In Praise Of Academic Re-Reading

Fields Of Play coverI read novels for pleasure, and I often re-read novels for pleasure too. I’ve read all Terry Pratchett’s books, and if I’m a bit down or feeling overwhelmed, a re-read of one of those will always cheer me up. I sometimes revert to the comfort of children’s books when I’m poorly: Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series is a great favourite. Then there are books I re-read because they’re simply too good to read only once, such as Keri Hulme’s The Bone People which I re-read every few years.

Right now, though, I’m doing something I don’t usually do: I’m re-reading an academic book. It’s Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life by Laurel Richardson. Richardson is an American feminist sociologist and her book came out in 1997, two years before I started my MSc in Social Research Methods. I read it first for that course, admired and loved it, and have referred to it often since then. But it never occurred to me to re-read the book until now.

I chose to re-read it because I’m embarking on a new writing project focused on creative writing in academia. I knew I wanted to draw on Richardson’s work, and I thought to myself that I should re-read her book. You know what? This is the very first time it has ever occurred to me to re-read an academic book. I have occasionally re-read an academic journal article, but I don’t do that often either. Yet I regularly re-read novels. So why is this?

I think there are a few reasons. First, novels are stories, and stories are essential. They’re important for my wellbeing in a very different way from academic literature. I could live without academic literature much more easily than I could live without stories. Second, let’s face it, some academic books aren’t particularly enjoyable or interesting to read. Third, not all academic books need reading from cover to cover in the first place. For example, some are reference books to dip into, others are edited collections where not all chapters are equally relevant to each reader.

But then there are the other books: the ones that are engaging and inspirational, exciting and even at times hard to put down. Fields of Play is one of those. It’s a fabulous book. When I first read it, it was radical, inspiring, full of feminist rage and joy which spoke to me as clearly as the concepts and arguments set out by the author. Richardson dismantles the rationale for conventional academic writing with its passive voice and authorial authority. Then she creates a rationale for using fiction techniques, poetry, drama and other creative approaches in academic writing. And she practises what she preaches within the text, to excellent effect.

Reading this book again after almost 20 years, I find there is very little that has dated. Richardson’s experiences of discrimination at the hands of male colleagues are similar to those I hear of regularly from women in academia today. I’m also aware that the fight against conventional academic writing continues, as I frequently hear from doctoral students in despair because their supervisors won’t let them write in the first person. These are disheartening messages. But they also mean that this angry, loving book is still highly relevant.

I’m really happy to be re-reading this book. I’m learning new things because of course I have a very different context for Richardson’s work than I did two decades ago. So when I’ve finished this one, I’ll be thinking about other academic books I’ve loved and might be glad to re-read. But in the meantime, I wonder if there are any academic books that you re-read, as opposed to dipping in and out for reference. Maybe everyone is a re-reader except me! If you do re-read, I’d love to know which books you return to, if you could take the time to leave a comment.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $32 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $32 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

The University Of Kindness

kindnessA few things have got me thinking recently about what seems to be a lack of kindness in UK universities. And that’s an odd sentence in itself, because a university can’t be kind or cruel; only people can do that. Universities don’t really exist except through the magic of consensus: enough people agree that a collection of buildings and activities can be called ‘a university’, and that that phenomenon may be accorded human attributes. Seems strange to me, but that’s how we humans roll, so I’m going with it for now.

So here’s what happened. On 9 March I gave a keynote at the Enquire conference at the University of Nottingham. The conference theme was ‘uncertainty’ so I thought it might be a good idea to give my keynote while standing on my wobble board, to embody the uncertainty we would be discussing. I ran this idea past the organisers who responded, ‘We have discussed your idea and think it sounds fantastic.’ Then in their next email they said, ‘With regard to your presentation, if you decide that you want to use the wobble board, I have been advised to inform you that you will have to accept liability, and that the university is not responsible for health and safety implications arising from the choice of presentation style.’ These people were some of the kindest and most thoughtful conference organisers I have ever encountered, which helps to explain their next sentence: ‘Apologies if that comes across as overly defensive on our part, but it is something I have been informed that I need to make you aware of.’

Then on 19 March I taught creative research methods at Coventry University. The organiser there had given me directions to a car parking space and told me I needed to ask at reception for a parking permit. The reception staff member was kind and helpful, and this is what he gave me:

Cov Uni parking permit

These types of institutional microaggressions say to me, ‘We don’t have to care about you because we are big and powerful.’ I’ve been imagining another way this could be. For example, I think the Nottingham conference organisers would have been happier to email me saying, ‘We’ve been advised to check whether you have experience of using a wobble board and whether there are any safety precautions you need to take that we might be able to help with.’ (I do, and there are: it’s not safe for use on a smooth floor, but the room we were in was carpeted, otherwise I would have brought a square of carpet to set the board upon.) And perhaps the Coventry parking permit designers might have said, ‘Please let us know if you experience any problems while you are parked on our premises and we will do all we can to help you.’

I’m not picking on Nottingham and Coventry here, because these phenomena are common among UK universities. And worse; much worse. Academics with disabilities have a difficult time at many universities. For example, Kay Inckle has been fighting for her rights at the University of Liverpool for a long time. In a media report from mid-August 2018, the university spokeswoman said, ‘We are eager to work with the trade unions and have agreed to meet with them to discuss this further as soon as possible.’ Yet another media report from late February 2019, over six months later, suggests nothing has changed. Vik Turbine, from the University of Glasgow, has blogged about how she is leaving academia after ten years in her dream job because of her institution’s inability to accommodate her chronic and progressive illness.

The UK has good quality legislation on disability discrimination which these universities are failing to use. That is close to maximum unkindness. And they get away with it because they are big and powerful, and because the people they are being unkind to rapidly become exhausted because they needed more help in the first place, not more barriers to overcome. People are having to fight when they should not need to fight. As the legislation makes clear, they should be supported in doing their jobs.

I have a couple of chronic and progressive illnesses myself. I think about how my own institution, i.e. my family and friends, have responded. They readily make accommodations for me, often putting themselves out in the process. Those who love scented candles don’t burn one when I visit because they know it will make me wheeze. Social evenings are arranged earlier than anyone else would like so I can enjoy a few hours of company before my inevitable early night. If I’m having a bad day and we’re going somewhere on foot, people will amble to stay with me even if they would rather stomp along. My friends and family go out of their way to ensure I have food and drink that my body can tolerate. I think I worry about and resent needing all this far more than it bothers any of them.

On the whole – of course there are exceptions – people seem able to be kind in most circumstances. Even extreme circumstances. Daoud Nabi, who originated from Afghanistan, greeted a white man at the door of the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, with the words ‘Hello, brother,’ even though that man was holding a gun. Shortly afterwards Daoud Nabi got in the shooter’s way to protect another man and in the process lost his life. That is maximum kindness. Then New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has demonstrated enormous kindness in response to this atrocity. She immediately described it as a terrorist attack (when conventionally ‘terrorist’ has been reserved for violence perpetrated by people of colour on white victims), dressed in mourning black with a headscarf to show respect, asserted that ‘they are us’, hugged victims, and began her next statement in New Zealand’s parliament with the Islamic greeting ‘Salaam Alaikum’ which means ‘peace be upon you’. Furthermore, she didn’t just empathise, she initiated far-reaching changes to New Zealand’s gun laws. Jacinda Ardern also recognised that the impact of this incident was not limited to New Zealand. When Donald Trump asked her how the US could help, she replied, ‘Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.’

Imagine if vice-chancellors and their equivalents demonstrated this type of kindness in their leadership of universities. Imagine if universities really valued all of their staff, students, and visitors. It would be great if we could harness the magic of consensus here, too; then we’d have a University of Kindness. But a University of Kindness would require flexibility and responsiveness, and large institutions are notoriously bad at those. They’re much better at bureaucracy and processing people. This is one of the main reasons I prefer life as an independent researcher. I have more time and space to offer kindness to others (not that I’m infallible in that department, but I do my best). And others are so kind to me. In these last few days alone I’ve experienced a great deal of kindness from people on Twitter and from my Patrons.

I think this is important too, particularly in these days of political upheaval when the media would have us believe that the whole world is hurting and fighting and angry and sad. We need to recognise and acknowledge the kindness that exists.

It is kind of you to read my blog. Thank you.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons who are super-kind. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $32 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $32 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Collaborating Through A Book-Finishing Frenzy

collaboration on bookIn Meredith Belbin’s terms I am a Completer-Finisher which means I love to finish projects. The term describes a team role rather than a personality type, though it goes with personality traits such as having high standards (yep), being conscientious (yep), and anxiety (yes, though not to a debilitating level). Attention to detail is a feature of completer-finishers which is probably why I made a success of being a freelance proof-reader and copy editor for some years before I became a researcher.

Over the last few months I’ve been collaborating with Dr Janet Salmons (aka @einterview) from Boulder, Colorado, on a book called Publishing From Your Doctoral Research which will be published by Routledge next March. Janet, too, is a professional writer, who has produced some excellent books about online research. Like me, she is fascinated by methods and ethics, so we have a lot in common. We’re almost done with the manuscript of our book and had a Skype meeting last week to plan the final stages. Janet is dealing with all the tables and figures, the chapter summaries and good practice points, and reviewing the exercises and reflective questions that we have set. I have been dealing with the overviews, illustrative case studies, and the referencing. These tasks have involved pulling out each of these elements from the individual chapters into a Word document of their own and then reviewing them for consistency. This is an amazing way to spot glitches. For example, we realised our chapter overviews varied in length from 71 to 922 words. That’s such a big variation that our readers would have been likely to notice – or at least to pick up a sense of inconsistency, which is not what we’re aiming for. On the other hand, I don’t have the perfectionist/obsessive tendencies that can be the downside of the Completer-Finisher, so I didn’t think we needed each overview to be exactly the same length. We agreed that 300-500 words would be about right. Then we had a chunk of work to do to make that happen, adding to some overviews and deleting from others, which meant figuring out whether we could swap sentences between each overview and other places in that chapter or whether we had to gain new words or lose old ones altogether.

We have spent the last few days in a finishing frenzy. Emails have been hurtling back and forth at speeds hitherto unknown to science. I don’t know what Janet’s Belbin role is but I figured she was probably a Shaper. I ran this past her and she said yes and she also thinks we are both Plants because we’re creative and undeterred by obstacles. Makes sense to me, particularly as Plants work well alone on the whole, but also benefit from collaborating – that’s us both to a T! We’ve collaborated with each other before and she’s a joy to work with: responsive, inventive, diligent. It’s not easy, though, for either of us. We have to keep an eye on the whole picture (‘here’s the latest word count’) and the tiny details (‘can we think of a better title for our case studies?’) all at the same time. This makes your brain hurt. We have had the occasional version control problem, which is almost inevitable at this stage if you’re working at speed, and the odd thing has been overlooked here and there. Luckily we’re both forgiving of each other’s flaws and disinclined to sweat the small stuff.

All I really want to do is get the book done. It’s irritating to have to stop to do things like eat and sleep and answer emails. Hang on a minute, though – wasn’t I just claiming not to have obsessive tendencies? Oh… But I do stop for food and rest and correspondence! So… yeah. OK. You can stop rolling your eyes now, I admit I can be a teeny bit obsessive. (Just as well Janet is so tolerant!)

On the plus side, we can easily put in a 16-hour day between us. When I start work in the early UK morning, Janet is sleeping sweetly in her cosy bed. When she starts work, first thing in the US morning, it’s the afternoon here. We overlap for a few hours when we can Skype and whizz emails back and forth, then I knock off for the evening and Janet carries on into her afternoon. When I get to work the next morning there will be new emails from her, and by the time she gets to work there will be new emails from me. We both find that this is a very efficient and effective way of working.

In some ways it’s a bit odd having a sprint finish at the end of a marathon. I find it helpful, though, because otherwise it can be hard to let go. I have experienced that with my sole-authored books before. I don’t foresee any such problem with this book, perhaps partly because it’s a collaboration. When collaborations work well, as this one has, it’s so encouraging. Janet and I both feel very positive about this book; we think it will offer information, advice and guidance that late-stage and post- doctoral students really need but often struggle to find. It’s almost as if she and I are racing neck-and-neck to the finish, though we’re racing together rather than against each other. And that is what would make me drag my feet if anything could. I won’t be sorry to see the back of the book, but I will miss working with Janet.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $26 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $26 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Independent Research: The First 20 Years

20 yearsI began work as an independent researcher 20 years ago. The first project I took on was an evaluation of a county-wide substance misuse training strategy, in my home county of Staffordshire, for the Drug Action Team. Drug Action Teams were partnerships at local authority level set up by the Labour government to bring agencies together to address substance misuse of all kinds: illegal drugs of course, but also alcohol, pharmaceutical drugs, and other substances such as solvents. The Drug Action Team worked with staff from nightclubs and prisons, schools and hospitals, magistrates’ courts and housing providers – the remit was broad and training was a central part of that work. My previous experience, of working for four years as a training administrator in blue-chip City of London companies in the late 1980s, was very helpful.

My records show that the first meeting I attended was on 8 March 1999. I followed this up with a memo which I emailed to some colleagues and printed and posted for those who didn’t have email. Yes you read that right: in 1999 not all professionals had email, and I was lucky that I did. However, I didn’t have a laptop or a mobile phone. I knew a few people with mobile phones but I didn’t want one – in fact, I didn’t get one until my clients switched from saying “Do you have a mobile?” to asking “What’s your mobile number?” I got a laptop first, a Hewlett-Packard Jornada 690 ‘Pocket PC’ that ran Windows. But in 1999 I took meeting notes by hand and typed them up later on my desktop computer.

I did semi-structured interviews with interesting people all around the county, and also took notes for those by hand. And I had no data analysis software so I did that by hand too. The interview notes are long gone but I still have the analysed data in Word documents.

I thought that project would be a one-off. At the time I was earning my living as a freelance proof-reader and copy editor for academic publishers which was paying £10-£20 per hour. The project appealed to me as a chance to use my research skills once more and to earn a chunk of money – the budget was £5,000 and I charged £15 per hour for my time. But the people I worked with liked what I did, and word got round, and before I knew it I had a whole new career. I did a part-time MSc in Social Research Methods at Staffordshire University from 1999-2001 to improve my skills.

I worked at a desk in the corner of my small dining room, sometimes spreading out onto the dining table. It was a quiet place to work apart from the intermittent sound of my external dial-up modem. By the summer of 2001 I was too busy to cope alone so I started my limited company, We Research It Ltd, and took on another researcher to help with the workload. The two of us were quite cramped in my little dining room and it soon became apparent that we needed an admin assistant as well. I ended up moving to a place nearby, that I’d spotted while out on a bike ride, which had an office in the garden.

The three of us worked there together for a couple of years until I decided that I didn’t really want to go the employment/expansion route and made them redundant. They were nice people and good workers but I was struggling to bring in enough work to keep all three of us afloat and none of us were really happy with the situation. I continued to work with the researcher through sub-contracting until the recession hit in 2010.

The MSc was a huge help and I went on to do a PhD which I was awarded in 2006. But there was much I had to learn from experience, because the qualifications didn’t teach me how to work effectively with clients, or manage my company finances, or promote my business. Nobody told me that as an external team member I could become a scapegoat for events beyond my control; I had to learn that the hard way. No lesson explained that sticking to your ethical principles can become more difficult when you really need to earn some money. Nothing taught me how to combine being professional with being humane in a wide range of complex situations.

The period between gaining my PhD in 2006 and the change of Government in 2010 was a golden time. I rarely had to bid for work; I had good statutory and third sector networks across the Midlands and beyond, and most of my work simply arrived in my inbox. Then the new coalition Government brought in austerity measures and my networks imploded. I hadn’t seen that coming at all because I didn’t believe any UK Government could decimate public services (I do now). In 2011-12 my income plummeted. That year my company turned over less than £11,000 and I couldn’t pay myself anything out of that so I had to get a part-time job for a couple of years to make ends meet. But less work meant more time. I could finally write the book I’d been thinking about writing for the previous five years and start networking with academia. Fortunately for me, the writing and networking paid off, and I got my career back.

It took a few years to recover from the recession but I think I’m there now though there’s still a dent in my savings. I’m pretty good at my job these days, even if I do say so myself, though I know I can still make mistakes. But I’ve learned such a lot over the last two decades. I have been, and am, so lucky to be able to keep doing the work I love.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $17 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $17 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Australasian Research Ethics

AHRECS logoSystems of research ethics regulation differ around the world. Some countries have no research ethics regulation system at all. Others may have a system but, if they do, it is only available in their home language so people like me who only speak and read English are unable to study that system (Israel 2015:45). The main English-speaking countries tend to have formal systems of research ethics regulation, stemming from biomedical research in response to ethical crises such as Nuremberg and Tuskegee. These are usually implemented through research ethics committees or their equivalents such as institutional review boards in the US.

One big difference in Australasia is that work on research ethics by and for Indigenous communities seems to be further ahead in Australia and New Zealand than in any other continental region as a whole. Australia has the Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies produced by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). AIATSIS is a statutory organisation, set up by white settlers in the 1960s and governed by a Council, with the first Aboriginal Council member joining in 1970. The Council is now predominantly made up of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. The latest edition of the Guidelines is dated 2012 but they are under review at the time of writing. In New Zealand, Māori people with experience from research ethics committees came together to write Te Ara Tika, a document offering guidelines for Māori research ethics published in 2010. These kinds of guidelines help Indigenous peoples to claim their right of research sovereignty, i.e. control over the conduct of and participation in research that affects them. However, they are not necessarily aligned with each other, or with other systems of ethical governance for research that may exist in the same jurisdictions. This may hamper collaborative or multi-area research and lead to increased separation rather than reconciliation between peoples (Ríos, Dion and Leonard 2018).

So it’s a complex and fascinating picture. I am fortunate to be working on a project at present with three experts in Australasian research ethics: Gary Allen, Mark Israel, and Colin Thomson. (The sharp-eyed among you may notice that I cited Israel in the first paragraph above. He has written a rather good book on research ethics subtitled Beyond Regulatory Compliance and now in its second edition.) Together they are the senior consultants of the Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy (AHRECS), established in 2007 to provide expert consultancy services around research ethics in Australasia and Asia-Pacific. AHRECS also works with Indigenous consultants from both Australia and New Zealand, one of the latter being Barry Smith who is a co-author of Te Ara Tika.

The amount of expertise in AHRECS is enormous. Better still, they offer to share some of this expertise to anyone who wants to sign up for their free monthly e-newsletter on research ethics (and I can confirm from experience that they don’t spam you). Link here (scroll down, it’s on the right). Their blog provides a useful archive and they accept guest posts on relevant topics; I just wrote one for them on The Ethics of Evaluation Research. So you get two for the price of one this week!

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $17 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $17 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Ten Ways To Reduce Negative Mind Chatter

talkingSo many of my friends and colleagues mention negative mind chatter. Only the other day I had a woman tell me she doesn’t feel like a good enough mother (she is), and a man tell me he doesn’t know how he got to where he is in life (because he’s clever, kind, and hardworking). I could quote numerous other examples, and I think writers are particularly prone to this.

Negative mind chatter sits in between the social self-deprecation that is practised by some cultures, including mine, and full-on impostor syndrome. It is the little voices in your mind that tell you you ought to work harder, you’re too fat/thin, your writing is rubbish. And so on. Almost everyone has them, I think, to some degree or another. They’re a nuisance at best, hard to get rid of, and can be destructive, sabotaging our conscious wishes to move forward in our lives.

The good news is there are things we can do to help reduce our negative mind chatter. Here are ten ideas to consider. None of these will work for everyone, but each of them should work for some people.

  1. Aim for calm acceptance of each voice and its message. If it can’t upset or scare you, it will have much less power; maybe even no power. Imagine it has come to visit; welcome it in politely, as you might a tradesperson who has come to fix something in your house, then let it do its own thing while you focus on whatever you want to be doing.
  1. Visualise the character who is speaking. Feel free to make them as comic and grotesque as you like. Then visualise yourself batting that creature away in any way you choose. This is your visualisation so there are no holds barred: if you want to visualise yourself pushing it off a cliff, or punching it into oblivion, that’s your call. Mine is a little coal-black goblin who I belt out of sight with a frying pan. I have no idea why, but it is, and it works – at least for a while.
  1. Take a step back from the voice. Think about what it’s saying to you and why. Then imagine one of your friends is in the position you are in, and think about what you would say to them. I bet you anything you like it’s not the same. Then try saying to yourself, out loud, what you would say to your friend.
  1. Flip the voice. Whatever it is saying, find the opposite and say it out loud. So if you have a voice that says you don’t work hard enough, you might choose to say ‘I work effectively and well and I value my work-life balance’. You could also write your statement on a Post-It note and stick it somewhere you’ll see it regularly.
  1. Positive affirmations may sound airy-fairy but they can be helpful. They should be in the present tense, include the word ‘I’, and contradict some of your mind chatter. So if you have a voice muttering that you’re unattractive and nobody will ever love you, you might decide on the affirmation ‘I am beautiful/handsome and I am loved.’ Say it out loud, ten times, every day, with as much conviction as you can muster.
  1. Meditation helps to rest the mind from all thoughts, not only the negative ones. For seated meditation, find somewhere quiet that you can be comfortable and close your eyes. Focus on your breath at the tip of your nose: in and out, in and out. If thoughts intrude don’t worry, let them go and bring yourself back to your breath. Any single moment free of thought is a success. It takes years, maybe decades of practice to let thoughts go for a sustained period. But don’t let that worry you either because even sitting and focusing on your breath for five minutes, with a couple of moments within that where you’re truly thought-free, will leave you more rested than you expect.
  1. Walking meditation is also great, particularly if you’re restless or don’t have easy access to quiet space. Walk slowly and steadily, through a green space if you can. Focus on the movement and sensation of walking and the sights and sounds around you in the present moment. Feel your connection to the earth and the sky. Hear the traffic or the birdsong, notice the air on your face, any aromas – pay attention as fully as you can to all the sensations from your body walking and the place you’re in. If thoughts intrude don’t worry, let them go by or walk away from them and bring your focus back to your body and your surroundings. Some people find this easier or preferable to seated meditation; others like to use both depending on their mood, the weather, etc or as a complement to each other.
  1. Writing can be useful for particularly persistent voices. Divide a page into two columns, whether hard copy or electronic. In the left column write whatever the voice says. In the right column write a counter-argument. Repeat this, always writing the same thing in the left column and something different in the right column, until the arguments in the right column become convincing. Keep the document handy and refer back to it any time that voice starts up again.
  1. Smile at yourself in the mirror and give yourself three honest compliments, out loud. This can be a great way to start and finish the day. If you use this regularly, vary the compliments. They can be about small actions or qualities: ‘Well done for letting that woman with the crying baby go ahead of you in the queue.’ ‘Good job staying calm when your co-worker was being really annoying.’ Or of course they can be about bigger things when that’s appropriate.
  1. Remember that thoughts, and their associated feelings, move and change. They are not static and you are not stuck with them. Look back and remember times when you thought and felt differently from the way you think and feel today. Know that you can think and feel differently in the future.

If you suffer from negative mind chatter I hope you will find something here to help you and so help your writing. If none of these work for you, or your negative mind chatter feels overwhelming, please consider seeking professional help. I’ve used professional help in the past, and I still use some of the tactics above, to quiet my own negative mind chatter. It’s not completely gone but I can deal with it now. So can you. Good luck!

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $17 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $17 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Getting Creative with your Thesis or Dissertation #3

embroideryI have some more examples of creative doctoral work for you, and this time they’re all from the UK. (If you haven’t seen my previous posts on this topic, which include examples from other parts of the globe, they’re here and here.) They are also all from Twitter without which my work and life would be very much harder.

Chris Bailey, from Sheffield Hallam University, investigated the lived experience of an after-school Minecraft club. (For the uninitiated, Minecraft is a computer game which is itself creative and educational.) Chris wrote his thesis abstract as a comic strip. Parts of the thesis are conventional text and other parts are in comic strip form. He also uses the comic format to present data excerpts. Further, Chris uses images and a soundscape as integral parts of his thesis, and even represents the soundscape visually in a variety of ways.

Kate Fox, herself a poet and stand-up comedy and poetry performer, included comedy and poetry in her thesis from the University of Leeds. She was studying resistance in solo stand-up performance by Northern English women. There are poems in every chapter, and Kate uses an ‘interrupting voice’ throughout her thesis, in italic text, to illustrate the dialogic nature of stand-up in some very funny ways. For Kate, stand-up ‘can function as an academic methodology and critical pedagogy’ – I think many of us would like to see more of that!

Jenny Hall, from the University of the West of England (though now at Bournemouth University), used creative inquiry to study ‘the essence of the art of a midwife’ for her EdD. Jenny collected written personal histories, conducted ‘educational sessions’ that involved making, and used photo-elicitation with her participants. She also kept a reflexive research diary and used this to create a textile quilt with squares made as a response to individual diary entries, in a form of creative autoethnography. Jenny’s ‘Midwifery Quilt’ now has its own website.

Clare Danek is currently investigating ways in which people learn amateur craft making skills in community making spaces for a PhD from the University of Leeds. So this is something of a departure as she doesn’t yet have a finished thesis or dissertation, though I’m sure that day will come. Clare is keeping a diary of her PhD which is relevant here as it’s a ‘stitch journal’, as she calls it, using textile art. Also, she is documenting the process online. I am increasingly interested in the ways in which researchers are using creative methods for process as well as output. However, this is not generally well documented so it’s great to see Clare making her journal available as she creates. I’m sure this will help and inspire others.

It seems to me that doctoral students are increasingly finding their creative voices, and that more supervisors and examiners are willing to support this process. I am sure that part of this is due to the existence of precedents such as those listed here and in previous posts. These precedents – and, I’m told, also my book on creative research methods and its bibliography – enable doctoral students to build convincing academic arguments for the use of creative approaches that help to persuade reluctant supervisors. I am delighted to be able to witness and support this quiet revolution in academia.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

When An Hour Is Not An Hour

time and moneySometimes academics ask me to come and speak to their students. The conversation often goes like this.

Academic: Hello, please will you come and speak to my students about creative research methods?

Me: I’d be happy to. My minimum charge for work outside my office is a half-day rate.

A: But it’s not half a day, it’s just an hour.

Me: It’s never just an hour, which is why my minimum charge is a half-day. If that’s not acceptable then it’s not going to happen.

A: But we only want you to speak for an hour. In fact maybe only 45 minutes and then some questions.

Me: *deep sigh*

Here’s why an hour is never an hour. For a start, the initial conversation takes time, whether it’s done by email or by phone. Then there are arrangements to make. I have to figure out where the university is and how to get there. If I’m driving, I have to find out where I can park, whether I’ll need to pay for that and if so how much. If I’m going on the train, I have to find out how to get from the station to the university. And then I have to figure out how to find the room. All this requires much trawling through maps and timetables online.

Then there is a bunch of bureaucracy to go through to reach the point where I can get a purchase order so I can invoice. This is different in each university, but generally there is at the very least a form for the academic to fill in. If it’s a university I haven’t worked for before then we’ll both have to fill in forms and there may be much more to do. The academic I’m dealing with may or may not know how the system works, so sometimes I need to coach them through the process. The finance department may try to treat me like a salaried academic by deducting tax at source and demanding original receipts, which requires time spent in argument. Once or twice I’ve met an immovable department and ended up refusing the work because it’s just not worth the end-of-year accounting hassle. With one regular client who I’ve been working with for some years now I have to send an email every time to explain why I can’t send in original receipts (because I am self-employed so I need them for my business accounts, and HMRC trumps a university finance department).

Once I’m sure I’ll get paid, I prepare my talk. This requires finding out what kind of people will be there and what the room is like. That last part is because I always want to include some kind of interactive element and there are different options for that depending on how people are seated. Students may be in ranked cinema-style seating in a big lecture hall, theatre-style in a classroom, in a boardroom arrangement around one big table, or cabaret-style in groups around smaller tables. I also need to find out how the academic wants my talk to fit into the students’ learning programme. Once I’m clear about all that, I can plan a talk and prepare some slides.

By this point I’ve already put in a couple of hours of work. There will be more correspondence as time goes by: how many students are expected, where and when I’ll meet the academic, and so on.

Then the day itself arrives. Before I leave, I make sure I have everything I need: maps, change for the car park, a drink and a snack, business cards. Travelling takes up a fair amount of time: at least an hour’s round trip to my nearest university, sometimes much longer. If I’m travelling by train I can use some of the time to work on my laptop (if I can get a seat) or read, but there’s still a chunk of time I can’t use.

I do the talk, take the questions, and inevitably spend more time afterwards talking with students who want to ask me questions individually. I don’t rush this if I can help it, because it’s important to them and one of the best parts for me.

When I get back to base the work is still not finished. I will have promised to email things to various people so I send those off. Then I prepare an invoice and email it to the academic, hoping that I will be paid within a month, though sometimes it takes much longer. (NB: this is not the academic’s fault – universities have the most ridiculously Byzantine, monolithic, labyrinthine, ponderous finance systems.)

In fact this kind of speaking engagement usually takes more time than the half-day I charge for. I’m OK with that but it is never, ever, “just an hour”.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

How Independent Researchers Can Help Academics

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in summer 2016; this updated version is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

independent workDo you know the independent researchers in your discipline or field? Have you got a clear strategy for when, how, and why you would involve independent researchers in your work? No? Then you’re missing a trick.

I have been an independent researcher for almost 20 years. In that time, among many other things, I have worked with a number of universities in the UK and abroad, and I have helped clients to commission work from independent researchers. I know that, in some cases, independent researchers can really add value to university-based research and teaching projects, whether by conducting work themselves on behalf of the university or by being part of a team involving university staff. I am also sometimes paid to write or co-write journal articles and, more recently, a book. Yet, too often, university staff don’t even know, let alone think about, what independent researchers can offer.

For a start, indie researchers have more time to think than university staff, because they don’t have to tangle with bureaucracy and time-consuming internal meetings. Their fresh perspective can be useful to help disentangle problems that seem entrenched, or simply to provide a different view of a situation. Also, they are not limited in what they work on by managerial directives or departmental policy. Therefore an indie researcher is unlikely to have the depth of knowledge in any single subject of a professor who has spent decades studying one area. However, they are likely to have a broad working knowledge of several related areas, and the ability to bring themselves up-to-date fast in any area they haven’t worked on for a while. This flexibility can be very useful for an academic department in a number of different ways. Three main ones are: as part of a team on a funded research project, to augment your teaching programme, or to fill gaps in your capacity.

Allocating time and costs for an independent researcher within a funding bid sends a positive message to funders. It shows that you are thinking beyond the walls of the academy and taking a creative approach to your bid. Also, any credible independent researcher should be willing to put in some unpaid time up front, perhaps to write a section of the bid or to give feedback on a draft.

Generally, though, you shouldn’t ask indie researchers to do unpaid work beyond an initial getting-to-know-you meeting and proportionate input on funding proposals. If you do want or need them to do further unpaid work, think about what you can offer them in exchange, such as use of your library, an honorary position with access to paywalled journals, or free use of meeting rooms. Most indie researchers are open to barter as long as you can offer something that is of value to them. What won’t be of value to most indies is ‘exposure’ because in these days of social media we can all expose ourselves.

Indie researchers’ day rates look high, but at times they go for weeks or months with no paid work, and they have none of the benefits of employment such as holiday pay or sick pay or conference budgets. For example, I charge universities £800/day for teaching, £400-$600/day for research work I can do from my office. Last year I was able to pay myself £17,000 – around one-third of what I would be taking home if I’d spent the last 20 years in academia. There are other compensations to the indie lifestyle so this is not intended as a sob story. But it’s surprising how many intelligent people still think ‘high day rate’ equals ‘rich person’.

You need to recognise that indie researchers are not in the position of salaried academics who can go to as many conferences, or collaborate on as many journal articles, as they like, without that affecting their income. If you want an indie researcher to run a seminar for you, you should pay them for their work. If you want them to speak at a conference, at the very least offer them a free place and expenses; they will still be giving their time for free, and they will be unable to earn any other income in that time.

Funders understand all this and are used to indie day rates – which are, after all, similar to the rates at which academics charge themselves out to funders. Even so, given the high cost of indie researchers, you’ll probably only want to build in a small number of days for them. But they should be able to get a lot done in those days, because many indie researchers – and certainly the good ones – are highly skilled, focused, and very productive.

It is true that a minority are not so good, and you do need to perform due diligence. Ask for a CV, with references; follow up the references, and spot-check a couple of items from the CV. If the independent researcher hasn’t been independent for long, it would be worth quizzing them about their intentions. Due to the economic climate and the casualisation of academic work, some people are setting up as independent researchers in the hope of earning a few quid while they’re searching for salaried employment. It won’t help your research plan if, by the time you secure funding for your three-year project, the indie researcher you chose for your team is now a full-time lecturer at the other end of the country.

Talking of lecturing, independent researchers can also be useful for all sorts of teaching, whether a single seminar, a module, or PhD supervision. HE students at all levels are usually fascinated by the perspective of indie researchers, who often bring practitioner experience as well as real-world research expertise. Sadly, university finance departments are not always helpful, as they can expect independent researchers to join the payroll for as little as, say, one day of work a month over six months. This is not economically viable for indies – I’ve turned down work offered on this kind of basis – so you will need to make sure you can navigate your internal finance systems effectively.

Independent researchers can also come in handy when you experience personnel problems. You know the kind of thing: you’re most of the way through a project and a key person goes off on maternity leave, or gets a job elsewhere, or decides to move abroad. There is still data to analyse or writing to be done and the department is maxed out. But you’re clearly heading for an underspend on that person’s costs, so if you know some good independent researchers, pick up the phone. One or more may well have the skills and capacity to help you meet your deadline.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Ten Top Tips For Managing Your Own Research

crossroads-1580168__340When someone mentions research methods, what do you think of? Questionnaires? Interviews? Focus groups? Ways of doing research online? Do you only think of data gathering, or do you think of methods of planning research, analysing data, presenting and disseminating findings?

Research methods is a huge and growing field with many books and innumerable journal articles offering useful information. But nobody talks about methods for managing your own research. Perhaps you’re doing postgraduate research in academia or workplace research such as an evaluation. Even if you’re a fully funded full-time doctoral student, research is not all you do. Research has to fit in with the rest of your life and all its domestic work, family needs, other paid or voluntary work, hobbies, exercise, and so on.

Nobody talks about the methods for doing this kind of personal research management. Or, at least, not many people. I said quite a lot about it in my book Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners. Petra Boynton also addresses it in her book The Research Companion. But I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere else (if you have, please let us know in the comments). So here are ten top tips:

  1. Plan everything. Lots of books will tell you how to plan your research project. What they don’t say is that you also need to plan for the changes to your life and work which will result from you taking on the research. How will your research affect your other commitments? What do you need to do to minimise the impact of your research on your other commitments and vice versa? Build in contingency time for unforeseen events.
  2. Manage your time carefully. Use your plan to help you. Break down the main tasks into monthly, weekly and daily to-do lists. Review these regularly.
  3. Learn to work productively in short bursts. It may seem counter-intuitive, but most people get more done this way than by setting aside whole days to work on a project.
  4. Use time when your mind is under-occupied, e.g. when you’re waiting in a queue or doing repetitive household tasks, to think about and solve problems related to your research.
  5. Seek support from your family. Make sure they know about your research and understand its importance to you.
  6. Seek support from colleagues, managers, tutors etc, whether your work is paid or unpaid. Make sure they know about your research and understand its importance in your life.
  7. Don’t cut corners in ways that could damage your health. Eat sensibly, take exercise, get enough sleep and rest.
  8. Take breaks. At least three short breaks in each day, one day off in each week, and four weeks off in each year.
  9. Don’t beat yourself up if things go wrong. Be kind to yourself and learn what you can from the experience. Then re-group, re-plan, and set off again.
  10. Reward yourself appropriately for milestones reached and successes achieved.

In my view, these are as much research methods as questionnaires and interviews. Learning to use them involves acquiring tacit knowledge. I’ve been on a mission to convert tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge ever since I started writing for professionals. This blog post is part of that process. If you have other tips, please add them in the comments.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!