the field. And there is a problem with this advice too. It doesn’t really explain what understanding the history of the field means, why it’s important and what you need to do and do about it. So let me have a go at an explanation.

History helps us understand the way things are now. And right now many fields of knowledge are a problem. They didn’t get that way overnight. They have been produced, over time, in very particular ways. Put simply, the knowledges in a discipline or field are highly likely to represent quite particular world views.

What do I mean by this? Well, many academic disciplines in the global North do not draw on knowledges from the global South. They pay no heed to Indigenous knowledges. They may also maintain highly restrictive conventions, lines of interpretation and modes of knowledge production which are classed, raced, gendered, heteronormative, neurotypical.

These historically produced field/disciplinary blinkers aren’t necessarily a permanent fixture. They can be removed. Or at least the removal can start here and now, in the present. In your literatures review.

Doing a literatures review which uncritically reports what’s already been said about your topic runs a serious risk of unthinkingly perpetuating skewed knowledge traditions. Just saying what your study builds on, without reflecting on its time, place, culture, is a recipe for reproducing a knowledge status quo.

So why not take the opportunity presented in the literature review to educate yourself about the social life of knowledges. Understanding the development, key figures and key debates in a field is much more than accounting for how things are. It is also about asking evaluative questions such as

  • On what basis was the field established?
  • Who got to speak? who gets to speak?
  • What was written about what, when and for whom? How has this changed over time and in what ways?
  • In whose interests did this research and writing work? Does it still work this way? How is it changing?

Now this kind of reading and questioning does not simply examine who is foregrounded and cited – but also who is not. So there are two other questions to ask:

  • What kind of knowledges, interpretations and authors are missing or marginalised?
  • Are there any patterns to these omissions and sidelining?

If you undertake a critical evaluation of the literatures and it is clear that there are systematic omissions, then it is important to search to see if some of the missing materials are actually available somewhere. They may of not be in university libraries. They may be elsewhere in community archives, online and/or in the kinds of books that academics dont ask their libraries to buy.

And if you do locate the knowledges made marginal in and by the field, it is then not a matter of just throwing in a few citations to give the appearance of inclusivity.

No. If the result of your critical reading of your field results in finding literatures not often recognised and valued, it is important to read them – and to hear what they say. To see whether what they say challenges the status quo in the field, and if so how. And it is important to note how your understandings are changed through taking these new sources seriously.

Reading against the grain of the field in such a way becomes the basis of a very bespoke literatures review. You take the historically skewed nature of knowledge and its various production processes to heart. You don’t produce a lit review that mindlessly reproduces what’s already there.

Your critical evaluative reading of the literatures creates new possibilities of and for your project – and at the same time contributes towards producing a more equitable field and discipline.

 

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Posted in academic writing, literature a resource, literature mapping, literature review, literature reviews | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

learning from live pandemic research

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I haven’t taught research methods for a year or so. But right now I do wish I still was. I’m not asking for additional workload. Not at all. It’s just that there is so much potential for learning in the current pandemic.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m pretty unhappy with the kind of methods courses that take you through the ‘ologies’ – axiology, epistemology, ontology, methodology – and then present a tool kit of methods. The ologies in particular are often taught badly. So people in methods class are left mystified about what these apparently abstract ideas mean. They struggle to connect the conversations about knowledge, truth and various research traditions with their own research and the research papers that they read. They are flummoxed when asked to discuss their positionality, to state where they stand in the ology options.

But now. Ah now. Now we have a knowledge-making process going on in front of our eyes. It’s global. It’s high stakes. It’s highly political too – politicians say it’s all about “the science” – as if science were a singular thing, united, homogeneous, able to speak with one voice. As if it were fixed. No.

Right now we can actually see sciences plural, and researching and interpreting results as knowledge making practices. In real time. How exciting is this! Our colleagues are not only talking to each other in laboratories and in academic journals – much of their conversation is now in public. On blogs and twitter, in op ed piece and television commentary. They debate. They disagree. They develop informed hunches together. They dispute numbers. They create and challenge graphs. They make different interpretations of the same data.

Print news media regularly report on multiple lines of investigation into the virus and the painstaking development of potential diagnostic tools, treatments and cures. Each line of investigation has prior – and generally peer reviewed and published – research as its starting point, and thus a strong rationale for this approach or that.

