managing the #phd – reMIND me

This is a guest post by Donna Franklin, an applied psychology alumnus of Nottingham University. Donna candidly shares her challenging academic journey to finding mindfulness, a helpful strategy with which to navigate the emotional landscape of the PhD.

‘Can I really do this? ‘Am I good enough? Sound familiar? Ever heard of Imposter Syndrome? Ever feel you are an imposter who is masquerading doing a PhD? Well you are not alone. I worried myself with continuous doubts of not being good enough for a long time.

Chancing upon the massive on-line course Survive Phd15 run by Dr Inger Mewburn from the popular ‘The Thesis Whisperer’ blog, the course focused the often unspoken emotional journey of the PhD process. I was introduced to Imposter Syndrome,  which resonated strongly. It seemed to encapsulate my own challenging academic journey. Even though I had trained as a clinical psychologist, I hadn’t come across Imposter Syndrome before, (as it is not considered a diagnosable emotional disorder), nevertheless I was curious to see if it might shed some light on my difficult PhD journey which, I was beginning to realise, ran deep.

As a result of my underlying doubt, my PhD experience triggered anxiety and then later depression that impacted significantly on my ability to perform.  Regarding myself as spiritually minded, my interest in the benefits of mindfulness grew as I began to recognise the therapeutic similarities between my meditative interests and the various stress-reduction strategies used in clinical practice.  Given the emotional upheaval, my priority was to protect against any return to an unbalanced state by taking part in a Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) training course. Seeking a practical way in which to align heart and mind (thoughts and feelings), I was keen to experience the  emotional benefits of mindful meditation as: better concentration, increased self-awareness, non-judgemental acceptance together with the cultivation of ‘letting-go’, as the attitudes supporting positive mental health and wellbeing.

 Mindfulness is characterised as the activity of ‘paying total attention to the present moment with a non-judgemental awareness of one’s inner and outer experiences’ (Kabat-Zinn, 1994).  As a state of awareness achieved through meditative practice, its core attributes have been identified as:

  • the awareness of sensation
  • a non-judgemental acceptance of experience

Self-awareness and non-judgemental acceptance are offered as therapeutic aims for relapse prevention from depression. They are effective antidotes to the avoidance, procrastination and worry that often feed doubtful thinking. Seeking to ‘slow things down’ in order to increase awareness of the present moment ‘here and now’, individuals learn how to be less reactive and judgemental of their experiences, helping themselves break free of the unhelpful thoughts and actions that maintain doubtful thinking.

With practice, the emotional benefits of mindfulness have been found to be:

  • Enhanced concentration
  • Increased awareness of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations
  • Development of a state of ‘being’ ie. living in the here and now – rather than pushing oneself against the ‘doing’ mode of thinking which says ‘I must, I should do’.
  • Developing acceptance (otherwise known as ‘kind-awareness’ of what an experience ‘actually’ is).
  • The growth of an ability to ‘let go’ that is critical for avoiding and freeing oneself from unhealthy cycles of interaction.
  • Increasing awareness and activities that facilitate self-care & self-compassion.

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So how does it work? By learning to use several meditative techniques, the mind and body can be gradually encouraged to ‘slow down’ and unwind from the ‘doing mode’. Techniques include:

The Body Scan – a progressive observation and awareness of the body in minute detail.

Guided meditations (spoken) (3, 20, & 45 minute duration)

Routine Activity – paying ‘close’ attention whilst engaged in a ‘routine activity’ eg. Brushing teeth.

Noticing of small things & events that make up one’s moment to moment experience (eg. the sight of a bird crossing the sky, the noise of a slamming door) that occur throughout the day.

Use of the breath (3 minute breathing space) as an anchor for concentration.

I found that if you experiment with the various meditative techniques, you will quickly find what works best for you, whether it be regular use of the 3-minute breathing space (as a quick ‘tune in’) or a longer period of focused concentration with a body-scan at the end of the day.

