literatures work – and a pair of new shoes…

It’s September and the Autumn equinox. To mark the occasion, I took my new pair of lace-up boots out of their box and gave them their first wearing/airing.

IMG_1673Now anyone who knows me knows that I always have a pair of boots that look pretty much like these. Elderly academic notwithstanding – these are my standard footwear in winter. No heels, so I don’t irritate my dodgy spine. Big treaded rubber soles, so I don’t fall over on ice. Waterproof so  – well that’s obvious. Sensible flat boots designed for a cold-ish wet climate.  The previous pair of almost identical boots were German, not Danish, and lasted for four winters of pretty consistent wearing. So I look forward to a few more winters in the company of this new pair.

There’s something reassuring about old new shoes, and in marking the change of season.  Winter is a return – it’s not only familiar but also comforting. So it’s probably no surprise that I’m not only celebrating the start of a new season, but also the start of a new cohort of doctoral researchers. And I have an old new post  with a familiar refrain to mark the occasion  – it’s one about reading and literatures work.

Reading is the research equivalent of sturdy long-lasting shoes. The reading you do at the start of the doctorate sets you up for the cycle of work to come – and also for work you do afterwards. The sustantive content of your reading provides a stable foundation on which you can stride out into your research. But the process of doing the literatures work also, and at the same time, builds up a habit of reading and writing that the foundation of all scholarly work.

Working with literatures requires you to develop solid, sensible and slip-avoiding practices of:

Reading and noting

Critical reading involves evaluating the evidence and argument presented in texts. Critical reading is combined with economical ways to record the information salient to your research – using key words, brief summaries and/or focused questions. Closer reading of particularly pertinent papers may mean you also write memos.

Once you have read some material, you can then group texts together in tables, excel spread sheets and/or using key words in your bibliographic software. Your groupings are usually directed to beginning to locate what is most relevant to your project.


Scoping a field of literatures means that – over time – you build an understanding of the history and chronology of the field in which your research is located. You understand the key debates, trends, and influences from and connections with other fields. You become familiar with the ways in which knowledge is generated in the field.  Scoping begins at the same time as reading. Scoping allows you to draw some boundaries about what is in and out of your literatures field. It often helps to work visually to develop your sense of the field.


Mapping often happens at the same time as you are scoping the field. Mapping is the time and place for you to construct your particular route through the literatures. Your map positions your particular question/focus/area of interest at the centre. You then organise other groups of literatures as they ‘speak’ to your work. This helps you make explicit relevant conceptual insights, evidence and/or methods. 

Mapping situates your work in a particular place in the field you have scoped/are scoping, and allows you to group texts in ways that locate and support your project. The mapping exercise also positions you to specify the contribution your work will make. 

You can map in various ways – through grids, outlines and visualisations.

Focusing in

After scoping and mapping, you will be able to identify any particular texts that you need to read more of, and of course what you don’t. You can also read very closely – perhaps re-read – anything that you have identified as being the most helpful for/germane to your work and/or on the topic you most want to say more about, or answer back to. 

At this point you can articulate the contribution you want to make, why and how it matters in the field.

Writing the moves

You now need to think about how you will write your literatures work. This is not about summarising – you did that when you were reading. Writing literatures means turning the work you did during the mapping phase into written form – referring to your scoping exercise, and discussing in some detail the texts you read during focusing in. 

You are now transforming the literatures into your own account of the field, naming the contribution the literatures make to your research and naming your potential contribution to the literatures. You now own your interpretation of the literatures and how all the texts you’ve read relate to your research. 

Your literatures writing moves are always particular to your research project – and will be organised around your substantive questions, the trends and evidence you’ve established. 

Remember… There are various ways to organise a literatures discussion and it is helpful to consider the differences between for example a chronological approach, one which begins by locating your topic in the concerns of the field and one which unpacks your research question. Writing two or three potential outlines, storyboarding, and mind-mapping can be helpful in generating the particular choreography of your literatures work.

And of course, literatures don’t have to be presented in a single chapter. Literatures work may in fact underpin several chapters in the thesis or proposal – and a good way to see what else is possible apart from a literatures chapter is through the mapping process.

It’s worth noting at the outset of the reading season that literatures  work – like a pair of shoes – does need to be maintained. Shoes don’t last for years if you don’t look after them. Regular polishing is required and the occasional replacement laces. Just so with literatures. Your literatures work also needs to be continually polished and refreshed at regular intervals. During the doctorate, you need to keep reading and re-evaluating your initial scoping, mapping and focusing.