Early papers are published fast and may not quite meet expected standards (retractions happen). There are open fora which share interesting new lines of thought that might then be tested out. There’s conversation about the need for scholarly community perusal of process, data and analysis and about the quality of evidence that is acceptable. There ate differences in views about the best way to go and what counts as evidence. There are rapid collaborative meta-reviews of what’s already out there, with implications for policy and practice drawn out. We see asynchronous scholarly community conversation in action and how it is that some things come to be accepted by the scholarly community as good-enough-to-work -with-until-something-better-comes-along. Researchers lead significant changes in what’s known and what’s acceptable – the line on the utility of face masks for example shifted rapidly from a “they’re no use at all” to a “well they may be some use and isn’t it better to be safe than sorry” after public health scholars published and pushed hard in all forms of media.

The workings of science disciplines are visible. There are no dry abstracted discussions about post-positivism and hermeneutics here, even though some of  the debates about evidence and process can be understood through these conceptual lens. Right now, what can often seem like dry ‘ology’ questions in classrooms are writ large, current, living, open and high stakes. Questions such as  – What can be taken as true? How do we trust what researchers are telling us ? What value is put on emerging findings? – are always present, but now right in our faces and vital.

And this may not fit the stereotype of “science as facts”. As John Dupre points out on the Nuffield bioethics blog 

…science is always more or less uncertain. I do not mean only to point out that science—like everything else—is fallible, but rather that uncertainty is an integral feature of many of the products of science.

This position is a far cry from the caricatures of positivism and post-positivism that appear in a lot of social science methods materials.

We can also see how advances in science are connected with other disciplines which use other research methods traditions. For example – linguistic researchers are busy discussing how the language of war legitimates particular kinds of policy approaches, how the naming of the virus carries on particular nationalistic and racialised views. Environmental scholars consider how current human-animal practices might be partly undone by understandings about the way that the virus mutates across species. Digital researchers are investigating the potential for heightened algorithmic surveillance in data tracking apps.

And we can see which knowledges are politically favoured – it is apparent, in the ways in which scientific knowledges are not only made but taken up, that knowledge making is not a neutral process.

I’m sure there is much more that a research methods course could get from this live case of knowledge production. And that’s the point at which a methods course surely needs to start. From lived cases. Research ologies aren’t disconnected from everyday life, even if their underpinnings aren’t in the foreground.

And the pandemic shows us we don’t learn about the ologies simply to understand how to conduct our own research. Research methods courses can also help us get a better grip on how understandings about, and decisions on, knowledge making are integral to every aspect of modern life. To the ways we live – and can live – our lives.

What knowledge is made, where, how, by whom, and how it is taken up are transparently obvious at the minute. What an opportunity to learn.

Which leads me right back to my initial thought  – what a live methods course I could run right now…

 

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Posted in academic writing, epistemology, mess, methodology, methods, ontology, pandemic, research methods | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

online learning for all

This is a guest post from Anna Pilson. Anna is a PhD student at Durham University School of Education. Her ESRC-funded project aims to create a participatory action research model that positions children with a vision impairment as knowledge producers and change agents. She tweets as @pilsonanna.

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Now that the Covid-19 pandemic has radically altered the organisation of university life for the foreseeable future, ‘everyday ableism’ can be (unwittingly) perpetuated by virtual teaching methods. But we also have a potentially generative moment to change this narrative.

Given that in that academic year 2018/19, a sixth of all home university students declared that they had a disability, accessibility should be a central driver in the planning and delivery of Higher Education teaching and learning. Yet, as the Office for National Students states, real accessibility remains aspirational.

Moving online opens up all sorts of questions about (in)equality. Not just the bigger issues of digital access and digital literacy, but the nitty gritty of our planning and delivery. In an ideal world we would ensure that our online materials are accessible for all. We’d have British Sign Language interpretation, easy read materials, accessible transcripts. All of these things however, take time, expertise and money that we may not have immediately have access to. So, while I think that the Education sector should continue to strive for this idealism, in the meantime there are plenty of ways we as individuals can build in some simple strategies to improve our online teaching and communication straight away.

What can we do?

You may now be familiar (or perhaps overfamiliar!) with online learning and meeting platforms like Skype, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams and of course, Zoom. The great thing about all of these platforms is that they have in-built accessibility features that are really easy to apply, and can be used alongside some simple inclusive strategies to make online teaching accessible for all:

You can enable live captioning. This is when subtitles are generated in real time to present in text what the speaker is saying. This is really important for D/deaf or hard of hearing students, as this visual aid can compensate for the quite often variable video quality that might make lip reading difficult. However, captioning can of course also be beneficial to anyone with poor sound quality.

