preparing for the PhD oral exam

As a supervisor it is part of my job to help doctoral researchers prepare for their viva. I’ve not done one myself, as Australian PhDs are typically examined by means of a long report from two or three examiners. However, I have conducted a lot of viva examinations since being in the UK – four so far this year, seven last year and six the year before, just to start on the count-back. And of course I’ve sat in vivas as a supervisor, frantically taking notes and trying not to let my facial expression give me away when I’ve found a line of questioning a bit troubling. So I ought to know what this viva stuff is about, right?

As supervisor, I actually find the formal viva prep a difficult process, as I’m sure the doctoral researcher does too. Now firmly in the position of candidate, she is nervous and often has no idea what to expect. I’ve generally asked her to read the thesis critically beforehand to see if she can pick its strengths and weaknesses and I’ve done the same. But when we’re face to face in my office, I never quite know what to do.

Should I conduct a mock viva where I make the doctoral researcher answer my questions as if I’m an examiner? Well I’ve tried this a few times and it just feels weird. The alternative, and the one I usually opt for, is to pose questions and get the doctoral researcher to talk about what they would say in answer. Feels less artificial and ‘talking through’ seems to work OK. But my role is still not clear. Am I being a mock examiner? Supervisor? Something else? It always feels like there’s a real pedagogical shift required in these conversations.

In viva prep sessions we DO always go over the general kinds of questions that are asked – Patrick Dunleavy has a helpful generic list – as well as focusing on whatever both of us think might be the tricky areas. Getting the right stance – not too defensive, clear about what could and couldn’t be done, explicit about where the research might go next – is important. (One of the ways to deal with the “What are the limitations of the research?” type of question is of course precisely this, to establish the boundaries of this bit of research and use it to argue the need for continued inquiry.)

I always get doctoral researchers to think about their response to a first question which is generally (but not always) designed to get them to give the headline argument of their thesis and the contribution. Having a clear idea about how to start, what to say and the order in which to make the points is important because there will be no doubt that the doctoral researcher will be nervous. Very nervous.

Just last week I had to do a viva prep. However, this time I thought I would have a play with viva cards. There are 44 cards in a box divided into four categories – (1) introductory context, (2) methods, design and analysis, (3) results and discussion and (4) implications and utilization. The viva cards are written for doctoral researchers wanting to practice the kinds of questions they might be asked. However I think they are actually also pretty useful for the supervisor in the viva prep process.

I found the viva card process lightened the mood considerably. It was helpfully game-like. I offered a selection of cards from one of the sections to the doctoral researcher and said “Pick one” and then “How would you answer that?” Because we were focused on the cards I became much more the coach and much less the substitute examiner, and this was a far more comfortable position for me. I could clearly support rather than critique. Of course the cards don’t cover all of the questions, and there are always those specific questions that you have to anticipate. I left these till later, after we’d dealt with quite a few of the more generic cards, and this actually helped this process too, as it was clear that I could stay in the coaching role.

The viva cards are a relatively new product, available online, and I had to buy these for myself. They aren’t that cheap and I understand that £25 is a lot for a single PhD researcher to pay. However, a postgraduate support service or a school/department could buy a few sets to loan out. Some busy supervisors like me might also want their own little box of tricks. The viva cards are pretty sturdy and well made and would last for quite a while. The only complaint I had about them was the colour scheme – I could have done with a bit more difference in shade between the four sections as it did take me a bit of time to do a sort. However that’s a very minor niggle, and I really did like using them. I’d certainly recommend them as a useful tool in the lead up to the oral exam.

The more help I can get with viva prepping, so that I can be of more help to the candidate, the better.

PS The viva result? Yes. She passed, with one small correction to make.

Posted in contribution, viva | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

supervision and feedback

So this week there’s a bit of tweet humour about how US grad students might interpret feedback from faculty trained in the UK. If you haven’t seen it here’s a taste.

