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An open letter to Iain Stewart MP: Save the OU

Dear Iain Stewart,

I am writing this as one of your constituents and an alumnus of the Open University and one for whom the institution changed the course of my life immeasurably. As the MP for the city where this great institution is based, I hope you will take the time to read this letter which I will also be making public. Unfortunately we are in a position where this drawbridge may be drawn up for future generations. My journey with the OU started in a time of despair. I left university with a foundation degree, worked for five years and during the recession faced redundancy. Struggling to get work, I decided to top up my degree with the OU. I couldn’t have done this any other way, having a mortgage and bills I couldn’t afford to study full time. It was on my first OU course that I discovered social science, the field within which nearly 10 years after beginning this journey I am about to complete a PhD in.

In my time at the OU I realised I wanted to teach. Part of this came through my diagnosis with dyslexia, something missed in my formal education and during my initial higher education study. This lead to me working in a school, for children with special needs alongside my study for a year before undertaking a PGCE training and working with a local school as a teacher. The draw of the OU before was too strong, however and I ended up completing Masters degrees in Social Science and Education alongside working as a teacher. This eventually led to where I am now, a part time PhD student at Staffordshire University writing up my thesis.

As so many others, I also dabbled in subjects out of my comfort zone. Under the current funding system, much of what shaped my experiences are no longer available to students. When I started studying in 2009 there was an option to sign up on an affordable module by module basis. 60 credits (a years part time study) was roughly £490 regardless of whether you already had a higher education qualification or not and there were grants for those who had no degree. For this reason many people continued their study long after graduation. This added more than just numbers, it added richness to the student cohort and allowed many of us to face learning demons. At school I struggled with English, I ended up taking short modellers in Shakespeare and Creative Writing to prove I could do it. The ways which this changed my attitude to learning are immeasurable.

Changes are being made at the Open University that are likely destroy an institution that is part of this countries social makeup and a huge asset for everyone. I’m afraid that through successive government policy and the constraints of a funding model more suitable for three year full time degrees the institution has been boxed into a corner from which it cannot escape without government intervention. Suggestions coming out have included:

moving to more online delivery, something that as a dyslexic student would have been a huge barrier;
reduction of research, it is only through reading the PhD thesis of One of the course team while doing my undergraduate study that I realised it was something that I wanted to do one day;
Rationalising courses, without the breadth of offer, I’m not sure I’d have stumbled across some of the most interesting learning experiences I had.

The problems, however all stem from applying a one size fits all funding model to an institution that is different by design. Governmental intervention is needed to fix this. I urge members of all parties and all houses to urgently look at solutions to this problem. Whilst I am aware there is currently a post-18 funding review, the announcement of the scale of the cuts needed and the redundancies put out by the university this week make this an urgent matter. Once staff are lost they can’t just be replaced. The people are the lifeblood of the institution. Assurances for the future are needed now before the ship is sailed over a precipice from which it cannot return.

In making this letter open, I also urge all current OU students and graduates to do the same. Share your stories, lobby government and help save the institution that has saved so many lives, made so many dreams come true and empowered so many. We are the lucky ones, let’s make sure there are many more generations of lucky ones.

Yours Sincerely,

Jon Rainford

 

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A perfect storm of mismanagement could have lasting, damaging effects

In the neoliberal academy, we are all pawns in a game of league tables and metrics, a data-based game where there is never a winner. That does not mean as individuals we have to concede to work within institutions that have no regard for our value. Many of us would hope that was an intrinsic value, but it seems that many vice-chancellors have even forgotten the extrinsic value of their staff in ensuring their institutions continue to climb the league tables upon which they place so much value.

 

The debate about the damage marketisation is doing to the sector is a separate one, but it is because we are in a market that the USS pensions dispute shouldn’t just concern those staff already employed within those institutions who are part of the scheme. It should be of concern to all staff working in academia as one day they may come under its remit. This is why I, like many working in non-USS institutions are just as concerned with the dispute.

 

Like many other PhD students, I am contemplating where I may want to work and what to do after my thesis is complete. The actions of many senior management teams across the sector have not gone unnoticed. Whilst some have acknowledged the extremely challenging position staff have been put in and extended a fig leaf by spreading salary deductions. Others have taken a more punitive stance. What I am clear on is that I do not want to work for an employer that doesn’t value their staff and I am sure I’m not alone in this. Many vice-chancellors seem to forget that in the run-up to the next REF and TEF cycles, many mobile academics and administrators, who are key to central to the delivery of research projects and teaching excellence will be voting with their feet. This is problematic when their beloved league table positions rely on the commitment of staff to act as victors in their academic hunger games. After all, you are only as good as those who are willing to represent you in the battle. Much of the success in this game relies on the goodwill of the staff and the countless hours they commit to writing papers and preparing to teach over and above their paid hours of employment. This is a goodwill that is being chipped away at by the adoption of hard-line stances by those senior staff.

 

There are many good and proper employers out there, every vice-chancellor has the choice to be one of them. Should they do so, they are likely to reap the fruits of their labours by attracting the best staff. Those who chose not to be are likely to suffer and struggle to recruit the lifeblood of their universities; Academics and administrative staff who are willing to dedicate their lives to producing research upon which the institution benefits.

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Why tweet about your research?

In Social Media for Academics, Mark Carrigan highlights the value of twitter and social media for the dissemination of research.  He cites an example of one of his own papers and I thought it might be useful to blog about my own experiences surrounding a recent paper.

Through my own sharing of the paper and then others retweets and sharing, the paper rapidly gained a high altmetric score, in fact in just a few weeks it was one of the top 10% of articles that had been score ever and the highest in the journal, and from the snapshot below, in less than one month, it is one of the top 5% of research outputs ever tracked. This score continues to rise and as of today, 2 weeks later its score now sits at 30.

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 22.47.57

I have cautioned before on this blog about using Twitter simply as a form of dissemination, and as such have been careful not to simply spew out links to the paper. This does not mean I limited myself to one tweet, however. It was interesting to see that even after ten tweets, there were still people I regularly interact with on twitter picking it up for the first time. Ways in which I did this was linking it to relevant other stories, tweeting directly to people who might be interested and changing the content of the tweet to interest different audiences

Another strategy I adopted was to pin a tweet with the link to my timeline. This was particularly useful when I was speaking at the BSA conference and at another event as it meant people who were looking at tweets for the event had easy access and I am sure that in part quite a few of the downloads were through this.

Due to the paper’s high altmetrics score, Taylor and Francis #readmyresearch initiative has now made the paper open access for a period of time. The impact this had on further exposure and downloads has been immense.  These have gone from just under 250 downloads to over 450 in the past two weeks. Obviously, this is largely due to the article becoming open access the value of which has been extensively documented elsewhere.

As Melissa Terras cautions against in her blog, downloads don’t really give the full story and it may be a number of years before I understand to what extent my work may or may not have been used as a result. That being said, as authors we write in the hope that someone will read our work and without twitter, I do not think that this paper would have gained anywhere near the attention it has.

 

 

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Book Review: Academic Diary – Les Back

Like the author, Academic Diary is generous, insightful and full of hope. I feel this book offers in the antidote to the cynicism that the neoliberal academy can sometimes engender. Having read some of the entries before in web form on www.academic-diary.co.uk, I had an idea of what to expect but the new additions and the renewing of some of the narratives makes for an engaging read. So much so that I ended up devouring it in one sitting.

A collection of short essays curated in the form of a diary that documents the ebb and flow of the academic year, Academic Diary offers a blend of anecdotes, insights, and advice for academics of all stages in their careers. As a doctoral student, however, I feel that this is a book that should be read by all early career academics as not only does it offer an insight into the realities of academic life but to also highlights some of the ways to engendering a different form of academic being, one that is generous and counteracts some of the pressures of the often crushing pressures of the neoliberal academy.

Like many of you who choose to now read it, I’m sure some of the stories will resonate. For me it was the power of the library Angel as Les terms it, that happening upon a hidden gem on the shelves of a library that cannot be replaced in digital forms. These insights offer a chance to share his wealth of experience and offer a unique and insightful analysis that made me nod in agreement, not in the pavlovian way in which the author describes the conference attendee, but in a way that one does when finally realising that some of what you felt were personal quirks are actually shared experiences.

In the early part of the book, Les talks of reading Stuart Hall and how ‘reading his words on the page I could almost hear his unique voice, his sense of humour’ (p.41). This really encapsulates what this book does for me. I felt that through his characteristically accessible language, Les’ voice jumped right off the page, I found myself pausing, reading in a measured way so characteristic of his voice.

The most heartening element of the book is the fact that it lays bare some of the struggles that even the most experienced academic feels, those hidden insecurities, the fear of the blank page and the juggling act between surviving in the neoliberal academy and doing what is felt to be right and just. I would suggest that this is a must read for anyone who needs to find a renewed hope within the world of academia and for those considering embarking on a career in the academy.

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From conference paper to journal article

A few people I have spoken to have been interested in the process involved in turning a conference paper into a journal article so I thought i’d write a blog about how my recent paper came into existence. Publishing as a doctoral student is in some ways a daunting thing to do but hopefully this blog will show some of the ways in which it can be useful to understanding your own research differently and as a way to improve your writing.

At the start of my doctorate, I was trying to get to grips with what exactly my research was about. In this process, I examined the work of one university’s widening participation programme to try and understand what might be different in an elite university opposed to a post-92 university. In doing so, I noticed that the way their work was framed and who was targeted may be a barrier. As it happened, I was planning to attend the BSA conference, I decided to submit an abstract, this was not accepted but I resubmitted it for the European Sociological Association conference in Prague, where it was accepted.

Having presented my paper, I was pleased with some of the comments and feedback but still felt that the scope was too limited to expand further into a journal article, so filed it away in case it may be useful in writing the thesis later. In the mean time, I noticed a call for papers for a special issue of Perspectives: Policy and practice in Higher Education. This issue focused on Access to Higher Education and was looking for submissions around 3,500 words that examine practical issues around policy implementation. As such I sent a speculative email to the editor and following a short dialogue and was requested to submit a full paper.

This paper then went off for review and came back for two rounds of revisions, one major, one minor. Both times, the comments were fair and useful. This process took several months but was very helpful in terms of creating a much stronger paper. I have heard of peer review horror stories but throughout the editor was encouraging and supportive. This was not the end of the journey, however, It then took around 6 weeks to be copy edited and to be published online. Hopefully this will demystify some of the process around publishing a first article and will encourage some of you to give it a shot.

Rainford, J. (2016). Targeting of widening participation measures by elite institutions: widening access or simply aiding recruitment?, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13603108.2016.1148645

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My Top 10 Abstract Writing tips

I was asked to pull together my tips on writing abstracts for some fellow education doctoral students at Staffordshire. I thought i’d share them on here as the may help other people as well. They are simply based on my own experience of submitting successfully to a number of conferences and reviewing for another so please don’t take them as definitive but maybe some points to consider. Id also recommend this post from Helen Kara.

 

  1. RTF( C) / Q – Read the #$%# Call! 
    1. What are the requirements for the submission?
    2. Is there a word limit?
    3. Are you allowed references?
    4. Is there an ECR / Postgrad check box – If so, check it!
    5. Is there a theme?

 

  1. Choose your stream wisely
    1. Some conferences / streams are more competitive than others.
    2. Is the stream what it says on the tin? Use past conference books.
    3. Relevance is one criteria – does your research fit with the stream?
  1. Check, check and check some more!
    1. Clarity is one of the criteria.
    2. Quality is linked to clarity. If it is written poorly what does that say about the research?
  1. Find a critical friend
    1. Even more useful if they are ‘divorced’ from your research.
    2. Be prepared to use their comments ‘critically’, not just reword what you have written their way.
  1. Make sure you’ve included the ‘so what?’ factor
    1. Significance is another consideration – what is the significance of your paper?
    2. This does not need to be huge but make sure it is clear why will your paper be of interest to delegates.
  2. Use past abstracts to help you with structure
    1. Some conferences have very different conventions and requirements.
    2. Don’t miss out on being accepted due to a technical error.
  1. Consider your audience – Both reviewer AND delegates
    1. Your abstract is not just for the conference book, it is your key to getting in.
    2. The audience may, or may not be experts in your method or subfield!!
  1. Submit SOMETHING!
    1. It is OK to talk about work in progress.
    2. That said, make sure your abstract has a focus, don’t just summarise your project.
  1. Did I mention checking?
    1. Spelling
    2. Syntax
    3. Grammar
    4. That pesky call (you did read that first, right?) and the submission requirements.

  2. Remember there is a DEADLINE!
    1. Submitting sometimes requires registering on a site and using specific tools – allow enough time!
    2. If you can get it in earlier, do. It often reduces stress for organisers and reviewers, especially in smaller conferences.

Good Luck and feel free to add extra tips in the comments below

PhD

Part-time studying but full-time thinking

The more I think about it, the more I am happy that undertaking a part-time PhD was the right thing for me. It seems counter intuitive as I often get frustrated at having to juggle a full-time job, work on my thesis and life in general. That being said, when I think about the progress I’ve made over my first year, I don’t feel like I am far behind where I would be full-time. I think the main reason for this is that although I have limited time to devote to reading, researching and academic admin tasks, something carries on beyond this time and that is the difficult part – the thinking. I think that this is nicely explained with a quote from Weber’s Science as a vocation:

Ideas occur to us when they please, not when it pleases us. The best ideas do indeed occur to one’s mind in the way in which Ihering describes it: when smoking a cigar on the sofa; or as Helmholtz states of himself with scientific exactitude: when taking a walk on a slowly ascending street; or in a similar way. In any case, ideas come when we do not expect them, and not when we are brooding and searching at our desks. Yet ideas would certainly not come to mind had we not brooded at our desks and searched for answers with passionate devotion.

This seems to be perfectly applicable to the shift from ‘studying time’ to ‘work time’. Often it is in the midst of my day job, or during my drive to work that the things I have been struggling with suddenly make sense. This is also something that needs to be capitalised upon as often these thoughts go and fast as they come. For this, Evernote has been a life saver, acting as a multimedia notepad that is with me 24/7. Sometimes, I write a note by hand and capture it with my phone’s camera, sometimes I do the same with a document and other times I type direct into it. This mental scrapbook, however, is what I believe has been the key to moving forward in my thinking even when I’m not technically working on my PhD project.