Part-time studying but full-time thinking

PhD

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.

SRHE and UALL Widening Participation seminar 1

higher education, PhD, widening participation

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

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

Education, higher education, PhD

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.

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

digital sociology, Education, higher education, public sociology

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.

Book review: Punk Sociology by David Beer

book review, digital sociology, public sociology

Ever since he threw the initial idea out there on his blog, i’ve been intrigued by David Beer’s Punk Sociology project and after reading it I wasn’t disappointed. It is one of the Palgrave Pivot titles that exist to bridge the gap between a journal article and a monograph. As such it is not an onerous read at a mere 76 pages but within those packs a huge amount of ideas and provocation that has the power to re-inspire a generation of Sociologists.

Punk Sociology is a call to arms framed through the ethos of punk. It should not be dismissed if Punk music and style weren’t your bag or if indeed you are too young to remember Punk. it is really a framework to encourage the re-imagination of Sociology through inventive and exciting methods that breakdown the barriers between sub disciplines, academics and readers and researchers and participants. Beer puts this far better than I could:

 ‘Punk is about playing with and questioning received and established versions and accounts of the world, that it likes to challenge and transcend barriers and boundaries and that it relishes a critical engagement with any fixed or intransigent ideological or material obstacles’ (p.64)

Whilst framing the argument in terms of Punk is certainly novel, much of what Beer argues is not new, in fact it is what Mills and Becker have previously argued for extensively and yet, Punk Sociology appears as a fresh ‘call to arms’ and one that has never been needed more than in an age where metrics and measurement are becoming so important that there could be a tendency to play it safe to ensure research solely fulfils the criteria of excellence set down by the academy.

Part 1 sets out the background of the challenges and opportunities that Sociology faces in today’s academic climate but focuses not on the problems but potential solutions. It does this through a whistle stop tour of Punk ethos. this is consolidated through examination of how the ethos could be used to re-imagine sociology and to revitalise the discipline. It is not a handbook of solutions, but a series of provocations that will help the reader to think about their own work in a new light. Through this method of provocation, it is equally applicable to other social sciences and any one from the fresh undergraduate student to the most experienced of academic.

My only regret about the text is the accessibility of its distribution. The message it has to share is so vital that it is a shame that it comes at a prohibitive cost. Notwithstanding this, I would argue that this should be an essential text for every potential and practicing Sociologist in hope that the call to arms and the provocation it provides will engender the seed change that Beer argues for.

References

Beer, D. (2014) Punk Sociology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 

What can Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists teach us about blogging?

book review, digital sociology

Recently a few other bloggers including David Beer had mentioned Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists. Having been a fan of his style of writing since I first discovered Art Worlds a few years ago, I was keen to see what sagely advice he had to offer. Interestingly, much of what he suggested are things I already do. Interestingly, the way he suggests writing for getting words down, regardless of quality and worrying about that later is something i’ve always done. I can see how this, to some people would be an huge leap from their current way of working. I never got on with planning in the traditional sense, preferring to get stuff down and them look at how to shape it and it was a relief to see i’m not the only one.

Interestingly, this relief at seeing commonalities between what others do and how beginning academics work is something Becker stresses in the book and I would whole heartedly support this.

Image

It was no surprise that seeing it sitting on my car seat next to a map was a light bulb moment as it felt like the guidebook that had been missing from my writing. I had figured most of it out already like any explorer of a new place often does, but it was good to see that I hadn’t missed anything important. I think this is the key reason to read this book, if you aren’t sure how to make your writing better then it will help but if you think you know but have niggling worries that you aren’t on the right track, it can help reinforce those ideas.

This second edition examines some of the changes in technology in the twenty years since it was first published, especially in terms of ways in which computers have enhanced the ability for drafting and rearranging ideas and the reduced permanence of the text that is churned out, allowing for writers to take more risks with what they put into being. This, combined with some of his lines of argument about the value of sharing and discussing writing lead me to thinking how the rise of blogs have changed the game even further since 2007.

Becker uses a lovely phrase in chapter three. He says ‘A thought written down is stubbon, doesn’t change it’s shape and can be compared to thoughts that come after it’ (p.56). For me, this forms the crux of why I am finding blogging so valuable for my writing, it allows me to commit those ideas to writing and to share them with other people, not only my close academic network, but more widely. It allows me to ask questions, to float partially formed thoughts and to help develop the thinking by continuing to write about them. This is what many academics have down for years in letters and through discussions so why, in some cases is there a resistance to blogging still by some people?

Becker poses a possible reason why, he says ‘There’s something that I think many of us believe: talking about work is less of a risk than writing about it. In part it’s because no one remembers the ideas you speak.’ (p.118). I wonder if it is an extension of this argument that keeps the discussions in private opposed to in the open on a blog. Maybe if you do not make public your partially formed ideas, people won’t remember all the wrong turns you took., after all, your audiences only want to hear the perfectly formed ideas, not those provisional ones, right?

Wrong! I think if Becker’s book teaches one thing, it is that being open about the writing (and by extension, thinking) process can help combat the intrinsic worry, especially in students and early career academics that they are doing it all wrong. By unveiling the mysticism of the process of idea formation, it opens up an understanding of the true messiness of it. I think when Becker comments about writing his quote could equally be about blogging:

In some ways writing gets easier the more you do it, because the more you do it, the more you learn that it’s not really as risky as you fear. You have a history on which to draw for self confidence […] You took the risk, produced something and voila! (p.119)

Of course, this is just my interpretation of how his work be translated to the risks and fears of blogging and how blogs can offer ways to address some of the concerns of writing he raises in the book. Maybe he would speak differently?

References

Becker, H.S. (2007) Writing for Social Scientists (2nd Ed.), Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Is ‘The Wire’ the solution?

public sociology

 

Recently I commented on twitter that ‘I can’t help but think that some academics are scared of research being accessible and understandable to publics…’ and in response Dave Beer (@davidgbeer) pointed me towards a paper from City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, action that he co-authored with Rowland Atkinson in 2010. It highlights some interesting points of the value of well made drama, such as The Wire and its ability to foreground social issues in a ‘thoughtful and experimental way’ (p.530). They go on to discuss the valuable role that such a series can play in adult education and engagement of publics with deeper understandings of society, more commonly restricted to academic outputs and the challenges faced when academics struggle to communicate with each other in across sub-disciplines, let alone across the public-academic divide . This paper addressed several of the issues I explored in previous blogs here and here but it also opened up two questions in my mind. Firstly, whether any of this is possible so long as the REF framework restricts what can be valued in terms of public ‘impact’ through restrictive criteria and whether need to admit they need help in doing this effectively. The second question sits within why a program such as The Wire has the ability to capture the public imagination in a far greater way than most documentaries.

I have already explored the question of the REF and it’s restrictions on what it considers to be impact on this blog and won’t go into too much depth here but bringing back into focus some thoughts I had previously is important, there is a thirst in the general populace for programming that turns its lens on the social world, surely it is vital that social scientists (and I use that term in the broadest sense) play a part in ensuring the version portrayed is accurate and helps break down inequality and stereotypes, opposed to re-enforcing them. The only way this is going to happen is through collaboration with writers, producers and directors of these kind of outputs. By becoming instrumental in the production of social representations, social scientists can aid in engaging the social imaginations of the general publics in positive ways to help reduce inequality opposed to in a way that perpetuates or amplifies it.

The fact that The Wire has been so successful and has captured the public imagination also needs to be reflected upon. Atkinson and Beer allude to this within their paper but I want to be more explicit on the issue and possibly challenge the question of how this could work as a research output that engages publics. Part of its success lies within its complex and provisional nature. The highly visual nature of the medium and the complex social narratives played out in front of the lens, not only of the main story lines, but the ‘background noise’ that also goes on, allows the viewers to take charge of their understanding, guided by the issues that the lens foregrounds for them. This is in stark contrast to the documentary that often narrates a god like perspective on the meaning of what is presented. By handing over ownership of some of the responsibility for making sense of what is presented to them, the viewer feels more compelled to engage in the world they are viewing and feels more investment in what they are seeing. Of course, this idea may sit uneasily with some academics, after all, the analysis and theorising is their domain, they have spent many years learning and developing their craft and knowledge about the social world, haven’t they? I would argue, however that in the case of a video based form of delivery, the skill of the academic lies within presenting the world to the viewer in a way that allows them to follow the same logics and understandings that the academic themselves follows and this can be done without telling the viewer what to think, but by carefully guiding their focus. Being able to guide focus in such a medium is a skill, one that academics are unlikely to possess but that many media professional possess. Therefore collaboration is the way to make this happen. What needs to be entered into, however, is a proactive dialog across the two fields, academics need to understand the value that the media professionals can add to their work in terms of engaging the public imagination. Likewise, media professionals need to understand the value that accurate representation and academic understanding of social process can add to their outputs in terms of enabling viewers to better relate to their programs, and thus engage with them, something that The Wire provides an excellent model for

Reference

Atkinson, R. and Beer, D. (2010) ‘The ivorine tower in the city: Engaing urban studies after The wire’, City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, action, 14(5) p.529-544

 

Why blogging and reading are mutually beneficial

PhD

I’ve always struggled to make notes when reading beyond those that adorn the margins of every book I read. It is not that I struggle with the concept of writing them, but with justifying the purpose of them having rarely referred back to them in my early studies. Apart from notes on specific issues when constructing assignments, I had almost completely separated the processes of reading and writing. My recent foray into blogging has really opened my eyes to the value of writing about what I’m reading and I hope by sharing this with you, it might make some of you who are in a similar position consider why blogging about your reading might be a useful endeavour and not a distraction from your work.

In order to be able to write a coherent blog, I need to have read, understood, found a way to succinctly summarise and decided how the ideas in the work sit with my own. Writing this blog has helped me do that in a more concrete way and has helped me explore better not only the issues that I have been blogging about but my understanding of wider issues within Sociology. If you are reading this, you are probably someone who already knew this, certainly the part that writing was key to better understanding concepts and solidifying thinking. What a blog does more than this, is force me to consider if my arguments are strong enough to put out in public, for writing an idea on a pad and publishing it into the blogosphere are two quite disparate things. The first few times it can be fraught with worry: what if my ideas are no good, what if I haven’t got the right just of what I’m reading or even what if I make myself look stupid. I would argue that the risk of all these things is far outweighed by the confidence that blogging can give you, especially when others enter into the discussions and debates you open up.

I’m glad I have discovered this before I begin my PhD but really I wish I had discovered it much earlier, in fact I wish someone had told me why it might be a good idea, so that is why I am telling you now. Try it, it may not be something that works for you, but certainly it has helped me become more engaged with my reading.