They say “With the greatest respect”, the grad student hears “They’re listening to me” but they mean “I think you’re an idiot”.
They say “Very interesting”, and the grad student hears “They are impressed” but they mean “Clearly nonsense”.
They say “I’ll bear it in mind”, the grad student hears “ They’ll probably do it” but they mean “I’ve forgotten it already”.
They say “I just have a few minor comments”, the grad student hears “They noticed some typos” but they mean” You need to rewrite the whole thing”.

Well, you get the picture – and if you want to see the lot, it’s here.

This little joke goes to the question of feedback in supervision – not only what is said and not said, but how it’s understood. And I’ve been thinking about feedback a lot recently, not least because I got an email not long ago from someone who had quit their PhD because the feedback they got from their adviser not only lacked any helpful pointers at all but was also an ongoing ad hominem attack, that is, it was a pernicious commentary on the doctoral researcher. I’ve also recently talked to a couple of people who had had utterly no feedback on their work – they knew that this didn’t mean that their work was perfect but rather that they were left swimming around on their own.

Giving feedback is one of the most vexatious tasks for doctoral supervisors. While it’s easy to avoid obviously cruel or slack feedback, it’s much harder to work out how to give feedback that isn’t going to be too upsetting but still provide the clarity of support that is helpful and needed. There are a number of reasons for this I think, including:

1. Most supervisors want to be encouraging. The PhD is a long haul and it’s easy to put people off. There is enough room for doubt and more than enough time for attacks of the doldrums in the average PhD, and the supervisor often finds it pretty tricky to know what is actually going on for the doctoral researcher at that precise minute. It’s also not easy to manage the balance between challenge and support. I often feel I have been rather ‘too nice’, to the detriment of more precise feedback. I am then surprised when a doctoral researcher tells me I have the reputation of being pretty ‘straight-shooting’ in what I say! But see above – as an Australian I’m much more likely to say “I don’t think that’s such a good idea” than “Maybe we could consider some other options”.

2. Providing the most useful feedback depends on the supervisor being able to diagnose the analytic/writing problem correctly. This is not always easy. It’s not unlike getting papers for review – some take several readings and some time to work out what the problem is – you know there is one but you can’t put your finger on it. The same is true of doctoral work. Sometimes I don’t have the time – between getting a piece of writing and a tutorial – to work out what is actually the problem, so I just have to do the best that I can in the time available. I’m sure I don’t always get it right. Supervisors also can’t know everything about the question, the literature, methods, field-work and writing – like many of my colleagues I’m often unsure that I actually know what I need to know in order to give the most helpful feedback.

3. Everyone is different. Some doctoral researchers are able to take fairly robust critique without falling in a heap. Others are much more likely to doubt their ability and competence. And this isn’t consistent throughout the PhD – there are times when people are more fragile than others. Sometimes people are not ready to hear what is being said – they may not have the experience or the reading to connect to the feedback. So the supervisor needs not only to know the doctoral researchers they are working with, but also to judge the level of feedback that will be ‘right’ for the person and to consider how often the same thing might need to be said.

4. And, as the jokes about the US grad student and UK faculty suggests, there are also cultural differences that play out in the power relationship that exists between supervisor and doctoral researcher. We talk very little about these cultural questions, and often then as a joke, but it is increasingly an issue in most universities around the globe as doctoral programmes become populated with researchers from more diverse disciplinary and cultural backgrounds. And we are only just starting to discuss how we deal with the hegemony of able-bodiedness.

A beginning list only about the issues surrounding feedback… As I’ve said before in this blog, there is far too little institutional discussion about supervision, let alone the key pedagogical task of giving feedback.

Last time I posted about supervision feedback (see here and here), Jo Van Every recommended this book, Liz Lerman’s Critical response process, A method for getting useful feedback on anything you make, from dance to dessert. Originally written to help people handle ‘the crit’, a common pedagogical practice in performing and visual arts, the book offers a useful protocol – start with the affirmative, ask neutral questions and then offer critique – which could well be helpful in some supervision processes too. At the very least, it could be the basis of a discussion between supervisor and doctoral researcher about how they will manage the feedback process – something I confess I don’t do nearly often enough.

