Let’s Talk About Self-Care

This has been such an unkind year that those of us who can practise self-care need to do so more than ever. I say ‘those of us who can’ because practising self-care requires resources in itself – time, at least, and often money too – and so is a manifestation of privilege.

With privilege, I believe, comes responsibility. This is often construed solely as responsibility to care for others. Yet I argue that self-care is also part of that responsibility, particularly for those on whom the responsibility to care for others falls more heavily, such as women, and for those who face daily oppression, such as people of colour and trans people.

Self-care is also part of our responsibility as researchers. Research work can be enormously stressful, and researchers are not often well supported. Research ethics committees rarely consider researcher well-being, an omission I regard as quite unethical. Also, researchers often work alone, gathering and analysing data, which may involve hearing and revisiting distressing stories or phenomena, and is always a mentally taxing business even when it’s not emotionally draining. We are the people who know what we feel and experience, and what we need by way of support and help. It is our responsibility to look after our own wellbeing.

My colleague and friend Dr Petra Boynton has written a really useful book for anyone who is at all uncertain about how or why they might take care of themselves. It is called Being Well in Academia but it has relevance far beyond the ivory towers. The book’s subtitle is Ways To Feel Stronger, Safer And More Connected, and those are topics in which we all have an interest. Petra offers a huge amount of guidance, support, and resources in her concise, readable book, which I recommend highly.

There is a potential problem with emphasizing self-care if it is hijacked by the neoliberal agenda and used to supersede the importance of combating structural inequalities. And there is a potential problem in the opposite direction too, if we pour all our resources into combating structural inequalities and so burn out. For me, self-care and activism need to go hand in hand: if we take good care of ourselves, we will have more energy for working to dismantle structural inequalities. Also, we will be better able to care for others. You have probably heard the saying ‘put your own oxygen mask on before helping others’ – it refers to a drop in aeroplane cabin pressure, and is now used as a metaphor for the importance of self-care.

For much of this year I did not practise what I’m preaching. This has been partly due to circumstance: the first three months of the year were very busy with work including a lot of travelling, then the pandemic put paid to holidays I had planned, and losing my mother to the virus threw everything out of whack. As a result I took my eye off the self-care ball, and so had a big health dip in the autumn. That is now resolved and I’m back to more diligent self-care. So over the next few weeks I will be taking a break from creating content in particular and being on social media in general; I do this every year and it always does me good. I’ll be back the second week in January. This holiday season will be difficult for many people and I would encourage you all to take whatever steps you can to care for yourselves. And remember, here in the northern hemisphere, this time next week the days will be getting longer. The wheel of the year continues to turn, bringing the hope of warmer, sunnier days ahead. I wish you all as happy a holiday as possible, whatever and however you celebrate.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $68 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $68 – 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 and donors 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!

Mind The Gap In The Literature

cat in literatureIn the course of my work I read a lot of academic articles, chapters, and books. This means I sometimes make surprising discoveries. For example, last weekend I was reading an article by, I’ll call the author McGonagall, who, in the course of developing her argument, claimed that topic X had not been identified as relevant to the development of field Y. I had another article already open on screen by, let’s say Trelawney, published four years before McGonagall’s article, which explicitly identified topic X as relevant to the development of field Y.

McGonagall’s article was published in a top-ranked journal. This means that not only the author, but the editor and some expert reviewers, were unaware of Trelawney’s article. Trelawney’s article was in a less highly ranked journal, but one from a reputable academic publisher and which focuses entirely on field Y.

So McGonagall claimed to have found a gap in the literature, but in fact that gap had been filled four years previously. I wonder how often this happens?

Both Trelawney and McGonagall had written articles that, for me at least, were worth reading and helpful for my work. I ended up citing them both. If McGonagall had found, and cited, Trelawney’s article, that would not have invalidated her own contribution. This made me wonder whether it’s time to rethink the way we mark our territories in scholarly work. For a while now I have been quite careful with these kinds of claims about what exists in the literature. I explicitly take responsibility, and so use formulations such as ‘To the best of my knowledge there is no previous work on…’ or ‘I have been unable to find any discussion of…’ rather than asserting that such work or discussion doesn’t exist. After all, there is far too much literature out there these days for anyone to be confident about what has or hasn’t been covered. And saying something doesn’t exist – at least, saying it in English about literature in English (which is the only language I read) – has imperialist overtones in its refusal to acknowledge the possibility of scholarly work in other languages.

Also, a gap in the literature is not the only thing scholars need to address. Perhaps you want to write on a topic where there is already a sizeable body of literature. If so, then make a rationale for writing from a particular time, or place, or standpoint, or theoretical perspective. And keep it simple. Probably nobody has written a Queer-Framed Bourdieusian Gaze On The Post-Feminist Praxis Of Shed Construction In Huddersfield Using An Extended Baking Metaphor and there’s a good reason for that. Several good reasons, in fact.

Rather than filling a gap, what can we add that has value? Figuring out the contribution your work makes is likely to help motivate you to get the words down. Also, it should help you to convince editors and reviewers that your work is worth publishing. People often don’t like to think of it this way, but it’s a sales pitch. Even when no money changes hands directly, publishing is a commercial exercise; publishers, even non-profit publishers, have to make a surplus to stay in business. And if you’re self-publishing, you want people to read your work, right? So you have to sell it – even if you’re giving it away. I suspect the old ‘gap in the literature’ claim is losing force in today’s market. It’s time to think up other claims, preferably ones we can legitimately make. Have you come up with any good ones? If so, please share them in the comments.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $44 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $44 – 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 and donors 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!

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 book any travel tickets. (Incidentally, my half-day minimum is for nearby universities; if I’m going to one where the travelling time is more than a couple of hours, my minimum charge is a full day.) Then 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 or full 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!

Personal Branding for Academics

stylish-logoThis is a post with a difference: it’s written by Tee Ola, Managing Editor of Stylish Academic, a fashion and lifestyle website for academics and other professionals. Tee completed her PhD in Digital Media and the culture of democracy in 2015. And although she works full-time in digital marketing in higherEd, she is never faraway from the lecture theatre.

My own post for this week, The Unstylish Academic Speaks, is on the Stylish Academic blog.

Do you see yourself as a brand or just an academic/scholar busy with research, writing, publishing and teaching?

Your personal brand is the sum total of you and how you’d like to present yourself to the world – or at least certain target audiences (colleagues, students, employers, funders, etc.)

It is not vain or narcissistic to be intentional about your personal brand.

To be intentional about your personal brand as an academic is to carefully curate the aspects of your complex life that fit in with the professional goals you’ve set for yourself.

“I want to be a leading thinker in… <insert niche field> ”

What steps can you begin to take in this direction?

You are neither lying, nor pretending when you cater to your personal brand. You are simply putting your best foot forward (like we all should).

Branding and marketing yourself are not dirty phrases. And simply sitting back to allow your work to do the talking will not cut through the clutter of the information age we live in.

You can decide to stand yourself out, and by extension, your work, through your personal brand.

Here are 2 reasons why I think it’s important to pay attention to your personal brand as an academic:

  1. Because your personal brand is happening with or without your deliberate input…
  2. Because it is vital for career progression

Your personal brand is happening with or without your input

Your personal brand already exists.

You are already being perceived in a particular manner  – online and (or) offline; so why not get in there and control the narrative since it’s happening anyway?

In this highly digitised world, you have tools at your disposal to do this.

Gone are the days when opportunities for academics to provide public commentary on topical events in the news were limited to newspaper pages, radio and TV.

Today, you can tweet directly at a journalist, set up your own blog, podcast, or YouTube channel … and so many other opportunities for public engagement.

A few of my favourite academics (in my area of digital media and communication) that do this so well are Jeff Jarvis, Zeynep Tufecki, and Evgeny Morozov.

The first time I attended a conference in London where Morozov was a speaker, and I got the chance to speak with him in person – I was star-struck. I was a 1st year PhD student, so that’s excusable.

However, my point is, my respect for him and his work had grown over time from following and listening to him on Twitter.

His views influenced my thinking as I wrote my thesis.

Morozov’s commentary on topical events as they happened helped shape and make me rethink my arguments as I wrote about the democratic potential of the Internet.

His personal brand as a thinker who runs counter to certain dominant ideas that the Internet is a panacea to the woes of the world was established and clear, so I understood it and engaged.

(The Net Delusion – how not to liberate the world by Evgeny Morozov).

Is it clear what you stand for as an academic/scholar?

I like to tell people that my Twitter followers wrote my thesis with me.

Part of my personal branding road map was being vocal about my research work online, and inviting commentary from others.

This was effective in that people understood what my research was about (I also blogged about it), so I got mentioned on Twitter threads (conversations), which often ended up as great illustrations in my thesis or talking points at conferences.

Your personal brand is vital for career progression

Selling ourselves as academics may run counter to certain long held ideals about the rarefied world of academia – mostly unwritten or unspoken – but adhered to all the same.

As an aside, another of those ideals I challenge through my platform, Stylish Academic, is that academics are not meant to be stylish or pay any attention whatsoever to physical appearance and so on.

In fact, the shabbier you look, the more likely you are to be perceived as working hard in your field – and vice versa. It’s as if this “is our way of telling the world we’re too focused on matters of the mind to care about what we put on our bodies.”

There are many more ideas like these, firmly rooted in age-old academic culture.

Hence, on personal branding, unlike our counterparts in the corporate world, we may tend to keep our head down, eyes peeled to the screen, and fingers glued to the keyboard – let the lines fall where they may.

It’s a new season. And like this Times Higher Ed article says in the title, being brilliant doesn’t cut it anymore.

I love how the author, John Tregoning puts it, “we have two things to sell, our ideas and ourselves…the main product we sell is ourselves. This product is defined by our CV: where we have worked, on what and with whom. But these strands need to be pulled together into a single memorable “personal brand”… This brand comes into play when meeting potential collaborators, conference organisers and funders.”

I find this so persuasive.

Handling your personal brand is vital for career progression – in and outside academia.

There is so much more I have to say about personal branding as an academic.

If you’d like to engage with me on the subject of intentional branding for academics and/or practical steps to follow, or you have any questions at all, please feel free to contact me here.

Thank you for reading.

And for readers who would like to know more, Tee Ola has kindly provided some useful online resources:

Navigating your digital profile – YouTube

Use brand thinking to build a stronger you – Vitae

A Twitter thread on social media tips for Early Career Researchers – Prof Nathan C Hall

Is Peer Review Bad For Your Mental Health?

peer review peopleI am currently waiting for peer reviews of two books I’ve worked on: one sole-authored, one co-authored. We don’t talk much about the experience of waiting for reviews, and it’s not something that appears to have been researched. Yet it’s something everyone doing academic work has to go through and it may be bad for our mental health.

I’m finding it particularly difficult at the moment because a lot rides on these reviews. The sole-authored book, which is on a contentious topic, has already had one set of reviews. Reviewer 1 was utterly damning, saying ‘I couldn’t find anything to praise’. Luckily, reviewers 2 and 3 were more measured, offering both praise and constructive criticism, and their input helped me to revise and strengthen the typescript. However, in the process, my editor and I realised that we needed further reviews from people with a particular kind of specialist knowledge. My editor approached around 10 potential reviewers, but only one agreed to do the job. So I’m gibbering – what if that person agrees with Reviewer 1?

The co-authored book is in a contentious format. My co-authors and I decided that I would be the person to liaise with publishers, as I have form in this process. The last time I liaised with academic publishers for a co-authored book was in the early 2000s, and I’d forgotten how heavily responsible it makes me feel. Fortunately, I’ve found a publisher that is interested and has sent the book out for reviews, to two professional academics and two students. This is great – and terrifying – but at least there are four reviewers. Even so, what if they ALL think it’s rubbish?

In many ways I love the peer review system. I welcome feedback on my writing, and I’m not at all averse to constructive criticism. I am by no means arrogant enough to think I can write a good book without input from others. Yet peer review, as a process, is fraught with uncertainty. Comments may not be constructive, or may not come at all. They may be positive, or negative, or in between, or a mixture.

There is a body of research which demonstrates that uncertainty has a detrimental effect on mental health. Luckily for me, my mental health is fairly robust right now, so I can use this period of uncertainty as an opportunity to build further resilience. But what about those who aren’t so fortunate? We’re hearing a lot about the mental health crisis in higher education, but nobody seems to be talking about the potential contribution of the peer review system to this crisis. Given the evidence of links between uncertainty and mental health, it seems likely that there may be a relationship here.

I’m not arguing that we should tear down the peer review system and replace it with something completely different. Time spent waiting for reviews also has a positive effect, in that it creates necessary distance between the author and their work, meaning sensible revisions are easier to make. But I do think we need to be aware of the effects of uncertainty and take steps to reduce its impact on us. Here are four ideas.

  1. Aspects of life fall into three categories: those you can control, those you may be able to influence, and those you can neither control nor influence. Spend most of your energies on the first, some on the second, and none on the third. So I will spend my energies on hard work and good fun, and with any luck I won’t have much energy left for fruitless worry about the outcome of the peer reviews.
  1. Plan for different outcomes. Plans for positive reviews are easy, plans for negative reviews more challenging. For me, the worst-case scenario is that the publisher decides not to publish after all, which would mean – for either book – several years of work down the pan. However, that is unlikely, and if it does happen I/we can revise and submit again elsewhere.
  1. Acknowledge how you’re feeling. Writing this blog post is one way for me to acknowledge my own difficult feelings about this waiting period. In professional UK society the culture is not to talk about feelings much, if at all; if anyone asks how you are, the standard answers to give include ‘I’m fine’, or (with an eyeroll) ‘snowed under’. It’s as if we’re not allowed to give a real answer to the question. Yet suppressing our emotions is also bad for our mental health, so let’s talk about the difficulty of waiting, being in limbo, for unpredictable peer reviews.
  1. Practise self-care. All the usual stuff: eat sensibly, take exercise, get enough sleep – or, if you can’t sleep, rest your body quietly in a dark room and try to still your mind. There are some good video soundtracks and podcasts online to help you sleep. Work can be part of self-care when it’s work you enjoy and you don’t do too much. Spending time with loved ones is definitely part of self-care.

The peer review system can also be hard on reviewers, such as by asking more of people who are already too busy, and offering only intangible rewards. Saying ‘yes’ to a review request adds an extra burden of work, saying ‘no’ comes with an extra burden of guilt. Some people deal with this by deciding how many reviews they will undertake, such as 12 in a year, or three per draft article or book they themselves submit. That’s a great example of focusing on what you can control.

If you’re waiting for reviews yourself, the wait will be over, sooner or later. I hope you will be able to use the advice in this post to help make the process a little easier – as I intend to do myself. I wish you luck.

Indigenous Research Journals

Last year I published a reading list for people interested in finding out about Indigenous research methods. This is a follow-up post listing Indigenous journals that are interdisciplinary and publish methods-related work. As with the previous post, it is not exhaustive. Apart from anything else, due to my own limitations, I have only included journals written and published in English.

All of these journals are peer-reviewed except where stated. Information is correct to the best of my knowledge, but if you spot any errors, please let me know and I will update this post.

International Indigenous Policy Journal

IIPJThis journal is based in Canada and outlines its goals as follows:

  1. To promote evidence based policy making.
  2. To encourage quality research based on partnerships with Indigenous Peoples.
  3. To develop networks of policy researchers and policy makers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and their communities.
  4. To improve scholarship related to Indigenous issues.
  5. To spark debate on important policy issues facing Indigenous Peoples around the world.

The journal publishes research articles, policy articles, editorial articles and book reviews. It is fully open access for authors and readers.

aboriginal policy studies

This journal is also based in Canada. It publishes original, scholarly, and policy-relevant research on issues relevant to Métis, non-status Indians and urban Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and also welcomes comparative work from an international Indigenous context pertinent to Canadian readers. It is fully open access.

AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples

AlterNativeBased in New Zealand, AlterNative publishes scholarly research on Indigenous worldviews and experiences of decolonization from Indigenous perspectives from around the world. Founded in 2005, it has been published by SAGE since 2017, and is available on subscription. Authors can make their article open access through the SAGE Choice programme at a cost of US$3,000.

International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies

This is an Australian-led journal covering Indigenous scholarship in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. It is peer reviewed and fully open access.

Journal of Indigenous Research

JIR is subtitled ‘Full Circle: Returning Native Research to the People’ and is based in the US. It was set up in response to community requests for the return of information regarding research conducted among their people. It aims to publish short articles of 1,500-2,000 words, accessible to lay people, outlining research outcomes and their relevance for Indigenous peoples. Articles published in JIR will also be sent to local Indigenous newspapers and websites. It does not appear to be peer reviewed. It is open access.

As well as these interdisciplinary journals, there are also Indigenous journals for specific disciplines such as education, law, and health. Some are listed here.

If you know of other Indigenous research journals that are interdisciplinary, or lists of journals for specific disciplines, please contribute in the comments below.

Cartoons, Comics, and Graphic Novels in Research and Academia #2

comics with catsMy last post on this topic argued that this is more of a movement than a moment. In fact it was even more than I knew (no doubt still is) as I’ve found out about a number of other resources and activities on the topic since then.

In my last post I mentioned the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, which is published by Taylor & Francis which is part of the multinational Informa plc, and so is paywalled, although there are a couple of open access articles. I have also found another paywalled journal, Studies in Comics, which has an open access issue from its archive. Ernesto Priego kindly reminded me, via Twitter, of The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship which is open access and well worth exploring.

In September, The Annals of the Entomological Society of America published an open access article called Sequential Science: A Guide to Communication Through Comics by Carly Melissa Tribull. This is both interesting and useful, as it contains information and resources on how to make comics and use them in educational settings. I thank Jonathan O’Donnell from RMIT in Melbourne for bringing this to my attention.

Also, as well as the BA in Cartoon and Comic Arts offered by Staffordshire University, the UK also offers a Comics and Graphic Novel Masters degree at the University of Dundee. This is overseen by Professor Chris Murray whose main research area is comics.

The pocket-sized Graphic Guides have been around for a long time. They describe themselves as ‘comic book style’, but this isn’t really accurate in my view; they’re more like short guides illustrated with cartoons. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve never got on with them particularly well, though I know a lot of people love them. However, I’ve discovered an exception in Queer: A Graphic History. I’ve had a copy of this book for some time, and I think it’s terrific, but I only discovered last Friday that it’s part of the Graphic Guides series. This isn’t obvious because it’s in a larger format with a different type of cover. Queer is written by Meg-John Barker (aka MJ), who spoke about their book at an event I went to in London recently (see below for more on this). It is always interesting to hear from other authors about their processes, and about the delights and sadnesses, triumphs and pitfalls they have experienced along the way. I have a great deal of respect for MJ because they are able to make difficult concepts accessible in a way I admire and long to emulate. People at the event were talking about how much their students love Queer and how useful it is for teaching. I can see why; I would have loved it as an undergraduate maybe even more than I love it now.

If you’re into graphic medicine, there’s a tasty-looking conference coming up in Cambridge on 16-17 February 2018. It’s called Comic Epidemic: Cartoons, Caricatures and Graphic Novels, and the call for papers is out now for anyone from the social sciences or the medical humanities; deadline 15 December. Successful applicants will be offered two nights’ accommodation in Cambridge and up to £100 for travel costs.

The seminar series Look Who’s Talking: Eliciting the Voices of Children from Birth to Seven, funded by the University of Strathclyde and held earlier this year, produced visual minutes of the sessions. Some of the people involved with this series have also used cartoon storyboards in research, to investigate the perceptions of students aged 4-15 about learning something new. Both of these projects were led by Professor Kate Wall from the University of Strathclyde, who kindly alerted me to them via Twitter.

Last month I was fortunate to be able to attend the event An Agenda for Graphic Social Science at the Open University in Camden. This is where Meg-John Barker presented their work, along with several other interesting and interested people including a journal editor and a publisher as well as several scholars. This account of the event identifies five areas of activity – blog posts, networking event, curation of resources, academic event, and sharing/recording expertise – and calls for volunteers to help take them forward. If you want to play with the cool kids, get in touch and get involved. We’d love to have you.

I’m sure that’s not all… but it’s all for now. And enough, I think, to argue that these media are moving from the fringes towards the mainstream in research and academia. Even so, if you have anything to add, please do so in the comments.


Cartoons, Comics, and Graphic Novels in Research and Academia

Cartoons, comics, and graphic novels in research and academia are having a moment. Actually it’s a bit more than a moment, but before I go into that, let’s start with some definitions. In terms of the visual arts, as I understand it, a cartoon is generally understood to be a single drawing; a cartoon strip or a comic strip is a series of a few sequential cartoons. Comics and graphic novels are more interchangeable terms for longer works, though people tend to use ‘comics’ to refer to the more lightweight end of the spectrum or reading matter for children. Conversely, ‘graphic novels’ are viewed as more serious and adult. In fact, though, they’re essentially the same thing: a graphic art medium for storytelling.

Academics from a range of disciplines are beginning to realise that this form has a great deal to offer for research communication and teaching. It is taught in some universities, though usually bundled in with other arts techniques such as illustration or animation. Few universities are offering sequential graphic art as a stand-alone or interdisciplinary subject at present, though there are some exceptions at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in the UK and the US. For example, in the UK, Staffordshire University’s BA in Cartoon and Comic Arts has been running for some years now. In the US, the University of Oregon offers an interdisciplinary Comics and Cartoon Studies minor, and Minneapolis College of Art and Design offers a Comic Arts major option on their Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Savannah College of Art and Design offers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in sequential art, which are also available in Hong Kong and online. California College of the Arts offers a Master of Fine Arts degree in comics, as does the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. No doubt there are others too, though I haven’t found any outside the US/UK. For example, there are no such courses in Australia at present, though the Sydney Comics Guild suggests keeping an eye on MIT in Melbourne, presumably because they may run one in time to come.

Although the UK has few courses, it does have other initiatives. For example, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics is based in the UK. This journal focuses on the production and consumption of comics in their cultural, institutional, and creative contexts. An international Research, Outreach and Pedagogy Network (ReOPeN) for graphic novels and comics is based at Lancaster University. A mini-conference on comics and graphic novels in academia was held in Kendal in October, part of the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. I was lucky enough to go to this and meet academics working with comics and graphic novels from as far afield as Perth, Australia, as well as closer to home. Then there’s this free event in London tomorrow (tickets still available!) on graphic social science, which I will also be attending. Next year in London the historians are holding a two-day conference on the pre-modern world in comics. And it’s not only the academics who are using comics: this video demonstrates the use of graphic art, animation, and puppets in health evaluation research.

Comics are also being used for communicating science and medicine. As these links suggest, there is also a wider international focus on graphic art in academia and research. For example, the PathoGraphics conference in Berlin last month looked at the use of comics to communicate about illness and disability, and a recent Twitterchat via the #MethodsMatter hashtag focused on work in this area from various African countries.

I’m sure there are many more examples. I was teaching writing for publication to staff at the University of Derby yesterday and I mentioned graphic novels. One staff member said she didn’t like them as a reader, but she thought she should take steps to overcome her dislike, because she understood they were gaining traction. Another staff member, Dr Katy Vigurs, had been involved in producing a comic about student debt with students in her previous role at Staffordshire University. There’s a lot of this about, and it’s growing. So I think comics and graphic novels in research and academia are not so much having a moment as becoming a movement.