getting by and getting on


I’ve spent a lot of time online shopping these last two weeks. Shopping for food.

Before we went to Australia we’d let the store cupboard run down as we didn’t want to come home to rats, mice or moths. When we arrived home it was to a literally empty freezer and cupboard. So getting ourselves fed was our first priority. We didn’t want to hoard, we just wanted enough to live on. Government instructions were then for us to self-isolate for two weeks. We went on a hasty gloved and masked trip to a supermarket to get some immediate necessities, but most things were sold out. A lucky delivery slot and a neighbour’s gift of eggs and loo roll saw us through the first week.

However, we had to find a more secure source of food and groceries. I used all of my online searching skills, which are I might immodestly say are considerable, to track down most of the things that we need and organise regular deliveries. Result.  While we don’t have the same range that we are used to, we will now be fine. We even have the odd treat coming now and then.

But now we have to self isolate for much longer. Not just a fortnight, but a likely three months. (Or even more.) I’m vaguely panicked about the prospect of  having to keep on worrying about food, something I’ve always taken for granted. Being secure about food wasn’t the case for my parents’ generation. They lived through the Depression and WW2. As a result, my mother and father made sure they always prioritised food and a roof over their heads. They saved enough to buy a big block of land in an undesirable suburb where they kept hens, planted a small orchard and a large veg garden. My mother also baked, dried, pickled, preserved and jammed any surplus. And thanks to them, I know how to do all that too – but it’s been about lifestyle choice, not necessity, for me. My father also retained a deep suspicion of banks, and after he died we kept finding little cash stashes hidden away. In fact I found another few notes just a few weeks ago as I was going through some old papers – and that’s some thirty years later. Current events can have profound effects on the smallest aspects of our lives.

So as I write this, I wonder how cosy first world middle class families like mine might find their behaviour and attitude changed by our current circumstances. Are we suddenly rethinking our privilege, and shelter from the kinds of hardships that other generations experienced, and huge numbers of people all over the world still face on a daily basis? Do those of us in lucky countries and lucky classes now appreciate differently how fortunate we’ve been? And how might this realisation change our behaviour in the future?

I also find myself trying to remember the flu epidemic I lived through – just. I was six. I can remember losing my voice and then nothing much, other than nearly unstoppable nosebleeds, until I woke up after an emergency  operation on the kitchen table – no room in the hospital – which apparently saved my hearing. I still can’t get a whiff of ether without feeling a combination of the terrible nausea and panic I experienced in home-based post-operative recovery. There’s always also a moment of gratitude for our local card-carrying Community Party GP who was able to act swiftly and skilfully. And a flash of going back to school and hearing about some children who didn’t make it – and the wonder about what made the difference between those of us who survived and those who didn’t.

Ah, but what’s actually going on now? Right now. I tell myself that the existential anomie I’m feeling is temporary. The feeling of vague dread is probably a passing thing. The desire to be cocooned is likely to be short lived. The odd fantasy about a Rip Van Winkle sleep for three months, waking up to a new post Covid19 world is just that, a waking day-dream.

My current analysis of my own situation is obvious. Trite even. I’m going through an early stage of adjustment. In part, this is about a changed work situation.  Even though I am used to working at  home, and even though I have been distracted by becoming a digital hunter-gatherer, I have a new lack of enthusiasm for reading and writing. I used to love working at home when it was a respite from work. Now that being at home and working is the new normal, I feel a bit out of sorts with the prospect of nothing but being stuck to my screen and mouse. I find myself reading depressing pandemic news rather too often. I’m much more drawn to reading fiction and working on my current crochet blanket than I am to getting on with the next writing project. I don’t want to just be working at home. I also want to be working at work. After a lifetime of managing the blurring of home/work, and taking pleasure in each, the two have now morphed together. And not through choice.