And it is also important to say that the literatures work that you present in a final thesis text may well be different from your proposal. This is because the final literatures work will be subtly – or perhaps even radically – tweaked to fit the research you have actually done rather than support the research you intend to do. A well worn pair of shoes does look and feel different from the shiny new originals.

So off into the wilds … Walk on into winter …

See also

wakelet collection on literatures work

hands on hips stance

the laundry list literature review




Posted in literature mapping, literature review, literature reviews, mapping, reading, scan-reading, scoping, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

guilty, as charged


I’ve been thinking about guilt lately. Academic guilt. And why I seem to feel it – a lot.

The most recent guilt ridden occasion was just last weekend. The week before I’d been away for four days at a conference. I’d left home at 5 am on Tuesday and arrived back at 2 30 am on Saturday. Gah. Just the way the flights worked out. But it did mean that on Saturday I couldn’t do much more than get my laundry done. Shattered doesn’t really describe it. And on Sunday I got up quite early, blogged, did slides for two presentations I had to give on Tuesday and sorted out some urgent research project admin. That took me to a late lunch and then I stopped. Stopped but feeling guilty that I hadn’t done more.

Guilty that I hadn’t

  • responded to a colleague’s paper that I’d promised to read
  • read and fed back on a long thesis chapter I‘ve had for about two weeks
  • finished the reviews on a special issue

Let alone

  • written a very overdue review of two books
  • revised two collaborative research papers that have been stuck for quite some time
  • done any more on a book which is due alarmingly soon
  • gone back to the draft paper I am co-writing with a PhDer….

I could keep adding to the list of things not done, but these are the particular set that were associated with feeling guilty.

Now, I’m pretty sure that if I asked a number of my colleagues they would come up with a long to do list too. The details would be different, but in common would be things that are urgent that aren’t done, and things that are nearly as urgent and should be done. But would they feel guilty about them? Is there a pattern in what I feel guilty about? Because, you see, not everything on my to do list induces guilt.

My guilt comes from the fact that I haven’t got to things where other people are involved. People that are important to me. It’s the people I’m letting down that matter. I don’t feel particularly guilty for instance that I haven’t quite sorted out my ORCID although I can see that it could be helpful. I don’t feel guilty that I haven’t recommended any books to the library or that I haven’t checked lately to see if my online profile is coherent. No. My guilt happens because I am holding up other people and potentially causing them to lose time, adjust their schedules, scrabble around to fill the gap that I have created. This kind of guilt is a low level feeling of worry, of unhappiness that I am harming, or will harm another person.

And my guilt goes beyond the current situation. Although I do get things done, the guilty feeling remains. Guilt seems to be an endemic academic emotion, well, certainly for me. I am never caught up. I always have people hanging on what I am not doing. Therefore, I compel myself to work on the weekend, regularly, as means to keep a vague check on the list of things that affect other people, the list that I can’t ever actually completely manage.

So I’m pondering. Is guilt integral to the performativity of the contemporary academy? Is it an essential emotional companion to the intensification and acceleration of academic work? If emotion sits between ‘structure and agency’, then system is certainly implicated.

Well –  maybe yes and maybe no. If all I had to do was to satisfy abstract bureaucratic measures then I wouldn’t be nearly so keen to get things done. It is, perhaps somewhat perversely, a kind of resistance, a desire for academic relationships that are pushing my guilt…

So there is no point telling me to take time off. Nor to adopt some fancy new kind of time management system. Nor to try out some kind of life hack. Nor to say no. Nor to just make better choices. I know all this and I can actually do all of those things thanks very much – my point here is that I choose not to – because guilt is not about personal management… Academic guilt as I experience it is not amenable to simple and rational intervention, because (certainly in my case) it is a response that comes from a commitment to maintaining a sociality and relationality that is fragile and undercut by competition, audit and abrasive organisational cultures. It is deeply, and at the same time as personal, profoundly structural and systemic.

Well that’s my current theory.

Guilt keeps me working on those things that might support collegiality, a gift economy, a more generous academic culture… and yes, it’s clear how this is also simultaneously made risky when it’s impossible to meet promises and expectations.

I guess I’m just wondering aloud, and in public, how widespread academic guilt is. Is it now a common form of academic emotional labour?  How important is guilt, driven by an ethic of care, to the regulation and completion of academic work in the contemporary university?


Image credit: Thomas H, Flickr Commons

Posted in Emotion, emotional labour, guilt, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

the citation dump – and three more citation tactics to avoid – #thesisknowhow

All doctoral researchers know they must locate their work in the literatures. They also know that they must refer to the relevant literatures when they make an argument. Unsubstantiated claims are not acceptable, unless of course they are what is to be empirically interrogated/tested.

