and now, a new year

I don’t make resolutions for new year. I do however always make myself a reminder about what’s important in an academic life. The reminder is usually a quotation that I’ve found during the year, something I want to think about and perhaps use later.

The quotes are on sticky notes I keep on my desk top. In the week between Christmas and New Year I review the year’s sticky notes. I find something that resonates, then I print it out and put it next to my computer.

A lot of my sticky note quotations are about writing and scholarly practice. But some, like this year’s choice, stem from the arts research that I do.  in 2018, my quote is from Gilles Deleuze writing on Nietzsche:

dance, laughter and play are affirmative powers of reflection and development. Dance affirms becoming and the being of becoming; laughter, roars of laughter, affirm multiplicity and the unity of multiplicity; play affirms chance and the necessity of chance. (p. 183)

In performative work environments and grim political times, maintaining a focus on the small, the here and now, the human and humane, seems very necessary.   This coming year I want to keep sight of the importance of being, being in the moment, being with other people, being open to and welcoming of the pleasure of the serendipitous.

2017-07-24 14.36.00_preview.jpeg

I’m also going to live up to this sketch that Linda Stupart made of me during 2017 TATE summer school.

Oh, and yes, patter is going to be posting just once a week for the foreseeable future. Monday mornings, 7 am, GMT.

Posted in academic writing, New Year | Tagged , | 2 Comments

eek, it’s nearly 2018

Patter has had a busy year, as a few basic stats will show. Patter started in July 2011. And this, dear reader, is the 705th post. Patter has published two posts a week for most of 2017, with a few more during Tate Summer School and one less during this seasonal extra-mini-break. As each post is about a thousand words and I write most of the posts, I guestimate that’s about 700,000 words in six and a half years. More than a book a year in blog posts.

My most popular post ever is on aims and objectives. The post that got the most views in one day was this year’s how an examiner reads a thesis, followed by avoiding the laundry list literature review. Other popular posts include how old are the sources, and writing the introduction to a journal article. As Patter’s purpose is to reveal some of the hidden rules and conventions of academic writing, then these stats are helpful “positive reinforcement”.

But by far the most rewarding feedback comes from those unexpected emails, encounters at conferences and copies of thesis introductions where I meet the people who have found some of what I’ve written helpful. Thankyou for bringing inanimate wordpress stats to life.

Patter is not actually my real job. It’s a labour of, well, weekends. During the week I’m your average jobbing senior (and elderly) prof who researches, teaches and publishes. 2017 has been a bumper year for my own publishing but also for a few other people. I’ve commissioned two book proposals for a book series I co-edit, with another couple on the way, and put in a proposal for a new co-edited book series.( Hope we hear soon, Helen.)

But this is all now in the past. As I edit this post, I am writing and scheduling blog posts for 2018, another edited book is in press and two more are in preparation. The next single-authored book is half-written but sadly won’t make its beginning of year deadline, again. A co-written methods text must be written this year and my co-authors and I already have writing dates in our diaries. Yay. Love those writing retreats. Those two half-written research bids must be finalised relatively soon. There are more doctors coming up too, with the next viva in sight and three more dissertations in various stages of draftiness. All good.

I said to someone the other day that a (permanently employed) academic life feels a bit analogous to being air traffic control. There’s always someone or something taking off, lots of stuff to keep going, and various publications and people coming in to land. (Whispers: I really could retire now, but there is still so much more fun to be had.)

But on a personal note, 2017 was the year that one of my beloved dogs died and a new granddaughter arrived. The remaining old dog is bereft, a very diminished presence in our house, and may not see the end of 2018. The granddaughter however is sassy, already walking and far too far away for my liking. So, while 2018 looks likely to be as busy as usual I’m going to take those holidays I never usually take and spend more time in Australia with family. This may be the year that Patter drops back to one post a week, something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but just quite can’t do.

But in the meantime, while I fret about blog frequency and content, thankyou for reading patter. And my very best wishes to you for your own writing and researching in the coming year. May our 2018 be one for writing with academic vigour, verve and style. Pleasure and productivity, here we come.

