familiarity and peer review

I’ve been doing some literature work. Now don’t get me wrong, I love literature work. But I am finding it all a bit same old same old right now. All the papers read the sme, even though they have different things to say. Yawn. I think I have an explanation for why that’s so.

There’s a concept in psychology called the mere exposure effect. The mere exposure effect basically suggests that we persons have a tendency to prefer things we are already familiar with.  It is therefore, duh, sometimes called the familiarity principle. So think stereotypes here – asking for fish and chips when you’re faced with noodles and soup. As I understand the research, the suggestion is that going for what we already know is not a rational thing, but something much more subconscious – it’s emotional and embodied.

Psychologists say that the tendency to gravitate to what we already know can make for poor decision-making. If we have a cognitive bias (alternative theory but somewhat the same idea) then we tend to do what we have always done regardless of the particular circumstances. Our tendency to close down our options and do what we already know, think what we already think, reduces uncertainty and allows us to interpret things quickly. We incorporate new stuff into our existing frameworks. 

Of course I’m not a psychologist but a sociologist. I am sure that there is a load of stuff out there that says that this concept is nonsense. So of course as soon as I hear one of these kinds of “rules” I immediately want to find loads of examples where this is not the case. And of course I can, as I am sure you can too. But that response might also be a familiar one ;). I might just be the kind of person who likes being contrary, who is familiar with being ornery.

At a common sense level, the mere exposure effect isn’t entirely unhelpful. There is something in the idea of the mere exposure effect that is helpful to researchers. It’s coming again at the well worn phrase, making the familiar strange. We can always ask ourselves if we are doing research in a particular way because it’s the way that feels most comfortable. Or whether we read something and dislike it just because it’ s entirely new and strange. And perhaps we interpret data in a particular way because we are fitting our preconceived ideas. Yes, we all know those risks – but we can still fall into them, even when we think we aren’t. So being conscious of the possibility, indeed likelihood, of familiarity breeding nothing-much-new-in-here might be useful. 

However today I am pondering whether familiarity might also operate very powerfully during peer review. Reviewers may read journal articles expecting to see a particular genre. The paper focuses on this or that. It follows a particular format. It follows particular conventions. But what happens when the reviewer is told that this is not what the writer wants to do? The writer knows the rules but wants to do something else. Does the reviewer first of all feel that this isn’t a good paper and then look for things that might bring it towards their familiar taken-for-granted genre? The mere exposure effect concept suggests that this is what could happen. The reviewer does not act rationally in the first instance, but subliminally. They then rationalise their response. 

Now I’m not talking about badly written and poorly conceived papers here. I’m referring to academic writing that is still eloquently argued and evidenced but also crafted differently. Writing that signals it wants to go elsewhere, to be otherwise. What would happen, I wonder, if the first thing that reviewers wanted from a paper was to be surprised?  Challenged? Taken somewhere they didn’t expect? Delighted? Aesthetically pleased? To encounter the unfamiliar?

If the mere exposure effect is in play then familiarity with a small range of genres may well be a recipe for a ensuring a conservative and narrow approach to academic writing. I’m sure that familiarity leads to standardisation which is great for audit purposes. Papers can be easily compared if they all follow much the same patterns.

But familiarity may contribute to lack of boundary breaking in academic writing. And I’m not at all sure that’s what I want to rea. all the time. Certainly not when Im slogging through a big pile of texts in a short time period. Yes, a little bit of surprise in the papers I have to read and review right now would really be welcome. 

Note to reviewers – do fight the mere exposure effect. We may all benefit in surprising ways.

Photo by Mai Quốc Tùng Lâm on Unsplash

Posted in familiarity, genre, mere exposure effect, peer review | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

book writing – on introductions and some-we-prepared-before

I’m writing. As I guess are many of you. I’m writing another book. You may be writing a paper, a chapter, a magazine article., a graphic novel. But my writing right now is – book. 

It seems no time at all since I finished the last manuscript. And at the same time also a long time. I sent the last book in at the end of December 2021, having scribbled away through November’s AcWriMo (ACademic WRiting MOnth) and the Christmas period. And what is it now? Only mid-February? But there’s a publishing contract and a deadline that has already been extended twice, first of all pandemic demands and then pandemic ennui. 

I’m not writing this book by myself. Co-writing is something of a relief after the last solo effort. There is now a good colleague to talk things through with, she will read my very drafty drafts and I’ll read hers. She will say whether I am going off track or not, whether this idea or that is working. We’ve spit the chapters up so we are doing half of the first drafts each.

Truth be told I’m relieved that I’ve finally put hand to mouse and I can see that it is actually possible to get the text together. I am of course in the first flush of enthusiasm. I’ve got past dread and the confusion of not knowing how to start off. Yes readers, despite the best laid plans. I still find that getting the first words down is hard. 

I’ve learnt now that what often works for me is writing an introductory chapter. Not the book blurb, nor the acknowledgements and thankyous. Something about the book as a whole. Typically, an introductory chapter lays out the rationale for the book and tells the reader what it will do. The introduction explains some of the things that readers need to know before they begin to read. In my case, the introduction introduces the research project on which the book is based and the theoretical tools that we will use to explain our analysed data and make our argument. 

