Showing My Workings


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There’s a principle that I learned in primary school maths classes which I think also belongs in research: the principle of showing my workings. “Don’t just give me the answer,” my teacher told me. “Show me how you got there. Then even if your answer is wrong, I can understand your thinking.”

With primary school maths, it was easy to show my workings. At my current level of academic writing it’s rather more complicated. As so often happens, others in my network are thinking about this at the same time as me, and Naomi Barnes aka @nomynjb published a blog post yesterday on a similar topic.

I think it is particularly important to show my workings because my next traditionally published book will be on research ethics. I have not yet come across a sole authored book on research ethics with a reflexive element. The closest I’ve found is Alice Dreger’s book Galileo’s Middle Finger, which is beautifully written, incisive, and about research ethics among other things. It is a page-turner which is very rare among research books. I want to write a book on research ethics as compelling and insightful.

Dreger shows her workings – or, as the qualitative researchers say, positions herself – throughout the book. Using a novelist’s technique, she drip-feeds the information to the reader. I’m not yet at a point where I can do that, and anyway, this is a blog, not a book. So you’re going to get the main points in a single download. Here goes.

I was born into a Catholic family. I lost my faith in my early teens, and have never got it back, though I guess one day I might reconnect with it. Or not. But I still hanker after rules and the apparent clarity they bring, and have to work to counteract my tendency to look for and follow an external imperative. I also hold many Christian values, such as valuing love, kindness, and compassion. And, like many Christians, I set myself high standards, frequently fail to meet them, and then give myself a hard time.

I was the oldest in my generation, so I’m independent, hard-headed, and intelligent. Now in my 50s, I’m beginning to feel my age, and most days there is more about that which I like than which I don’t like.

I am happily female, not very feminine, and thoroughly feminist. I can’t be bothered with make-up, hair dye, jewellery, or other trappings of femininity. I’ve never wanted to be a mother; I’ve never regretted not having children. But I am not a trans woman; I could probably claim the title ‘queer’, but have never felt the need.

I am bisexual. I have known this is what I am ever since I knew such a thing existed. It’s about who I am attracted to, not about what I do. I’m attracted to a person first, their gender second. I have always been bisexual: through times of celibacy, singledom, relationships with women or men or both. I will always be bisexual.

I am disabled, mostly invisibly. I have asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. My hands and feet are deformed but you have to look fairly closely to notice. My disabilities affect my life far more than you might guess from the outside. I have given up many things such as knitting, crochet, cycling, reading hardback books, driving long distances, DIY, gardening (these last two no hardship for me, but a bit tough on my partner). My focus, though, is not on what I can’t do, but on what I can do. And I can still do so many things that bring me joy. That’s what counts.

I am white and British. I’m not interested in genealogy, though I bet if I was, I’d find a big genetic mix in my heritage. I know that recent generations encompass English, Welsh, Irish and Scots lineages, and one side of my family has a strong suspicion of Jewish blood in there too. I have relatives buried in Wrexham churchyard; I’m entitled to wear the Sutherland tartan; and I’m told there is a community in the Mountains of Mourne with eyebrows just like mine. I like this mixing; mongrel status suits me fine. I like being indigenous – a term usually used in research to refer to people of colour, but it is what I am too. I love my country and her people: I see very many imperfections and injustices, yet overall I see more good than bad.

I have been with my partner for 20 years. He strengthens me and enhances my life. I aim, I try, to do the same for him.

I worked as a humanist funeral celebrant for 14 years, alongside my research work, from 1997 to 2011. This enhanced my understanding of grief and my appreciation of life.

There are many more workings I could show at increasing levels of granularity. But at the big picture level I think these are the key points I need to make. I want to weave these into my ethics book, to show my workings in a way that hasn’t been done before. I don’t know whether I can, but I’m going to try.

Some of the narrative may change. As an ethical researcher, I believe it is important to be open to changing, and willing to change, my mind, and to explain when and why any such change took place. So this is not a manifesto, it’s a statement of where I’m at with all this right now. (I wish our politicians could work this way – or, perhaps, that they could own up to working this way. Maybe one day.)

Traditionally, the academy has eschewed the personal. People who have tried to make explicit links between their lives, standpoints, beliefs etc and their research work have been written off as self-indulgent. Though that is not a view I hold in the abstract, I have read some work which has come across that way. And other work which has not – for me, the difference is in the analysis. Personal disclosure is all very well but there has to be a point beyond the narcissistic. In my book, I will be aiming to synthesise the data I gather from my own life with the data I gather from interviews and texts. I don’t yet know how to do this, or whether I can do it effectively, but I’m keen to find out. I want my readers to understand how I think, so they can see what has led me to any conclusions I may reach. I want to show my workings.

Gathering Data For Your PhD – New Book Launch!

GDFYPhD_red_data_LC_multi_RGBYou may remember that just two months ago, on this very blog, I announced the start of my indie publishing career. I’m publishing a range of short e-books for doctoral students, and the first one was Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know, launched on 8 September. I’m delighted to launch the second one today: Gathering Data For Your PhD: An Introduction.

Again, it’s around 11,000 words, and is suitable for all doctoral students, whether studying for a scholarly PhD or a professional doctorate. Here is the blurb:

You can’t do research without data. But what kind of data will help you answer your research question? Where can you find that data? And how much data do you need? If you’re doing doctoral research, particularly in the social sciences, arts, or humanities, this book will help you answer those questions. It offers an overview of traditional and innovative methods of gathering quantitative, qualitative, secondary and primary data. The book also outlines the pros and cons of devising your own method of gathering data, and lists a range of resources for further exploration of the methods that interest you most.

Just like the last book, it’s available for the price of a coffee: $2.99/£1.99/E2.99 or thereabouts – exact prices may vary slightly with different distributors. Talking of which, it’s available (or will be any minute) from all the major players: Kindle, iBooks, Kobo, Nook etc.

This seems a perfect time to launch my latest oeuvre, as it’s the first ever Academic Book Week here in the UK. There are loads of events and discussions happening all over the country. There’s very little, though, about indie publishing – perhaps because Academic Book Week mostly involves traditional publishers and booksellers. I want to emphasise here that I don’t see indie publishing as a rival to traditional publishing, though I guess there may be some booksellers who wish digital books had never been invented. I love p-books and I don’t want, or expect, them to disappear. But I think there is also room for e-books in academia, and it surprises me that so few academics and alt-acs are taking up this opportunity.

Many New Experiences

Forget-me-not Pond

Forget-me-not Pond, near Calgary, Canada

I’ve just had an unforgettable couple of weeks in Canada, with lots of new experiences.

My first time in Calgary. Not a beautiful city, all grids and skyscrapers and right-angles, but the friendliest people I’ve ever met. And I loved the way that people of all races, genders, and ages met my gaze equitably, smiled, and spoke to me as an equal. I hadn’t realised how depressing I find the suspicion I often encounter in England: from older people because I’m younger, from younger people because I’m older, from non-white people because I’m white, from some women because I’m the wrong kind of woman… no-one seems to do any of that in Calgary.

My first keynote speech, at a public multi-agency conference at Calgary Public Library, on Creative Research Methods: Finding Ways To Prove Impact. I will confess to you that I was really nervous about doing a keynote, but you know what? I loved it! I was afraid I might not have enough to say, but in fact I had the opposite problem (probably no surprise to anyone who knows me in person).

My first time teaching in Canada. I taught creative research methods to staff and students at Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary. They were gratifyingly keen to engage with new ideas, ask intelligent questions, and think laterally about how they might apply different methods. And they were so welcoming! I was taken out for breakfast, coffee, lunch, dinner – and given the huge portion sizes in Canada, I’m amazed I can still fit in my trousers.

My first time falling in love with mountains. I’ve been to the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Alpujarras, the mountains of Oman and Turkey and Greece, probably others I’ve forgotten, and they’re all beautiful and amazing but I didn’t love any of them and long to return. The Rockies, though, are a whole different deal. From the way they rise out of the prairie, to their pristine air and water – I lost my heart to those magnificent mountains.

My first time in an airplane window seat. I never flew till I was in my 20s, and to my surprise I was terrified. It took me decades to get over the fear, but I’m there now; nevertheless, I always choose an aisle seat. When I’d finished work in Calgary, I flew to Vancouver Island to visit a friend for a few days. I knew the flight would take in the prairie, the mountains, and the ocean, and was only 75 minutes long, so I plucked up my courage and asked for a window seat. It was worth it, too; I spent most of my time glued to the view.

My first time hiring a car in my own name. I’ve co-hired with my partner before, but never on my own, and I was a little nervous as I’ve also never driven in Canada. However, my friend who I’m visiting doesn’t drive, the public transport on Vancouver Island is all but non-existent, and we wanted to take a little road trip. I got a free upgrade, and I think the car rental person was expecting me to be pleased, but it just made the whole thing more daunting – though it all worked out OK.

My first time driving an automatic. With push-button ignition and push-button handbrake. That took some getting used to, and I was glad of my sister’s advice to drive six times round the car park before tackling the traffic. But by the end of the trip, I was a convert, and now I want an automatic of my own.

My first time visiting Quadra Island. A friend of mine in England grew up there, and has always spoken warmly of the island, but honestly, it’s so beautiful, friendly, and relaxed. The friend I was staying with and I rented a little hobbit house right by the water’s edge, a geodesic dome with living quarters on the ground floor and an attic bedroom above, and an extension with utility room and another bedroom, and a deck reaching out over the beach with table, chairs, and gas barbecue. We spent a couple of very happy days on ‘island time’, exploring the trails through forests and by the ocean, eating yet more delicious food, reading, talking, and laughing.

And of course in the middle of all this I got last week’s astonishing news that I’ve been made a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. It’s been such a high-octane fortnight that I’m not quite sure who I actually am, but I expect it will all sink in over the next few days and weeks.