Posted in 2017 in review, academic writing, blogging, publications | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

exit via the gift shop


What do you give an academic during gift-giving season?  Well I can’t tell you what to do of course, but as a guide to the generous, here’s a list of a few writing-related books that I would put in someone’s back pocket.

For the new researcher: a classic that never fails to deliver, Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists. How to Start and Finish your Thesis, Book or Article. Second Edition (1986)

For the rhetorically insecure: complete with explanations and models to follow: not new, but worth having, Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say, I Say. The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Third Edition (2014)

For the recently viva-ed PhD wanting to turn their thesis into a book: William Germano’s classic From Dissertation to Book. Second Edition (2013)

For the qualitative research beginner: Sally Campbell Galman’s The Good, the Bad and the Data: Shane the Lone Ethnographer’s Basic Guide to Qualitative Data Analysis (2013) – it’s in graphic novel form

For the qualitative research nerd: Melissa Freeman’s Modes of Thinking for Qualitative Data Analysis (2017)

For the researcher with the new phone camera: Mitchell, De Lange and Moletsane’s Participatory Visual Methodologies, Social Change, Community and Policy (2017)

For the researcher wishing to understand the skewed geographies of academic publishing Curry and Lillis’ Global Academic Publishing. Policies, Perspectives and Pedagogies. (2017)

For those who favour clear speech and a real book –  The Guardian stylebook. It is now online, but you can pick up a second-hand copy pretty cheaply and it’s miles more useful than Strunk and White IMHO.

And lastly, for someone who’d rather read fiction or something close to it, while thinking about the possibilities of academic writing:

Any of Patricia Leavy’s Social Fiction series

Pandian and Maclean’s edited collection Crumpled Paper Boat, Experiments in Ethnographic Writing (2017)

And, well, actually loads of the anthropological… just to start with… Michael Taussig’s Law in a Lawless Land (2003), Kirin Narayan’s My Family and Other Saints (2007), Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects (2007), Hugh Raffles’s Insectopedia (2010), Robert Desjarlais’s Counterplay (2011), Ruth Behar’s Traveling Heavy (2013), Renato Rosaldo’s The Day of Shelley’s Death (2013) and Paul Stoller’s Yaya’s Story (2014).

My favourite DIY graphic writing book, Lynda Barry’s What It Is: Do You Wish You Could Write? (2008)

I’ve spectacularly failed to promote my own books here – but you know how I feel about self-promotion… :0 And no, I get no kickback from any of these recommendations.


Patter is giving herself permission to have a day off next Monday but will be back for an EEK It’s nearly 2018 post on the weekend.


image credit: astrangegirl, Flickr The Commons

Posted in academic writing, book recommendations, books | Tagged , | 4 Comments

the viva and the supervisor

Last week I reached thirty two. Thirty two doctoral researchers who successfully defended their research. Thirty two Doctors let loose on the world.

And two things are now on my mind. Not thirty two. Just two.


The first thing I’m thinking about is how heavily the viva weighs on me as a supervisor – not nearly as much as it does the doctoral candidate for sure, but viva-time is still a pretty anxious period. This is not because professional doctorate and PhD ‘successes’ are now counted and audited in the university, although I dare say I could get worried about that if I chose to. No, the worry and anxiety comes from the long-term nature of the pedagogical relationship. I care about whether the doctoral candidate gets what they need and want from their investment of trust in me, as well as the time and money that they’ve spent. And just before the viva, I always experience nagging doubts about whether I could have done more, done something different, should have done this instead of that… so having two vivas on two consecutive days, as happened last week, meant a couple of pretty nervous nights for me, as well as the candidates. I’m sure I’m not the only supervisor who feels this kind of worry.

The second thing I’m thinking about is that, as a supervisor, I usually don’t have a clue what the examiners are going to ask. All of those generic questions that supposedly prepare for vivas – they really aren’t asked. Ever. Well, that’s my experience anyway, as the supervisor who sits in the room and listens. The examiners always come up with angles and issues that I just haven’t anticipated.

I think that this may be in part because at the end of the three to four-year engagement with a doctoral researcher and their work, it’s pretty tricky for me as supervisor to feel separate from the thesis, just as it is the doctoral researcher themselves. But it’s mainly because it’s well, you know, it’s peer review. And peers have their own takes on things – and unlike blind peer review, you’ve asked these examiners precisely for that reason. Examiners are interesting and generous scholars who will read the thesis through their eyes – not mine.

So, apart from knowing that there’s likely to be some questions about method and maybe analysis and ethics, and something about theory and something about contribution, I’ve largely given up trying to predict exactly what will be asked in a viva. “Just know your stuff, what you did and why” is now the best advice I can give to people before their viva. Expect the unexpected. Know what you’re good at. It’s a conversation.

And yes, the viva preparation task for me as supervisor is trying to read for the things that might be considered strong and weak points in the thesis, I can’t not do that. But it’s also being up front about the fact that I’m not able to predict with any accuracy what will happen. I’ll always be surprised by what examiners ask in the viva, just like the doctoral researcher.


I’ve currently got one person waiting for their viva date, and three people getting prepared to hand in this academic year. So these thoughts are not going to go away.

But if anyone has a working crystal ball going cheap, that could certainly reduce the second of my worries – not knowing what will be asked – but never the first. I’ll always feel a mixture of concern and hope that viva events will turn out OK.

Image credit: Martin Snicer Photography, creative commons licensed.

Posted in academic writing, PhD, phd defence, supervision, supervisor, viva | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

can I cite a blog post?

Some people still tell their doctoral researchers that they can’t cite blogs. Really? Yes really.

Just to start with …  of course you CAN cite blogs. The fact that all of the big citation styles – APA for instance – now have citation formats which not only cover newspapers and reports and webpages but also blogs clearly suggests that you CAN. And that people are.

But why would you? The most helpful analogy for referring to blogs is to think about what are called grey literatures, those documents that are public and important and sometimes highly influential – but have not been through a scholarly process of peer review. The Grey Literature Report offers this definition:

The Fourth International Conference on Grey Literature (GL ’99) in Washington, DC, in October 1999 defined grey literature as follows: “That which is produced on all levels of government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats, but which is not controlled by commercial publishers.”

In general, grey literature publications are non-conventional, fugitive, and sometimes ephemeral publications. They may include, but are not limited to the following types of materials: reports (pre-prints, preliminary progress and advanced reports, technical reports, statistical reports, memoranda, state-of-the art reports, market research reports, etc.), theses, conference proceedings, technical specifications and standards, non-commercial translations, bibliographies, technical and commercial documentation, and official documents not published commercially (primarily government reports and documents)

The New York Academy of Medicine ( proper researchers eh, they can’t be wrong, she says wryly) keeps a data base of grey literature, explaining that

Grey literature offers a unique perspective to the research community because government agencies and think tanks produce these reports on topics that effect policy and the people who implement that policy. Grey literature is also timely because it is not subject to a long or peer-reviewed publishing process. For instance, the morning the U.S. Supreme Court made the deciding vote on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) their report was available online at 10:15 am. This report lays out the reasons for the decision as well as the options states have for implementing the changes.

Grey literatures are useful to researchers and are cited in the knowledge of what they are.  A policy text is cited but also critically interrogated. A government statistical report is cited but may also be critiqued. A memoranda from a CEO might be cited for what it reveals about corporate practice. A state of the art report is cited and its discourses analysed. A series of news media reports are cited to indicate key aspects of context and debate.

We scholars know how to work with grey literatures.


So do blogs count as grey literature? You bet they do. And they need to be treated in much the same way.

The question is not about whether you can cite blogs, but how and why. You have to decide with any publication, blog or not, their credibility and authenticity.  And you have to decide with any published source what you want to use it for.

But blogs are not peer reviewed, I hear you say. Well no, most blogs aren’t. Thats why they are grey literature. But some do have strong editorial management just like edited books. And the comments made on posts are often far more rigorous than those that might be offered by a couple of peer reviewers. But yes, the vast majority of blogs aren’t peer reviewed, but we scholars already use all kinds of literatures that aren’t peer reviewed. Why exclude blogs?

We need to draw on what we already know about how to work with non peer reviewed material. As with any grey literatures, it’s important to ask questions of a blog post that you want to cite. First of all, what is it? Not all blogs are the same. They range from being personal diaries to journalistic reports of events to research method to research results reporting. And then you  need to ascertain what kind of information is offered, who it’s written by and for and how it’s positioned … So you ask – is this an opinion piece, a report of an activity, a review of literatures? And you need to ask – Who has written this post?  Academic bloggers range from anon to early career researchers on top of all of the literatures and debates to star researchers with years of experience and credibility.  You can usually find out who the bloggers are and decide how much you will trust what they say. You also look for the basis on which the bloggers are writing and making claims. What references do they offer in hyperlinks?

The point is that you need to apply to blogs the same kind of crap detection practices that you apply to any web material or government report or political press release so that you can ascertain where it comes from, and its status.

Asking  critical questions of a text is hardly a new and innovative academic activity. Social media might be relatively new to (some of) us, but working with a range of texts isn’t.

And the ways in which we use blog posts in our academic work aren’t particularly new and unusual either. If we wouldn’t cite a university press release about research results but would go to the actual report and read it for ourselves, then we do the same with a blog post, we go to the source. If we wouldn’t cite a personal anecdote without additional evidence that this was a ‘typical’ view or experience, then we do the same with a blog post – we get beyond the one-off case.  If we wouldn’t cite one letter to the editor as evidence of common public opinions, then we don’t do that with a blog post either. If we wouldn’t cite a mere two or three newspaper articles as evidence of widespread debate than we don’t do that with blogs either. Etc. Etc.

But there’s plenty of ways that we can use blog posts – an essay post for example may be very well reasoned and offer particularly interesting angle; a post that responds to a corpus of scholarly  literature or a particular theory might have a new perspective; a political commentary might raise critical issues, a personal story might cast doubts about a new policy or common practice …  Etc. Etc.

Not so hard. When we think about citing blog posts, we simply have to be clear about what we are citing, why, the basis on which they are ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’ and the claims we make about them. Simple. Just like we do with any other publication.

And really – to those supervisors who are telling their doctoral researchers never to cite blogs – that really doesn’t help them or you. Blogs are out there, they’re not going away, and they are part of the information ecology that we study and work in. Time to get with the programme. Now.


Image credit: Kennedy Library

Posted in academic blogging, academic writing, blogging, citation, grey literatures, research blogging | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

explain your terms – writing a journal article

That picky reviewer. They’ve questioned your words. Asked you to clarify. Suggested that you have things wrong. What’s that about?

Reviewers often take issue with the ways in which writers use particular terminology. They may politely suggest that some clarification would be helpful. The much less generous reviewer assumes that the writer does not know their field and/or isn’t sufficiently critical and reflexive – they demand more extensive changes.

You just have to grin and do what’s asked. But, particularly in a journal article, there often isn’t much room to go into all of the caveats, histories of argument and twists and turns that surround particular terms. In a more extended piece, like your thesis, you get space to wrestle with words and say just how you are interpreting them. And the examiner expects to see these extended discussions of contested concepts and tricky terminology.  However, in a journal article the reader mainly wants to get to the new material that you are offering. They don’t want to get bogged down in extended elaborations, they just want to know how you are using your terms and then for you to get on with it. They want you to focus, clarify and then move on.

So how to you manage to get on with it and be nuanced about your language at the same time?


Well, here are a couple of paragraphs from a paper that show one way to achieve this – to situate and define terms concisely.

I’m going to present the paragraphs first with some discussion and then show them as sentence skeletons that you might use to practice stating your particular case. Stripping out the content and leaving the rhetorical moves exposed is a helpful strategy for practising academic argument.

Please note that I’m not suggesting that these are perfect sentences and paragraphs – if there is such a thing –  and you might want to write them completely differently. The point here is simply to understand the moves that are being made – the moves give the journal reader enough information so that they can move on to the actual contribution, knowing what the writer means.

The text I’m using comes from a ( paywalled) paper written by Göran Gerdin entitled The ‘Old Gym’ and the ‘Boys’ Changing Rooms’: The Performative and Pleasurable Spaces of Boys’ Physical Education.

In a section which comes straight after the introduction, in which the purpose of the paper and its argument are outlined, Gerdin offers a series of paragraphs to clarify his key terminology and understandings. I’m going to use the first two only.

In the first paragraph, Gerdin states what he means by a problematic word in common use. He shows the reader that he understands the issues and debates about the word boy.

Article text My commentary
First of all, I want to reaffirm that, based on my Foucauldian and Butlerian lens, my use of ‘boys’ is in no way meant to essentialize or homogenize boys or their performances of gender. Although I use the term ‘boys’ throughout this article, I recognize that there are both multiple ways of being a boy and describing such gendered subjects (i.e., ‘young males’ or ‘young masculinities’). ‘Boys’ is used to refer to the male interviewees/subjects of this research in a colloquial rather than analytical sense. This descriptor was selected as it was used by the participants in this study to refer to both themselves and others (i.e., ‘being one of the boys’ and ‘come on boys’). The writer identifies a troublesome term – boys. He states the theoretical resources he is using – he then discusses how he is using the term in the next two paragraphs. In noting the theories, Gerdin also signals his wider positioning in the field – the reader knowns that the text is written with some kind of ‘post’ epistemological stance. Gerdin then says what he is not doing – he anticipates the concerns that a reviewer might have, showing that he knows the history of debate in the field. He states his basic position – there are multiple ways of being a boy. He then offers a justification for his use of the term, despite knowing its problems and having a different take on it – it is in everyday use and it came from the participants in the study.  In four sentences, Gerdin has signposted knowledge of the field and its debates, he demonstrates that he is using a tricky term in full knowledge of its difficulties.

Here are the moves that Gerdin makes:

First of all, I want to reaffirm that, based on (theoretical position), my use of (troublesome term) is in no way meant to (explains the critiques that are made of said troublesome term).

Although I use the term – repeats term –  throughout this article, I recognize that there are (states the ways in which he understands the term).

(term) is used to refer to (names who/what) in a (how the term is used and is to be understood by the reader)

This descriptor was selected as it was (reason for using the term despite its difficulty).

Gerdin next goes on to address the ways in which he is using his theoretical resources to address the key idea in his paper – gender. It is important to note that he does not offer an extended essay-like discussion of these two theorists, but rather, shows how he uses them to explain gender. This paragraph extends the explanation he began in the previous paragraph.

Article text My commentary
By using the term ‘performativity’ (Butler, 1990), I take the position that gender comes into existence as boys perform, using the resources and strategies available in a given social setting. By adopting the position that gender is performative, I reject essentialist categories of masculinity and femininity as these can be seen to conceal gender’s performative character (Butler, 1990) and instead draw on Foucauldian theorizing to argue that masculinity and femininity are not fixed to the male or female body (Pascoe, 2007). Thus, I define masculinity and femininity as concepts which are detached from the biological body and part of discourses which shape performances of gender. Gerdin begins by offering a statement about what her understand the term performativity to mean when it applied to gender. He then states what follows from this position – he points to interpretations that he doesn’t make and wont make in the paper. He again anticipates potential reader concerns, while simultaneously showing his epistemological positioning. Gerdin then states how he understands gender – masculinity and femininity – drawing on his second theoretical resource. To conclude the paragraph he offers the definition of masculinity and femininity that he uses in the paper.

This is a pretty brief discussion of two highly complex theoretical resources. So I assume that this brevity means that the readers of this journal are highly familiar with these theoretical approaches, –  they only need to see a succinct statement or two to show that Gerdin also understands them and is as familiar with them as they are. However, the moves that Gerdin makes in three sentences could easily expand – they might become three paragraphs in a paper written for a journal in which readers were less accustomed to this way of thinking.

Here are Gerdin’s moves:

By using the term (key theoretical term and reference) I take the position that (outline the meaning that underpins the paper.)

By adopting the position that (connects key theoretical term to key idea in the paper), I reject (outlines major problems that often appear in writings on this key idea) and instead draw on (name of additional theorist and piece of theory which is used in the paper) to argue that (more about how the key idea is to be understood).

Thus, I define (terms integral to the key idea) as concepts which are ( summary of the two points put together as the working definition used throughout the rest of the paper).

Sentence skeletons – writing in someone else’s tracks – can help you to develop more concise expressions of your own positions, terminology and definitions. You might like to try Gerdin’s moves out for yourself. Looking at his rhetorical moves and pouring in your own content may help you to understand one of the ways in which you can tell your readers how you understand and use your own key terms and ideas.

You might like to find some definitional paragraphs for yourself, in your field, and do the same exercise. Strip out the content to see the moves that writer makes. Put your content in.

How does it feel to be this precise?

Image credit: Albert, Flickr Commons

Posted in academic writing, definition, journal article, sentence skeleton, terms, theory | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

who is ‘an academic writer’?

If every word spoken in New York City daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard. 

The words of Kenneth Goldsmith, poet founder of Ubuweb and Penn State University teacher of Uncreative Writing.

Goldsmith’s work Soliloquy is a transcription of every word he spoke for a week. He wanted to see how much someone spoke in a week – and – he wanted to materialise and weigh speech. Soliloquy is an example of Goldsmith’s contrary approach to writing.


Goldsmith argues that we no longer need to make any new words and works – we no longer need to be creative in the conventional sense of the term –  there are enough words and works in the world. Rather, he says, we should work over the words and works that already exist, particularly those that are banal and everyday. The acts of  inauthenticity and insincerity achieved through re-formatting, re-mixing, un-editing and transcribing –  what might be seen as plagiarism – defamiliarise the assumptions and implicit social rules we usually gloss over and ignore. Our sense of order is ruptured, as Susan Sontag put it.



In the academy, only some people are seen as academic writers and researchers. Within this group, some are seen as better than others, more productive, their work of higher quality. But there is another group of people who are designated not-writers and a large number in the middle who are working hard to move into the productive category. The calculation of the corpus of ‘academic writing’ and its value, and ‘academic writers’ and their value, happens regularly in contemporary universities.


With apologies to Kenneth Goldsmith….

I imagine recording every academic word I write – perhaps starting in a week. Emails, to-do lists, notes on reading, feedback on postgraduate writing, reports of activities, perhaps an abstract or two, a couple of blog posts, some drafting of what might normally consider proper writing, minutes of meetings, a bid for funding, a letter of recommendation, score sheet from an interview panel… . Very few of these words count as proper academic writing but I, as an academic writing,  produce them every hour, every day, week in and week out.

I imagine compiling these words into a continuous text and printing them out. This is a big book.

I imagine asking all of my colleagues to do the same exercise. In a week, we have filled several book cases – I work in a large department.

I imagine doing this for an entire year.

There is no more room to store the books of words that we have produced every day for a year. The words occupy all available storage space … we begin to construct new spaces, smaller spaces where we can work, cramped in, our words literally pressing in on us, constraining where we can go and who we can interact with. We continue to turn/churn out more and more words, more and more books of writing each day.

Soon, we have to work elsewhere, as there is no more room for us amid the books of words that we never stop producing.

Well, you get the picture.


You might want to check out Goldsmith’s book Uncreative Writing. It’s one I dip in and out of periodically to disrupt my own thinking.

Posted in academic writing, Kenneth Goldsmith | Tagged , , | 1 Comment