But this introduction is a draft. A first draft is not generally written for other readers. It is written for the writer, or co-writers in our case. Writing the introduction has done some particular work for me. Writing the introduction has helped me to get back the sense of the book that I had when we submitted the proposal. I remember now what it’s about, and why it matters. And I’ve regained that feeling of excitement and seeing and making the story unfold. I hope reading it and responding to it does that for my colleague too.

We had already decided that the book would use anecdote, portraits and images. I wanted to do that but was finding it a bit daunting to be creative right off. So writing the introduction has been a good way to write myself into the book. I own it now and I want to see it progress. Writing the introduction has helped me to imagine the book being written. And imagine it as a written thing. The book has started to move off the outline pages and become something more tangible. Something of its own.  Now there are actual words that have some heft, a tangible quality, they are a file, a number of pages of text. Yes, some of the words are crap and will change. Lots of them might change. But there is something to start with. 

Of course, we aren’t actually at the beginning. You don’t always start a book, or any writing for that matter, at the beginning. We’ve already written from this research. Quite a lot. We have a blog, a research report, a couple of chapters, several powerpoint presentations and a couple or three of journal articles. So there are versions of some elements of the book and we have the overall argument we will make.  Some chapters still require new work, putting analysed data into an entirely new construct.

You could say that we started the book in the middle. We did write a report which covered the whole research project, but it was a report. The bits that we’ve written since have been very much working through particular ideas. We were trying out theoretical explanations, seeing what we could do with particular slices of the story. To use a metaphor, we took some of the data for a few days out before we actually started on the book road trip. 

Thesis writers also often have to begin in the middle sorting out their analysed data into big chunks, near chapters. Once they know what they have to say, they go to the beginning and write the text through so that they get a coherent top-line argument. They too write an introduction to get themselves into the whole text and move away from bits.

Here is a little glimpse of how we are using, and rewriting, already written stuff.

  • Introduction – puts pre-existing but rewritten words about the project and theory into the argument we know and have talked about
  • Chapter One – puts an existing heuristic from our report together with new analysed data to explain key concept one. 
  • Chapter Two – cannibalises and adds to material from a  journal article to explain key concept two
  • Chapter Three – cannibalises a journal article and uses new data to partly explain key concept three
  • Chapter Four- continues key concept three using a little material from a journal article but also new data. 
  • Chapter Five – almost entirely new, uses analysed data and some material from talks 
  • Chapter Six – almost entirely new, uses analysed data and some material from talks.
  • Chapter Seven – uses a journal article to explain key concept five
  • Chapter Eight – key concept six uses material from two book chapters and data analysis
  • Chapter Nine – the conclusion puts all of the key concepts together, new writing but we have already presented it in talks and have it summarised on a powerpoint slide.

We will probably have to get formal permission from publishers to re-use two of our journal articles for Chapters Three and Seven. The chapters will be similar enough to what’s published to count as self-plagiarism if we don’t do this. That[‘s a fiddle but part of the book writing game when you work with already written bits.

We know that many people write their books from scratch. They have no elements to re-purpose. We have done this too. But we do find that having already worked through key ideas does really help the book writing. It makes the writing much quicker because we write with more confidence about what we have to say. And we write more authoritatively.

However, even with all that material in hand, it still takes effort to get going. And writing the introduction has certainly been the thing that has got me out of my metaphorical armchair and into the book car, which is packed with all of the things needed for the journey ahead. 

And a caveat, I’m not writing this post to say this is how you write a book. This post is about sharing some of the hidden stories of what i/we do when writing a big text, in case it sparks some ideas for you.

Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash

Posted in academic book, book writing, collaboration, introduction, thesis, writing from the middle, writing together | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

concluding well – part 2. on back rows and beautiful houses

Imagine yourself in a theatre. You choose to sit in the back row. You are the author of the play to be performed, and you have crept into the stalls after the lights go down. It is opening night and your words are about to be heard by a real audience. The stakes are high. Critical reviews can make or break a play. No-one can see you or recognise you now as everyone’s eyes are on the stage. You are close to the exit and can creep quietly away before the lights go up.

This is not you. The theatre is not your thesis. The last act of the play is not your conclusion. Your words do not speak for themselves, nor are they spoken through the mouths of other actors.

The thesis is not a back row. It is your beautiful house. 

Oh yes. I haven’t just been watching the Winter Olympics, I’ve also watched Spike Lee’s performance film of David Byrne’s American Utopia. For the second time. And I think it’s got some helpful insights about conclusions. And oh yes, it’s another metaphor based post. If these are not your cup of tea I’ve written other posts on conclusions you might prefer (here and here). But as I was saying, American Utopia has some useful insights for concluding well….

Even the trailer for the film is helpful for putting yourself in the right conclusion-writing head space – it starts off “Everyone’s coming to my house.” Right away, following the metaphor, you know that your conclusion is you and your work. Work which is beautiful. which your audience is coming to see and to read and to hear about.

When you come to the conclusion you might well ask yourself, as Bryne does, “How do I work this?”. Byrne and his former outfit Talking Heads’ have some advice. Their answer is not to focus on “How did I get here?” but rather, “What is this beautiful house?” and “Where does this highway go?” 