Adapting to this new situation is obviously not easy, even for the most advantaged of us. And I’m certainly highly advantaged – a secure job which means I don’t have to go out to work, and thus income, roof, garden, internet, hot water and a supply of soap. Nor am I on the front line and I don’t have any family who are, but like most people, I do have friends who are, or who are ill. I worry about both. Figuring out how to manage the new home/work in the middle of a global crisis is clearly not a simple, or perhaps even quick task.

So this post is really just to say to the doctoral researchers I work with, and those who I work with indirectly, it’s OK not to be on top of it all. I’m not. Take the time to sort out how to manage. I am. Acknowledge your feelings. Look after yourselves. Do the best you can. That’s me too. Day to day. One thing at a time. And importantly, don’t hesitate to seek social support online and with your peers, supervisors and colleagues. See what your university has on offer at this time – please please ask for financial assistance if you need it. Campaign for funding and deadline extensions if you are up to it, and if you’re not that’s fine too.

I get it. You do what you need to do now in order to make a new kind of life at this time.

  • Acknowledge what’s going on.
  • Step away from the news.
  • Connect, find community.
  • Empathise with others.
  • Look for ways to adapt.
  • Live in and with the present.
  • Set small goals.
  • Take baby steps.
  • Find new routines.
  • Celebrate each achievement. Yes. Every one. Even getting a single tin of tomatoes.
  • Be grateful for what you can still do.

That’s certainly what I’m going to try to do too.


Source of this diagramme unknown.

Photo by Pedro da Silva on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, pandemic | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

what to do now?


zoom zoom spotify what’s app email wix facetime zoom skype Instagram email twitter teams twitch zoom youtube skype email email email wix twitter zoom zoom

I have put more apps on my screens during the last week than in the whole of last year. I usually try to keep my apps to an economical three screens or so (ipad, iphone). But no longer. Now I need more.

My university has suddenly adopted a whole suite of programmes – well it may have had these before, to be fair, but most of us didn’t use them and could get by just fine without them. Not now. Now these apps are the way we keep in touch, find out what is happening, teach and research.

But of course my university doesn’t use the same platforms and apps as other universities. Nor the same as some people that I regularly work with. To stay in touch, and to keep the work moving, I have to add even more stuff.

And as I see people talking about other platforms and apps which are not the same as mine, I wonder about them. I’ve become app conscious! More to the point – so much fine print. So hard to find out what each app does with your data, who they send it to, what and who they share it with, where and how your data is stored and how securely. Most platforms and apps offer free trials but I am reluctant to sign up to see how they work.

zoom zoom spotify what’s app email wix facetime zoom skype Instagram email twitter teams twitch zoom youtube skype email email email wix twitter zoom zoom.

And exponentially expanding time online has meant a proliferation of new passwords and password changes, security texts, identification codes, and digging verification emails out of trash/clutter.

zoom zoom spotify what’s app email wix facetime zoom skype Instagram email twitter teams twitch zoom youtube skype email email email wix twitter zoom zoom

I guess Tim Berners Lee might be a bit more positive about the web right at the minute. He was pretty scathing about it last year, worrying that it was increasingly used for abuse and profitmaking, rather than for the good of humanity. Two directions that his Web Foundation advocated were for

  • individuals to create rich and relevant content to make the web a valuable place, and
  • building strong online communities where everyone feels safe and welcome.

We can certainly see more of these activities going on now in the scholarly community and beyond. Apps notwithstanding. However it’s not all good. As the Web Foundation argue there is still more to do:

“In the past few weeks we’ve seen the web at its best: enhancing lives, acting as a vital public good and connecting people in creative, positive ways. It is both a lifeline and a critical force in helping to curb the spread of the virus, providing vital public health information and helping us live virtually when meeting physically threatens human lives.

But the web could do so much more if we could overcome three obstacles. Almost half the world’s population doesn’t have internet access.  To be without connectivity in normal times is a grave disadvantage. In the crisis we’re facing, it’s devastating.

Where the web is available, it is vulnerable to medical misinformation and conspiracy theories which can have deadly effects. And the lack of a collaborative, ambitious, privacy-minded approach to the use of data in this crisis means some of the most effective ways to tackle the virus may never be fully harnessed.

These goals — increasing access, fighting misinformation and using data responsibly and effectively — are part of the Contract for the Web, the plan of action launched last year by the Web Foundation and our partners, to make our online world safe, open and empowering.”

The half of the world who have all the apps and access to information, that’s the half I live in, are in a fortunate position. Yes we are confined to home. Yes we find it hard to cope, and have to modify the expectations we have of ourselves. But there is still both an opportunity and a responsibility to use the app overload care-fully – that is, with an ethic of care.

I try to remember the Web Foundation tenets as I decide which apps to hold onto and which to use less frequently – and which not to use all. I’m also trying to remember the goal of the web doing and being good, as I think about what to share and what not, how to word what I want to say, how to respond to others.

I’m trying not to use this blog to suggest that you now have a wonderful chance to write everyday. Nor do I want to suggest that it is not OK if you actually do write a lot. The point is that you now have to do what works for you. We all respond in different ways to the health crisis we find ourselves in. And it’s all OK.

But if you do find yourself in a productive writing phase, then you will find there are a load of resources on this blog for and about academic writing and research. Most of it is tagged and findable if you use key words and the search function.  There’s also a patter wakelet site which has posts organised around some key topics.

But I’m not adding to those posts right now.

For the next little while you’ll find weekly posts here about crisis related academic matters. I can’t solve the world’s problems or even volunteer for the NHS, but I can do my bit to make the web a more responsible and caring place. I’m spending spend most of my time on the website and on twitter on @virtualnotviral. These are both new accounts I’ve set up with Dr Anuja Cabraal to support PhDers.

I’ll get back to normal posts on writing reading and research a bit later. In the meantime I have to manage all those apps.

zoom zoom spotify what’s app email wix facetime zoom skype Instagram email twitter teams twitch zoom youtube skype email email email wix twitter zoom zoom


Photo by Taras Shypka on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, ethics of care | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

managing research risks – riding the wave of #phdpandemic

A lot of research doesn’t go to plan. Researchers encounter a few hiccups along the way and in order to avoid problems, they make adjustments to their process. The research goes ahead, just slightly differently.

But what usually goes wrong in research? The most common problems in the kind of research that I do are things like failing to recruit enough people or places, participants withdrawing or refusing permission for their data to be used at some point, research staff leaving in the middle of a project, one of the research investigators getting ill.

These kinds of hiccups are not surprising. They can be imagined, and then planned for. Then, if they do occur, it doesn’t come as a complete shock, and you already know what to do.

In the normal run of things researchers seeking funding often have to produce a risk management schedule. They have to anticipate things that might go wrong, things like those listed above, and decide whether these are a high, low or medium probability. Then they put a contingency plan in place. Then they go on.

But only very occasionally a research project doesn’t get off the ground. Or it has to close down prematurely. Occasionally up until now, that is.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone put down pandemic as a risk. Who actually knew that this was going to be a thing, and that it would close down labs, projects, and perhaps even the PhD? But now it is on us.  Now is the time when risk management thinking becomes really real. What do we do?

Many universities are now asking their PhDers to draw up risk management plans. This is not simply a bureaucratic exercise – if risk management plans are completed and handed in, they will give graduate school administrations some helpful information about the kinds and numbers of extensions, additional funding and support they might need to provide.

But considering risks has another benefit. Thinking the unthinkable means PhDers and supervisors have to face up to today’s hard choices. Risk management teaches us that having a plan, and then another backup plan, are helpful. We don’t just sit around waiting to see what might happen, we don’t leave things to chance, unless we calculate that this is sensible. We decide how long to let things drift and the point at which we have to make a choice. So putting all this down on paper – and that’s the risk management process – might be a very helpful strategy for PhDers and supervisors as well as their universities.

If that’s the case, what to do? How does risk thinking work?

Some of questions that are helpful for PhDers to ask and discuss with supervisors are:

  1. Even though I hadn’t planned to, can I stop my empirical work now?

How much data have I got already? Is the data substantive enough to answer my question? Does stopping now give me an opportunity to add in some desk work (see 4)? Is there a theoretical or conceptual resource I can use to do more with the data that I have?

2.   Can I keep going with my empirical work?

Are these changed circumstances an opportunity to do something I hadn’t anticipated but will nevertheless help me answer my research questions(s)? Will people and places be happy to have me continue or will my presence be an unwelcome intrusion? Even if they agree to keep on with the research is this an ethical ask at this point in time? Will people/places start by wanting to be agreeable but are in reality likely to get sick of me getting in the way? If so, do I need to stop (see 1) or can I redesign in some way (see 3)?

3. Can I redesign my research in some way?

Can I switch to an alternative method or methods without altering my research question? Can I use online methods? Can I make an existing desk work section (using materials available at my desk such as media, archival sources, policy texts) a bigger part of the study? Is there a creative way to engage people that they might also find enjoyable and of benefit? ( See Deborah Lupton’s helpful open source googledoc for some alt. methods possibilities.) And will people want to do it (see 2)?

Or will the redesign change my research question in some way? What? How? Is this really defensible? Will the resulting research be coherent? Will it just create a mess?

Do I need new ethical approval? How long will this take given that they are now working from home? What if the Ethics Committee say no to different methods (see 4 and 5)?

4. Do I need to put my research on hold for a bit?

How long can I realistically wait? If I can wait for a bit, what can I most usefully do in the meantime – analysis of current data, write a paper, write a chapter or two, catch up on some key reading?

Do I need additional support ( funding, permission) while I am waiting? How can I get support to do this? What does my institution and/or funder need to do to support me to wait? How can my supervisor help me to make this case?

Will things have changed by the time I can pick things up again? How might this affect the research? Will things have changed to the point where I need to do some rethinking (see 3)? What is the likelihood that I won’t get permission to continue when we get to whatever the new normal is?

What is the point where I have to say I need to stop altogether (see (5)?

5.  Do I need to abandon my research altogether?

If the answer is no, then – Is there a point in the future when I can pick the research up again? What might I need to do in order to pick it up again?

If the answer is yes, then – Am I going to be able to start this exact same thing again? Will it be something different next time and if so what – and if so, how can I start to prepare for that now (see 4)? How can I get support to do this? What does my institution and/or funder need to do to support me to do this? How can my supervisor help me to make this case? Does my supervisor have the time to do this now they are having to put all their teaching online?

Some tough choices to make.

I am sure that you can think of other things besides these – but it’s a start and, most importantly, you see how risk management thinking goes. And what it does.

Facing up to difficult circumstances and unpalatable decisions can be a way to take some control. Thinking through risks means we can ride the pandemic wave, no matter how bumpy it is – rather than fall off and be swamped.

But of course, we need support to do that. Universities are gearing up alternative ways to provide that support now, so do check your home institution webpages.

But also we benefit from collegiality – our new #phdpandemic account @virtualnotviral is holding weekly chats about all things doctoral in unprecedented times – Chats begin on March 23, 9am GMT and 8pm, AEST.

Photo by Maja Kochanowska on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Pandemics and PHDs


The pandemic is upon us. My university is moving rapidly online with everyone who can working at home.

I’ve seen a lot on social media about how to teach online, whether to teach on line, and how to offer students support. I haven’t yet seen a lot about PhDers and their research. Well maybe a bit about labs.

Some of the people I work with are in the middle of field work, or just starting. They work in and with schools, galleries and community organisations. In other words, populous places which may or may not be closed for an indefinite period of time. Some docs are close to having enough data. Some aren’t. And because of the time-limited nature of the PhD in the UK, this data deficit might create real problems for them.

Up to three of the PhDers I work with have research which may have to be redesigned mid-way through. Redesigned so that their data is not entirely people-based, and/or not as comprehensive as envisaged. While I am confident that we will be able to sort something out, this redesigning is not an easy task, intellectually or emotionally.

The half-done problem won’t of course be confined to our small group.

I cannot imagine how many PhDers are currently worrying about whether they can do the research they want to, whether they have to start again, and/or whether they can afford the additional time it might take to get their projects done if their designs are un-modifiable.

This midpoint situation is obviously an immediate challenge not only for PhDers but also their supervisors.  I have already written to people I am working with who are in the middle of field work, suggesting that we meet straight away to discuss options (by distance mode of course as I am self-isolating after getting back from overseas, and the university is moving online.)

But the effects of the pandemic on PhDers is something that universities also might be able to do something about, sooner rather than later. They need to not wash their hands of PhDers, but be very proactive in offering reassurance and support.

For example:

Some PhDers might want to suspend their studies – and be able/afford to do so. Current rules about suspension of study usually make illness or serious crisis of some sort the only reason for suspension of studies. This pandemic is just such a crisis and ought in itself to be enough reason for leave from study if it is requested. Enrolled doctoral researchers need to be informed about this option as soon as possible.

Some PhDers may need to change their research designs and titles to reflect a necessarily changed design. In some institutions and with some research funders, such changes require lengthy and substantiated justification. In this instance, doctoral researchers need to be given permission, be told that such changes are possible in the circumstances. And ideally, research scholarship funders ought to make funding for an additional catch up period available to those people who have no possibility of changing their research mid-stream.

Some PhD designs may now look a trifle unusual. Ethnographers and action researchers for instance may now have a unique opportunity to see how their site responds to a crisis. (Others will not be able to continue, they will simply be locked out – see above.) So examiners will need to understand and respond positively to any forced change of circumstances with knock on effects on the research. The need for understanding of changes also needs to be written into institutional viva guidelines for this cohort of PhDs.

Some PhDers will find the pandemic just one thing too much. The PhD is already highly stressful. This crisis on top of the usual stresses may mean that many more people than usual will need additional support. Universities must offer extra counselling services. But graduate services might also offer online discussion group spaces where PhDers can talk about their worries and specific issues, writing and research difficulties and so on, together. Facilitating self-help support groups is surely a key function for grad schools at this moment in time. (And yes this is also something I am going to do in my own school, with my colleagues .)

I am sure there are other specific PhD pandemic issues I haven’t yet thought about. Please add those that concern you in the comments and I will spread the word through my social media networks – and I’m sure you will too.


Events move fast. I’m now adding links to useful resources and activities.


(1) link to list of academic publishers giving free ebook access through CV19 affected university libraries

(2) Deborah Lupton’s Innovative Methods for Field Work, a collective google doc. You may have to get permission.

(3) Resources for fieldwork from Dr Anuja Cabraal


1) Australian higher degree students’ petition. A link is coming so you can add your name.

✊✊Call for solidarity with HDR students in Australia ✊✊

Link to petition to add your support here

In light of the unprecedented situation provoked by the coronavirus pandemic, a group of concerned HDR students have developed the following open letter. As the situation stands there has been no indication that any of the policies or conditions under which we are enrolled will be altered given the situation. This is a concerning state of affairs.

We are sending this letter to institutions, student and trade unions, academics and individuals for support. We encourage you to join us.

HDR Students and the pandemic

Universities are already beginning to close down teaching facilities and local libraries are closing. It is likely that other social institutions, schools, childcare settings, and workplaces will be shut. Access to the internet may be impacted by increased use as more people spend time at home. In light of such developments (many of which we understand are in the interests of public health), we the undersigned are convinced that our capacity to continue research in these circumstances will be highly limited, even if we don’t become sick ourselves.

In order to mitigate the impact of this crisis we demand:

• All candidates final submission dates are extended by a minimum of 12 weeks

• All milestone dates are extended by a minimum of 8 weeks

• Additional support is provided for working from home – for example, small grants for home office equipment, ergonomic furniture, internet costs and the like.

• Additional leave of absence without penalty be granted to any HDR students who are unable to reasonably work from home (if they don’t have adequate space, ergonomically sound equipment, access to labs and so on)

• Extended sick leave for students (including scholarship payments) by a minimum of 6 weeks

• Carers leave for students (including scholarship payments) by a minimum of 6 weeks

• An extension of scholarship funds to reflect any period of leave students have had to take.

• The granting of hardship funds for part time students without scholarships who are unable to work because of the current situation.

• That the wages of all university casual workers be paid in full for the period of a university closure

• That paid sick leave be granted to all university casual staff.

2) HEPI Blog post on CV19 and PhDers

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, pandemic, stress | Tagged , | 19 Comments

research as creative practice

Health warning – this is a tiny rant about one of my pet peeves, research “training”. It also draws on my own research in creativity and education.


My starting point – Research is a creative process.

The connection between research and creativity is embodied in some disciplines. C. Wright Mills for instance famously talked about the necessity of the ‘sociological imagination’ – understanding how larger unseen social relations are embedded in and frame everyday events, conversations, processes and relations.

But perhaps the equation of research and creativity is more convincing to non-social scientists if we look at common understandings of creativity. The recent Durham Commission on Creativity and Education in England offered these definitions:

Creativity: The capacity to imagine, conceive, express, or make something that was not there before.

Creative thinking: A process through which knowledge, intuition and skills are applied to imagine, express or make something novel or individual in its contexts. Creative thinking is present in all areas of life. It may appear spontaneous, but it can be underpinned by perseverance, experimentation, critical thinking and collaboration.

These two are not just for/by artists. They apply to research, to what we researchers do, right?

Let me explain. We generally accept that research is about making a contribution to knowledge. If this is so then research is, by definition, making something that was not there before. Perhaps confirmation studies are an exception to this rule, but certainly doctoral research is almost always geared to the production of something “novel or individual in its context”.

Bear with me here. There is a point to this. If research is a creative practice, I’m curious about how creativity is being supported and fostered across disciplines and institutions.

I’m situated in the UK where there are mandatory courses for social science and science doctoral researchers. I’ll just talk about my field of social science here, but I think the point is true for scientists too.  The required courses are intended to help the next generation of social scientists to understand research designs and underpinning philosophy, and to acquire a basic “toolkit” of quant and qual approaches. Well and good, that’s perfectly admirable and understandable – and if I was a policy maker I’d want to do that too.

But I’d also recognise the problems. This training  is often a “one-best” model. It is also time-limited, a module, a workshop. What can be covered is thus also limited. And generally what’s on offer doesn’t cover nearly the range of approaches and situations that social science doctoral researchers encounter. PhDers often have do a lot of additional work on traditions and approaches that are barely mentioned in the mandatory courses.

What’s also at issue,and more to the point, is the kind of implicit messages – the hidden curriculum – that goes along with the courses. The emphasis tends to be on technique – follow the yellow brick road of set processes – and on a “canon” of research literature. Fix the design first, specify outcomes. Design the impact. All very linear and logical. Walk this way. Talk this way.

But one of the things not covered at all, or as well,  in this kind of “training” are processes that are integral to creativity and creative research thinking.

I’ve been wondering how prioritising research as a creative  practice might change the ways in which we organise the “training” we offer to doctoral researchers. If creative thinking involves for example

  • making connections between apparently disparate ideas
  • generating a lot of possibilities
  • coming up with interpretations with distinctive and unique characteristics
  • challenging taken for granted lines of thought and
  • exploring and elaborating a line of thought

then how might this re-orient the ways in which courses in research design and methods, and in analysis, are designed and taught?

If creative people are curious, not easily satisfied, inventive and lateral but also determined, tenacious, disciplined, evaluative and purposeful – then how do our courses support researchers to build these dispositions and a repertoire of strategies? How do we also encourage the collaboration that can accompany creative work at scale? What if we put creativity at the heart of research education?

I reckon we wouldn’t stop emphasising the importance of being systematic. Or making sure that the implications of working with specific traditions of inquiry are clear. My proposition is not a binary. Abandon what we do now and opt for something entirely different. Rather, it’s about changing the conversations.

What if… we built in regular discussions about what it means to work creatively and how this sits with common notions of rigour and trustworthiness. What if we considered seriously the place of intuition and serendipity in research, come to terms with the messiness of process, develop strategies to think divergently rather than always following pre-set processes, or play with inventing new ways to investigate a problem.

Sometimes I think we act as if we don’t trust doctoral researchers to be able to deal with debate and uncertainty and cope, we think that without prescription they will be lost. No, that can’t be right. Continue.

Creative approaches to being researcher, thinking research, doing research are now live conversations occurring in multiple scholarly fields. While there are exceptions I am sure,  these conversations often don’t find a place in the introductory and generic courses on offer in the UK. Is this a problem? Yes – sometimes it is. Doctoral researchers can experience considerable dissonance between their “training” and the thinking in their discipline. And it sometimes takes quite some time to unlearn the apparently “correct” approach to inquiry taught in official “training”  – and take up a different option.

Lack of attention to creative practice is also a potential problem for those who care about research in and on the world. Given that those who fund research training want a new generation of creative researchers capable of solving massive social challenges, it does seem rather myopic to leave creativity to chance – or the capacities of supervisors and the luck of the draw in early career support.

Perhaps there is more that can be done. I know there is more that could be done. If research is creative, and if it is both dispositional and practical, and if it is of high social importance, then I do wonder why we don’t pay more attention to it.


Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, courses, creativity, doctoral education, doctoral pedagogies, doctoral research, methods, research methods, research training | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

writing advice – caveat emptor


Advice. Loads of it. Coming out of our ears.  And on every possible topic, including research and writing.

Advice needs readers. But we readers also need to be, as Ernest Hemingway put it, “crap detectors”. Howard Rheingold has worked up this idea, using Hemingway’s terminology. Rheingold has developed a little protocol that can be used to check out how much faith you should put in online information. This is his Crap Test:


    • How recent is this information?
    • If viewing on a website, how recently was the site updated?


    • What supporting information is available?
    • Is this source mainly opinion? Is it highly one-sided?
    • Does the source use outside references, or does it self-reference (an example of circular reporting)?


    • Who is the author?
    • What are the author’s credentials?
    • Where was this published?
    • Is this sponsored information?
    • What kind of advertisements are on the page, if any?

Purpose/Point of View

    • Is this fact, opinion, or opinion presented as fact?
    • Does this information appear biased?
    • Do you feel like the creator or author is trying to sell you something?

Now, I think that there are some additional and different questions you might want to ask if you are looking at advice about doctoral education, research and writing advice.  (And you might also want to junk some of those that Rheingold proposes.)

I’ve made a start on a reworked Rheingold crap test – a test for writing and research advice for PhDers.

So – here goes Patter’s doctoral research and writing crap test.


    • Who is the author?
    • Do they have a background in the subject they are writing about – are they either formally trained in the area or they have been systematically researching it?
    • Do they have professional knowledges they are drawing on? What?  Where?
    • Are their cvs available? Can you trace them to a reputable employer, an ORCID number or a publisher?) (And yes, I’m very happy if you want to apply this test to me in the first instance! Make a start here with my google citations.)