Don’t force your students to switch on their camera. Being on camera can be really distracting, I mean, come on, we’ve all spent a good few minutes in a zoom meeting staring at ourselves, preening and sorting our hair out haven’t we? Not me of course, but hypothetically speaking (ahem). But in all seriousness, ‘Zoom Fatigue’ is becoming a common, and recognised, complaint. Navigating the dissonance caused by slight time delays between picture and sound can make participants feel uncomfortable, as can the loss of natural conversational rhythm. Also, the performative aspect of being ‘watched’ while having to be on camera may be Anxiety-inducing.

The online environment can also make it difficult to take cues from body language, because often hand gestures can’t be seen and camera angles are not optimal, but actually this absence can enhance the quality of the verbal interaction taking place, because people are forced to articulate their meaning more clearly, which could be more inclusive for neurodivergent or visually-impaired students. So, you could switch off all cameras and instead use a moderator system, where one participant’s role is to note if and when participants wish to speak by looking for use of the ‘raise hand’ icon, or a note in chat. This can be used organise the order of speaking, and avoid people talking over one another, so as to make the flow of speech more coherent.

Provide transcripts/notes. Where possible do this in advance of the lecture, so that participants have the opportunity to organise notes, pre-empt any issues, set up screen readers or Braille displays, reformat the document according to personal need (for example, inverting colours of text/background, enlarging text, removing visual clutter), or familiarise themselves with the material beforehand, which can be really useful if they find concentration or retention of information difficult.

Consider the accessibility of the visual material you are sharing. Make sure any documents you provide use a sans serif font, which is easier to visually distinguish, such as Arial or Calibri. Ensure there is a good contrast between the colours of the font and background (e.g. black and white). Go for size 14 minimum and avoid too much use of italics or underlining. Any image should have a caption or descriptor. And any PDF should have optical character recognition enabled, which means it’s compatible with screen readers. This can be applied really easily in the settings of Adobe Acrobat or similar when creating a PDF.

Make your related Social Media presence accessible. A basic feature to be aware of is using ‘Camel Case’ in your hashtags. This means capitalising every the first letter of every word following a hashtag – for example, #ThisIsCamelCase but #thisisnotcamelcase. This means that screen readers read each individual word, as the beginning of each new word is denoted by the presence of a capital letter, rather than considering everything after the hashtag to be one long word.

The other key feature is to include image descriptors. Twitter was the first platform to offer built-in picture descriptors, known as alt text. To enable this function, go to ‘Settings and Privacy’, then ‘Accessibility’. Here you can select the option to ‘compose image descriptions’. If this is enabled, every time you upload an image there will automatically be the option to add an image descriptor and you will then get 420 characters to do so. Because Twitter doesn’t currently have in-built options to enlarge text, other than via external magnification software, using the aforementioned tips can be vital in enhancing accessibility.

Finally, by offering opportunities for asynchronous learning you can truly allow students to gain ownership of their learning. This can be done by recording meetings/lectures using the in-built recording functions, so that participants can revisit them if they missed anything, or watch them on a schedule that suits their own personal needs. The disabled community have long recognised the tensions (and often incompatibility) between the demands of standardised timetables in education and their own needs. By embracing flexibility, we can make space for embedding what Alison Kafer famously called ‘Crip Time’ in our standard practice.

Accessibility for all

We need to remember that many of these new virtual ways of working have previously been denied to disabled students by institutions keen to stick to ‘conventional’ teaching methods. So make sure you acknowledge the fact that these online methods have been used and refined over time by disabled people in spaces outside academia. As such, don’t forget to ask for (and listen to) the expertise of your students.

Covid-19 has offered universities a unique window of opportunity to design online course materials to be as accessible as possible from the beginning, with accessibility at the heart and not just as a bolt-on. Universities also have a legal duty to try to remove the barriers students may face in education because of disability. This is called ‘making reasonable adjustments’. So, when you’re planning your online teaching, remember 2 things:

  1. be reasonable, and 2. make adjustments.

And, in reality, these adjustments will be useful for all students, not just those with disabilities.