Posted in academic writing, doctoral pedagogies, feedback, supervision | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

style and structure – according to Berger

There are a lot of books about academic writing out there. And I buy a lot of them too! The majority of academic writing books are written by people who are in academic development or writing instruction; others work in ordinary discipline-based teaching and researching jobs but have developed a writing specialism (like me). Many of this last group of #acwri writers – but not all – have a literature or linguistics background (also like me). But there are other academic writing books written by people who are just very experienced writers.

Probably the best known of the books written by experienced writers is Howard Becker’s Writing for social scientists. How to start and finish your thesis, book or article. Most people like Becker’s book and I do too. It’s always one I suggest to people because it’s so well written and, yes, just plain sensible.

I recently picked up Arthur Asa Berger’s book The academic writer’s toolkit. A user’s manual. Berger is also a very accomplished and prolific author, having written over 60 books in his career. As it turns out, he’s also something of a scholar of academic writing and has clearly been reading about writing, as well as doing it, for quite some time.

(An aside: being a student of academic writing is good in my view. I always check books on academic writing, doctoral education and supervision to see whether the author has done anything other than “Do it my way” … and I almost inevitably prefer those books which are grounded not only in a writer’s experience but also in a serious study of the area. But back to Berger.)

Berger’s book is divided into two sections. The first deals with the writing process and the second with different genres of academic writing. Most of the chapters give a general overview of the topic and then offer a set of principles which are exemplified and explained. There are also quite a lot of summary lists. Berger likes a good list.

So for example, a chapter which addresses structure and style begins by looking at the importance of word choice, the utility of thesis statements, the structure and function of paragraphs, the use of transitions, subheadings and different writing styles. Each of these sections is of necessity pretty brief. By and large the sections simply provide some broad guidance, but there are also helpful leads that a reader might want to follow up to get more detail. But the benefit of putting things together as one, in this way, is that Berger shows the range of decisions that an academic writer needs to make in order to write clearly.

The second part of the structure and style chapter offers one of Berger’s lists. Berger’s ‘good writing style’ list is this:

Vary your sentence length and structure
• Write clearly in an articulate and easily comprehensible manner
• Avoid jargon to the extent it is possible
• Move up and down the “ladder of abstraction”
(Berger explains this as from the concrete to the abstract and back again)
Use narratives when they will be helpful
• Provide your readers with new ideas and fascinating information – that is, be interesting
• Offer data that explains trends
• Solve practical problems
• Build upon what your readers know
• Keep away from the cliche
• Be careful with humour
• Make your paper’s structure show
• Use repetition wisely
(p. 52)

Now this is a pretty mixed list and it is expressed as a set of ‘rules’ which always makes me nervous. Anyone reading this blog will know that I don’t think about academic writing as having rules, but being more like a set of conventions which have developed over time. Nevertheless, Berger’s list is useful, even if only to help the reader to think about which things they might agree with – or not.

And I do as a reader and a writer agree with some of his points. I do for instance think that varying sentence length is generally preferable to always writing sentences that are the same length. It just makes the prose more interesting to read. Ditto not using jargon and lots of clichés and trying to make the writing interesting and lively. But of course this kind of advice is not unique to Berger. The strength of Berger’s book is that he has gathered together a range of relatively uncontentious wisdom and put it all together in a readable way. And the book does in fact follow his own style and structure advice.

This is certainly a book worth dipping into from time to time. It’s perhaps a bit like consulting Doctor Spock … for those of you who can remember this, reading Spock was like ringing your Mum and asking “What do I do if the baby has a temperature” and the answer comes, “Don’t worry too much yet, temperatures usually go away, try a baby aspirin and wait for a couple of hours before running off to A and E”. So it’s this kind of advice for academic writers that Berger offers… reassuring, as well as straightforward, no nonsense stuff.

I think it’s a book which deserves a few more recommendations and a bit more reading than I suspect it gets at present.