However, some doctoral researchers do assume that the purpose of citations in their thesis is primarily to demonstrate that they have read. That they have read in their field full stop. And they must show the examiners their reading.


can you tell me how you are using the term neoliberalism?

Thinking that the purpose of citing is to show the reading leads to seeing citation as being about tactics – citations are the way to provide evidence of the work that the doctoral researcher has done. You cite something to show you have read it. This is essentially seeing citations as data – they are the proof that you’ve done what’s expected.

Unfortunately, citation tactics motivated by the need to provide evidence of work done can raise serious questions in an examiner’s mind – and lead to questions for you in the viva.

Let me show you what I mean.

The thesis reads…


The examiner thinks…
There is a considerable literature about neoliberalism (Harvey, 2005).


Is this sloppy writing or more likely, have you really not read anything else?

How can you locate your work in the field through one text…???

Better ask a question in the viva…

There is a considerable literature about neoliberalism (see the review by Papadagonas, 2013) I googled neoliberalism and literature review and this was the first thing that came up.

Have you not read anything yourself? Why are you not doing your own literature review?

How is reading a meta review using the literature to support your research design and analysis…?

Better ask a question in the viva…

There is a considerable literature about neoliberalism (e.g. Osborne and Gaebler, 1993; Harvey, 2005; Kelsey, 1999). Well yes, these three are about neoliberalism – but these are very different texts. Osborne and Gaebler advocate, Kelsey is telling the story of one country and Harvey is Marxist critique. And they are all from different disciplinary perspectives and different epistemological positions. Did you not understand the differences? Or perhaps you haven’t really read them…

And why these three? What’s the basis for selecting these particular ones?

How is your work situated in relation to these three texts?

What have you taken from them?

How does your contribution speak to these texts?

Better ask a question in the viva…

Perhaps the answer to the examiner objections listed above is simply to put in a better first sentence and more comprehensive references. Well no.   This impulse leads to the citation dump.

The citation dump is where a string of references is put into the text to signify comprehensive reading, or that key texts are known. This is still seeing citation as evidence of reading.

The thesis reads…


The examiner thinks…
Much recent work has focused on the ways that neoliberalism creates structures of oppression (Peterson and Davis 2015; Gupta 2013; Heaney 2004; Peterson, Peterson and Davis 2011; Grafton 2003; Smith 1997; Paterson-Davis 2017). Well this is a list of what the writer has read, but I don’t understand how they think about these texts.

Which are more important – are any of them more important than another?

And what is they writer taking from any of these for their research and argument – just this one point? Surely they got more from these texts than that?

And these texts are actually written over a long period of time – from 1997 to 2017 – hasn’t anything changed in that time?

Are these texts all from the same research traditions and disciplines? What does the writer make of that – are the differences in evidence and interpretation not important to their understanding of what structures of oppression exist and might mean?

The writer just seems to have dumped these citations in the text as a way of proving they’ve read more than one thing.

Better ask a question in the viva …

The moral of this small story is of course that seeing citation as the way you display your reading can get you into trouble.

Citation isn’t a  tactical matter.

Examiners do want to see that doctoral researchers understand the history of a field, its debates and traditions. They do expect doctoral researchers to read widely. They want to see that they are up to date. But most of all they want to see evidence that the doctoral researcher has carefully thought about their own work in relation to what is already out there, and that they have chosen work that they will use and build on and speak back to.

This is not a matter of citing anything at all, or of dumping citations willy nilly. The examiner looks for the ways in which the doctoral researcher argues for their work using the literatures as support, and attributes that work as appropriate, understanding what the texts are and offer.

This is not citation as data, citation as proof of reading.  It is citation as showing the source of the concepts and evidence that are integral to the doctoral research.


Thankyou to JHemon for the comment – and the fourth example I’ve used –  in response to my recent post on the laundry list literature review.

Image: Voogt, Prescott, William (1907) Our domestic animals, their habits, intelligence and usefulness. Ginn & Co: Boston – accessed from Library of Congress 




Posted in argument, citation, citation dump, citations, literature review, literature reviews, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

academic writing and the connoisseur-critic

I often write, well no, I actually often rant about, the importance of reading to writing. Researchers can simply read for the content of papers, chapters and books – or they can also read for the writing.