 

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Posted in ableism, academic writing, online identity, online meeting, online teaching | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

five suggestions for universal PhD ‘after-care’

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One of the things that has become  obvious during lockdown is how much more we might do for PhDers contemplating their futures. If ever there was a time to start something better and more supportive for researchers in our care, now is it.

There’s obviously a need for much better advice and support for making scholarly careers outside of universities as Thesis Whisperer has recently pointed out. But there is also much more that we might do for PhDers who do want an academic career.

I’ve got a few ideas. And this is one of those if-I-was-a-higher-ed-policy-maker-I-would posts. But a couple of caveats before I begin. I am of course writing in a UK context, with some knowledge of other systems, but my wish list is pretty firmly located in my current situation. I also know that the things I am talking about are done in some places by some people, but they are not universal. Universal is important if the PhD experience is to be  equitable.

My premise is that care is a vital social – and pedagogical – value and practice, and that care for students is one of the things that higher education is meant to do. My argument here is a particular one – it’s not all there is to say about institutional care. But I am proposing that care for PhDers needs to go on after the ink on the parchment  is dry.

I’d like to see a much stronger emphasis on what I am going to call “after-care”.  What do I mean by this term? Well, after-care starts before the PhD is completed. And after-care is also beginning-care as the intention is to support the start of an independent academic career.

An underpinning principle of after-care is that it should be led by the goals of the PhDer or post PhDer, and be bespoke to their particular needs and ambitions. After-care is not about someone else deciding what the PhDer or post PhDer needs but is a combination of PhDer led mentoring and support.

Aside from the obvious PhDer teaching experience and internships I’d like to see AT LEAST the following five strategies implemented:

Mentoring during the PhD

  • Each and every final year PhD looking for an academic career should have a mentor who will support them to think strategically about career, publications and networks. The mentor will be able to offer and/or broker some opportunities for the PhDer that will help them make decisions and build their profiles and track records. The mentor may or may not be the supervisor; while many mentors will be supervisors, it may be that other people are better positioned to do particular work for particular PhDers. The mentor might of course work with a small group not just a single PhDer. Either way, after-care mentoring should be seen as proper counted workload.

Mentoring would continue at least until the post PhDer has found a proper job ( not hourly paid, not short term contract).

As well, there needs to be post PhD institutional support. Another caveat here – I’d love this to be a short-term set of suggestions, or better still, four suggested strategies that are not needed at all.  These four propositions are geared to a situation which is unacceptable – namely, that graduating PhDers take ages to find a real job. This is not OK; I support political campaigns against precarious academic work, as I hope you do too. But if the graduation-job gap is here and worsened by institutional responses to the pandemic, then…

The university in which the PhD is completed should provide:

  • Automatic library access for post PhDers while they are looking for proper post PhD work. Too many PhDers are just automatically cut off from university systems when they graduate. And many of them are stony broke when they complete their doctorates and can’t afford to buy books. Lack of access to new and old publications effectively stymies their efforts to continue their work. If the post PhD without proper academic work has library access, then they can publish from their PhDs and keep up to date with scholarly work in their field. And this gives them a better chance of getting a job.
  • Hot desk access. Many PhDers do not have home offices and rely on their university desk, computer and printer. This has become glaringly obvious during the pandemic – people are working on kitchen tables, on laptops while sitting on their bed, and in bathrooms. Being in shared accommodation makes the lack of office space even more acute. Access to university buildings and facilities is a small step to even out the uneven and inequitable serendipity of workspace.
  • Automatic inclusion in institutional information processes – seminars, lectures information about conferences and so on. Keeping in touch with other people as well as what is going on is important post PhD – it is very easy to feel isolated once you are not going into the office everyday.
  • Support for ongoing academic work. Information about where to apply for conference funding as an unemployed PhDer is essential. Even better would be a special fund in each institution, perhaps from alumni contributions, which would support immediate post PhDers without other institutional support to attend conferences to give papers. Regular specialist writing workshops designed to support writing book proposals, first grant applications and journal articles should be available to post PhDers through graduate and writing centres to supplement what mentors do. These workshops should be web-based in order to ensure access to PhDers who have moved away from the university.

And perhaps (2)-(5) might also be offered on a small cost recovery basis to post PhDers who are independent researchers or working outside the academy too.

Already doing this – great? Let’s spread the practice.

Already doing a lot of this but not counted in workload? Sigh. I reckon there’s a lot of that. Let’s make the case.