My personal experience with mindfulness has been transformative. Experimenting initially with the body scan, I was surprised by my level of restlessness. Over time, using the  guided meditations, I have been able to identify my bodily sensations more readily, scanning for tension pockets which offers me insight about my emotional state and the opportunity to pause and consider how I might best respond more skilfully.  With the three-minute breathing space at my disposal, slowing things down ‘labelling’ my thoughts and feelings descriptively eg. judging, happy, fearful, content, doubtful and empowered has been liberating.

So yes, mindfulness seems to work for me. The sense of clarity and calm that it brings to my life has been noticeable, together with the belief that I am no imposter but the genuine article reassures me from the inside out! Try it! I’m sure it will works wonders for you too.

Some useful resources:

Mind charity – http://mind.org.uk/information-support/drugs-and-treatments/mindfulness/#.WEsZ8KKLR0s

A useful blog – http://www.mindful.org/about-mindful/

Body scan meditation (45 mins) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHO_6FSTrG4

U Tube – introduction to Mindfulness – Kabat-Zinn – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxYFxjZBqHg

Guided Meditation audios – http://www.guilford.com/companion-site/Mindfulness-Based-Cognitive-Therapy-for-Depression-Second-Edition/audio

 

 

 

 

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paper not working? try the “what’s the problem?” approach

Ever find yourself with a draft of a journal article that you’re just not happy with? Can’t put your finger on what’s wrong? Well you’re not alone. The being-disgruntled-with-a-paper-but-unsure-of-the-reason syndrome is the most common problem I see in writing workshops.

Unhappy drafters have almost always completed research that’s interesting and that potentially makes a contribution. They can write about the background literatures and methods as well as their results. They’ve chosen a target journal and written for that specific readership. But they still can’t seem to get the paper into shape. Grrrrrr. What’s wrong?

When I read these drafts I quite often see a paper that doesn’t have a clear warrant. The  writer hasn’t yet established the need for the research that the paper reports. It’s not that they don’t know it, they just haven’t communicated it in ways that will make sense to, and connect with, their readers. And that means – in paper writing terms – that the introduction and the conclusion in particular aren’t doing their job.

I’ve found that the most helpful question I can ask in this situation is this:

What’s the problem for which your piece of research offers an answer?

Once the problem is clear, it’s easier to think about how to stage the argument, and most importantly, how to re-write the introduction. Armed with the answer to the “Whats the problem?” question, the writer can:

  • establish the context for the problem
  • state the problem, and
  • provide some compelling evidence that it exists and is important.

In doing this, the introductory text must also

  • connect the evidence of, and the need to solve the problem, to the interests of the journal readers.

This set of ‘problem’ focused moves – context, problem, evidence, connection – begins the introduction to a paper,  creates the warrant for the research that follows, and sets up the argument.

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Let me show you an example of how the problem posing approach works as an introduction.

I’m going to look at a paper by Saranne Weller called “New lecturer’s accounts of reading higher education research” (2011 Studies in Continuing Education, 33(1)- 93-106).

Weller conducted a small pilot study examining the reading practices of four new lecturers from different disciplines. She asked them to choose and annotate two key readings about higher education. She then interviewed each participant, talking through their reading strategies. Her analysis of their responses led her to ‘see’ three key themes that underpinned their reading: (1) their positioning as an insider in their discipline, but an outsider in higher education more generally: (2) difficulties they experienced in engaging with the language and disciplinary conventions of higher education research; and (3) tensions between their practitioner experience within their discipline and the abstract theory offered in higher education research.

So, let’s try out the question approach. What was the problem that Weller was addressing and for which her research provided (part of) an answer?

The context was – and is – that universities – in the UK at least – now require newly appointed lecturers to engage in pedagogical ‘training’, often for a formal award. The expectation is that new lecturers will develop a theoretically informed teaching practice – and integral to doing this is reading higher education research, reading that is out of their home disciplines. However, the problem is that we know very little about what new lecturers actually make of the reading they are offered. Therefore, we don’t know how useful it is and whether it contributes to the goals of the training courses, namely, to support more reflective teaching.

So how does Weller introduce this problem for which her research provides, if not an answer, certainly some unsettling questions?

Well, here are the first three paragraphs of her introduction. I’ve abridged the middle one, simply because I want to show how Weller makes the moves – context, problem, evidence and connections.

Paragraphs Commentary
1.  It is widely accepted that new lecturer professional development programmes should require participants to engage not only in reflective practices for the purposes of enhancing their teaching but that such reflection should be grounded in a critical understanding of current educational theories acquired through reading higher education scholarship. Self-referential acts of practitioner reflection should therefore be developed further ‘by regularly evaluating and analysing personal professional approaches against ideas and insights gained from and generated by research and scholarly work’ (Daly, Pachler, and Lambert 2004, 101). In the context of the professionalising of higher education, Ferman’s (2002) review of what lecturers identified as valuable for their enhancement supports this account of lecturers’ literacy practices as central to lecturers’ understanding of their academic professionalism. For her respondents, ‘professional reading’ emerges as a major theme for lecturers’ individual development, where reading includes both pedagogic and disciplinary topics. The context is established – newly appointed lecturer programmes expect theoretically- informed teaching.

The use of terms such as reflective practice, critical understanding and individual development connects with the journal c community interest in continuing education.

Evidence is provided of the assumption that reading is a Good Thing.

2.  Similarly, King’s (2004) survey of what academics considered important for their continuing professional development found that the reading of learning and teaching articles was rated more highly than centrally organised academic development. Professional development events   workshops, conferences, award-bearing courses remain key institutional learning and teaching enhancement interventions. Yet translating the outcomes of such activities into the workplace can be challenging where non-formal learning, including reading about learning and teaching, is ‘likely to be a more significant response than formal learning’ for ‘confronting professional obsolescence’  … This paragraph continues to provide evidence from higher education research into assumptions about reading. The use of the term ‘non-formal learning’ also connects to the journal readers’ interests.
 3. Despite the central role that reading higher education research might play in developing academic activities, such practices have received little critical attention in research into either the literacy experiences of lecturers or their professional development. For many lecturers, a model of ‘scholarly teaching’ relies on reading rather than writing practices, given the expectation that lecturers might read and apply research about higher education to enhance their practice but might not necessarily produce comparable written research about their own practices. Inquiry into the literacy challenges for academics, however, has remained focused on the specific demands of writing whether that be the demands of disciplinary research writing (Badley 2009), written feedback processes on student work (Lea and Street 2000) or everyday workplace writing (Lea and Stierer 2009)   rather than the particular requirements of academic reading. Weller now moves on to the problem that the paper addresses – all of this practice and research has assumed that reading higher education research is unproblematic.

 

Taken together context, problem and evidence provide the warrant for the paper.

Because Weller had established the problem as lack of knowledge about new lecturer reading  in the introduction of the paper, she was able to return to it in the paper’s conclusion. Weller was also able to raise questions for universities interested in improving teaching practice through supported and systematic professional development. This was her So What response.

Im sure you can see from this account of Weller’s paper the other thing that is helpful about a problem-based approach to an introduction. And that’s to do with the Conclusion. Once you’ve established the problem you’re addressing at the start, you can easily return to it in the conclusion, showing how your evidence/research does provide insights/questions/answers. You can then discuss the implications of the research for the context you outlined at the start. I haven’t shown Weller’s conclusion here but I’m sure that you can guess it.

It’s important to note that the What’s the Problem question, and the problem-based approach to Introductions that I’ve outlined are not the only way to write a paper or sort out writing issues. The question is however a useful strategy to add to your own writing diagnostic repertoire. Try it out and see if it helps you too.

A caveat

The three moves – context, problem, evidence and connection – are what Barbara and I refer to as the Locate move, and what Swales and Feak refer to in the first part of their Create a Research Space.

Further resources

Check out my curated patter collection on writing for journals.

Or, borrow Kamler and Thomson Writing for peer reviewed journals: Strategies for publication from the library.

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what did that peer reviewer actually mean?

We all know that real estate agents write in code. Renovation potential means it’s a dump. First home buyer’s dream means it’s a dump. Original condition means it’s a dump.

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Sshh… don’t mention the enormous gas works  opposite. No wonder they need a wall around the garden.

Now, journal reviewers have codes too. You may find that sometimes you get reviews where it isn’t immediately obvious what you are being asked to do. That’s because the review is written in reviewer-speak. Reviewer-speak  varies by disciplinary community and by cultural location. As well, each reviewer has their own idiosyncratic way of telling the writer what they think, some less polite than others. But there are patterns in reviewer-speak. It is possible to identify it when you see it.  Here are a few examples:

I suggest that author read further about…

It would be helpful if the writer took account of…

The paper could benefit from…

The author(s) might familiarise themselves with…

It would be worth the writer citing…

So making suggestions about what to change in the paper is common. Well that’s not too hard. These are things you might do. They are not even recommendations. Just possibilities, right?

Wrong.

These are not suggestions. Strong reviewer recommendations are often couched politely.  Obliquely even. We all talk about the rude reviewers, but actually many more of your peers write their reviews in this kind of language. Considerately. Hoping you won’t take offence.

But don’t be deceived. The reviewer is basically saying “Do this. And if I get this paper back for re-review and you haven’t done it you’d better have a pretty good explanation for why not.”

And those reviewer ‘suggestions’ often point to very specific actions. For instance:

The most recent writing in the field argues that…  means

“Read more current material and work it in.”

The article would benefit from more detailed information about methods … means

“You need to do some serious work on the methodology section in order for this to be taken seriously.”

The article lacks a compelling conclusion … means

“There is no So What here. I finished the paper and didn’t have a clue why you wrote this. You have to have a message. Simply reporting your research won’t do.”

The author might think about the match between the claims and the results … means

“You think your research says what? Unbelievable. You really need to match up the findings and the claims and implications.”

I’d be a little more cautious in linking x and y … means

“No, they don’t go together. X and Y can’t be linked in this way. You need to change this.”

And of course, the nightmare scenario. Reviewers may appear to be saying different things. Take these excerpts from two reviewer comments:

Reviewer 1: Perhaps it might be helpful to explore the conceptual and theoretical issues around identity and how that links to the issues around power in much more depth.

Reviewer 2: The theoretical approach brings together roles, identity and habitus as if these were commensurate concepts. Identity is not anchored to any theoretical paradigm, Bourdieu is given pretty short shrift and the potential of field theory is not explored. Role theory is used most in the paper even though it could be explicated more fully. One of these approaches needs to be adopted and explicated in detail.

Both comments here do ultimately agree – they say that the writer’s take on identity is confused, perhaps even simplistic and facile. But it would be a mistake to read these comments as minor. Reviewer 1 says more depth while reviewer 2 says in detail. Both of these are code for a text requiring substantial rethinking and rewriting. This is not about a paragraph or a few more references. This is a fundamental reworking of the theoretical basis of the argument.

Now, Reviewer 2 is very direct and more specific. Perhaps verging on rude. Blunt, certainly. However, although both reviewers say much the same thing, the writer might have a much better idea about what to do from Reviewer 2’s comments. In many cases genteel hedging isn’t as helpful as it might be.

This is just one example of the need to decode and read below the surface of reviewer comments.

Of course, simply understanding the reviewer comments is not enough. There is always a choice about how to respond, about what to do. Writers can decide which or any or all of the reviewer comments they will attend to. Many writers, particularly if they’re new, think that they have to follow each and every recommendation slavishly.

Early career writers can treat reviewer reports as a set of exam questions to be answered. One writer Barbara and I know, for example, was critiqued for not showing the significance of her research to the field. Her solution was to insert two pages of additional literature work to show other scholars also addressing her research problem. The result was a mess. Her paper lost focus and balance. She answered the reviewer diligently and methodically, but at the expense of her own argument. A mentor helped her reduce these two pages to one paragraph and acknowledge the point, within reason.

Keeping the integrity of the argument and the article is of paramount concern. Just like writers, reviewers don’t always quite know what they are trying to say. At times, they know there is a problem, but they can’t put their finger on it. So they have a stab at saying what they think is going on – the result is that it’s not always clear what action might resolve the problem.  And reviewers can go off on a tangent; they see something interesting that may not be germane to the main argument. In this instance, the writer may need to say “I’ve made a note that this is a potential area to be explored, but not now.” At other times, reviewers may make suggestions that disrupt the flow of the article or add unduly to the word length.