A caveat: Every now and then I post about an academic writing book. When I do this, it isn’t a suggestion that you ought to rush out and buy it. It’s more a case of suggesting that it’s first of all worth checking to see if the book is in the library. If it is, then you might want to have a look at it. If it’s not there, then you might want to suggest that library gets a copy. Then decide if you want it for your own library.

Posted in Becker, Berger, style and structure | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

should I number my thesis?

I’ve just been in a university where doctoral researchers are issued with a thesis template. This automatically sets up the font, layers of headings and the section and subsection numbering systems. If doctoral researchers decide to use this template, and I gather that most do, then they are automatically writing their thesis text in the 1.1, 1.1.1., 1.1.2 1.2.1 etc format.

The viva I was involved in had two external examiners (it happens sometimes), and both of us felt that this numbering system wasn’t the kind of structure that suited a lot of the theses that we saw. We agreed that we wouldn’t like the doctoral researchers we worked with to be obliged to work with, and to, this kind of numbering system.

Our concern arose not simply because we are both qualitative researchers, with one of us specialising in life histories and the other in ethnographies. Our worries were more to do with what this kind of hierarchical number system does to a thesis text. We could both think of examples in which the flow of the thesis narrative and the construction of its argument were disrupted by very enthusiastic division of the text into tiny numbered bits. We agreed that this too often felt to us as readers that we were encountering a very long list… Reading it was like metaphorically driving a long car journey on a road with endless speed bumps. What’s more, the numbered text looked like a report, rather than a sustained piece of rhetorical persuasion of the kind one might see in a literary essay, or a published scholarly monograph, or an historical analysis.

Of course, hierarchically numbering a thesis is not wrong. It is the norm in some disciplines. It is, as our experience suggests, what is expected in some institutions. But it is also a kind of default thesis structure and this may not be what best suits the actual scholarly work that has been done.

I wonder what this default system does to the craft of scholarly writing… In using hierarchical number systems, do doctoral writers tend to construct what they want to say as a series of points, which they then tend to write in bits, rather than thinking about, and writing for, flow? I’ve also noticed that in theses which are numbered 1.1,1.1.1,1.1.1a etc. that writers seem to have thought less about the actual headings they’ve used than those people who haven’t constructed their text around atomized sectioning approaches.

My answer to the question of numbering – whether and how – is of course that there is no ‘correct’ approach. How the text is structured is always a matter of choice. And, as in any choice-making, it is important that the writer consider all of the issues at play in the decisions that they make. It may be that disciplinary and institutional expectations hold sway. But I’d suggest that it is equally important for doctoral writers to consider the ways in which choices about the form of a text can shape both the writing – and the reading – experience. Flow or speed bumps?

But there is another consideration. And it is the one which was of concern to both of us acting as external viva examiners the other day. In choosing a thesis format, or having one imposed on them, the writer ends up producing a particular kind of text which might look more like a ‘scientific report’ at one end of the spectrum and a ‘non fiction book’ – or even ‘fiction’ – somewhere near the other end. We both maintained that it was important to consider how these different kinds of thesis texts might sit with the ‘positioning’ (epistemological positioning that is), that the thesis writers claim. So, if the writer says that they work with feminist poststructuralist understandings for example, it would be particularly odd to receive a thesis which looked and read much more like a post-positivist research report.

So while there is no right answer to how a thesis text might be numbered, the decision that the writer makes is often more than simply being about the writing and reading experience that it supports. Numbering choices might also reflect something of the way in which the writer views the purposes and practices of scholarly work and its representation in and as text.

Posted in argument, epistemology, narrative, reader, thesis | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

read what you want to write

One of the common pieces of advice given to creative writers is to read widely, work out what you like and then write like those you admire. This writing-like-admirable-others requires the aspiring creative writer to analyse various aspects of the admired texts – ranging from the way in which an author manages plot, character, dialogue and description to their technical construction of sentences, paragraphs and use of adverbs and adjectives.

Now this also seems like pretty good advice to academic writers too. Read what you want to write. The problem is of course how the doctoral researcher decides what is good academic writing. Is it simply something that they like? Is it something that is easy to read? Or is it something that has a particular style – say for example something written in the third person and in the passive voice? Is ‘academic’ necessarily densely packed with inter-textual references? Is an academic text one which makes the reader stop to think? Does academic writing always use a particular set of terms and conventions?

The answers to these questions are not simple. There are PhDs written on the topic. There are heated debates about the ‘academic’ in academic writing. People don’t agree, even within the same disciplines.

There is also a plethora of writing advice about, including mine, some of which assumes much more settlement about what counts as good academic writing than actually exists. Doctoral researchers need to become savvy readers of all of this online academic writing support as well as the resources in hard copy.

For me, becoming a scholar also means becoming a student of academic writing. Learning how to write doesn’t begin with the doctorate and it doesn’t stop there either. But I am not at all sure how much time and effort we actually put in, in mandatory doctoral ‘training’ courses for example, to discussions of good academic writing and how it is produced. This is pretty bizarre really, given that writing and speaking are THE ways of producing and communicating the research that we do.

There are well-established theoretical resources available to assist in understanding academic writing and its purposes, affordances and accomplishments, just as there are resources about research methodologies and methods. But we seem hell bent, in doctoral ‘training’ at least, in ignoring writing knowledge(s).

I reckon becoming a student of academic writing means at least three things.

First of all it means understanding academic writing as: the production of particular types of writing (genres); the means of participation in academic conversations; and the production of the scholar. These three things don’t happen in a vacuum, but within specific disciplinary, cultural, and policy contexts.

Secondly, becoming a student of academic writing does mean – just as creative writers are told – reading for the writing. There is considerable mileage in doctoral researchers looking at academic texts to see for example:
• how the writer stages an argument
• what scholarly lexicon the writer uses and how they manage the rhetorical task of interesting and convincing the reader
• how the writer presents data – use quotations, images, diagrammes of various sorts, charts and graphs and how these are captioned
• how the writer introduces and concludes chapters
• how the writer constructs paragraphs and sentences
It’s also interesting to see how academic writers push the genres and conventions.

Thirdly, becoming a student of academic writing means becoming active in thinking and talking about academic writing as well as ‘doing it’ – very consciously and explicitly thinking and talking. Ongoing and serious conversation can help us all become much more savvy about the kinds of writing choices we make from the kinds of genres and styles available to us.

I think that, rather than simply copping the stereotype of academic writing as willfully obscure and almost impossible for anyone to read, we do need to be able to justify our writing choices. For me, this means being able to call on a repertoire of writing genres and styles suitable for the different audiences I choose to engage in conversation. However, this may not be the same for you. The point is to be able to make an informed decision rather than to approach academic writing as if it were an homogenous practice out of our control – and out of our minds.

Posted in academic writing, conversation, creative writing, debates in the field, disciplines, doctoral education | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

choosing a thesis examiner

Most supervisors want to discuss the choice of thesis examiners with the doctoral researcher. This may well be more than a single conversation; instead a rather long intermittent musing. There may be a short list of examiners early on, but then the final decision doesn’t become clear until the thesis writing is well underway.

Choosing examiners is a very important aspect of the PhD process. The ‘wrong’ examiner can make the outcome of the viva very unpredictable, in the same way as getting the ‘wrong’ reviewer for a journal article can. But the thesis is much more high stakes than a journal article. Getting the ‘wrong’ person might mean months spent on rewriting and making corrections. Or it might mean a pretty tense discussion between two or three examiners if there is a face-to-face interaction between them, or an adjudication process if the examination reports are written.

Of course, I don’t mean that choosing an examiner is about finding someone who is going to give the doctoral researcher an easy time. No, I’m saying that it is important to find examiners who really do have the right kind of expertise to make a well-informed judgment. And for the very specialised nature of some PhDs, for the increasing number that are interdisciplinary and/or for those texts that break the boundaries of the conventional thesis, it is absolutely crucial to find examiners who grasp the intent and the scholarly context of the work. Having someone who just doesn’t ‘get it’ can be a disaster.

