Positive Disruptive Practice

This blog post is part of a messy, asynchronous, stimulating conversation that I’m lucky enough to be part of, along with @debsnet and @nomynjb and @jennacondie and @cj13. The conversation was influenced by the man with the best Twitter name in the multiverse, @timbuckteeth, who started the #blimage process. The idea of that is to write a blog post inspired by an image, then challenge someone else to write a blog post inspired by a different image. I was challenged by @debsnet and I then challenged @nomynjb – but @debsnet was inspired by the spiderwebs image I’d picked for @nomynjb, so she wrote another blog post inspired by spiderwebs and incorporating that image. Then @nomynjb wrote her post, referencing @debsnet’s post, also incorporating that image, and asking, ‘Anyone want to blog about a spider’s web?’

best spiderwebsYes. I do.

The post by @debsnet is about ‘technology which connects’, and it’s also about disruption: breaking or bending rules. From making good use of accidents, to ‘colouring outside the lines’, @debsnet praises and celebrates the positive power of disruption. So does @nomynjb, though from a different angle. She traces the development of mass asynchronous communication from Gutenberg to today’s boundary-crossing multimedia, and suggests that people who are breaking the Gutenberg rules are the ones who help us all move forward.

This so resonated with me. I grew up in a wordy household: my father was an English teacher, we didn’t have a TV, and I lived in a world of conversation and storytelling. Disruptive use of language – puns, neologisms, etc – was encouraged. My mother taught me to read when I was three, mainly I think to equip me to amuse myself while she dealt with my newly arrived sister. Since then I have never been without a book on the go and often have half a dozen half-read: a literary novel, an escapist novel, short pieces of non-fiction, long non-fiction, poetry, and a research methods book, so I can pick up and read whichever suits my mood. I also started writing very young and have never stopped. I’m in love with text, and am a compulsive communicator. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I was an early adopter of blogging, starting in 2005, and I’ve been on Twitter since 2009; like @debsnet I find it helps me learn to be more concise. I was a bit more reluctant about Facebook and LinkedIn, but eventually got involved in 2010. I am on Pinterest but have never really got the hang of it, though I’m doing better with Instagram; I’m not a very visual person, but Instagram is helping me learn to see more beyond the oh-so-compelling text.

Many of my offline non-social-media friends and colleagues think I’m amazingly digitally skilled. I know this is not the case. I’ve never Tumblred or Flickred, I didn’t LiveJournal or MySpace, I don’t SnapChat or WhatsApp, and I know there are a hundred others I can’t even remember – if I ever heard of them in the first place.

In @debsnet’s post, she wrote about how she’s using and valuing Voxer. I’d never heard of Voxer, which evoked a familiar feeling of near-despair. Another one! I can’t keep up! Other people I know online are upping Periscope with enthusiasm. I want to join in with all this and I have loads of ideas for content but I struggle with the process. For example, I’ve been trying really hard with YouTube for over a year now, and I’m rubbish at making videos. I can see that if I spent several hours a week working on it, I would slowly improve, but I’m struggling to find the time or, perhaps more accurately, the motivation. As with writing, I enjoy the editing process, but find the first draft a chore. With writing, you only have to do one first draft, but with video, you (or, at least, I) have to do loads of them till you get one that’s good enough to edit. And it’s so complicated: you have to juggle light, and sound, and visuals, and appearance, and performance. Every time I play back something I’ve recorded, I can see what’s wrong with it, but I don’t have the skills to fix it quickly and effectively like I can fix clunky text, so I get frustrated. And no, I’m not being a perfectionist; if I show my videos to my friends, they say things like, ‘Why are you so wooden? You’re not like that on the mainstream media or when you speak at conferences,’ and I want to go and hide in a hole and cry.

I agree with @nomynjb that we need to break the Gutenberg rules of privileging unchangeable print and linear modes of communication. I have loads of ideas about how to do this. For example, I want to make and embed short videos and comic strips in my blogs, and I want to know how to do all this on my phone, on the move, as well as from my laptop at a desk. I long to embrace the new technologies, not still be struggling with the old ones, and – as @nomynjb put it – ‘access this new technology for its potential, not for its usefulness’. But I don’t have the skills and I can’t afford to pay other people to help me. I can’t even afford the software I want to use for comic strips.

For every iota of skill I acquire, a whole new online platform develops. I find this hugely frustrating! I want to be in the middle of the interwebs, connected to everything, because I can see, and hear, and almost feel and smell and taste, the opportunities and the fun and the creativity available to those who can use technology for its potential. I long to plunge in and disrupt and play. But, without the skills I need to move toward the centre, I’m stuck on the edge.

Then again, there’s still scope for positive disruptive practice on the edge of the web, and in text-based communication. Much of my last book showcased the work of people who bent the rules of research methods, and I’ve just co-written a paper on disruptive methodologies. So maybe it makes sense for me to let go of my longing for the technological playground and, instead, use technology for its usefulness and play to my textual strengths. Also, I suspect nobody, or very few people, can actually keep up with all the technological developments. So perhaps the answer for most of us is to practice positive disruption wherever we usefully can.

Why I Am Saying No To The UK Government

just say noA few months ago I wrote a post called ‘Why I Am Saying No To Some Universities’ in which I demonstrated that universities are wealthy organisations and explained that, therefore, I was not prepared to work them for free.

This week I got an email from a UK Government department, from a civil servant who had been at the creative research methods conference last May where my most recent book was launched. The email, and my thought processes as I read it, went like this:

Email: That conference was great

Me: It was, wasn’t it?

Email: As a result, I bought your book

Me: I think I love you

Email: I’m a researcher in the UK government

Me: And?

Email: We have a cross-departmental group looking at creative research methods

Me: That’s interesting, and new information for me

Email: I’m very enthusiastic about this, and my colleagues would like to meet you

Me: Yay! This sounds exciting!

Email: And perhaps you could speak at one of our seminars

Me: Woo-hoo! That would be great!

Email: Though we don’t really have a budget

Me: Uh-oh, I might be falling out of love…

Email: But could you come anyway?

Me: I very much want to, but… I don’t think so.

Email: We can reimburse travel expenses

Me: Oh Here We Go Again *grinds teeth with rage*

The meeting is, of course, in London. With travel time, it takes me a whole day to go to a meeting in London. So the UK Government are asking me to write off a whole working day in exchange for… well, nothing. No pay. Nada. Zilch. And their offer of reimbursing my travel expenses is somehow supposed to make that OK.

This is the Government that allegedly supports small businesses. The coalition trumpeted their support for small businesses in the UK, and for micro-businesses like mine, though the relevant web pages now have big banners on saying that they were published under the coalition government. But I wouldn’t expect the Tories to backtrack on coalition commitments to small businesses. Indeed, the 2015 Conservative manifesto included a pledge to increase the percentage of Government funds spent with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from one-quarter of goods and services to one-third. Yet now, it seems, they’re asking at least some micro-businesses to provide services to the Government for nothing. How does that constitute support? And how will that help the Government achieve their stated aim of spending more with SMEs?

I’ve discovered that it’s harder to say no to the Government than to universities. This is partly because there are lots of universities and only one Government. It’s also because, well, it feels a bit scary. I know we live in a kind of a democracy with fairly free speech most of the time. Particularly as I’m a native Brit, I don’t think anyone is likely to knock on my door in the night and drag me off to a bunker somewhere for a serious telling-off. But it is… y’know… the Government. The people with the power. There’s a bit of me that thinks I should have rolled over, said yes, at least it would have looked good on my CV. And that, if I’m not going to say yes, I should at least keep quiet, not speak out.

But really, that raises a question I’ve asked my clients more than once when they’ve wanted to suppress some research findings they thought might be politically unpopular. Should we work for our Government? Or should our Government work for us?

I really would like to contribute to their creative research methods group, and I think it’s fair to say that, right now, I may be the person in the country who is best placed to provide support to that group. But I think, I believe, that our Government should work for us, and not the other way around. So, with a heavy heart, I am saying no to the UK Government.

***Update: a few minutes after publishing the above post, I got another email saying oops, sorry, we can’t even pay travel expenses. ***

Loving Your PhD

love PhDI was surprised, and pleased, by the positive reaction to last week’s post. One commenter said, ‘I like how you have started a conversation about the good things in academic life, not just the bad.’

Last week I was co-opted into a Twitter chat between Katy Vigurs (@drkatyvigurs) and the British Sociological Association’s Postgraduate Forum (@BSAPGForum). Katy tweeted that she had signed up for the new MOOC being run by the Thesis Whisperer called ‘Survive your PhD’. BSAPGF responded asking, ‘Do we always ‘survive’ our PhDs? Is it possible to enjoy them without the narratives of desperation?’ Short story shorter, I agreed to write a blog post about the positive side of the PhD experience.

Please note: this is not intended in any way as criticism of the MOOC or the Thesis Whisperer – the MOOC looks great and, if you’re a PhD student and you haven’t yet signed up, I’d recommend checking it out. But I think BSAPGF has a point: negative discourses about academia seem to outweigh the positive right now, and it would be good to redress the balance.

One of last week’s commenters on this blog described her PhD experience as ‘resoundingly positive’, and another said she had had only ‘encouraging and nurturing experiences’. This chimes with my own experience. In the three years of my doctoral study I had very few negative or difficult experiences. A couple of bereavements close together led to a taxing few months, and later one of my supervisors lost a parent which, quite understandably, meant she was not at her best for a while. My supervisors and I didn’t always agree about the best way forward, but we worked through and mostly learned from our disagreements. It was a real intellectual stretch, and I remember whingeing to my partner about how hard it was – not that I got much sympathy; he usually replied, ‘It’s supposed to be hard, it’s a PhD!’.

But generally my PhD was a very positive and enjoyable experience. I loved having the opportunity to do my own research for once, rather than dancing to a commissioner’s tune. I adored spending whole days reading, writing, and thinking. My supervisors were supportive and helpful. And I had such a good time at my viva: full details in a podcast here.

I’ve been pondering why my PhD experience was so good. I think some of this was circumstance and luck. As a doctoral student I had two big advantages: I was already a researcher, and I was already a writer. This meant I was well acquainted with the inverted curve of the research project:

research curve diagram 2

And I had already co-written a book, so the amount of writing required for a PhD thesis didn’t feel daunting. Also, I was used to working alone a lot of the time. Plus I had support from several friends who were already doing PhDs when I started. And I was self-employed, with no dependents, which meant I could find time to work on my PhD more easily than some people.

I think that even if you’re in a very different position, there are things you can do to maximise the chances of loving your PhD. Here are my top five:

1. Choose a research area you’re passionate about
2. Be relentlessly organised: with planning, time, record-keeping – in fact everything
3. Build and maintain a good relationship with your supervisor
4. Write early and often and throughout the process
5. Practise self-care: exercise, eat well, reward yourself for achievement, take breaks

Some people, for all sorts of reasons, have a terrible time while doing, or trying to do, a PhD. Too many who register fail to complete – something the MOOC is aiming to address. But a lot of people have a fine time: not without hurdles to overcome (no project spanning years is ever likely to be completely free of difficulty) but, overall, a positive and enjoyable experience. And I think we forget how very privileged we are as doctoral students, to be able to work towards the highest academic qualification in existence. Surely this is not an opportunity to take for granted, but one to celebrate and relish.

Untold Stories of Academia

Para-cover-v07-resizeI’ve heard a number of stories, in the last couple of weeks, which suggest that the academy is hurting people. Some of these stories have been in the mainstream media, e.g. the Guardian article on the inability of universities to support students who are the victims of sexual violence. Some have been on social media, e.g. this blog post on the experiences of people with disabilities in academia or the comments on this blog ‘About Me’ page, whose author describes himself as having run ‘the whole gamut of the academic track (degree-postgrad-PhD-postdoc-despair)’. And some have been in person, mostly stories of managers who are unsympathetic at best, discriminatory or bullying at worst, and staff who are at serious risk of buckling under the strain.

The Para-Academic Handbook, edited by Alex Wardrop and Deborah Withers, tells more of these stories. Its subtitle is A Toolkit for Making, Learning, Creating, Acting, which sounds positive, but much of the text uses strong language to bemoan the state of higher education today. Staff are ’emotionally drained’, students are ‘burdened by extortionate debt’, para-academics are ‘subjected to the callous mediocrity of temporary contracts that offer absolutely nothing in terms of “career development”, or any kind of rung on the ruthless academic ladder’. This is a ‘landscape where ideals and values are devastated’.

This is fighting talk, though I’m not entirely sure where the battle lies, because I hear other stories too. For example, in the last couple of months alone, one academic has told me of promotion, pleased at the likelihood of being able to use their increased seniority to lever better outcomes for students. I spent time with another academic celebrating their successful research funding bid, and heard about the social problems that research team will now be able to investigate and address. And a young friend found a job just before she graduated with a good degree and a manageable amount of debt; she is happily embarking on her new life this very week.

These stories paint a picture of a landscape where ideals and values are alive, well, and possibly even flourishing. So why are there such opposing experiences? And why do we hear so much more about the negative than the positive?

I wonder whether some people may have a particular set of expectations about academia, which it no longer lives up to – if it ever did. I’m sure there are people who have similar experiences in other professional fields: who want to work on a cruise ship, say, or in a hospital, but when they get there, they find it’s not what they thought it would be and they have to move on. Also, those who interact with academia have specific skills. In particular, they tend to be articulate and good at writing, which may explain why we hear more from those unhappy with academia than we might from those unhappy with cruise ships or hospitals. And, of course, misery is regarded as newsworthy, whereas people doing their work well or getting good results is never going to make the headlines.

Most of the unhappy stories seem to be presented in terms of people struggling with academia. Yet it seems to me that what matters is not the relationship between person and institution, but the relationships between people. For sure, there are real problems caused by the managerialist, corporate, performance assessment culture that has developed in academia. But from the stories I have heard and read, it looks to me as though part of the trouble lies with some managers who dump these difficulties onto junior academics, offloading the problems without providing commensurate support. Conversely, other managers shield junior academics from those difficulties as far as they are able, and help them to navigate the rest.

Again, I’m sure this is not the whole story – but it is a story I don’t see in the mainstream or social media. I hope the negative press that academia is getting at present doesn’t damage the morale of the good managers, as has happened in other professions such as social work. There are a lot of good managers, working hard, mostly unseen, to make their small corner of academia function as well as possible for students, colleagues, para-academics, research participants, and all the people they come into contact with. I know this because I’m lucky enough to work with some of them, and ‘callous mediocrity’ has never been my experience. They are resilient and creative, and they don’t cause harm, they help people. Let’s tell their stories, too.