The writer has to keep their eye on their own purposes – decode and attend to reviewers, yes – but not rigidly. It is important to remember that reviewer comments, however vital to the progress of the publication, are the backstory to the final performance – which is the published article. The actual performance – the paper – must be coherent and stand on its own. You can’t let what happens backstage ruin the production.

And, it always helps to ask experienced writer to help you to translate reviewer-speak and work out what you want to do. And it can be a bit of fun to attend to the codes – in the absence of an actual review. Sharing reviewer-speak is a very educational after-work game. So do add your favorite examples of reviewer-speak in the comments!

 

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data analysis – jigsaw puzzling writ large?

I do love a good jigsaw. The more complicated the better. Tiny pieces. Ambiguous shapes that could be one of any number of things. Large slabs of mono colour. What’s not to like?

And over Christmas I got hooked on the digital jigsaw puzzle. No more analogue piles occupying the dining room table for weeks. No more accidental knocks destroying several day’s work. No more sideways looks at this quaint old fashioned pastime.

But… it’s not all good. The ipad jigsaw app I’ve acquired really chews through the battery and on a particularly hard puzzle I have to recharge midway. The other down side is that when you combine screen size with the need for the pieces to be visible to the naked eye, there is an inevitable limit to the number of pieces in any one puzzle. The equivalent of the enormous tablecloth size piece this is not.

However, the digital jigsaw has an added bonus, a big plus over analogue. You don’t have to have a picture to guide you. That’s right. Nothing to guide you. Unless you hand over actual money, or some bit coin equivalent, you begin with a lot of pieces and no idea what the end product is going to be. I realise that this would drive some people crazy, but I really like the process of putting just enough pieces together to get to a point when I can imagine  the final image.

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Of course, you’d likely never get to the point where you could recognise the subject unless you had a system. You have to follow the grammar of the puzzle. This usually means putting the outside frame together by finding all the pieces that have a flat side. Corner pieces are particularly important as they can help to work out the flow on each side. Once you’ve made the edges, you then have to choose something to build up.

Because I work largely with colour and line, I usually choose something that seems smallish, working inward from the frame. I like to find something that goes from top to bottom or side to side. I work by colour and line first but eventually by shape. I’m not so good at shape. I’m really good at colour and line so I rely on that a lot. At some point, I know I’ll have to sort out pieces of the same colour – where there is no recognisable difference – by shape.

So you can see my system – find and make the border, compile the more obvious sections by colour and line until you can see the big picture, then put the pieces for each section of the picture together. I then continue working section by section rather than scatter-gunning all over the image. I pick off the sections that look more obvious first, leaving the most difficult to the end. This way, I have the reward of seeing the image filling out, rather than being faced with bits everywhere, bits here and there.

The jigsaw puzzle is all about looking, being systematic, and being able to imagine a completed work. It’s also about an eye for detailbeing patient and not being daunted by something that looks completely incomprehensible at the start.

Do you recognise this? Sound familiar? There is something important about this piecing together process – it’s a lot like dealing with (any kind of 0f) research data.

Now – reading warning – this isn’t a metaphor. The jigsaw isn’t a terrific metaphor for research IMHO. Usually, research data doesn’t arrive with a predetermined border; the researcher has to find/make/sort-out what the edges of the research actually are. And there are often not right answers. There are generally multiple interpretations possible in social science and humanities research – lots of possible final images that can be made from the data. There is judgement to be exercised in putting together the pieces of the analytic puzzle.

No, when I say research is like a puzzle what I actually mean is the material practice. The process of solving a jigsaw puzzle is a lot like the process of data analysis.

To start with both the jigsaw puzzler and the researcher have to have a systematic approach. This may mean you construct the borders first. Or it might mean putting bits of things together in order to determine possible avenues for analyses. Or it might mean taking a frame from the literature and sorting data according to predetermined categories. Or it might mean following an analytic convention. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you have a system – and you can describe the ways in which you worked through the data. You also need to be able to provide a rationale for the system of analysis.  (Just as I can describe how I approach a jigsaw.)