Reading for the writing can mean different things, for instance, reading texts to see their ‘technical’ characteristics….asking

  • What kind of writing is this – narrative? argument? report? 
  • What conventions are followed – sections, headings, signposting, use of examples and visual material, mode of address, first or third person ?… and so on…

However, there are other ways to think about reading for writing. Ive just rediscovered the idea of reading as a way of becoming a connoisseur of academic writing. Yes, connoisseur. And a critic. 

Where did this rediscovery come from? Well, I’m currently involved in a project about writing – not academic writing, but creative writing in schools. We (the research team) have to come up with some ideas about assessing creative writing in the classroom. Not easy… and I went back to some literatures that I haven’t read for a bit. And to a comparatively elderly paper by the late Eliot Eisner (1976), at the time of writing a Professor of Art Education at Stanford.

As often happens, reading about one thing sparked off thinking about another. One of the benefits of reading – you never quite know where it will take you. A point not disconnected from the rest of the post…  and here we go….Eisner talks about the connoisseur and critic. 

Now, a connoisseur is usually associated with activities such as drinking wine or looking at art. The term can also carry a whiff of pretentiousness  –  the blush of the sun on the south side of the hill but that lingering aftertaste of petrol and all that. And maybe there is snobbishness in connoisseurship too, because being a connoisseur means having the money to indulge yourself and maybe lording/lauding over others who can’t afford the same.

But really, a connoisseur is simply someone who has a deep appreciation and knowledge about something. Connoisseurs are critical and discerning about their chosen topic. And their topic isn’t necessarily limited to conspicuous consumption. You could be a connoisseur of compost heaps. Or of ironing. Or a connoisseur of travel and the fine art of getting to work without getting stuck in traffic. (I know all of these connoisseurs.)

Eisner argues…

Connoisseurs of anything – and one can have connoisseurship about anything- appreciate what they encounter in the proper meaning of that word. Appreciation does not necessarily mean liking something, although one might like what one experiences. Appreciation here means an awareness and an understanding of what one has experienced. Such an awareness provides the basis for judgment. (Eisner, 1976, p 140)

So why not a connoisseur of academic writing? Someone who appreciates and is discerning about the finer points, genres, platforms, media, styles, voices of and in academic writing … 


written in the morning in a warm home office,  strong argumentative flavour with a lingering Foucauldian after-taste…

A connoisseur of academic writing would not simply read widely and be familiar with a wide range of academic writing genres, writing across disciplines and writing for multiple audiences. They would not only read to see what structure, moves and language conventions were in use. They would develop a critical appreciation of ‘good’ academic writing. They could point to texts that are beautifully written – that are aesthetically pleasing, as well as informative, well evidenced and argued, and persuasive.

A connoisseur of academic writing would surely read non-fiction and literary texts as well as academic. They would wonder about what might be brought into academic writing from other fields. They might even encourage experimentation with hybrid genres which draw on other creative fields, ranging from poetry and illustration to theatre scripts and journalism.

And maybe the connoisseur of academic writing would not only bring these understandings to their own writing, but also happily explain them to others. They would become knowledgeable critics.

What the critic strives for is to articulate or render … ineffable qualities … in a language that makes them vivid. But this gives rise to something of a paradox. How is it that what is ineffable can be articulated? How do words express what words can never express? The task of the critic is to adumbrate, suggest, imply, connote, render, rather than to attempt to translate. In this task, metaphor and analogy, suggestion and implication are major tools. The language of criticism, indeed its success as criticism, is measured by the brightness of its illumination. The task of the critic is to help us to see. (Eisner,1976, p 141)

The connoisseur-critic talks/writes about what counts as good academic writing. Their reading and writing are inseparable – both are needed. 

Perhaps none of this really matters. I’m just going off on a flight of fancy. 

Well, there are instances where academics are expected to be knowledgeable critics… Peer review is a classic instance where academics exercise their critical judgement, and may or may not have the connoisseurship to back it up. Reviewers are expected to make sound decisions about whether a text is well written. And yet each reviewer has their own take on what that means, more or less well grounded in their own critically appreciative reading and reflection. They may not be able to articulate the criteria for ‘good writing’ they are using.

Connoisseur critics would certainly have less difficulty in passing judgment on the writing of others than Reviewer 2 has at present.  As Eisner puts it,

… connoisseurship provides criticism with its subject matter. Connoisseurship is private, but criticism is public. Connoisseurs simply need to appreciate what they encounter. Critics, however, must render these qualities vivid by the artful use of critical disclosure. (Eisner, 1976, p 141)

Something to aim for perhaps. Why not reading for the writing to become a connoisseur –critic? And encourage others to do the same. Read for the writing and discuss the writing along with the content? Develop your own criteria for what counts as good, better and best academic writing?  Read what others suggest about this too? 
Sounds OK to me. Yes. Read for the writing in order to becomea connoisseur-critic of academic writing.

IMHO not unhelpful ideas in the contemporary university where very particular and narrow versions of quality often prevail.


Image: Peri Scope. Flickr Commons.



Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

avoiding the laundry list literature review

I’ve been asked to say more about the laundry list literature review. The laundry list is often called ‘He said, she said” – as one of the most usual forms of the laundry list is when most sentences start with a name. And the laundry list is a problem. It’s hard to read and not very fit for purpose. 

So, what does a laundry list look like? Below is a page of a published book. It is taken from a chapter reviewing the literatures on neoliberalism in ‘the university’. It’s a laundry list. I have:

  • underlined in red the sentence where the author says what they are trying to do (you might call this a topic sentence)
  • circled the sentences that feature a scholar as the subject of the sentence.

Now let’s see what’s going on in the writing. The second paragraph on the first page begins with the author’s intention – to establish that it is difficult to define neoliberalism. They then offer two supporting pieces of evidence for this contention – one from Ferguson and the other from Bell and Green. But is the point of this paragraph to say who said what? Well no. It’s the various interpretations of the term that matter, not who was responsible for them.

Let me re-draft these two sentences to focus on the author’s intention.

Clarifying the concept of neoliberalism is not an easy task. The term neoliberalism is often used as a synonym for capitalism or the inequalities of the economy more generally (Ferguson 2010). Some scholars use the term very loosely, drawing connections between unrelated life events to suggest that a clandestine power is ‘pulling the strings’ (Bell and Green, 2016, after Latour, 2005).

What is now made clearer in the re-draft is that this is actually not yet a paragraph. I’ll continue by adding in further information from the next two paragraphs.

Clarifying the concept of neoliberalism is not an easy task. The term neoliberalism is often used as a synonym for capitalism or the inequalities of the economy more generally (Ferguson 2010). Some scholars use the term very loosely, drawing connections between unrelated life events to suggest that a clandestine power is ‘pulling the strings’ (Bell and Green, 2016, after Latour, 2005). Neoliberalism is also almost always derogatory when used to refer to economic/political policy (Fish, 2009) which produces austerity through the rationality of markets, entrepreneurialism and competition (De Lissavoy, 2014).  The term is also associated with ‘bureaucratisation’ (Hibou, 2015), processes of rationalisation and professionalization, driven by the quest for neutrality, objectivity and professionalization, which govern key aspects of everyday life.  

So that will do as a new draft. It can be worked on further later.

The next paragraph should move on from the need for clarity to offer the definition that the author will use.  Now let’s look at the next page.

IMG_1648Let me try a bit of a rework on that too.

How then can the term neoliberalism be understood? Barnett (2005) suggests that it refers to the discreet alteration of the class-driven reform of the state to benefit free markets. Neoliberalism is a form of ideologically driven policies and government that supports privatisation, the free market and increased competition.

 You can see that I have left Barnett here as a sentence subject. It is not that you never write about an author. The reason I have left Barnett here as the sentence subject is because he is The Key Scholar that the author uses for the definition that informs their book. While we might not agree with them or their definition, when we read Barnett in the sentence, we are clear on what authority the author’s work rests. ( The same is also true for scholar Springer at the top of page one. Springer is also a key source for the author.)

And note, my new second paragraph splits the author’s current third paragraph. I’ve turned three non-paragraphs into two. But perhaps they need some further evidencing/referencing. Yes, it is pretty obvious that my new second paragraph in particular needs a bit more work –  more evidence and argument would strengthen the case being made as well as showing the breadth and depth of reading in the field. You see, once you get away from the he said she said list, you get to show that there is a quantum of evidence for the point you want to make, rather than a less than persuasive single citation. (And note that in re-drafting I have got rid of the ‘therefore’ sentence – this is where the author has tried to reinsert their own post-listing voice and interpretation.)

In sum, my redrafting has:

  • collapsed three paragraphs into two, each one makes their own move in the argument. The first point is that there is confusion about the term neoliberalism, the second offers a working definition of it.
  • avoided the repetitive use of he says, notes, proposes etc.
  • changed some klutzy expression – I moved into brackets the cumbersome double reference – Bell and Green drawing on Latour – so it’s now not too tricky to read.
  • made the writing more authoritative – I removed the abrupt shift into the author’s own view via ‘therefore’ –  the entire two paragraphs are now the author managing the discussion of the substantive topic.
  • moved some sentences from passive to active voice – see paragraph two in particular.
  • highlighted the most important work that the author is using – Barnett
  • produced an argument – I’m not simply reporting summaries of other people’s work, but have made two points supported by evidence.

And the two paragraphs are now ready for further polishing.

If you go on reading the second page, you’ll see the listing pattern repeated. The author’s next paragraph is about how neoliberalism has permeated the university, as is the one after. I’m afraid the first paragraph on page two doesn’t even have an opening sentence about the topic – instead there is a give away sentence about writers. And then comes the list and the author inserting themselves at the end trying to make their point.

The same process of de-listing and re-writing that I’ve already done could be done here. You might even like to try rewriting this text yourself, particularly if you are still working on how to move away from listing.

But the original wasn’t a disaster. It’s not that the author doesn’t know what they want to say. They do. They have grouped the relevant literatures into clumps that move through a tacit argument. And they do have a point to make. It’s really that the text could have been much better.  

But that’s the laundry list issue for you. By focusing on writers rather than the substantive issue under discussion, authors end up listing and then trying to draw things together. They write paragraphs that aren’t really paragraphs but collections of sentences lacking a sensible opener and closer. Laundry list writers don’t really manage the argument – their case is nowhere near as clear as it ought to be. And when this pattern of listing goes on and on – as this one does for an entire chapter – it becomes a repetitive and dull read. In this particular book, this is the only chapter that is so dreary; the rest is much more readable.

It is no accident that it is the literature chapter where such problems occur. Listing is often an issue in thesis literatures work. If you currently have a laundry list in your literature review, then see it as a draft. It’s not too late or hard to rewrite it – you just need to take charge of the text. 

Don’t let other authors hog the lime-light. It’s your work and you need to tell it how it is for you.

Posted in authority in writing, he said, she said, laundry list, literature review, passive voice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 28 Comments

two things that made me think this week

Last weekend brought the inevitable long Saturday newspaper read – that’s a thing in our house. We only buy one paper a week and we do like to sit down and savor it the morning it’s bought. We leave some of the sections on the kitchen table and they become browsing material until the next instalment.

This week’s book section – my favourite piece of the paper – carried a small article by Simon Garfield about time – Faster isn’t always better. Time is of course a continued hot topic in the academy. So it wasn’t particularly surprising then that I was struck by this extract from Garfield’s new book:

We crave punctuality but we loathe deadlines. We count down precisely on New Year’s Eve so we may obliterate the hours that follow. We pay for Speedy Boarding so that we may sit on a plane and wait for everyone else to board, and then when we land we pay to get fast-tracked. We used to have time to think, but now instant communication barely gives us time to react. Paradise is a beach and the eternal waves and a good book, but then there’s email. Why not save time with Apple Pay? Why not experience ultrafast speed up to 200Mbps with Vivid 200 fibre broadband? An online search for ‘time management’ produces ‘about’ 59,000,000 results in 0.48 seconds.

What, I have been wondering since reading this, are the academic equivalences of the rush to speed?  Impatience with meetings that go on too long while we also extoll the virtues of collaborative deliberation? Emailing the person in the next office while deploring the alienating effects of academic performativity? Railing against turn-around targets for marking while gnashing our teeth about tardy journal reviews?

I don’t know – but I am still pondering whether there is some mileage in thinking about where we are time-impatient in academic life. Where/when are those times when we get impatient and wish we could speed up, when we actually might slow down?


On Tuesday I happened across an article in my twitter feed entitled Feeling like an Imposter Is Not a Syndrome. The author L.N Anderson very usefully charts the development of the notion of Imposter Syndrome – the original was apparently 1970s research by Pauline Rose Clance on female university students seeking counselling. All of them felt that they didn’t deserve the success that they enjoyed. The syndrome was initially about feeling un-deserving of something one had actually earned.

Anderson argues that that the sense of being undeserving is a feeling shared by almost everyone at some time. What’s more, she suggests, following Clance’s subsequent research, it isn’t really a ‘syndrome’, which typically makes you ill.

Perhaps because it’s commonly called a “syndrome,” impostorism is often referred to as something you “have” or “suffer from”, as though it’s a diagnosable and treatable condition like schizophrenia or a cold. … It turns out almost everyone has impostor syndrome.

In truth, impostor syndrome doesn’t fit the clinical criteria for a psychological syndrome, which is defined as a cluster of symptoms that causes intense distress or interferes with a person’s ability to function. “I’m not sure when it began to be called a syndrome, but I do think that somehow that’s just easier for people to think about than phenomenon,” Clance told me. “They’re not quite sure what phenomenon means.” 

So Imposter Phenomenon then.

Having a label like Imposter Syndrome/Phenomenon to hang on the feeling of un-deservedness can be helpful, Anderson writes. However, it also has unhelpful political consequences, particularly for women who often don’t get the career rewards and positions that they ought to. It’s not that women are undeserving winners Anderson says, and she then goes on to discuss the ‘glass ceiling’.

The subsequent twitter exchange about the article noted that the problem with the term  Imposter Syndrome was that, in focusing on the individual and their feelings, the structural inequalities and narrow social norms that produced the feelings in the first place were obscured. The label became a version of “blame the victim” talk.

I’ve been fretting about Imposter Syndrome for some time now. Of course it’s not unhelpful too know that you’re not the only one that feels like a bit of a fraud sometimes. But.. But… The term is undoubtedly of some use, naming a feeling can be a step to reframing it.  But… But…

Imposter Syndrome is a term I’ve used myself – but I have become increasingly worried about its blanket application. Imposter Syndrome now seems to apply to almost every situation where one is not relaxed or feels a bit out of place. Imposter Syndrome has expanded to cover everything unfamiliar – talking at a conference,  having the wrong kit at a workshop, dressing in the wrong clothes for an event. And I’ve certainly seen, as the twitter conversation suggested, Imposter Syndrome used to describe something systemic and structural – feeling like a ‘fish out of water’ as Bourdieu has it, being ‘othered’ by the workings of class, race, gender, ableism.

It does seem that there is a wider conversation to be had about where and when the notion of Imposter Syndrome is useful, and how. It is important to deal with negative undermining feelings. But it’s equally important to address the causes of those feelings in the first place. IMHO, any labelling process which ends up with large numbers of people seeing themselves, or being seen, as deficient and needing to be fixed, needs to be questioned.  We need to look for the logic of what’s happening. Why this social phenomenon?

Feelings of uncertainty, nervousness, newness and so on are pretty rational and ordinary responses to unfamiliar and challenging situations – we probably don’t need to pathologise them as a syndrome in order to deal with them. ( See for example my recent post on improv as a way to deal with nervousness in presentations.) On the other hand, discriminatory, simultaneously privileging, systemic practices really desperately need to be called out and changed.

So how do we talk about undeservedness then? Well I don’t know – but while looking for an answer to that question, I’m certainly going to stop and think about what I really mean the next time I find myself about to say Imposter Syndrome.


* When preparing this post, I noticed that Pauline Rose Clance does have a self diagnostic Scale for Imposter Phenomenon on her website – answer some questions and find out how much of an imposter do you feel, compared to others. Not sure how I feel about this – well, maybe I do….


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choosing a conference

I’ve recently been asked how new PhDers ought to go about choosing academic conferences. Here goes… Because conferences are discipline specific, you really do need to talk with your supervisor and your peers about which are the best conferences to go to. Cop out? OK. Got me. 

I’ll try to do better. I actually have three answers… take your pick. 

Answer One: It’s all about purpose

It’s often helpful to think about the general purpose of conference-going, rather than any particular event. I tend to think about four purposes for PhDers and conferences –

  1. go to a conference where you can get the lie of the land – find out how an academic conference goes and what are its implicit rules and assumptions. Don’t give a paper, just choose a conference where you can go to check out the field and the work in and on it. This is probably a conference where at least some of the key people are likely to be (hence why you need advice from those more knowledgeable in the field). You may well be able to have a quick chat with your reading list over coffee.
  2. 2610920302_4868d5459f_b.jpg

    FFS, I can’t find a drink at this conference reception let alone a network…

    go to an early career researcher day where you can present your work in progress. You are also likely to begin to make some good connections at such an event.
  3. go to a conference which has an audience who you would like to engage with your work. This may be a niche conference, or one with specialist interest groups that you can present to, and follow, through a strand of the programme. You are likely to find other people with shared interests, and you also get to see current debates and emerging work in the field. Special interest groups are also often associated with particular journals, and by becoming familiar with the group through a conference, you also get clearer on how you might position your work for publication in their community’s  journals. You can almost certainly attend journal editor sessions or locate relevant editors in the programme
  4. near the end of your PhD go to a conference where publishers are well represented. You can make an appointment with an editor before-hand, or at the start of the conference, to talk through options for publishing your work. If your PhD is not book material, see above re meeting journal editors.


FSS,  no seats at the keynote again…

You can clearly add to these four types of experience – go to a huge conference to see what that is like, go to both a national general conference in your field, and an international general conference. And so on.

But be realistic about what a conference can do.

A lot of people suggest that conferences are good for networking. That’s sort of true. Don’t expect too much – you may not make instant networks. Networks are built on relationships and these can take more than one conference to build up. Often, people meet each other at one conference over a paper/coffee or through an introduction by a mutual friend, plan a shared symposium for the next conference, and then start to think about a joint paper or project. Don’t be disappointed if you go to a conference and come away without a new network!

Answer Two: Moneymoneymoney

Conferences are very expensive. There are serious financial considerations to take into account when thinking about conference why, what, when and where.

  1. Go to conferences which are just about free. These may well be local events held in your institution – these are not to be simply dismissed, as most universities do put on some good seminars and small conferences. Local events often have stellar speakers, some of them may even actually come from your institution. Free or nearly free events may be regional – perhaps held in between learned society annual conferences. Or they may be special interest group seminars. Or seminars or small conferences put on by large research programmes. Sometimes you need to be in a network to find out about these kinds of events, but social media can be a big help here, as can grad student associations, grad schools and self-help PhD groups.
  2. Go to early career researcher days. These are always cheaper than main conferences and often just as interesting.


FFS, these really won’t substitute for dinner…

And you know that, unless you’re a full-time PhD at a generous university, you’ll probably have to pay for conference -associated stuff yourself – so maybe you’ll need to find el-cheapo shared accommodation, deals on travel and buy your breakfast from supermarkets and dinner from food trucks. But you won’t be the only one not going to the conference dinner – and you can usually find a group to go off somewhere cheap and cheerful. (I do all this too BTW, even as a tenured full prof. I usually share an apartment with one or two others rather than pay for the recommended conference hotel. And wherever I can, I stay with friends.)

And why not ask the conference for a student discount or day rate if they don’t have one? Maybe don’t even go if the conference can’t accommodate those on reduced incomes – it’s outrageous if they don’t – and let them and the world know why. And if you are part-time and your university doesn’t have conference support, then you may have to get a little organised – this too is not really acceptable institutional behaviour. Your supervisor also ought to help in such circumstances – changing institutional policies is hard and PhDs can’t do it on their own. And yes I know that a lot of universities only fund conferences where papers are being presented – this also needs changing IMHO – see Answer One, Purpose One.

Answer Three: Do I have to?

I’m the worst person to answer any questions about conferences. I wish you hadn’t asked. I really don’t like conferences very much and I have cut my attendance right back. In fact, it’s probably not going too far to say that going to a conference is almost my least favorite scholarly activity.


FFS, presenting last session on the last day, again….

For starters, conferences are getting more and more expensive – see above – and that’s unjust – I don’t like the disparities that this creates. And yes, I do try to help PhDs and contract research folk get to conferences – and yes, that means allocating money from my research budgets for that purpose. But an individual action hardly addresses the problem. We really do need to do something about the costs of getting together to do our jobs.

But even if conferences were cheap, I’d still hate them. I find it hard to simply be at an academic conference – rushing from room to room – or worse still, venue to venue – for papers where presenters never have enough time and where there is often no time at all to discuss. I often can’t manage a full day of sitting and listening. I get very antsy and have to skip a session just to break up the monotony.  ( And don’t start me on enduring hour after hour of crappy powerpoints.)

I do go to a national conference every couple of years because I figure if I am doing a big research project then I need to be reporting to the relevant research community. I also like to take PhDers to this conference so that I can help them make a few  contacts. I have a reason to go to this national conference – even if I don’t like it.

And I do go regularly – that is most years – to a couple of conferences where I catch up with people and where I know there will be at least three or four papers that will be useful and interesting. More is an absolute bonus. ( Low expectations means not being disappointed.) One of these two conferences is European and it moves around to interesting locations – I usually tack on a day or so with friends if it is affordable. So academic tourism bonus – I get to find out what is happening in Europe and also see a bit of it too. 😁 My other regular conference is at home in Australia and I combine attendance with seeing family. Being at the Australian event is also about keeping up with what’s happening at home and with people I don’t see often enough. I have a combination of personal and professional reasons for these two conferences. I do also attend the odd smaller event with a much more focused agenda.

But you know, having said all of that… hating conferences is probably not such a bad way to be – like being a cheap drunk I guess. You don’t have to do too much before you’ve had enough… And so you end up thinking carefully about avoiding the conference equivalent of a hangover… and you ration what conferences you go to and why. 

You only conference when you have good cause. And I reckon that’s generally A Good Thing, whatever career stage you’re at.


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