The conclusion is not a summary of everything that has gone before. It is not a laborious plod through the research questions giving detailed answers to each. Yes, you do need to return to the question you asked at the start and succinctly state your answer – this is more like a very quick catch up with only the very most important points making the cut. The main act of the thesis conclusion is to move the action forward to a satisfactory ending. 

The thesis conclusion is the pace where you claim what it is that you have done for your field. Why it is important that other people know about your results. How they matter and why. And then you need to tell your audience where the story might go next. 

You are the lead actor in the conclusion. While you directed and managed the action and the argument all through the thesis, now is the time for you to take centre stage. The conclusion is important text work/identity work. it is where you are the expert scholar.

Now, writing yourself as an expert doesn’t mean that you have to write in the first person. The conclusion is usually a judicious mix of first and third writing, but can be one or the other. It is a misconception to think that writing in the first person means you’re out of the back row. It’s how you stage, sequence and argue that matters now. The conclusion is not the place for an inappropriate “I” magic trick. The magic trick where you appear to be on stage leading the plot but actually fail to make your presence felt. Where you are a ghostly holograph. Where the action before is clear, but what is to come is shrouded in mystery, as are you. You need to be present in the text, organising the events.

Nor is the thesis conclusion is the place for a long monologue of regrets, of wishes about what the thesis didn’t do, its fatal flaws. It may be that in your field your audience expects some kind of reflection on the action, a short and well worded critical evaluation of your learnings. But they don’t want you to do pirouettes or embark on a whole new adventure. They want you to tell them why it is that you think it has been worth them engaging with your words. All of them. And for quite some time. From your perspective. 

You audience is looking forward to the after show conversation with the author. They know that you are an academic work in progress. As are they. They don’t want to have to start off the conversation with, “I couldn’t quite see the point you were making. Can you just fill me in on what you think your main message was.” 

Of course your audience will form their own opinions. But they also need to hear from you. They don’t want you to remain  lurking in the back rows. They don’t want you to creep out just before the lights go up. They want a finale worthy of the three or four years it took you to complete the work. 

So.. Stand up. Go the front. Own your expertise. Take – and be – the lead.

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concluding well, part 1 – the big air problem

Big air? Well yes, I have been sporadically watching the Winter Olympics. And if you have too, you’ll know that big air is the term used to describe events where a highly skilled and very brave person takes a big run down a slope and then leaps as high and travels forward as far as they can. Landing without damaging themselves. Think ski jumping and snowboarding and you get the idea of big air.

Now, big air might be kinda glamorous when you’re an Olympian, but it’s downright dangerous when you’re concluding a thesis or a research report. You can’t just launch yourself into the void. Ending well means that you need to take a couple of big steps forward but you also need to stay grounded. And by that I mean that you can’t lose touch with what you’ve done leading up to your final thesis act. No big air. The conclusion needs to be firmly based in your research, anchored to what went before.

So lets think about the conclusion process. Once you have succinctly said how the research results answer the problem puzzle or query you posed at the start, you need to move onto the claims. Whether you’ve done field work or library work or lab work, your claims must be commensurate with the research that you have done, it must fit with your methods, data and analysis. And after the claims come the implications and further questions for policy, practice and/or further research. In other words, in concluding you set up a linked chain – results, claims, implications.

But the result-claim-implication can bring the temptation to take a big leap into the unknown. To launch into big air. To perhaps create propositions for policy change that really can’t be justified on the basis of your results. Or perhaps to set out an agenda for radical and far reaching changes in practice that don’t bear a lot of connection to the scale of your research results. Or perhaps you delineate a research agenda that could keep an entire faculty going for the next decade. You’re flying high, but there’s big crash coming. That’s because you’ve broken the result-claims-implications chain and are now jumping unfettered into, well, an unknown. And that’s dangerous.

The temptation to develop a big air agenda at the end of the thesis is often acute for doctoral researchers who have a strong professional history. Experienced professionals often do their doctorates on a topic which is intimately connected with the need for change, something they feel passionate about and may have spent a long career working on. They bring to their study grounded knowledges, but also strong views about what desperately needs to change in policy or practice. So it’s not altogether surprising that at the end of the doctoral study, with research results in hand, a committed professional can be dissatisfied with what seem to be rather too small and tentative claims and implications. Calling up their inner professional, they write a conclusion that is far too ambitious for their actual study. 

I understand the big air temptation very well. My doctoral research was done after a substantial professional career which included providing advice for national and state policy-makers. And although my doctoral research was at reasonable scale, the implications I could draw out from it at the end were not the same as the policy advice I gave as a professional with loads of experience. Some of the claims I could make as a researcher were new and different, but some were just weaker on issues that I felt very passionate about.

Well, I could have taken a leap into big air, but my research would have been poorer for it and my examiners, I am sure, would have queried the basis for my entire concluding chapter.

When my partner read the book of the PhD, he commented on how provisional some of my conclusions were compared to how I had talked when I was still working in the field. But I had written only as much as the research warranted, as partially disappointing as that was. I was writing about and from research, not a polemic, not activist advocacy. I could speak back to policy but I couldn’t develop a wholistic new policy agenda. The good news was that I could say some things on the basis of my research to challenge policy, things that I couldn’t ever say before. The basis of my expertise was now different.

I often see my own big air problem repeated. Because I work with doctoral researchers who also have a professional career behind them, I recognise the temptation to be ambitious in their claims and implications. This temptation lurks all through their doctorates and then emerges right at the end. They cant give in to it, any more than I could. If they do, they are out on their own, without a leg to stand on.

It’s important not to give into big air temptation. The winter Olympics metaphor may be helpful here. Launching into big air without the right stuff and the right gear usually leads to a crash. And time spent recovering. You don’t want that for your research. You spent a long time getting it together and you don’t want to spend more time now than is necessary. Be aware of the seduction of big air, and the likelihood that giving into it will lead to a big bang. 

Make your conclusions fit the research results that you have, not the ones you wish for. But do try to summon up and keep the energy of the downhill run!

Photo by Todd Trapani on Unsplash

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dislodging stuck writing

Do you have a bit of writing that is stuck? I don’t mean you can’t get any words down on the page. I mean you have some writing where you just can’t work out what to do next. You think. You put the writing away for a bit. You go for a walk. You do some reading about the topic. You come back to the text and…. Gah, still stuck.

Sometimes writing gets stuck like wheels in mud. Doing more of the same simply leads to you spinning your wheels and getting in deeper. Going nowhere. Sometimes writing gets stuck like a stone wedged in the sole of your shoe. You can keep walking but is very uncomfortable. And you probably aren’t going to make it all the way walking like this. You need a very pointy stick to dislodge the obdurate object.

What stuck writing needs is its own version of the sharp pointy stick. Its own version of the hessian bag you lay under the stuck wheels so you get traction.

Of course, if you have stuck writing, you might decide not to bother with it any longer. The writing is too stubborn. You’re out of time. It just seems better to ditch it, even though it took some effort to get it to this point. So you give up. There’s another piece of writing to get done and it doesn’t look nearly so hard.

And sometimes giving up on chunk of writing paradoxically works to dislodge stuckness. You wake up knowing what to do. You have the why-not-try-this thought in the shower. 

But if the aha moment doesn’t happen and if you have some time, and if you have decided to definitely keep hold of this writing, and you don’t want to give up on it just yet, then finding your own sharp pointy stick might be possible. There are lots of pointy stick writing equivalents around, but here’s two to begin with.

Play with the text

The idea of playing may sound pretty silly when we are talking about serious academic writing. But the point of play is to create a bit of space and time that might allow you to see a new possibility. Playing takes the heat out of the need to fix the text you’re working on. Playing is a way of giving yourself permission to tinker with the words to see what happens. So:

  • Find a roughly appropriate place in the writing, you might even just close your eyes and point to a spot. Now write a new sentence beginning with – For example. Or add more context or more description or an anecdote or a little bit of the data that you decided you wouldn’t use or invent and insert a metaphor.
  • Annotate the text. Add a column to one side and use it to explain what you are doing, why you are doing and where the doing takes the argument or narrative. Now read the annotations to see if they offer a clue about what else you might add.
  • Find the difficult and tricky concepts in the text and explain them.
  • Find some new literatures that speak to a section of the text and work them in.
  • Write a new beginning for the vexatious writing – it doesn’t matter what it is, just a different beginning to what there is now. Write a new ending for the text. Try not to look too much at the old text while you are doing this.

Perhaps while you were doing these things you created a new insight or perhaps a new bit of writing. Working these new bits into your old text might change where you were going. It may even be enough to get the energy to tackle the tricky text again.

Write in parallel

The idea of writing yet another version of your troublesome text may sound silly. Why do another version of the same thing that’s going nowhere? Well, sometimes working in parallel allows you to develop your ideas. It doesn’t automatically do so, any more than playing. But writing in parallel does offer the possibility for seeing your topic afresh. So put the enervating extract to one side, open up a new doc and free write for a few minutes:

  • Explain what came before the “stuff” you were writing about. Speculate about what might happen “after” the stuff you were writing about. Write it down.
  • Write a letter to the pesky prose telling it what it is and isn’t doing and what it should be doing instead. Or just write about what is bothering or frustrating you about the text and what you had originally hoped it might do.
  • Write about the tangential idea you cut out of the text
  • Write the paper again but very small – write it as a tiny text, as an abstract, as a blog post.
  • Turn the argument or narrative into another form – a letter, a diary entry, a series of cartoon frames, a poster.

Now there are no guarantees that any of the playing or writing in parallel that you do will get you unstuck. But because the writing isn’t going to fix itself you may just decide it’s worth giving it another shot before putting it away in the cupboard for a rest. And each of the strategies I’ve listed is reasonably quick. You might be able to find a half an hour here and there to try a few of them out.

This post was inspired by Meredith Sue Willis’ (1993) book Deep revision, A guide for teachers, students and other writers. My copy is a well-worn relic of creative writing with kids in schools.

Photo by Aubrey Odom-Mabey on Unsplash

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on being lazy

I’ve been meaning to write this post all week. But I’ve not done so. And here I am on Sunday morning with the prospect of not having anything to publish, for the first time ever. I’ve sat at my desk on several occasions fully intending to write. But other things called to me – the exercise bike needed to be pedalled, that paper needed revision, and the several books on my to-read pile called out for attention. I succumbed to two of these competing demands, bike and books.

It was when I was dipping in and out of one of the books that I came across the term ‘radical laziness’.

Radical laziness reclaims time from the institutional and/or internalised cultural pressure to produce and perform regularly, routinely and rapidly. Laziness of the radical variety is a form of resistance to the frenetic churn of activities, and a way to create space for reflection. Laziness is an interruption to a flow of activities which might then open up the possibility of doing/thinking/being something else. ( What was I reading? Kuba Szreder’s The ABC of the projectariat. Living and working in a precarious art world)

Radical laziness seemed a good way to describe the digging-my-toes-in reluctance that I felt about writing a blog post. It ‘s not that I was burnt out. I wasn’t blocked. I didn’t particularly want to waste time. I just didn’t want to blog. Or mark. Or revise that paper. I wanted something else to do. Something different. Just look at how easily I dug into a book and started burrowing down the rabbit hole of ‘laziness’.

I googled radical laziness, as you do. And found old and new delights. Historians, I am sure, already know of the anarchist Paul Lafague’s The right to be lazy. Written in 1883, Lafargue argues that the working class has been conned into doing all the work and making all the things. Refusing to work for peanuts and support a few people to live rich and idle, he says, means first of all reclaiming the right to be unproductive – or perhaps reclaiming the right to be productive only as much as is necessary to live.

Sorry Paul. Even though writing is a form of work, me feeling a bit bolshie about writing a blog isn’t really overthrowing the system. But I do see Lafague’s point. Start with the attitude. Get with the laziness programme. Stop being so performative.

But google had more to offer. Next came an old interview with Roland Barthes in Le Monde entitled, in translation, “Let’s all just be lazy for once”. Barthes began the conversation with etymology which works in French but not in English. Paresse, he said, comes from the Latin word for slow (pigritia). This Latin derivation was a pity, he said, as slow is the “saddest of a laziness which indeed does things, though badly, against our will, to satisfy the institution in giving it a response, though a response which drags on.” Slow is capitulation, albeit at a different pace. A rather interesting perspective given the current discussion about slow scholarship and slow professors.

Barthes’ preference was for the Greek a-ergos – he who does not work – a laziness which does not perform at all. Barthes acknowledges that laziness as paresse is often accompanied by shame. He says,

I might be tempted to say that I make no place for laziness in my life and that that is my mistake. I feel it as a lack, and a wrong. I often place myself in a situation to struggle to do things. When I don’t do them, or at least during the time when I can’t manage to do these things—because I do end up doing them in the long run—it’s more a question of an idleness that is imposed upon me rather than a laziness of my choosing, and imposing myself upon it.

Barthes talked of himself as being diverted from tasks through a laziness which was more like “stewing” over things, he didn’t indulge in distractions like sport, craft or doing household chores. He just worried away at things.

Obviously this rather shameful idleness does not take the form of a “not doing anything” which would be its most glorious, philosophical form.

And with these words another tangent opened up. De Certeau famously described the ways in which not doing anything – wandering around the city and daydreaming on trains – led to surprising thoughts; ideas emerged from submerged subconscious depths. Such ideas were often subversive, apparently tangential but insightful. Lazing and idleness were a positive practice for de Certeau, they supported other ways of being thinking and doing.

Did this mean that procrastination is also a Good Thing? And this thought led to a new association… Bauman wrote about procrastination as a means of delaying the gratification that is characteristic of modern societies – dutiful workers work now, and benefit later. Paradoxically, dutiful consumers, who ensure that workers have work to do, crave immediate gratification through their consumption. Bauman suggested that it might be a good idea if this situation was reversed and delayed gratification was applied to consumption rather than work. Consume less, work less, procrastinate more.

Well, that all seems a long way from blog writing and laziness. Such is the way of the chain of ideas. And my rabbit-hole is getting rather crowded with (mostly dead) white blokes. Thanks google, thanks mental Endnote.

I knew there must be a lot of women out there writing about radical laziness. There is, and here’s one blog post I found by Lola Olufemi where she makes the case for laziness as feminist resistance to capitalist regimes of time. Reclaim time and then choose what to do with it. And bell hooks reminds me that laziness is not always resistance, and that being lazy about the things that matter can equate to allowing the status quo to prevail. Bonnie Honig suggests that a simple politics of refusal is insufficient, there must be resistance but also transformation.

Oh yes, there’s certainly more to find out about laziness. I was just a bit too lazy to fight the algorithms to go on. I could have kept linking and associating ideas I guess, but … Enough now. It’s sunny. The exercise bike calls. There are still books on my desk. That paper won’t revise itself.

On my way out of the burrow, I paused again with Barthes for a moment longer, as he had said something about laziness and writing. 

I believe, really, that to write, we mustn’t be idle, and that is precisely one of the difficulties of writing.  Writing is a pleasure, but at the same time a difficult pleasure because it must cross through different, particularly difficult work zones, with all the risks that this suggests: desire for, and threats of, laziness, temptations to abandon, fatigue, revolts.  …  And, indeed, if we are fundamentally lazy, or if we decide to be, which is both easily conceived and defended, we cannot write.

Well Roland, I could have told you that. 

And knowing that writing is hard work is not going to get a blog post written. Even if I have still got some thinking to do about the idea of radical laziness, I might slowly, ever so slowly, meet my self-imposed Sunday deadline of writing a post.

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Posted in academic life, hyper performativity, laziness, performativity, resistance | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Should academics do unpaid work to share their research? if so, when and how? 

This is a guest post from Dr Anna Bull, Lecturer in Education and Social Justice at the University of York and co-director of research and campaign organisation The 1752 Group

My comments on Twitter seemed to resonate with a lot of people. Other tweeters revealed that the same had happened to them and shared their experiences of giving ‘free’ labour to non-academic organisations. 

Requests for expertise can take various forms, ranging from a chat on the phone, to giving presentations, to contributing to workshops to help devise interventions/programmes, to writing content. 

Engaging with non-academic audiences has become more common as the ‘impact’ and ‘knowledge exchange’ agendas have gained prominence within HE; academics are supposed to build relationships with users of their research and share knowledge outside the academy. These “impact” and “public engagement” activities are hugely important and researchers whose work can be applied in these ways should be encouraged and incentivised. 

However, what I have experienced – and what these tweets were inspired by – are difficulties clarifying when and how our knowledge should be shared, and what acknowledgement or recompense we should receive. 

The responses to these tweet across both of my two research areas – classical music/music education; and sexual harassment in higher education – were similar, with academics and practitioners/consultants from both areas giving examples of this experience. 

But of course not all organisations are the same. While I’ve found that music and music education organisations have generally offered to pay me for consultancy or training work, by contrast my work on sexual harassment in higher education has involved endless requests for free labour, time and time again, and sometimes these contributions are left unacknowledged. The experience that inspired the tweet above involved a third sector organisation requesting uncompensated half-day and a whole-day meetings (the latter in person, pre-pandemic) as well as asking for one-to-one calls to explain key issues to them personally. I agreed to do these because I wanted to make sure the resource being produced was research-informed and good quality, and because they were not-for-profit. But when these resources were produced, there was no acknowledgement or even notification of their publication to those of us (not only myself) who had given substantial input. 

Another recent experience involved several hours of meetings with a large HE sector organisation to devise an agenda and specifications for their (paid) working group – but when I applied for the working group (after being invited to do so) my application was turned down. While I had wanted to help shape the agenda and use my research to make a difference, this just made me feel exploited. 

A third organisation even took a presentation that myself and a colleague had given at an event they’d organised, removed our logo from the slides, and presented the material as their own work. 

As these examples show, there are some issues around knowledge exchange and impact that tend to be left to individual academics to sort out for ourselves. Some of the most significant for me:

  • At many, if not most, institutions, it seems that this work supposed to occur in our research time (for those of us who even have research time in our workload). Realistically, impact and knowledge-exchange work could easily take up my entire research allocation. How much is enough, and what should we prioritise? 
  • When we feed into commercial or third-sector product/service development, what kind of recognition should we be given? How much of this is our IP?

How can we tackle this issue?

  1. Say no?

This is not a great solution. For a start, we are encouraged by our organisations to foster external partnerships and carry out impact work, so we have to say yes to some of these requests – a blanket ‘no’ or even a selective ‘no’ goes against this imperative. More generally, the reason that I’m doing much of my research is to make change in the world, so of course I want to engage in impact and knowledge exchange work. What’s the point in doing our research if we are not going to use it to inform relevant conversations? A fear is that organisations will go about this work anyway, regardless of whether I engage, but that they will do a poorer job of it without my input. Another fear is of being left out of important conversations and developments that relate to my work, although that is receding as I gain in experience and move out of the ECR stage. Either way, the ‘say no’ solution places all the responsibility onto individuals, and as a result it doesn’t really help. 

  • Assume that the work is paid and send information about fees

One suggestion on twitter was as follows:

This is not a strategy that I have used very often. Even as an erstwhile self-employed musician, a profession in which I had to become hardened to naming my hourly rate and bringing up the topic of money when others didn’t, I still find this challenging (and it’s probably more of a challenge for women as our work is less valued in society in general). An alternative is signposting the person to someone who doesn’t have a university salary and letting them know that this would need to be a paid opportunity – it’s easier to ask for money on behalf of someone else rather than oneself. 

So, this is still an individualised strategy, but one that might be helpful.

  • Amend impact funding to include our time.

I’ve recently been awarded an impact grant from my institution but was explicitly told that my time cannot be included in the costings. This seems to be standard as far as I can tell; impact funding appears to be aimed at funding activities but not staff time, or at best hiring others to carry out the impact work. But a lot of what I do can’t be delegated to others because it requires my specific expertise. A clear and simple solution is that this time could be recognised in funding that is designed to support impact. 

I’m not sure whether it’s UKRI (in my case the ESRC) or institutions who stipulate that impact funding shouldn’t go to academics’ time, but amending this requirement would be a really helpful step for those of us who are already embedded into institutions. It doesn’t really help for ECRs and precariously-employed academics, though, who may not have access to this type of funding.

This links into the final suggestion:

  • Devise a supportive framework for impact and knowledge exchange in our institutions and the sector more broadly. 

The HE sector needs collective and institution-level approaches.

I am sure I’m not the only one who would like to be able to keep offering ‘free’ labour wherever it’s needed (‘free’ in inverted commas because it is paid for by ourselves – by working extra hours – or in institutional time snatched from other duties). And where I’m supporting other activists, or individuals who can’t get this support elsewhere (such as sexual misconduct complainants) I am happy to do this to the extent I can manage. However, when these requests for our time come from established organisations, we need a clearer protocol from our institutions. Are we supposed to do this work, in our research time, in return for a supporting statement for a (future, imaginary) impact case study? Should we do this work as paid consultants, through the institution? Or should it be limited to consultancy work at evenings/weekends/annual leave, but we should charge an hourly/daily rate? Certainly, if I had some guidance from my institution I’d have more courage in asking for an appropriate rate for my expertise from organisations that can afford it, and this also sets a helpful precedent for those who don’t have permanent or full-time positions in recognising academic expertise as valuable so that they can also get paid for their time and expertise.

Regarding other forms of recognition of our contributions and knowledge, there are particular concerns for social sciences and humanities academics. In STEM disciplines there is a more established framework for registering IP but in humanities and social sciences, IP is more difficult to pinpoint and we don’t have the legal protection conferred by patents. Our organisations – and funders – could do more to consider how to protect all of the IP across the full range of disciplines.  

For myself, and in the absence of an institutional response, I’ve reached the end of my tether with certain organisations who I’ve given days if not weeks of my time to, for nothing, and often with minimal or no acknowledgement. (But thank you to those organisations who do recognise and compensate my time!) For the immediate future I’m going to try and find ways to be more intentional about when and why I do free labour and prioritise doing this for groups and individuals who don’t have resources, which will mean saying no to large organisations. In the longer term, I’d like to see funders and research councils take up this issue as well as clearer guidance from institutions about where we are supposed to find the time to do our impact and knowledge exchange work.

Do you have similar experiences? Advice to share? Do please use the comments box to tell us.

Posted in "free work", academic writing, Anna Bull, impact | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

refresh your writing ideas

Reading is key to developing your understandings of what makes good academic writing. Anthropologist Ruth Behar (2020) suggests that academic writers shouldn’t stop at the classic texts in their discipline, but also read other genres. She says

We need to read poetry to understand silences and pauses. To challenge the oppression of punctuation. To learn how to make words sing. To liberate ourselves from chalky paragraphs.

We need to read fiction to learn how to tell a story with conflict, drama and suspense. To tell a story that leaves us breathless.

We need to read memoir to learn how to write meaningfully about our own experiences. 

Children’s books should be on our shelves, to keep our souls full of wonder. (p. 48)

If you are in the middle of revising a draft, or coming to the end of a big text you won’t want to stop right now to read. But now might be the very time that you need to step back. It is always worth considering taking a little time out to refresh your take on academic writing. Through using reading.

You might find it interesting to experiment with a structured approach to using reading for writing. Here are four reading-based strategies to refresh ideas. Four to begin with. Adapt them, invent your own.

(1) Take an extract of published writing from your field, perhaps a classic that is generally understood as good writing. Rewrite it. Now compare your version with the original. What is textually different about the two? Does this help you to see what to do in your rewriting? (adapted from Narayan, 2012)

(2) Take a published text that you consider to be in need of some rewriting. And rewrite it. What was it that concerned you? Are there things like these to change in your own draft?

(3) Find a few texts that challenge the dominant modes of writing in your field. What do they do differently? Can you incorporate any of these differences into your writing? 

(4) Find a published text that is something like yours. Read it slowly looking at the writing. What mood does the writer create? How does the writer manage the pace of their narrative? How do they use sentence structure and length to convey rhythm? If there is direct speech used, how is it introduced and incorporated? What metaphors are used? Are there novel categorisations? How did the writer manage their tenses? Where, how and why did they use adjectives and adverbs and to what effect? What kind of punctuation did they use?

Some simple ways to generate new possibilities for your own writing. Via reading.

Photo by Dstudio Bcn on Unsplash

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trouble finding a writing angle? try cubing

You have research results. You want to write something – a book, a chapter, a paper. You’re in a field where there is already an active conversation. You’ve done an analysis which seems to repeat what is already out there. Noooo! You know that this probably isnt going to be good enough; the publisher/editor is going to want something more. Something novel. Something with offers a different perspective. Something which looks at topic and the results from a slightly different angle.

There are several strategies that you can use to generate novel possibilities – the most obvious are brainstorming and free writing. And variants on these. Another approach is cubing. Cubing is a strategy which encourages you to rethink. Cubing is generally attributed to Cowan and Cowan (1980) but has been adapted numerous times and in different ways. (And yes, I’m a cubing adapter too.) 

What is cubing I hear you ask? Imagine you are holding a cube. It could be a child’s building block or a Rubik’s cube. Hold it in your hand. Describe it. Now twist it about 30 degrees to the right. Again, describe what you see. Turn it so that you can see what was previously hidden underneath. Describe it. Turn it so that you reveal what was at the back. Spin the cube slowly – what do you see? What surprised you when you moved the cube around? If its a Rubiks’ cube you’re holding, then you can also twist it beyond its basic cube shape.

You get the idea. Of course you can do this with a real cube, just to see what differences emerge when you observe something as apparently straightforward as a cube. You can do this with any object, it’s just that the six sides of the cube create a useful limiting frame. And the trick with cubing is to not dwell on any particular view, but to move quickly. 

The cubing strategy can be used loosely. Using the example above as the model, see your current research results as the equivalent of the straight-on view of the cube. So now turn the results. Shift your view so that you can see some of what is underneath. Turn your results so that you reveal what was hidden. What happens if you think of your results as being in motion. Where have they been and where are they going? Were any of these views of your results a little surprising? Do any of these surprises give you an insight about how you might write your book, paper or chapter to show something that other papers, chapters and books haven’t?

But you may find this approach a little waffly and open-ended. So try a more structured approach. Use these six questions about your research results, focussing on description, association, connection, comparison, application, argument. As in…

  1. How can you describe your results – what do they sound like, look like, smell like, taste like? How would you categorise them? Can you break these results up into smaller stand-alone pieces?
  2. If your results were an image what would it be? If these results were a meme what is it? If they were a billboard? A poster? A cartoon ? What do your results remind you of? What popular cultural text or artefact, literary text or work of art might you associate with your results?
  3. How do these results connect with your previous research? What experiences have you had that connect with these research results?
  4. How are your research results different from other work in the field? 
  5. How and where could your results be used? Who uses it, where, how and why?
  6. If someone disagreed with your results what would they say? How would you substantiate your case? What are the pros and cons of their counter-argument? 

Cubing can also be used to generate new perspectives on a research topic too, particularly one which is already often researched. So, cubing is helpful for developing research bids and research proposals. And cubing is very often used to support reading and interpretation. Readers are asked to write about their text using six prompts (six sides of the cube) – description, comparison, association, analysis, application, argumentation. 

Why not give cubing a go? Try cubing next time you are stuck looking at what to write about a set of research results besides the completely obvious. 

Photo by aaron boris on Unsplash

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2021 is nearly done – but 2022?

Living with Covd19 has not been the occasion for an unexpected and bonus writing retreat. Well, it might have been for a few. But for most people, working from home didn’t become the occasion for increased productivity. Many people had increased caring responsibilities, with their usual supports harder to access. Those of us in higher education found it difficult to do our research and had to reinvent projects or put them on hold. And teaching had to be re-organised each year to cater for different blends of face to face and remote learning. All of this took time away from writing. Well. I’m not telling you anything. You’ve lived through this too. 

As well, the connection between writing and wellbeing became clearer than ever. It’s hard to focus on sustained writing when you’re isolated and every day is marked by low level anxiety. So it seems pretty important, at the end of this second plague year, that we forgive ourselves if we haven’t been as productive as we wanted. As productive as we might have been in a more usual year.

It’s also important that we don’t set writing goals in New Year 2022 that compensate for 2021. Last year I only wrote x when I wanted to do y. So this year I’m going to do x+y+z. If we do end up with another year of more viral spikes and troughs, then we’ll finish this time next year feeling very frustrated and down on ourselves. It’s about being kind and real.

There’s a delicate balance to be found. On the one hand its probably good to have a routine that keep us in touch with our writing and keeps our writing muscles exercised, and to make some plans about what to write when and in what order. On the other hand, there’s a problem with having goals that are unrealistic and inflexible. Lining up a load of commitments and deadlines may seem to be a good way to keep on track, but may end up being a recipe for feeling inadequate. 

That delicate routine, plan and goal balance is going to vary from person to person of course. But we can use our experience of, and reflections on, this year to consider what is likely to be possible next year. We can make modest but achievable plans for 2022. Well, that’s the approach Im taking to the New Year. No more wildly ambitious monthly targets. Something more gently paced is in order. Something that will support recovery.

But I also don’t want to let the year finish without acknowledging three colleagues who died in 2021, colleagues who contributed to my thinking, writing and this blog. 

Dr Julie Rowlands wrote four guest posts for patter – about conference apps, writing the book from the PhD, lazy reviewers and the performative imposts of institutions on PhDers. Julie was building a distinctive place in critical higher education studies and had a unique insider knowledge of higher education management. 

Dr Kip Jones often commented on posts on the blog and on social media. Kip was an innovator whose work on performative social science, particularly through the use of film, was very influential. Twitter just isn’t the same without his regular posts.

Professor Terry Wrigley was a co-editor/writer whose activism and passion for education inspired and energised so many. We had plans to do more work together. 

Vale Julie, Kip and Terry.  We’ll miss you. I’ll miss you. 

Patter is taking a couple of weeks off – she will be back on 10th January, 2022.

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Posted in planning, publication plan, routine, writing goals, writing routine | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments