This guest post is written by Jodie Pennacchia, a final year PhD researcher at The University of Nottingham, based jointly in the Schools of Education and Social Work and Social Policy. Jodie’s research focuses on the English school academies programme. Jodie tweets as @jpennacchia.
During my PhD I have been lucky enough to be involved in editing a special issue for the journal Critical Studies in Education, with my supervisor Pat Thomson, and colleagues Glenda McGregor and Martin Mills. This opportunity stemmed from a symposium that took place at the annual conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education in December 2015, where we came together to present work on alternative education provision from our national contexts. There were shared concerns across this work, particularly in relation to how questions of social justice are implicated in the policy, design and organisation of provision for young people ‘at the margins’ of education. It is this concern that we carry forward into the special issue, which presents current work from four countries with the aim of exploring issues of social justice in a variety of types and contexts of alternative education.
Here I want to share with you some of the ways I feel I have benefitted from this process, and to suggest how other doctoral researchers might go about getting involved in similar opportunities.
What did I learn?
Well, the hard work isn’t over yet, but the things that have stood out for me so far are:
The benefits of being a special issue ‘voyeur’: I appreciate that at first glimpse the idea of sending lots of emails between different groups of academics and noting decisions on a computer system may not have you all rushing to get involved in a special issue, but bear with me. There is no denying the considerable administrative content of this kind of undertaking, but what is uniquely beneficial about this opportunity is that you are well-positioned to observe the editorial decision-making, intellectual and creative judgements, and compromises that are being made in order to make the special issue as worthwhile a contribution as possible. This makes it a rich learning opportunity. I suppose it is also good practice at the balancing act that is necessary if you want to stay in academia (or get any job really). Being able to spin a particular set of plates -– the review, the journal article, the fieldwork, the teaching, the editing etc – seems to be a vital skill for a future in higher education. Here you get to dip your toe into the world of editing, try it on for size in a supportive context, and observe how more experienced academics do this particular set of activities. You learn both by observing and by doing.
Substantive and theoretical learning: This was an opportunity to develop my understanding of an area of research that is important to my doctoral thesis and future research, and to do so from the vantage point of different national contexts and a range of theoretical standpoints. It has enabled me to see how my own ideas might speak to other researchers and contexts, and where important differences might lie. It has also been an opportunity to see how more experienced researchers use theory to support their interrogation of educational policies and practices. I think this is a helpful way of expanding your own repertoire; thinking beyond the limits of the tools and approaches that might be privileged in your own department, university or indeed country.
The comfort of making the strange (and scary) familiar: I found that after working on the special issue I did not feel anxious about my first experience of submitting a paper to a journal. At an administrative level, I had become familiar with the online platform that journals use to manage the editorial process. More importantly, as a PhD student I have been privy to the usual horror stories of the ‘angry review’. What I was able to discern through the experience of working on a special issue was how committed reviewers are. Their main aim was to get the best possible work and contribution from the author, not to score intellectual points. I am not saying this will never happen, but I think it is reassuring to know that this is not the norm. Instead, a variety of styles of critique exist, and thoughtful review is integral to the development and quality of a paper.
Beginning to find your place, your community: This experience has been an important step in terms of beginning to find a place in an academic community. Working with people who share your core concerns is a great experience, as is getting to read and review work which voices these concerns in insightful and critical ways, seeking to move a field of study forward. It reveals some of the questions that still need to be addressed in your area of research, which provides a basis for beginning to think beyond the PhD, about future research projects you would like to be involved with.
Is this something you might like to do?
I recognise that being involved in a special issues is not necessarily something entirely within your control as a PhD student. Our opportunities are of course linked in part to the support of our supervisors, and in this respect I have been very lucky. However, there are some steps that I believe any PhD student could take that might lead them in the right direction.
As a PhD student you will probably not be the driving force behind a special issue, but you can be a willing and helpful contributor, which is an important first step. Key to getting this particular experience is meeting people whose research speaks to you. Attend the relevant conferences in your area of interest as soon as you can. Present if possible, but definitely attend. When you find people whose research grabs your attention, talk to them. Make an effort to stay in touch, whether via email or one of the numerous social media channels now available to us. Send them things they might be interested in. Introduce them to other people….
What I am getting at here is that you have to begin to form your own communities during your PhD. It is from these sorts of experiences that a symposium might stem, and perhaps give the grounding for a special issue, because you are building up a community of like-minded people to think with, learn from and write with. All, or any, of these things are a demanding, enjoyable and rich learning opportunity, which invite you to glimpse another aspect of academic work and to see if it is something you might want to be a part of post-PhD.
An early version of Thomson P and Pennacchia J (2015) “Disciplinary regimes of care and complementary alternative education” is online.