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.

Uncategorized

Book Review: What About Mozart? What About Murder? – Howard S. Becker

What About Mozart? What About Murder? differs from Becker’s previous work. It is not a monograph on a particular subject the ways that Art Worlds and Outsiders were. Nor is it wholly concerned with the craft in the way Writing for Social Scientists and Telling About Society were. Instead it offers a unique insight into the events and concerns that have sparked his sociological imagination over his career to date. It opens up some of the inner conversations and thoughts that link his work across areas as diverse as deviance and Art.

This volume is focused upon cases studies and their use within Sociology. It takes the reader through different the different forms these take and the ways in which cases can be used to illuminate issues and sociological concerns. Drawing on his wide experience both empirical and anecdotal this is not a text on methodology but an insight into how Becker’s work has been shaped by a commitment to the value of case studies. He addresses issues of how seemingly unrelated cases can spark thinking in completely different fields, how detailed studies of cases can make visible things that other methods hide in black boxes and how imaginary cases can help to make issues more visible.

Through his accessible writing style, Becker generously fills in the blanks by making visible the influences and inspiration behind the various areas of research he has addressed during his career. In making these visible, this book offers a unique insight into how seemingly unrelated areas of study can become influential and how the everyday and the imagined can also prove valuable in sociological research.

This book speaks of his generosity to the reader. He addresses some of those questions that I am sure every academic has asked at some point; how do I decide what to study, where do I go next and How do I know when enough is enough? He does this in an accessible insightful way that makes the reader consider how similar issues might be able to offer useful insights into their own work. As such this text in my mind is essential reading for all PhD and Early career researchers who may be wrestling with these issues and wondering how Becker seamlessly moved from looking at Musicians to Schools and from deviance to Art.

References

Becker (2014) What About Mozart? What About Murder? Reasoning from cases, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

book review, Education

Book Review: Contemporary Debates in the Sociology of Education

Within this volume, Brooks, McCormack and Bhopal set out show how the sociology of education can cast a critical eye across the global issues in education from schooling through to university in the mainstream and to the margins. Opening with an outline of the theoretical, political and institutional contexts of the sociology of education, the book gets the reader up to speed with the state of the field before taking them on an editorial journey through the various stages of education by way of an interesting and thought provoking range of chapters based on cutting edge empirical research.

There are a number of chapters on compulsory age schooling examining issues of international comparisons in assessment, citizenship education, academic selection, masculinities, race and gender issues in schools. The most poignant chapter on schooling comes from Carolyn Jackson who explores the issue of fear and anxiety in schools. This is one of the few chapters that focuses on teachers as well as students, an area that on the whole the collection glosses over.  Recent debates surrounding increasing pressure from inspection and policy change on education professionals would suggest that this is an area central to contemporary debates. This however, is a comment as much on the speed of change and the current state of research in the sociology of education as much as it is the book.

The most interesting chapters are those that take the reader those beyond the scope of other texts. Firstly, Kagendo Mutua and Sandra Cooley Nichols chapter on special education in the USA and how gendered identities are constructed within it during adolescence which takes a very different stance on exploring special education provision beyond outcomes and process to explore how individuals develop a sense of identity. There is also an excellent chapter by Steve Roberts focusing on the lifelong educational opportunities of retail workers where he explores the tensions of between an instrumental credentialisation of skills and learning that is useful for life. This chapter is an important contribution as workplace learning is often omitted from debates in the field.

That said, no volume on contemporary debates would be complete without the obligatory chapter on working-class students and university. Wolfgang Lehmann provides this from a Canadian perspective and this highlights another key strength of the volume that in drawing from global perspectives, it helps the reader create a comparison of similarities with more local debates. This is complemented further by Heather Mendick’s exploring issues of the gendered nature of subject selection in Mathematics. Understanding these processes is key if issues of equal access based on gender are to be addressed within STEM subjects.

The final chapter by Keri Facer and Neil Selwyn is a provocation highlighting issues of technology and the importance for sociologists of education to be ready to explore these. They argue that given the ubiquity of technology within all areas of education, that there is sizeable gap in the research literature. In ending on this note, the volume challenges the reader to consider how they can fill this gap and hopefully will act as a stimulus for much needed work in the sociology of educational technology.

This collection serves its purpose of stimulating thought on the contemporary debates of the sociology of education and as such would provide an excellent starting point for those new to the field or who are currently engaged within education but would like to explore a more sociological analysis of some of the issues and challenges they face.

 Reference

Brooks, R., McCormack, M., Bhopal, K. (2013). Contemporary Debates in the Sociology of Education, Basingstoke; Palgrave macmillan

 

EdD, Education, PhD

Mind the gap? or enjoy it? The benefits of a break before the doctorate

When I had to abandon my original plans to start a doctorate last September, I must admit I was a bit despondent and irritated I couldn’t continue to the next level straight away. On reflection, this has probably been the best thing that could of happened and I thought it would be useful to blog about why I feel this way.

One of my major worries was that I would lose the impetus of study and the time and space for it within my busy work and home life. This hasn’t happened, in fact I’m probably spending as much time reading and writing as I ever did during my masters! The difference is, i’m finally spending the time exploring texts and ideas that I want to. What has really helped is attending a few conferences and workshops over the period since I ended my study and following up interesting ideas.

Having come into Sociology and Education through a quite eclectic route of study, this time and space has also allowed me to read some of those classic text I missed out on. Recently these have included Willis’ Learning to Labour, Lukes’ Power: a radical view as well as a number of more specific texts to the area I now plan to do my doctorate around.

This time and space to broaden my reading I feel is something that I would have missed out on if I embarked immediately onto a doctoral programme and now has me much more excited and focused on the next stage feeling more prepared than I ever could have done if I had started back in September. As I reflected on previously, it has also allowed me to explore exactly what I wanted from a doctorate and which one is right for me.

Hopefully the next few months will give me the space to continue this reading and to develop my writing through this blog, contributing to some other blogs and a few other projects to help hone some of these skills before I return to the formal journey towards a doctorate.

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.

book review, digital sociology, public sociology

Book review: Punk Sociology by David Beer

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 

Education

TeachFirst and the colonisation of the classroom in #toughyoungteachers

Like many people, I began to watch BBC three’s new series Tough Young Teachers this week and saw first hand the initial experiences of trainee teachers following this route into teaching. What I wasn’t prepared for was how unsettling I was about to find the following thirty minutes of television. Having spent time in similar schools to those billed as ‘challenging’ by the programme, what I wasn’t prepared for was the unsettling class reproduction issues the show demonstrated.

TeachFirst is a program that according to their website aims to ‘find, train and support people to become brilliant teachers, inspiring the young people who need them the most’. This seems at the face of it a commendable aim and something nobody could argue is a good thing. The reality, however has some worrying facets to it. Like many other graduate programs, it aims to attract the ‘best’ graduates from the ‘best universities’. This notion of ‘the best’, often provides trainees that fit very clearly into a category of a privileged middle class, something that is examined in grater depth by Sarah Smart, Merryn Hutchings, Uvanney Maylor, Heather Mendick  & Ian Menter in their paper entitled ‘Processes of middle-class reproduction in a graduate employment scheme’. Here they explain how the processes of recruitment focus often narrow the frame of who is suitable to make it through the selection process.

What Smart and her colleagues also highlight is how the middle class position of the trainees often sets students apart from them as an ‘other’ someone who is not like them. The reason this felt so unsetting to me was that it resonated with discourses surrounding Empire and colonisation of uncivilised peoples that needed converting to the ways of thinking of those colonising them. This is exactly what I saw unfold on the screen. It felt more like a wildlife documentary than a program about teaching as the trainees were talking about the young people as if they weren’t equal humans but were some kind of animal that needed training. It was when one trainee was trying to explain negative numbers and using an analogy of scuba diving; something that was likely to be as alien to the child in question as the negative numbers themselves.

Perhaps the most enraging part of it was when one trainee said “I don’t care about them because they don’t care about learning”. To me, this showed their lack of empathy and understanding for young people who hadn’t followed the same learning trajectory as they did and hadn’t developed an early understanding of the value of education. Another trainee talked about not understanding why they didn’t care. I find it interesting that I never head similar from any trainee i’ve ever come in contact with and that makes me wonder if this is a danger of TeachFirst?

By training and working only with other trainees of a similar class background, does a middle-class picture of what education should be taint their understanding and view of the classroom before they even enter it? If so, does that prevent them from considering the diversity of learning paths and trajectories in order for all students to achieve and create a culture of support for those who can fit into a model of middle-class learning ideals, i.e supporting those who ‘care about learning’ and letting those who don’t, i.e. the ‘other’ to fall by the wayside?

It will be interesting to see if this class related divide does begin to reduce over time in the series or whether the idea of converting the students to a middle-class ideals remains a focus of the trainees efforts.

References 

Sarah Smart , Merryn Hutchings , Uvanney Maylor , Heather Mendick & Ian Menter (2009) Processes of middle-class reproduction in a graduate employment scheme, Journal of Education and Work, 22:1, 35-53, DOI: 10.1080/13639080802709661