Reliable and trustworthy

    • Does the advice giver situate their work in the research on writing and doctoral education? Do they offer strategies that are well grounded in research and practice?
    • Do they offer a one-best solution – or do they recognise the diversity of disciplines, pathways and possibilities? Do they offer the same solution for all situations?
    • Is their advice primarily designed to sell you a service?  (That is, it only gives you a teensy teensy snippet of information, stops before it gets to the useful bit and then tells you to buy a package or service. If the advice giver is self employed you need to check the person out, go back to credibility.)


    • Do peers recognise this advice-giving author’s work?
    • Is their research available? Are they well published?
    • Is advice all that the person does? Do they teach what they are advising on? Do they edit a journal? Run a learning or research support service? Supervise and examine? Have they done any of this in the past? (See credibility)
    • Do they overclaim – if this is a shared story of experience (that is, n=1) , is this acknowledged?


    • What discipline(s) are they working from and with?
    • What traditions are they working in? Is what they say necessarily  going to be applicable?
    • What is their stance on knowledge, writing and research – is it the same or different from yours?

There you go. A beginning crap test to apply to writing and PhD advice. Caveat emptor.

Well, yes I’ve left things out, it’s a start. What else would you add?

P.S. And here is another rubric to check out.

Photo by Jo San Diego on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, advice, crap detection, Howard Rheingold, poor advice | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

playing about with data


Not everything we do in our research has to have a definite end point. Sometimes it’s good to set aside all those anxieties about ‘getting through and getting done’. We might even like to take some time to simply play about with our data. Experiment. See what happens. Perhaps there are new insights to be gained from temporarily ignoring deadlines and producing drafts.

If you are prepared to take a bit of a risk, and take some time out, then here are a few suggestions to stimulate a bit of data play.

  1. Gather together a set of random household objects and place them in a bag. Close your eyes and pull out three things. Open your eyes and see what you’ve chosen. Now write about your data in the light of these three things – what data does each of these objects bring to mind? Why? How are these three objects related? How might your data be related in the same way?
  2. Move away from your usual writing place to a new public space. Listen to what the people around you are saying. Write down phrases that catch your attention. Now choose four of these fragments. Which of your data seems to fit with them? How? Why? Do they marry together? Can you write a half a page which makes these phrases and data into a meaningful story?
  3. Make a list of the emotions you feel when you are reading through your data. Ask yourself what there is in the data that led you to these feelings. Now do some free writing about your emotional responses. Read your writing back. Is there anything here that offers a new angle on future analysis?
  4. Make a list of the significant events that appear in a section of your interview data, things that you have been told happened. Write these as scenes to be filmed.
  5. Look at some of your emerging analysis and make a list of the data that you are leaving out. Write an elegy for the data you are thinking of letting go.
  6. Consider the notion of regret. What is there about your data that might cause you or your informants regret? Free write about what these regrets might tell you about what you can and can’t say from your data.
  7. Find an online photo of an art work you like. If this was a representation of some of your data, what would it be saying? Why this data and not others? What is the resonance between the data and the work? What does this say to your next move in analysis?
  8. Find a place in interview data where you remained deliberately silent. What would you have said if you could? What might have happened if you had spoken?
  9. Take a section of your data and make a list of all the relationships that appear. Now free write about one of those relationships. Imagine putting those involved in the relationships into situations different from those you have information about. What happens and why?
  10. Take two interview transcripts with two different people. Imagine they are having a conversation. Write the dialogue.

I am sure that you can think of loads of other playful things you might do with your data.

Of course, none of these exercises are the same as the formal procedures that most of us are expected to use in analysis. None.

But it is sometimes the case that doing something a little out of the ordinary can alert us to other possibilities, and to how our expectations shape see what we see in our data.

Taking a new position, expecting nothing, being open to something novel and offbeat may just produce a new line of thinking, a line we weren’t anticipating.

Equally, it may not. But then you don’t know that until you’ve tried shaking your usual approaches about, just a bit.


Photo by Kristin Brown on Unsplash


Posted in academic writing, data, data analysis, play | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments