higher education, PhD, widening participation

SRHE and UALL Widening Participation seminar 1

I attended the first in a series of joint SRHE and UALL seminars on researching and evaluating widening participation yesterday. This series aims to blur the boundaries between researchers and practitioners in this area in order to pose questions and challenge to how this work is evaluated and informed by research.

The day consisted of two sociologically focused research papers, a practice case study and then group discussions on questions posed back to the audience. This format was really useful as it allowed us to reflect on the implications and the value of what we had heard earlier in the day.

The first paper by Dr Vikki Boliver used UCAS data to statistically explore the impact of ethnicity on offers by selective universities made to young home applicants. She found that even when data was controlled for other factors such as social class and educational attainment that there was still a significant impact of ethnicity on the likelihood of being made an offer. She  explored a number of commonly given explanations, namely they are less likely to achieve the grades needed for admission, they study the wrong subjects at A-level or they choose highly over subscribed subjects. Her analysis showed that whilst these factors have some effect, they do not fully explain what is happening. She also posed a fourth explanation, that admissions selectors may be seeking to admit a student body that is representative of the wider population. Whilst Ethnicity is not given to selectors, she argued that application forms have many clue in terms of names and what is written in personal statements. One interesting question from this first paper was that if a number of international students are likely to be admitted to an institution, does this make home selection more skewed to white students in order to ensure the cohort is representative of a wider population. Furthermore, how do selectors judge representativeness? Vikki also highlighted the challenges posed to researchers wanting to look into these areas due to the limits on data that UCAS will make public. One suggestion made by the audience was to make is accessible in a anonymised form.

The second paper by Professor David James looked at some issues raised in the study of white middle class school choice that he undertook from 2011-13 with Diane Reay and Gill Crozier. He also highlighted the way in which his study problematises using school postcode data as a way to judge the need for WP interventions for given children. When middle class parents choose to send their children to local schools which may be areas of deprivation, they are often doing so because they understand the system and know that they will get extra attention as they are seen as a valuable commodity. As such, they may be more likely to be selected as ‘gifted and talented’ or put forward for WP interventions, even though they may not be the young people who need these interventions the most.

He also raised important issues around WP research such as what should be the unit of focus, is it the individuals or arguably should we be looking at the systems and structures that shape the actions of individuals? He posed the question of what drives WP policy and practice, highlighting the competing needs of social good and economic needs of both individuals and institutions. Through this paper, David showed the importance of taking a sociological viewpoint on WP, even when working in practice as these sorts of issues may be hidden by a purely data driven view of who WP interventions should be targeted at.

Both these papers and the issues they raised made me consider my own experience as a teacher and the way predicted grades that were submitted to UCAS often became a point of negotiation for middle class parents whereas working class parents often took them as absolutes. This shows the role class may have in privileging the chance of getting offers from more selective institutions.

The final paper was a case study of how Goldsmiths Fine Art programme developed a summer school to make the institution more accessible to local students from FE colleges. They did this through a summer school and ongoing support of portfolio reviews and mock interviews. What was interesting in this case study was the way in which academic staff who were initially resistant to ‘doing WP’ found that these local student have ended up enriching the course and bringing very local issues and experience into the institution. To put a sociological lens onto it, what Goldsmiths did differently was to alter the institutional habitus to make the students feel like part of the institution opposed to bringing them in an expecting them to adapt to the institution. This raises the important question of who needs to change in WP interventions; the individual, or the institution, or is it both?

The final discussion session engaged with many of these issues in more depth, namely those surrounding how these issues should inform admission practices, the access to UCAS data and where the focus of evaluation should be. Given the potential links between names and ethnicity, should applications be anonymised to admissions staff? How can we ensure that these trends and issues can be researched when the data is currently not available at the level of detail needed to do so in order to hold institutions to account? Finally, do we need to do more to show not only the statistical impact of intervention but the rich changes that interventions have, should we perhaps be arguing for reporting that values the submission of case studies as well as broader demographic data?

I believe the sessions will appear as a podcast in the near future and the powerpoints made available through the SRHE website.

The next session is on 9th Feb and booking can be found here

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Education, higher education, PhD

Why i’m committing to #AcWriMo and why blogging will be part of it

I’d always fancied taking part in NaNoWriMo for the pure challenge of it but there were two things that put me off. Firstly, that I actually didn’t have a burning idea for a novel and secondly that I’m not entirely sure a number of words should be the motivator. You see, like calorie based diets, they lead people to obsess over the wrong thing. When you are aiming for a numerical goal, it is the numbers that count but when you are focused on a target, for example changing the make up of what you eat, you focus on the content and what you actually want to achieve.

So this year it has happened that #AcWriMo , an academic focused version of this has synced with my first official month of the PhD. Now as you can imagine at this stage a lot of what I’m doing is exploratory reading and much form filling! What I do also have on the back burner is developing a paper for a conference from an abstract I submitted. This therefore seemed a perfect focus.

The actual volume of words needed to complete these tasks is limited but they are all reliant on that writing being quality. The other motivator for participating is the hope that it will help me get into a writing routine. This is why blogging will also be part of my goals. I find blogging an ideal writing task when i’m getting a block about how to phrase something or when the process is getting me down as it adds variety. It is the same with reading, occasionally you have to move from the academic to the more everyday to spur you on, especially when dealing with complex theoretical texts.

So to outline my goals, I plan to finish my conference paper, finish first drafts of my learning contract and an initial draft of my RDC1 and blog at least twice (in addition to this one) before the 30 days are out. I am not focusing on words but time. I am making space for a hour a day on 5 days a week, plus the option to carry on at the weekends. I’ll be interested to see how it works. Yesterday I started with an hour and managed about 5, although that is not sustainable, it allowed me to make an excellent start of two of the pieces which has given me the enthusiasm I needed to see the benefits of committing to the challenge. If you fancy joining me, all the details are on the PhD2published site.

Education, higher education, PhD

Reading Lists: Recommendations, Rabbit holes and Reputation

I was recently asked to try and write a blog to explain my reading strategy. The questions posed were how I decide what to read, when and why. I was also asked about how I read and take notes. I am going to take this into two posts, the first focusing on how my current reading pile has come about.

Why has this stack of books come about?

I hadn’t really thought about this before so I took what I currently had and realised there were three main reasons books and references to follow up were there, namely some form of recommendation, a follow up from a reference i’d come across in other reading or the fact that I felt something was a seminal text in the areas i’m researching.

Recommendation

Recommendations that have populated my list have come from several sources. Some have been as a result of twitter, some from seeing mailshots and stands at conferences and some through personal recommendation.

For example, Education, disadvantage and place came onto my radar through a flyer from Policy Press. Other recent books to drop into this category are the Education Policy Research book I reviewed last week, which came as a result of attending a symposium at the BERA conference and Zizek’s First as tragedy, then as farce recommended by @andewilkins on tiwtter following a conversation about cynicism as ideology that has fascinated me since the BSA conference earlier in the year.

Rabbit holes

When you begin immersing yourself in one topic, you find references to many things you feel you should read, things that look interesting and things that might be central to your research. The process of following one reference to another without really knowing where you will end up brought to my mind the idea of Alice following the white rabbit in her adventures in wonderland and as a result I decided to term these texts my rabbit holes.

There are a number of journal articles relating to this  category in my list, probably too numerous to mention and often this has been a useful way to carve out my reading into relevant studies. It has also lead me to explore specific texts from authors that may have also fallen into the final category; that of reputation. Two examples here are Bourdieu’s Pascalian Meditations which Steven Jones talks about in his chapter in Education Policy Research and in which I wish to explore the notion of ‘playing the game’ further. Bauman’s Wasted Lives has also ended up on my must read list as although I have read several of his books this was cited in another chapter and I feel may have some relevance to issues surrounding my thesis.

Reputation

The books that I would currently put into this category are actually ones on my reading list to revisit. I have read with interest Mills’ Sociological Imagination, Bourdieu’s Distinction and Becker’s Telling about society and all have extensive notes in them. The reason they are still sitting in my reading pile, however, is that re-reading certain parts in light of other thoughts i’m having, now specifically related to my thesis may help me develop my own thesis by drawing on the issues and concepts that these works highlight.

What do I do with this reading?

I wouldn’t suggest by any means this list is exhaustive, nor that my way is the best way but this is how my current reading list has been shaped. It would be interesting to here if this resonates with anyone else or if people have very different strategies for deciding what to read. I will be following up this post by exploring the idea of how I read and think through reading in another post in due course.

digital sociology, Education, higher education, public sociology

Live tweeting: Why and how: A reflection on #Britsoc14

This years British Sociology Association conference must be my tenth foray into live tweeting from a conference or event and over time I have developed how and what I tweet. I think some of this has come from reflecting on of why I am live tweeting in the first place and this blog will explore some of the benefits of live tweeting as a central part of attending a conference as I see them through my emerging practice.

Distilling ideas

In the same way that twitter has helped me hone my ideas through concise writing, so has tweeting key ideas from a session helped hone my thinking on these ideas. In order to process a 20 minute paper which is often densely packed with material into key ideas, concerns or questions of interest, you develop a skill in trying to not only identify what is important about the paper but which ideas might resonate with a wider audience or prove useful to engage with further.

Engaging in the debate

As a beginning researcher, I think twitter provides an excellent ay to engage with, debate and question ideas in a relatively safe environment. Many people forget how nerve wracking it can be to ask a question or challenge a concept in a paper during a question session. Doing so via twitter can often provide a space to do this more confidently. It also provides a space to develop ideas from a paper in discussion with others both within the session and far beyond it.

 Sharing ideas beyond the audience

Over the past few years, especially working within education, I have become mindful of how difficult it is for those practitioners and doctoral researchers who hold juggle other employment and academia to attend conferences, especially in their field of education when they often clash with scheduled teaching. From my own experience, having live tweets from events has been invaluable in order to get a feel for what is going on during a session I myself would have liked to attend.

Allowing other conference attendees to get key messages from other streams

This inability to attend every paper that is of interest also extends to other conference attendees. Certainly this was my experience of this years BSA conference and there were times where I chose to go to a different session knowing that there would be enough live tweeting going on in another that I would not be completely missing out. This is not unproblematic as it sometimes leads to regret for not choosing a different stream but it does to some extent compensate for some of the difficult choices that need to be made between parallel sessions.

Forming networks of practice

The reciprocity and sharing of ideas from one session to another and from one conference to another leads to building of networks of practice. By reading what others are sharing on a conference hashtag it is possible to find and connect with other academics that are interested in similar topics as you and thus allow the development of networks. It is by doing this I managed to gain so much more from this, my third BSA conference than I ever was able to from my first conference three years ago.

 

I am sure there are more elements to it and there is probably some merit in exploring these in more depth which I hope to do in future but I felt it was important to document where my thinking is at now on the purpose of live tweeting and the digital back channels behind conferences in building networks and sharing knowledge and ideas.

EdD, Education, higher education, PhD

Which Doctor: To PhD or to EdD that is the question?

The issue that has been consuming most of my time recently is what to do next. Originally I was going to start my PhD in January looking at how parents construct and manage issues of risk. There were several reasons for not starting; lack of funding, starting a new job, but most importantly that I realised my interests are me closely aligned to issues related to education opposed to parenting.

The network I have built up on twitter had been invaluable in working through my choices of what to do next. Everything seems to have emerged naturally. Following an impromptu meeting with Katy Vigurs (@drkatyvigurs) that just happened because I was in Stoke-on-Trent visiting a ceramics exhibition, I left our conversation more confused than when I started. Previously I had been focusing predominantly on the PhD route and dismissed the EdD option. Having done a bit more research, one incarnation of the latter is looking appealing, especially when my interests lie very firmly within the Sociology of Education.

Let me start with a caveat, I’m not sure all EdD programmes are made equal and some seem to be better suited to my interests than others. Whilst my interests are in the field of education, they do not originate in the classroom but at a higher level, more concerned with policy and social justice. This position doesn’t always correlate with the offerings of many EdD programs which either seem to focus on leadership and management or pedagogical topics. There are, however a couple which would cater for my interests.

From talking to a range of colleagues in several different institutions, there seems to be both advantages and disadvantages to straying from the more familar PhD route.

Firstly the structure the EdD programmes offer can be both a support and a bind. Having been used to the structure of distance learning Masters, this is not particularly problematic to me but I can see how it may be less flexible than the PhD.

Secondly, the inherent isolation of doctoral study, especially that is often experienced by a part-time student is buffered by the taught element of an EdD programme where there is a cohort element which can offer a much-needed community of practice. In fact it is the way that one EdD at Staffordshire in particular has used twitter to support this idea of communities of practice that has particularly peaked my interest (you can follow their exploits on twitter using #EdDSU6 )

Thirdly, however, there still seems to be a stigma in some camps over the PhD being ‘superior’ to the EdD in terms of academic currency. This I find interesting as I haven’t experienced many negative comments toward the EdD other than in terms of positioning a PhD as a preferable option, especially if you already have a strong idea of a research proposal.

Finally, it was interesting to hear how some experienced examiners felt that there was the potential for the initial stages of the EdD to restrict some candidates whose theses they had read and thus left them feeling that the PhD might have offered a better vehicle for the research, allowing more time and space to jump into the literature earlier

What is interesting though is the feedback from those on an EdD programme and the positive reviews they give it. Most of the people I have spoken to are in the early stages though, I’d be interested to see if this is the same for those nearing completion or those who are on the next step of their journey.

What does seem to emerge from discussions though is the importance of the people in choosing where to study at Doctoral level. It seems that regardless of the flavour of doctoral degree, a good fit with a potential supervisory team is invaluable in terms of experience and eventual success.

For me, I am veering towards the direction of the EdD. Whilst I have a good idea of what I want to do and the general direction of travel for my research, I think the structure of the EdD is likely to support a stronger eventual thesis. There really is no option for me to undertake a full-time PhD at this point in my career so considering either option would be part-time by necessity, I think the structure of the EdD may also support my motivation and focus and help me to develop the initial stages in a structured way. I also feel that having missed out on a lot of the face to face teaching at masters level having done those through distance learning, it would be nice to be part of a cohort of like-minded people and to develop those communities of practice.

One thing I realised when I started exploring this question, however, was how little writing there is about the process of choosing between the two so I’d be keen to continue the debate here and for people to add their own experiences through the comments. Hopefully this may also help future students puzzled by which route to pursue.

Education, higher education, public sociology

Breaking down disciplinary boundaries by not building them

This may seem a strange idea, especially given how well established many of the disciplines within Social Science are, but here me out.

I am currently working through John Brewers The public value of Social Sciences. Early on, he talks about how disciplinary silos or bunkers are bad places to lead changes in post-disciplinary collaboration from. This idea got me to thinking about how to break down those silos and thinking to the current GCSE > A-level > degree pathway.

I think it would be safe to say that for most students, they don’t encounter the Social Sciences (outside of Geography) before they undertake A-levels. There are in fact GCSE’s in some, but with relatively low uptakes. What then happens is students study 3 or 4 discreet disciplinary social sciences, picking from Sociology, Psychology, Politics and Economics in most cases. Box doing it in this way immediately tells the next generation of social scientists ‘look, psychology does this while Sociology does that’. In the real world, it is far messier and as Brewer rightly suggests, much of the public use of the Social Sciences comes from their collaborative voice, not from competing lone voices.

If this need for encouraging interdisciplinary or post-disciplinary work, then maybe it needs to take a grass roots approach. Instead of making students decide at 16 if Sociology is for them, create A-Levels in Crime or Environment, in Culture or Urban Studies. By showing the multi-faceted ways parts of Society can be envisioned from different angles by different disciplines then not only would it help students to develop a more holistic view of Society and how it is studied but it may actually provide them find resonance with areas of the social sciences that otherwise remain hidden from them by traditional disciplinary boundaries.

References

Brewer, J.D (2013) The public value of the social sciences, London, Bloomsbury

digital sociology, higher education, PhD, public sociology

Could blogging help to treat imposter syndrome?

A short blog for today but reflecting on some of the things I have been contemplating in the last few days.

Recently I blogged in response to a paper by David Beer on The wire. Through the wonders of twitter and the public nature of the blog, he responded with his thoughts here. What surprised me to some extent was the fact that he agreed with some of my comments and pushed me to reconsider others. If I had simply noted these comments in the margins of the paper, or in my own notebook then I’d still be wondering if I was on the right track.

The fact that so far this blog has been read by 900 people in the last month and that a number have told me how much they are enjoying my writing or finding some of the discussions I have begun useful is a huge boost. I think everyone suffers from imposter syndrome to a certain extent, worrying if they really do know what they are talking about and no, blogging doesn’t make this go away but it has certainly helped reassure me that I’m on the right track and spurred me to keep going.

I don’t think this is something that is only useful for students and early career researchers, however. Given the peer review process, rejection and putting yourself in a position where there is a high potential for a focus on negative feedback, a blog is a way to get ideas out there and to allow you to test them out and help you gain confidence in them. If you have more confidence in your ideas, it is easier to use negative feedback in a constructive way that helps you revise your work. Surely this is something that all academics, regardless of experience need from time to time?