Got other ideas? Let’s share them.

And let’s try together to make universal PhD after-care a reality.

 

Photo by Sarah Gualtieri on Unsplash

Posted in academic mentoring, academic writing, after-care, library, mentoring, PhD, PhD completion, postdoc, research mentoring | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

lockdown diary

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I’ve been in lockdown with my partner for two months now. I have hardly left the house, apart from the occasional walk. Well I have been outside, of course, but in our small backyard and not proper outside outside, if you know what I mean.

My world has shrunk and, like a lot of other people’s, taken a decided turn to the digital. Teaching has migrated online but also other parts of life. My book group has gone Skyping and doubled its meetings. We used to meet monthly and combine socialising with serious text work. We’ve now separated the two and meet once a fortnight for “coffee” and once a fortnight to discuss our chosen book. And so it goes.

I’ve not taken up a new hobby. I haven’t suddenly started baking – well to be fair my partner used to have a bakery and still does all the baking we need. I was always a sporadic gardener and haven’t become more well acquainted with my fork and spade this spring than in any other year.  But I do do some things less than before. I’m reading less fiction and rather more sociological and philosophical writing about the state of the world. I’ve become even more interested in thinking about where we might go as opposed to where we might end up if we don’t do anything different. And of course the corollary – I am doing some things more than before – using my exercise bike much more assiduously for instance.

I’ve also noticed that I’ve noticed more. Noticing, paying attention to what is around me, is very much part of my research process. I do a lot of ethnographic research, and even when I’m working in other methodological traditions, I’m often still observing and listening. So, now that I am not out and about doing research, I find myself noticing and observing my own changed behaviour, emotional responses and everyday activities.

I find for example that I am more aware of small things. Because I’m in the house all of the time I see the spider’s web immediately. Because the seeds are growing in egg cartons next to the kitchen sink, I mark their progress several times a day and can move them about to catch the sun. Because I am in my home office much more I feel obliged to try to reorganise the space so that there is simply more – space that is.

I notice how lockdown has changed domestic habits. For years my partner and I have been training ourselves to shop little, often, seasonal and local. This minimises waste, keeps us somewhat in tune with the weather and where we are living, and also ensures we don’t end up with hideous science experiments at the back of the fridge. Now we just can’t do this. In two months I have managed to secure three online grocery deliveries which supplement weekly fruit and veg deliveries. I have become my grandmother whose life in an isolated mining town was punctuated by irregular deliveries from the big smoke. And what excitement that was for her and is for me.  What of the order actually arrives? What is substituted and is it really usable? What has to be gone without, again?

I notice that some academic habits have become glaringly obvious. I find it hard not to notice that I’ve got a case of what I could acronym FONDA – Fear Of Not Doing Anything. I see much more clearly now how I am prone to think I have done absolutely nothing at the end of the working day, when I have in reality answered emails, checked the latest journal articles, made contact with people on social media, reviewed a paper, written a reference, given feedback on some text, written a blog post. What’s that FONDA about then?

“Doing anything” irrationally equates to getting some writing or analysis done. Yet if you had asked me about what work I was doing during lockup on any particular day I would happily say that emails, reviewing etc all constituted my academic work. But also apparently doesn’t.

The work that gets counted in higher education is research and publications.  Teaching counts too but it’s all about doing whatever it takes to ensure the numbers, income and satisfaction scores. And the rest of it – reviews, references, emails, establishing and maintaining networks, giving feedback – these are unseen and taken for granted by all of our institutions.

The lockup has allowed me to understand – yet again, as this seems to be a lesson that I find difficult to learn – that the kind of competitive productivity pressures about research and writing that I intellectually reject have sneakily inserted themselves into my life. I’ve let myself become prey to an evaluative emotional regime that determines what I feel good about accomplishing, and what I don’t see as real work. I’m stuck in emotional labour relations that aren’t good for my lockdown psyche.

But maybe I can get out of this space. Despite the conflict between the rational and the emotional, perhaps I can get a grip. Perhaps now is the time to follow some other lockdown lessons.

Do less? Well I could do less, but I actually enjoy writing and researching so I’m not sure why I would want to do less. What I actually want is to keep doing the writing and research and not feel guilty when I can’t get as much done as I’d like.  Do more? Well no, I don’t want to do more of anything in particular as I think in general I do most of the things that need doing. So perhaps it’s do the same but differently? So still write and research whenever possible but don’t feel bad when not doing so. Well yes, that would be ideal. But how to get there?

I suspect doing the same but differently is easier said than done. But maybe the first step towards changing the academic guilt regime is to be aware of it. And making a kind of very late new year public resolution to try to get over myself and it.

FONDA is a crock. FONDA begone.

 

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, emotional labour, lockdown, pandemic, productivity | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

gulp – deadlines despite lockdown

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Be kind to others and to yourself. Do what you can do. Make small daily goals. Be realistic. Celebrate every victory.  Don’t be hard on yourself. These are extraordinary times. These are the messages that I and a lot of others have been spreading during lockdown.

And I stand by those sentiments. However, seven weeks in and I have some looming deadlines. They aren’t yet of the everything-due-tomorrow kind. But I can’t put them off. I can see that I need to take myself in hand. Regardless of whether I feel up to it or not, I am now at the stage where I have to make more progress than I have been.

I am sure I am not the only one in this position. Most academic staff are still working to meet funding and publishing deadlines, as well as to support students to meet their course timelines, not all of which have been modified. While some of our work can be put off, some can’t.

For this first time since lockdown, this week I summoned up the courage to look at my own deadlines. And made a list. The list is when it gets serious. When you’ve written down what needs to be done and put all-the-things onto a calendar, it really just gets real.

So it turns out that I have some writing to do for my own annual review process. I’m involved in five research funding bids, one of which I’m leading on. These bids are all due before the end of the month. ( Side note, yes I’m not expecting to get all of them, you never do, but innit to winnit. One or two of them would be good.) I have several reviews to do – two book proposals, four research council bids and three journal articles. And a bit of editing work along the way.

But that’s not all. There’s two new papers to be done by the end of May plus a new post-pandemic prologue for the book I thought I’d done with. There’s also a book due at the end of June.

While some of this is begun, and it’s by no means all my own work, there’s still a lot to do. I certainly don’t want to let my colleagues down. I can see that there is now little choice but to be less kind to myself and there’s much more need to summon up whatever willpower I can and just crack on. I can’t afford to be envious of those people who seem to be able to see the current situation as an extended writing retreat. That’s not me, but I somehow need to make things head a little more in that direction.

Some PhDers may well find themselves in a similar situation. While some doc researchers in their final stages have been given extensions by their funder and/or their universities, not everyone has. Some people are still writing towards a fixed end point. And while there has been a relaxation of some timelines other fixed dates, often those concerned with audit, remain. And it appears that some universities and faculties are less inclined than others to be flexible about extensions. I’ve heard a few horror stories recently so I do know that a few institutions are very rule-bound and punitive.

If, like me, you are now in the situation where you have to get more productive or get into trouble, then I/you need to summon up and use all of the tricks that have worked for us in the past.

Meeting the deadlines certainly isn’t stopping exercising and taking breaks in order to get things done. But it might be using timed free writing periods to generate a lot of words. It might be working back from deadlines to set a target for each day, allowing just a little time for slippage and catch up. It might be getting back into an old routine – morning writing for me, but it might be night-time or afternoon time for you. It might mean joining an online writing retreat or Shut Up and Write sessions. It might mean giving yourself rewards when you meet a daily/project/wordcount/time milestone.

But it also might mean having some serious negotiations with other family members. It might be saying no to any new requests from now on. It might be refusing to wait till the last moment, and asking for an extension now.

And there are less attractive options too. Hard decisions. Because of things out of your control. You might have to put some things on hold – the PhD itself, a funding bid. You might need to stop some things altogether and just cross them permanently off the list.

But. But it is still important – whether I/you are putting the pressure on to get things completed, or giving some things up – that we are still kind to ourselves. I think some new things needed to be added to the messages I started with.

Even if I have to stop doing this now, I’ve done really well in extraordinary circumstances. Even if I didn’t do this quite as well as I wanted to, I got it done. Done is miles better than undone. How amazing am I that I managed to get this far in not normal times. If I can meet this deadline now, then just think what I can do when things change for the better. 

I’ll certainly be saying these things to myself in the next few weeks.

 
Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, deadline, list, pandemic, to do list | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

progress

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Progress – getting somewhere. Good progress – doing what is expected and a bit more. Poor progress – the reverse. Remember those ambiguous school reports? “Patricia is making good progress with… , but she could do better in … ” Patricia is not doing as well as might be expected in all the things that are expected. Which of course raises the questions – As well as might be expected When, and Where? And By whom? And Who decides What Is Expected?

The word progress has been playing on my mind recently. I am meant to be making progress on a book manuscript. But it has been slow. Painfully slow. If there is a writing equivalent to Shakespeare’s “shining morning face, creeping unwillingly to school” then I am it. As I am sure are many of you. Well I certainly hope I’m not the only one! Put it this way, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you weren’t in the same boat. Keeping going, one sentence after the other, but not making that much headway. A little bit each day.

I’m book writing. Always book writing. But right now I’ve had to resort to the time-honoured tradition of reading myself into the writing. Not free writing, but reading. I wrote a few lines about each text. I put the lines together. I then sorted the lines into something that looked like the stuff I wanted in the order I thought it needed to be. Then I strung together some words that linked it all together and, yes, it looked like a coherent text.

Using this reading, noting and writing approach, I ground out 6k or so good-enough-for-now words in four weeks. The result is hardly a riveting read. To be truthful, it’s pretty dry and dull. But it is a first draft.

I’m finding it hard right now to meet my own expectations of progress.  It is just seriously psychologically tricky – and there are other priorities besides making progress on a book. Keeping in touch with colleagues and PHDers takes priority. Social media connections are important to sustain too. Still, I have this sneaking worry that I ought to be making more progress. I don’t have caring responsibilities, I’m privileged, I ought to be making better progress than I am.

So then to read about the person who wrote and published a book about the economics of coronavirus in 19 days? Less time than I took to write 6k words. Hmmm. Well it wasn’t a big book, it was 40k words. But still. 40K words. Compared to this, my progress is pretty poor. 

The quick-off-the-mark economist has gone public about his achievement. He found a publisher in unbelievably fast time. His manuscript was peer reviewed and he corrected it with a week to spare. He describes the process as gruelling – but largely because of the subject matter. 

Many of the responses to his blog post were critical. Most commenters registered concern that this quick book epitomised an academic productivity that is unreasonable and unhealthy – excellent progress, outstanding progress yes, but also a norm which was potentially problematic.

I’m torn between thinking, well good luck to you rapid writer. In another life I’ve been able to crank out a chapter every few days, but this isn’t me now. But my second thought is that my writing task is different. I’m not writing a populist book. The current book I’m working on with a colleague requires a lot of literature work, a lot of data analysis, and a lot of thinking about – and I’m pretty sure that I/we couldn’t speedily write anything that was any good.

Progress is always a relative thing – it’s related to the task and the time available. In order to assess my own progress more realistically, I’ve had to think  about the particularity of my own situation. And I’ve had to speak to myself very firmly about not falling prey to very unhelpful comparisons. Comparison is of course the name of the competitive academic game and it’s toxic. I’ve had to remind myself that it is OK to do what you can, as you can, in the extraordinary times we are in. Just as it was in the old normal.

But I do fear that some of the powers-that-be will be dazzled by the example of the-book-in-a-month. I want those who audit academic productivity to recognise that I, my colleagues and our PhDers are making progress, but it’s good enough progress, the best possible progress we can make, right now. We might not be writing a book in a month, or even three months, or six, but we are still moving along. Slowly, more like the tortoise than the hare, but moving nevertheless.

And a third thought. Dare I hope that we might expunge the notion of universal progress, a normative progress that applies to all people everywhere at the same time? Couldn’t we arrive at a view of progress that is a bit more nuanced? Is this something that might emerge from the current situation? 

And one final thought. Perhaps publishers of university blogs and news might recognise that rather a large number of scholars have had the possibility of making any progress taken away from them. PhDs stalled. Contracts not renewed. Positions furloughed then cancelled. Redundancies. Shrinking job market. Reading about writing book in a month is not what they need. Not at all. So perhaps it wasn’t the best editorial decision ever made to print this one …

 

Photo by Wayne Gourley on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in academic writing, pandemic, progress | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

we need to talk about Zoom

This is a guest post from Mark Carrigan who works as postdoctoral research fellow in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. 

There’s a peculiar kind of exhaustion which comes from spending an afternoon staring at Zoom. I’m mentally drained but I would be if I’d spent a few hours in face to face meetings. My back hurts but it probably would have after a long meeting in an uncomfortable chair. I’ve got a vague headache but that’s probably from a few hours without hydration, as oddly I’m less likely to remember to bring water with me in my own house than I am when at work.

It’s hard to pin down why Zoom, which I’m using here to stand for video conferencing in general, is more tiring than meeting in person but I’m increasingly convinced it is. It combines all the familiar ailments which develop from meetings but with a unique piquancy that makes the ensuing suffering more than the sum of its parts. I’ve just finished another two hour Zoom meeting earlier which could have easily been reduced to an hour. If you were in this meeting with me, I hope you don’t take this as a complaint directed at you because it truly isn’t. But it is a plea that we urgently begin to talk about how we handle video conferencing as a routine part of life. Once the meeting was over I rushed outside into the sun with a sense of urgency I’ve rarely felt after face to face meetings, walking my way back into feeling ok again before deciding I needed to write this post.

These meetings have suddenly become routine features of our daily work as we adapt to the unnerving normality which is the twilight world of lockdown, once we’ve packed up our offices and forced ourselves into a routine of working from home. It’s strange therefore that I can’t recall being party to more than a few conversations about how these meetings differ from the ones we used to have in the olden days, if you can recall our former times when we met with coffee and snacks and bad sandwiches in the world beyond our living room.

The obvious shift in our behaviour would seem to warrant discussion about how we should approach this new way of interacting, what structures we should use and what we should expect from each other. Perhaps this lack of reflection is inevitable as we’ve all been struggling to make the transition into remote work, leaving us with little time or energy to reflect on how we’re doing this. I feel we urgently need to begin this conversation though, not least of all because I’m not sure how many more two hour Zoom meetings I can cope with.

Overly long meetings are at the top of my litany of private Zoom grievances. In part because I’m working at my kitchen table, sitting in a chair which leaves my back aching if I’m sedentary for more than half an hour. But there are many other issues which I can’t be alone in being increasingly bothered by. What about the unbearable cacophony of an unmoderated Zoom meeting with multiple people vying for attention? Or the uncertainty about the point at which glancing at your e-mail goes from being an unavoidable feature of the working day to being rude to the person you’re talking to? Or the fact it feels awkward to ask to simply do a voice call when everyone assumes video is the default?

Can we make clear to each other that it’s ok to get up and walk around during meetings? Or mute the microphone and video if a family interaction needs to take precedence? Perhaps we could come to an agreement about the appropriate etiquette for leaving a meeting early? I’m sure I can’t be the only person torn between not wanting to interrupt a conversation in full flow and feeling a chat message is insufficient explanation for a sudden departure. There’s also the question of how we plan meetings, with Zoom making it easier to hold spontaneous gatherings that might serve a useful purpose and help short circuit what could otherwise turn into an endless e-mail thread over many days. However when we’re struggling to find a rhythm in our work, particularly if our circumstances mean we can’t work without interruption, invitations to meet in the next few hours, if not now, are unlikely to be welcome. They can be difficult to refuse though, particularly if the person extending the invitation is in charge, in the multiple forms that can take within the relatively informal working environments of the academy.

It’s important we create the space in which we can talk about the issues we are all facing. I worry that if we don’t we will institutionalise Zoom, in other words establish ways of doing video conferencing, which will be hard to shift even if we all hate them. Whereas this moment of upheaval when we’re all having to think through how we approach the mundane reality of our work, at least makes it easier to have these conversations than it would otherwise be.

In part this is a matter of establishing mutual expectations, even an etiquette. But we could also see it as a broader challenge of creating practices which are inclusive and effective. For example Dyi Huijg, convenor of the Neurodiversity Reading Group, uses the ‘raise hands’ method and written chat to ensure that everyone feels comfortable contributing, asking participants to mute their microphones until the administrator unmutes them after raising their hand. My colleague Jana Bacevic uses a similar approach in the self-isolation reading group she is convening within our research cluster. Once you’ve participated in meetings which work like this, it can be difficult to go back to the cacophony of people talking over each other.

If we encounter what feels like a great way of managing the problems of Zoom, we should talk about why it works and if it works for everyone. We should share the difficulties we’re experiencing with Zoom becoming a regular part of our working life. Perhaps mostly importantly we should all do whatever we can to avoid inflicting two hour Zoom meetings on each other.

 

Photo by Tobias Seward on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, Mark Carrigan, meetings, online meeting | Tagged , | 7 Comments