An unexpected honour – and a dilemma

acss-large-header-logoThis was not the post I expected to write this week. I had planned to tell you all about my experiences in Canada and my first keynote speech. But that will have to wait. Because I have astonishing news: I have been made a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.

In the UK, most academic subject areas have their own Academy. Some have been around for centuries – some are even Royal Academies – and some are newer. The Academy of Social Sciences (AcSS for short) was formed in the 1970s, so it is one of the newest. Its members are learned societies, such as the Social Research Association, the Association of Social Anthropologists, and the British Psychological Society, as well as around 1,000 individual Fellows.

The individual Fellows are almost all Professors (93%), mostly male (70%), and I suspect predominantly white. The first person who explained to me about how the AcSS worked, who was a senior academic and a Fellow of the Academy, said quite matter-of-factly that it wasn’t for people like me. So when a kind Professor and Fellow I’ve been working with asked if I would like to be nominated, I said ‘no, thank you’. He gently suggested that I think about it, which I rather grumpily agreed to do, though I couldn’t really see the point. In the course of my thinking, I telephoned a colleague who is also a Fellow but not an academic, and she told me firmly that I should go for it. So I agreed to be nominated, sent the kind Professor my CV, and heard nothing further.

The selection process involves ‘a thorough process of peer review’ to assess potential Fellows for ‘the excellence and impact of their work in the social sciences’ (quote from this week’s AcSS press release). And it all happens behind closed doors. I couldn’t imagine that they would accept me as a Fellow – but they did. Apparently the AcSS send out letters to new Fellows, to notify them, before the news is released to the public. But I’ve been working in Canada for the last week so I didn’t get the letter. I did get an email to congratulate me on my ‘conferment’ and say the press release had been issued, but there wasn’t much other information, except that I was invited to the President’s lunch where I could receive my certificate. It’s not the kind of invitation I’m used to, because mostly when people invite me to lunch I don’t have to pay £85 for the privilege. EIGHTY-FIVE QUID!!! That’s a fortnight’s food budget in my life. I like eating out, and have even been known to go out for dinner with several courses and drinks on occasion, but I’ve never spent as much as £85 on one of those, let alone on a lunch. Also, I think there is more financial commitment, because there was a direct debit form with the email, but it didn’t say what for; presumably that information is in the welcome pack on my doormat at home.

I guess all those Professors have universities to pay their costs for them because of the prestige it brings. Or, if they have to pay for themselves, they’re on the kind of salary that means it’s possible to spend £85 on lunch. The average salary for a Professor in the UK is around £66,500. Over the last five years, I’ve averaged £14,000 take-home per year, which is approximately equivalent to an employed person’s salary of £16,500 – around a quarter of what a Professor earns. I can live on my income, but it doesn’t support an £85 lunch habit. Though, as a prudent businesswoman, I aim to keep 6-12 months’ running costs in my business account to protect me against lean times. So I could draw from my reserves, treat the cost as a business expense, and set it off against my tax bill. But would that be any kind of ethical?

I want to go to the lunch. I want to advocate for the value of independent researchers in social science, and it seems that eminent social scientists think I’m fit to be their representative. There aren’t many others – in fact there’s only one Fellow who describes himself as an ‘independent academic’, and he used to be a Professor. Those who are not Professors or attached to a university seem mostly to be attached to, or retired from, research organisations or Government departments. So I may be the only Fellow who is, and has been throughout my research career, completely independent of any institution.

I am truly delighted to receive this unexpected honour, but it does bring new ethical dilemmas. Even if I decide I can afford the £85 plus the train fare to Cardiff, is it ethical to spend that much on a glitzy lunch when desperate refugee people are freezing and starving at our gates, and increasing numbers of people within our borders are seeking help from food banks? Which is the greater good, me advocating for independent researchers within the Academy or my £85 providing food for those who have none?

A Day In My Life

BSA logoThis post comes to you in rather a hurry as I have to leave for the airport in less than an hour. So I don’t have time to write much, but luckily for me, I already wrote a blog post this week for the nice people at the British Sociological Association postgraduate forum. I chat to them on Twitter, they’re all kinds of helpful and supportive, and they have a rather excellent blog. I was delighted to be the first in their new ‘day in the life’ series. So if you want to know about a representative kind of day from my working life (there’s no such thing as a typical one), click here. Meanwhile, today in my working life will mostly be spent on a plane, as I’m off to Calgary in Canada. I’ll be working there, too – tell you about it next week!

Knowing And Remembering

Creative research methods in the social sciences [FC]Over the next three weeks I will be doing eight presentations about creative research methods, in Edinburgh, London, and Calgary, to audiences of practitioners, postgraduate students, and academics. I like doing presentations, once I get going, but this is a little daunting because each presentation is slightly different from the others. For example, one is for evaluation practitioners at the NSPCC, so they will want to know how to use creative methods in evaluation research focusing on children and families. Another is for MA students at the University of Calgary, who need to know about arts-based methods and research using technology. A third is for the Social Research Association in Edinburgh, which is likely to generate a mixed audience of practitioners and postgraduate students with a variety of learning needs.

Although I’ll be the one doing the teaching, the prospect of giving these presentations feels rather like the prospect of doing a bunch of exams. This is partly because I’ve had to do a whole load of revision. Although creative methods have always been part of my practice, I finished writing the book a year ago, and I seem to have forgotten a surprisingly large proportion of its contents. I feel rather as though I need to learn it off by heart – including the 500+ references – before I do the first presentation. Which is tomorrow morning. So that’s not going to happen, particularly as I already have rather a lot of work to do on the train to Edinburgh today.

Luckily I’ve had time to refresh my memory to some extent. When I re-read the book I wrote, I remember some parts vividly, while others almost feel like new information. I find myself thinking ‘Ooh, that’s a good point’, as if it had been written by someone else, and ‘Did I really write this?’ because I don’t remember.

This is a strange phenomenon, and I wonder whether other authors have similar experiences. I suspect at least some of them do. It’s not entirely new for me, either. I’ve never been one for hanging on to old papers, but some years ago I came across an essay I’d written for A level geography, all about fluvio-glaciation and peri-glaciation. I couldn’t remember ever knowing those words, let alone what they meant.

So I’ve been thinking about the difference between knowing and remembering. Sometimes I know I know something, such as the name of a tune I am hearing on the radio, but I can’t bring it to mind – we say, ‘It’s on the tip of my tongue’. Sometimes I don’t know I ever knew something, such as the geographic terminology above. Some things I know fairly indelibly, such as how to drive my car, make a veggie chilli, or write an email. Yet there must be lots of things I’ll never know I ever knew, which is a strange thought.

I did remember some things about exams which made me feel a bit better about my forthcoming ordeal-by-presentation. I remembered that I used to have the same feeling, that I needed to memorise everything in my schoolbooks, and the same lurching internal near-panic because I knew I couldn’t. And I remembered that I had actually been quite good at exams, and one thing I’d learned from doing exams that was still applicable now is that I don’t need to remember everything, but to remember enough, and to know what to do with what I remember. In fact, to be creative.

I can do that.

Are You An Ethical Writer?

word cloud of this blog, to date

Professional writers and speakers know that the way we think and feel influences the words we choose to write or speak. We may not understand so clearly that the words we choose to use can influence the thoughts and feelings of others.

A generation ago, women lobbied for changes to terminology which gave the impression that men were dominant – as indeed they were in Western society at that time. Up to 1978, for example, a woman could be fired from her job in the US for being pregnant, and up to 1982 UK pubs could refuse to serve women. But at the same time, women were beginning to take roles traditionally assigned to men, which led to some linguistic oddities. I remember feeling rather uncomfortable with being designated the ‘chairman’ of a committee, when ‘chairperson’ or simply ‘chair’ would have served as well. There were fierce arguments between those who believed that traditional language use supported the discriminatory status quo, and those who thought it made no difference.

Some people went further than I thought was sensible, replacing ‘history’ with ‘herstory’ (I can see the point of that in some circumstances, but the etymology of the word suggests that it’s much more about the ‘story’ than the ‘his’) or ‘woman’ with ‘womyn’ (I didn’t get that one at all). This kind of terminological tinkering led to the phrase ‘political correctness’ being used to discredit all attempts to replace sexist terms with existing, sensible, neutral terms. I still wince when I see reports of women ‘manning a stall’ – what’s wrong with ‘staffing’? But it’s now quite usual to speak of a ‘police officer’ rather than ‘policeman’ or ‘policewoman’, and a ‘flight attendant’ rather than an ‘air hostess’ or ‘steward’. These changes in terminology have moved in parallel with increasing opportunities and equality for women in the Western world over recent decades.

However, there is some new terminology that I think is unhelpful for some sections of society. I read an interesting article in the Guardian last week in which the non-fiction writer Steven Poole gave a very thoughtful analysis of the unintentional difficulties caused by the phrase ‘first world problems’. The article is worth reading if you have time. He shows how the reductive use of ‘first world’, with its implicit opposition to the ‘third world’ (which is itself an unfashionable term these days), enables people to condescend, patronise, humblebrag, sidestep compassion, and generally dehumanise pretty much everyone.

Also last week, on social media, I questioned someone’s use of the American phrase ‘wife beater’ to describe a sleeveless t-shirt. I’m not naming the person here because they didn’t welcome my questioning and I don’t want them to think I’m trying to start some kind of online war. The person I questioned is someone I follow because, in my view, they do valuable work online to highlight social inequality. Their casual use of the phrase ‘wife beater’, with its implication that domestic violence can be acceptable, seemed to sit oddly with their pro-equality stance. I am sure this was unintentional on their part; I can think of a number of other words and phrases that I’m sure they wouldn’t use at all because of the discriminatory implications.

Another one is the new-ish way of designating something as in some way poor by saying ‘it gets old really fast’. I am getting old, rather faster than I would like, and I am becoming increasingly aware of the discrimination and difficulties experienced by the older members of our society. I would prefer colloquial usage of the word ‘old’ to have positive connotations.

These examples have become stock phrases, akin to cliches. And cliches are evidence of lazy thinking. All this has implications for us as writers. Writing is a creative process, and that includes academic writing. Stories must be told, words and structures chosen, and these processes are permeated with creativity. Academics, altacs and researchers, earn our livings with our brains. I would argue that we have an ethical responsibility to avoid the lazy cliche and express our new thinking in fresh language. Also, we should try to remain aware of the potential effects of our creative choices on our readers. It is our responsibility to ensure, as far as possible, that we don’t use language in a way that could support discriminatory actions or practices.