The most popular wisdom about examiner choice is that the supervisor and the PhD researcher look to see which scholars have been significant in the development of the thesis and approach them. This is fine as long as these people are not retired, deceased or inaccessible. And of course they may be so famous and/or in demand that they are not available. A short list of possibles is required.

Another approach is to ask which scholars the PhD researcher would like to read their work and engage in a conversation. When this latter line of action is taken it’s not uncommon for the supervisor and the doctoral researcher to make sure, after the decision about the person is taken, to read the thesis through to make sure that the potential examiner’s work is used and cited. A referencing retro- fit, if you like.

So let’s take these two cases – the person significant to the thesis, and the desirable conversant – and imagine that they available and willing. There are some decision nuances now. The researcher may have used their early work – what if they have moved on? Or only their later work – what if they actually think the development of the work is key? If the thesis is critical of the examiner’s research, then the decision becomes a little more tricky. How will they respond to a new scholar who takes issue with some of their work? And what if the desired conversant is someone whose work the doctoral researcher hasn’t used – they are just someone who knows a lot about the field and the interest is in seeing what they make of the contribution? How will they respond to their work not being used, or perhaps being referred to only in passing?

As soon as we start to discuss these how-will-they-react questions, then it becomes clear that it might be advantageous to know more about the potential examiner than their published work (which may or may not have been pivotal to the thesis). And supervisors in particular do consider other issues when they are thinking about the choice of examiners for the doctoral researchers they work with.

For example, they might have questions about how examiners are likely to behave:

How experienced are the proposed examiners? Do they know theses other than their own? Are they familiar with the range and variety of texts that count as a thesis? These days most universities ask for information about track record in doctoral examination and supervision; this attempts to get at this kind of information. The question of track record isn’t straightforward – if experience is all that counts then how does an early career researcher get to have it? Everyone has to start somewhere. And it would be perfectly possible to be an experienced examiner and still have a pretty narrow view of the PhD and acceptable standards.

But supervisor questions can be about practice, not knowledge/experience:

Is the examiner known to be fair? Interested in other people’s work? Generous, rather than mean? Or are they a person who insists on their own work being referenced copiously? Do their examinations always result in multiple corrections?

Now these are really difficult questions, and answering them might rely on the academic equivalent of something not too far removed from gossip. If the scholarly grapevine is used, then the information that results might be prejudicial or might be just plain wrong. But we would be kidding ourselves if we thought that these discussions don’t sometimes go on. However, the only ethical way around these practice questions is for the supervisor to sound out potential examiners beforehand – to send an abstract of the thesis and, if it is highly specialised, interdisciplinary or pushing the boundaries – to ask how they would respond to it.

Supervisors might also have questions about whether the examiner might be a good strategic choice.

Are they influential in the field and likely to give really helpful feedback that will help the researcher? Are they the kind of person who will help make connections with other key figures? Do they edit a journal or books that the researcher might publish in? Would they invite the researcher to participate in a conference symposium, give a seminar? Would they give the researcher a helping hand in advancing their career?

While a ‘leg-up’ can’t be expected of examiners, it is something that often happens, simply because the examiner is at the time of examination one of the few people who knows the doctoral researcher’s work in detail. Thinking about this kind of strategic support therefore can be a real consideration in the choice making process. However, it isn’t the most important – that really does come down to finding examiners who are going to be knowledgeable about the field and positioned to make wise judgments about the thesis they have read in depth. And ultimately, that’s down to how well the supervisor, and by then the doctoral researcher, knows who’s who and what’s what in the field.

Posted in examiner, thesis | Tagged , | 11 Comments

social media – with/against academic writing?

When I go on the road – as I have just done – I always try to take with me a couple of slim volumes that I can dip in and out of. These are not the academic equivalent of airport novels. Rather, they are often books with quite serious philosophical intent. However, I look for books that aren’t a dense read. The ones I carry with me are those that I think I can read a bit and then stop and think about as I move around.