And there’s more. I think that the embodied practice of jigsaw puzzling is a lot like the embodied practice of analysing data. You have to be prepared to face something that looks like there is no way it can come together. You have to be patient and understand that it takes time to work out what the big picture is – it doesn’t necessarily come quickly or easily. You have to have a tolerance for ambiguity – things that might fit in multiple places have to be held onto until you can work out where the best place for them is. You also have to sweat the small stuff, the tiny differences.  Above all, you have to be relaxed, accept that this isn’t going to be a quick process. In fact, you’re likely to think its in-soluble and undo-able several times before you’re done.

Ideally, you get to the same point with data analysis as dedicated jigsaw puzzlers do. You understand and accept that it takes as long as it takes, and as long as some progress is being made – and that may be just working out what doesn’t work – then it’s all good. You stick to the system and trust in it, or you change the strategy, but then make it systematic. And you enjoy the process. No. You relish the prospect of making sense of a big pile of stuff – of bringing order to something that appears to be random and arbitrary, of making a picture at the end that is both recognisable and pleasing.

These puzzle/analysis behaviour and attitudes are dispositional. And I suspect that there might be some resonance between a disposition for puzzling – not just jigsaws, but any game which requires sustained engagement, concentration, strategic thinking, imagination and persistence – and the practice of research. I don’t think that playing games necessarily makes you better at research analysis of course, but I do think that the correspondence between the two practices is – well – interesting!

 

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Co-writing, a continuing story…

This is a guest post written by John Cowan and Susi Peacock who write together.  Their bio-notes are at the bottom of this post. 

This brief piece of collaborative written work was conceived in a typical manner, by Susi and me.  As we tied up a joint writing effort, I commented as an aside that we might, sometime, write about writing together. This is a topic on which we have at times mused reflectively, apropos de bottes. Amidst a flurry of business emails tidying up a forthcoming module, there then came into my inbox an almost empty message saying FYI. Susi had simply posted the Patter piece on co-writing strategies. I presumed that she provocatively inferred that we might be triggered to respond. Over to me! (1)

I did not recognise our collaborative style in the Patter post account. Writing comes second for us, with much disconnected talking coming first. Nothing emerges for us as even roughly drafted material, other than in regard to a topic we have talked out at some length. Something then prompts one of us to make a start. If it’s me who begins with an idea, the entry is usually anecdotal and ruminative and sometimes even passionate. If it’s Susi who opens a drafting interchange, then the opening is scholarly, well referenced, classically structured – and always carefully considered. In either case, there follows a prolonged iteration. Drafts go back and forth. Only occasionally do we talk in person or on the phone about content or style – unless we are, in effect, going back to square one and re-conceiving what we hope to write. We correspond digitally (2).

We do a lot of cutting and pasting.  We frequently revise and refine wording. We offer comments for consideration, and make marginal responses. Susi helpfully and constructively shoehorns in recent references whose relevance to us I only sometimes question. I tend to change words, prune drafts and split long sentences in delightfully purple prose – down to simpler components. I pepper-pot in helpful punctuation, to make text clearer for simple readers like me.  Susi can suddenly interrupt the process by posing an utterly profound and disturbing question, to which of course we should be giving attention. Off we then go – down that trail. We don’t have a lead author. We soon lose track of who first wrote what. The final version genuinely belongs to both of us (3).

Our collaboration has been successful so far in terms of acceptances for publication and a strengthening professional relationship. Why so? Probably for two closely linked reasons.  Our styles and strengths are utterly different – and hence are compatible without conflict.  But additionally, we each continue to genuinely admire and respect what the other brings and suggests (4, 5).

I wrote the first draft of this on my own. Then I sent it to Susi – with the wicked suggestion that perhaps we might just send it to Patter with her comments as footnotes. I wondered what that outcome would be. Here you have it, after a few tweaks and an extra footnote from me.

Footnotes:

1 SP: This is often the case. I see a blog posting, an article, a chapter, often provocative, and wonder if this stimulate some joint writing. I know it will always lead to some discussions.

2 SP: I had not actually thoughts about this before, but yes, it is the case. I wonder if this is a practical response – our diaries are always busy – or is it because we know each other so well. I read John’s words and hear his voice.

3 SP: I value John’s editorial role. I can become obsessed with the content and “my message” and forget my verbosity. I have learnt not to be possessive about my words, since the joint efforts will be so much more.

4 SP: I am very honoured to work with John. He has taught me to have an unconditional positive regard for all his suggestions, although I may not always agree with them!

5 JC: I can’t let her away with that. For, in my turn, I am immensely grateful to her for the energy, insights and encouragement which brought me back to active research and academic writing, rejuvenated from being a hibernating academic in my 85th year.

Pat then said to John: I think that your co writing is a version of my first draft (category). But obviously the categories are slippery.

To which he responded  Yes, very much first draft – but then chaotically integrated.

I think we are fortunate. Since we started about 18 months ago, we have had no rejections, probably six aceptances or publications on different but allied topics and in reasonable journals, and a modest agenda of targets remaining! The secret seems to be the blend of totally different talents and priorities and perhaps the complimentarity of different age groups and styles!

And a last word from Pat …

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The co-writers

John Cowan is Professor Emeritus of Learning Development of the UK OU. He is an octogenarian who is nowadays involved to an understandably modest extent with the online facilitation of the reflective development by students of higher level cognitive and interpersonal abilities, and with the role of engaging the affect in promoting such development.

 Susi Peacock is senior lecturer for e-learning, at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. She leads the implementation of technology enhanced learning across that institution. Her research interests are e-learning and change management. She recently completed a PhD constructively critiquing the Community of Inquiry Framework.

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2017 – the year of the ‘to do’ list

Social media folk delight in discussing the organisation of academic work. How to manage time. How to organise all that information that comes in and out. How to sort and select tasks in order of their urgency and importance. How to manage various kinds of analysis.

Now don’t get me wrong – I think all this organisation-talk is very useful. It’s great to share approaches, experiences of software platforms and handy hints for getting things done. But I’ve become interested in the writing that anchors all of this self-organisation. I’ve been thinking particularly about the to do list.

Together with the calendar, the to do list is the basis of daily academic practice. A to do list can be seen as simply utilitarian – it’s a way to organise and schedule the work. But I think there is probably more to it than that. The to do list is not simply a written record or a textual representation of work, but is writing which is explicitly and consciously used to produce and regulate academic life. It is writing with intent.

We make to do lists in an effort to control and manage work flow. To make sure we don’t forget things, to put things in priority order. The to do list constitutes and constructs the mundane and unremarkable, the pressing and the interesting, the unusual and the regular, in scholarly practice.

In her book Home and work. Negotiating boundaries through everyday life Christine Nippert Eng studied the everyday life of scientists and laboratory technicians. She not only observed and interviewed them, but also studied artefacts – she looked at what photos people kept in their office, whether they put their work keys and home keys together or apart, what was on their calendars, how much work-related material appeared in their homes and where and how it was stored and used.

Perhaps not surprisingly, her study’s scientists had very blurred boundaries between home and work, whereas the laboratory technicians maintained a much stricter demarcation. Scientists allowed their work to flow into all aspects of their lives, with books, correspondence and report writing spread all over their homes. The laboratory technicians by contrast rarely took any work home at all. Nippert Eng’s study was conducted pre-social media and ubiquitous pocket technology, and it is probably the case that the academic home and work are even more permeable these days.

The to do list is the quintessential way in which the potentially all day/all night academic work is managed. This is not to be sneezed at in today’s performative institutional environments. The to do list is a way to not only feel in control of the workload, but also to exercise control. The to do list can stave off that feeling of being overwhelmed, of being swamped. Writing down the tasks and sorting them out is intended to produce greater order and orderly behaviour. It can be understood as a self-disciplining technology – a way for the academic to regulate their own behaviour and make sure that they meet institutional requirements and their own agendas.

The list itself is always in the middle – it’s never where the work started or where it finishes. The list can thus be seen as humdrum, as dull and daily.  What’s more, the to do list isn’t intended to be made public. And academic writing is usually public, or on the way to becoming a public piece of work – as in field notes. The to do writing has none of the hallmarks of academic writing. It is not persuasive. There are no citations. And it lacks the criticality of what we usually think of as academic writing. The to do list cannot thus be seen as conventionally academic – yet how can it not be? It addresses the very core of what we do each and every day.

I suspect it probably matters whether the to do list is well organised, or kept, as mine usually is, as an apparently random and untidy set of post-its and scraps of pilfered conference notepaper. My to do lists appear to be ephemeral, fragments of academic life not worth keeping once enough of the items have been crossed off.  But I do go through them quite regularly and toss out those that aren’t worth keeping any more, carefully transferring the things still to be done to a new note.

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Post-its =notes for this blog post, pink = to do list, yellow notes = another to do list & ideas for future blog posts. 

None of my lists has any structure whatsoever. They are simply lists – they occasionally provide the last possible date by which something is to be done. By contrast, proprietary time-management software usually provides already determined categories – and almost always a daily organisation. The list says – this is today’s list of jobs and tomorrow I must do them. This daily organisation promotes a fiction about the unending elasticity of time – it hasn’t been possible to do these things today, but tomorrow time will stretch out so that I can. There is of course no time to be had unless it is set aside.

I have been wondering about the possibility of researching to do lists. A content analysis is obvious. A rhythmanalysis perhaps. However, I have been wondering about the lists as more than this, one lens on the changing but continuous nature of contemporary academic practice. What can the quotidian to do list, produced for no particular occasion, lacking in all of the hallmarks of the average academic text, occluded or otherwise, help us to understand about our individual and collective work?

And yes, I’m at that moment when you realise that you’re not writing a blog post at all. It’s another set of preliminary notes for a possible research project…

And to that end I have decided to put all of my usually scrappy 2017 to do lists in one notebook. Not so that they are organised mind you, just so that I can read them back more easily.

Anyone want to join in?

Posted in academic writing, academic writing as work, to do list, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

dear Santa

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Dear Santa

Ho Ho Festive greetings etc.

I know its usual for people to give you a big list of what they want for Christmas. However, I want to tell you the things that I really, really don’t want to see in my stocking this year. Well, I don’t want to see after tomorrow, to be truthful.

  • Don’t send me another  invitation to contribute to an edited book. My head is full to overflowing right now and I can’t make a decision about anything. Ask me again after I’ve had a few days off.
  • I’d rather not be asked for references right now. I’m sure they can wait… No? Well, if they absolutely can’t. Yes, I do know the scholarship dates are difficult and looming. I’ll make an exception for these.
  • I don’t think there’s any point shortlisting now for that position. It’s nearly almost the official holiday period. It surely won’t make any difference to wait till New Year. Save the link to the applications till we go back to work. You can do it. Just put it on your new year to-do list. See above suggested date.
  • Don’t send me that thesis to examine. It can wait. I don’t want to get up every holiday morning and see 80 to 100 thousand words sitting solidly waiting for me. Nothing makes me more anxious than knowing I’ve got to gear up to read something that someone has spent years of their life doing when I feel pretty drained. The candidate won’t expect that, so why should you? Besides I’ve already got one thesis waiting. No point being in a queue. Just hang onto yours for a week or so till I’ve got this one done. Got that? Post in early January.
  • I don’t want to be sent any last minute requests to review papers. I really don’t. Really. Really. Yes, really. See comment about January and add several expletives.

So you see Santa I don’t actually want anything from you right now. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. None. 

I do have a bit of work I still have to do and I’d like to keep it manageable. A thesis. A few draft chapters. Maybe a couple of PhD applications. So it’s not exactly a complete rest, you know.

And of course there is the pile of books that look like work – well, they are work – but it would actually give me great pleasure to find the time to do a little more than skim the table of contents.

Maybe that’s what you can do Santa. Can you just play with time a little bit so I can find the time to read and replenish my intellectual reserves a little? And of course I do want to have some time off to spend with my loved ones. Just remember no more work-related stuff.

Signing off now. Till next year Santa. Have a good one.

Patter is now on a mini break and will be back on January 2nd.

Best wishes to you all for the festive season.

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