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.

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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.

book review, digital sociology

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

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

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?

digital sociology, public sociology

Can peer reviewed journals and blogs co-exist as research outputs?

When academics suggest that peer reviewed journals are the only valid output for academic writing, my heart sinks. It is like saying “We’ve helped you develop a Sociological Imagination but now you have left the university, you must stop engaging, sorry!” Maybe i’m biased because soon I will lose my library access (until I start the PhD) and funnily enough, I want to continue engaging with sociological research. You see, without institutional affiliation, most of the world of academic research is off limits bar those teasers in abstracts unless perchance you are wealthy enough to subscribe to a range of journals. Being a member of professional associations (such as the BSA) does afford you access to some journals, but not all. This is not the only reason that I think blogs and digital open access platforms have a strong role to play in academic writing and I will try to shed some light on why both have equally important roles to play in modern scholarship.

Whilst I understand and appreciate the need for peer review in order to ensure research is being as thorough as it should be. The problem with the process is four-fold,: it is a time-consuming process and thus incurs expense for the publisher, is focused primarily on one way dissemination and, as is often missed, it to some extent controls and limits the possibilities of research.

Time is of the essence, unless of course you want to publish and then your exciting findings may not be public for up to eighteen months! Surely in a world that is changing as rapidly as the one we live in this is problematic. This is especially pertinent as was highlighted during the BSA Digital Sociology day today when working with digital platforms and tools that are transient and may be obsolete before a peer review article reaches publication.

My second argument, that of expense is a simple one, publishers need to cover their expenses some how and someone has to pay. At the moment that is either the user (through subscriptions, either personal or institutional) or the writer – as in the case of some of the new open access journals. If this is to continue, research bodies need to reconsider how research is funded so that the outputs, funded by public money are accessible to them (although in an age of austerity, this is probably as likely as the proverbial freezing of hades).

Thirdly, and most importantly in my mind, the peer review journal is a specific beast. It allows findings and opinions to be broadcast with little comeback or response from the audience and little understanding of how it was received past citation analytics. This is where blogs, twitter and digital publishing come into their own. These media allow readers to interact, to ‘favourite’ articles, to ‘like’ posts and to enter into a dialogue in which academics can refine and discuss their ideas, possibly clarifying misunderstandings. In this way, the research becomes engaging and thus reaches out to a wider interested audience. If you see people you follow on twitter discussing some research, you feel drawn to read about it yourself to draw your own opinions and enter into the dialogue yourself.

Finally, I want to touch upon a problem raised by Les Back @academic diary today when discussing the project he has been working on with Shamser Sinha about migrant communities. Details of the research can be found in the paper here but what I want to highlight are the two issues he raised in the peer review process of the research. Firstly, the reviewers struggled with the Ethics of the participant being named as an author and not anonymised and secondly that when it came to publication, they couldn’t understand why she didn’t have a university she was affiliated to. Both of these issues are remnants of a bygone day of research where is was something done to people, rather than with them. Often reviewers and journal editors find these issues hard to wrestle with whereas the process of blogging obviously doesn’t have those constraints. Similar problems also occur with non-traditional outputs, such as multimedia and to some extent visual elements beyond line diagrams and photographs that were intended to be reproduced in monochrome as generally journals are published in black and white which in some cases may remove important elements from the visual.

I am not, however, saying that blogging and unmonitored posting is unproblematic and I do acknowledge that review of work by colleagues is important in ensuring credibility of academic writing, but I would argue there is space for both and they should work in tandem to make research reachable to the widest possible audiences and to allow publication of work that is innovative and multi-sensory. I would also argue that blogging does have it’s own form of ‘peer review’ but that it takes place after publication through the comments and interactions of the reader.

PhD

Why blogging and reading are mutually beneficial

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.