On this last trip I carried Gerald Raunig’s most recent book ”Factories of Knowledge: Industries of Creativity” (2013) in which he analyses contemporary global politics and sources of opposition to them. One section early in the book examines twenty-eight tendencies of the contemporary knowledge economy ‘edu-factory’, the university. Four of Raunig’s twenty-eight ‘tendencies’ concern academic writing, and they did give me quite some pause for thought. I quote them here in full – they’re not long – they do give a good indication of the overall critique he makes.

13. Wild and transversal writing is tamed and fed into the creativity-destroying apparatuses of disciplining institutions as early as possible. Here, students are instructed in the splendid art of how to write a scientific article, how, in other words, to squeeze the last vestiges of their powers of invention into the straitjacket of the essay industry.

14. In the norming of academic writing the requirement of methodological self-reflection is preeminent. Before the writers can proceed to any kind of content, let alone political positioning, they practice subjecting themselves to the fetish of method.

15. The chief means for taming wild writing is the academic journal, particularly in its peer-reviewed form. Originally introduced as a way of enhancing objectivity the peer review has long since become an instrument of (self) government, and as such bolsters existing structures and encourages their system of inclusion and exclusion.

16. The hegemony of English language journals has brought about a crass uniformity in the languages in which academics can publish. This tendency contributes to reducing modes of expression, forms of writing and styles.
(pp. 35- 36)

Each of these points of course could host an entire book, lecture or conversation, but I just want to talk now about one response.

For someone who thinks about how doctoral and early career researchers might understand the academic writing game – and play it – these four contentions are pretty challenging. The thought that I am simply part of a larger disciplinary machine – and an imperial one at that – which requires conformity, which produces not simply particular kinds of writing and thinking but also particular kinds of scholars, is not a new one. I actually worry about it a lot. How much to ‘teach’ how to play the game, and how much to support action against it?

Much the same dilemma faces school teachers who are critical of the examination system. When I was a school teacher I adopted a stance of with/against. That is,working both with a policy and/or practice and against it at the same time. Not an either/or politics. So as a teacher, I both taught people how to play the game of examinations, but also taught about the game, as well as trying to work in concert with others to change the game where possible.

It is this kind of with/against politics that seem to me to be most pertinent in relation to academic writing too. In other words, a defensible position might be work to both teach the conventions of academic writing, but also to teach about its politics and effects, and do what I can, where I can, to change them. Well, that’s of course what I hope I’m doing.

Raunig argues that universities are still sources of what he calls ‘creative disobedience’ and I am now thinking about how much, if at all, this notion might apply in a small and modest way, to the kinds of academic writing and thinking now available to us through and on social media.It seems to me that in a with/against politics of academic writing social media plays a particular role – or, it has particular affordances I might put it, speaking pedagogically.

For a start, at least some social media operates largely outside of the economies of journal publication (although of course, there are moves to include SM in the same metrics environment). Much of what is written on academic writing blogs and in social media #acwri chat would have, until recently, been behind pay walls, and confined to particular institutional contexts – classrooms, courses and mentoring systems. These kinds of institutional ‘black boxes’ are now fractured, and academic writing and ‘academic development’ more generally ranges over space and time, thanks to social media and those who use it.

Secondly, and as importantly, social media may play a very particular role in blurring the boundaries of what counts as academic research, writing and publishing. We can write tentatively in online contexts, exploring ideas in ways that are much more difficult within the essay/thesis industry or in conventional academic journals (e.g. such as this post). We can also experiment with different writing ‘voices’ and with different genres too, without too much fear of ridicule or punishment. While none of this social media activity is free from disciplines and disciplining, it is currently a less policed and more free ranging space/time.

I also wonder, of course, what we might need to do in order that the creative potential of social media is not victim to what Raunig sees as ‘the increasingly precarious nature of knowledge production’ (p.36). In the light of this, recent moves to police the academic use of social media take a particularly toxic political hue.

Posted in academic blogging, academic writing | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments