find some support from an academic writing broker

It’s hard when you first start out writing papers for journals. There are lots of decisions to make – Which journal? What topic will the editors be interested in? What style should the paper adopt? What will reviewers do?

In their book on academic writing in the English language, Teresa Lillis and Mary Jane Curry suggest that it’s helpful for people who are unsure of the answers to these questions to seek out literacy brokers. Lillis and Curry’s research focused particularly on multilingual scholars who are seeking publication in international English-medium journals, so they include as literacy brokers all the people who impact directly on helping texts get published. These are editors, reviewers, academic professionals and academic peers, linguistic professionals, English-speaking friends and colleagues. Lillis and Curry argue that brokering activity uses and generates a form of cultural capital – know how about the publiscation process – that makes a critical difference to publication outcomes. Access to brokers can ensure publication; enhance the prestige and reputation of writers; and even secure more direct forms of economic gain, such as promotion and salary bonuses.

Lillis and Curry draw attention to the significance of literacy brokers, particularly for writers who use English as an Additional Language. There is now pressure from many governments for scholars to publish in English and there are in some places diminishing numbers of first language journals. In these circumstances increasing numbers of multilingual scholars are turning to English language specialists – proof readers, editors and the like – to assist with the technicalities of expression. Many seek help from people who often combine language support with disciplinary expertise. They urge scholars to seek out literacy brokers, and not try to do things all by themselves, in isolation.

But for those who are relatively confident about what journal to write for and what they want to say, there is still a point in thinking about the benefits of a broker… someone who can help when the reviews come back, someone who can talk you through the aftermath of the reviewer comments and the editorial decision, someone around in that emotional time when you just want to stick the paper in the bottom drawer and never put hand to mouse again…. That’s the point at which you can really do with some additional support and advice.

Publication brokering is the term Barbara and I use – see our book on writing papers for journals – to talk about the very particular support given during the revise and resubmit process. We use the term brokering more narrowly than Lillis and Curry to describe interactions that occur after the article is returned. We think of the broker as a trusted senior colleague to whom an early-career writer can turn, maligned article and those pesky reviewer comments in hand.

Clearly we all find the resubmission process complex, troublesome and difficult to interpret, but newcomers especially so. Publication brokers can help bruised and worried writers interpret what is happening in the social, cultural and political climate of revise and resubmit so they can take effective textual action. Conversations with brokers about the content of an article and the broader disciplinary conventions and journal conventions can play a critical role in successful publication.

Publication brokering is clearly useful for doctoral researchers new to the game. In our book Barbara and I tell the story of a doctoral researcher named Sam who was so devastated by negative reviewer comments that she decided not to resubmit. The criticism of her methodological work was harshly stated. One reviewer said: ‘I would consequently question if this new format is indeed in any way innovative or new on the dimensions that the paper claims. I find this to be a major flaw in the research reported within the paper.’ Sam was so upset by this commentary, that she didn’t read the letter from the editor, which asked her to revise and return the revised manuscript within 30 days.

It was not until she brought the letter to her supervisor that she understood. Despite the stated problems, the editor wanted her article. ‘30 days’ signalled there was a publication deadline the editor needed to meet. The Editor thought the problems in Sam’s article were ‘fixable’; the supervisor thought so too. There was no purpose in crying for too long. Sam actually knew the literature far better than she demonstrated in the article and had to work hard to show why and how her contribution was different from previous work- why it was new. Without the input of her supervisor to broker the revision process, she would not have resubmitted. What a wasted opportunity that would have been!

Publication brokering can be done by a variety of people – supervisors, colleagues, writing mates, writing groups and other academic professionals. They can help with those complex and difficult decisions that need to be made about how to address reviewer concerns – they can share their disciplinary knowledge, provide insight about scholarly debates, discuss options for structural framing as well as reveal the niceties of the specific discourses of the target journal.

Publication and literacy brokerage is an important part of the academic mentoring process. It’s really helpful to think about who there is in your networks who might be able to fulfil this role.

Posted in academic writing, journal, literacy broker | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

academic mentoring – a super(wo)man ask?

These days, I’m sure, all early–career researchers are advised to get themselves an academic mentor, someone who they can turn to for some support and guidance. Today’s assumption is that being a scholar is not sink-or-swim.

Many universities manage an academic mentoring process. They are reluctant to leave the provision of support to chance. The allocation of mentors has become a key institutional strategy for ensuring that some kind of personal-professional support is available to everyone. So, when new staff arrive in the institution, the appropriate adminstrator in their home school/faculty/centre is charged with allocating a mentor to them as part of their induction process. However, many institutions seem to forget temporary contracted staff in these arrangements – not OK!! But others are more inclusive, and their mentoring schemes are all encompassing – everyone who’s new gets a mentor.

The process of institutional matching – mentor and one-to-be-mentored – varies. I’ve seen different scenarios ranging from speed-dating to arbitrary match-making to schemes where new people make their own choices and simply report who their mentor will be. Not surprisingly, the success of highly engineered relationships varies. That’s generally not because the two parties are unwilling to engage in ongoing conversations, but because simply putting two people together doesn’t always make a relationship work.

Mentoring is just like any other relationship. It’s good if there’s something in common in mentoring partnerships, some overlapping interests, some kind of shared experiences. The mentoring relationships that I’ve seen that seem to work best are where there is something more than a generic ‘experienced’ and ‘new’ partnership as the raison d’etre. (Of course in some cases people in engineered relationships do find something shared and common between them. But I’ve seen many mentoring relationships that don’t, even with the best will in the world.) Many of the ‘women in (add discipline)’ mentoring schemes seem to work pretty well – and maybe this is because both the more and less experienced academics have the (add discipline) and the commitment to equity in common right at the start. They both have a/the same reason to make the mentoring relationship work.

It’s possible – and I’d say highly likely – that any lack of success in academic mentoring comes from the fact that the role of the academic mentor is a pretty hard one to fill. It’s no great revelation to say that none of us are actually good at everything. But institutional academic mentoring schemes generally proceed as if we are. The reality is that some senior academics might be very good at helping people get research bids together, while others might have real strengths in supporting writing and publication. Some might be very good at coaching and be incredibly helpful as a long-term support for managing life in the institution. Some senior academics can’t get past an I-did-it-my-way solution for younger academic’s challenges while others are seriously skilled and begin by recognising the current difficult employment and career contexts in which newer academic colleagues work.

Another difficulty is that there is often an institutional assumption that we all know how to mentor. Why would that be the case? Why the assumption that mentoring is something that just comes naturally? There is probably something worth knowing from the research into mentoring practices, and perhaps something to learn from people who coach full-time for a living. While academic mentoring is not the same as football coaching, there might be something in some of that life-coaching and counselling practice that could be quite useful to academic mentors too. I also suspect that there is something pedagogical about the academic mentoring relationship that, just like supervision, could benefit from more dedicated active inquiry and theorisation. Institutions could well build more informed and inquiry-based processes into their mentoring schemes.

Given the vagaries that surround academic mentoring, I reckon it’s probably a good idea for doctoral and early-career researchers to reject the notion that having one academic mentor will do the lot. If I was starting again, knowing what I know now, I’d think pretty seriously about searching out not one, but a few helpful people who I could turn to for conversation about different aspects of academic work. Some fortunate early-career researchers will be in research centres or teaching teams where a range of experienced people are readily available, but others will have to DIY, actively try to find people who can provide support with the range of scholarly issues, questions and difficulties that they wonder about. And of course there are a range of externally run programmes and social media support that can fill in some of the gaps that institutions leave.

However, it does seem to me that there is much more that many institutions could do for early–career researchers besides mentoring schemes. Relying on a single person as the point of all support and advice for newcomers to the insitutional family isn’t really good enough. An academic mentor is not a kind of all encompassing go-to person, an all-singing, all-dancing, one-stop-shop for everything from encyclopaedic answers to the provision of ongoing support and guidance on everything. (Just watch me strip down to my cape and tights in the telephone box before I come into a mentoring meeting.)

Institutions have a responsibility to provide more general support on top of mentoring schemes. Institutional structures are needed. Universities might – and of course some do – provide regular seminars, workshops and designated pools of people who are willing to provide publication and research development advice to early-career academics. (The Athena Swan scheme might be an existing model that UK universities could look at for a few spread-able ideas.) But they might go much further and also support – with money and time – academic development processes that cohorts of new staff design for themselves.

And of course there is also a responsibility for institutions to think about how to create cultures which are collectively and collaboratively supportive of new staff. Such supportive cultures would have an overall emphasis on everyone doing well rather than on the competitive production of a few research stars. But of course now I’m getting really Pollyanna-ish. So I might as well finish off by saying that more jobs and postdoctoral opportunities would be a pretty good idea too… despite my issues with academic mentoring, having more people to be mentored would be a fine problem to have!

Posted in early career researchers | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

what is an ‘academic profile’?

Doctoral and early-career researchers are encouraged to sign up for courses that offer career development advice. Most of these workshops and courses focus on technicalities – this is how to construct your cv – or on strategies – get yourself a mentor, network network network. This kind of advice can be very helpful, and I certainly don’t want to argue that it’s not. I sometimes give this kind of advice too.

But all these courses and advice often fail to provide sufficient time and support to think about the purposes and conventions surrounding the academic profile. Or perhaps even what an academic profile actually is…

I think about the academic profile as a narrative. It is a narrative of the scholar we are and the scholar want to be. Put more simply, an academic profile is a story we tell to ourselves and to other people and organisations. Our profile story focuses on the kinds of scholarly work we have done, can do and hope to do in the future. It signals the particular scholarly interests we have, what we stand for and what we think is important. It brings together our various experiences, publications, networks, teaching and professional relationships. It traces our intellectual history and points to a path ahead.

An academic profile is also highly performative. It has to do work for us. The work we want our profile to do varies, but generally includes:

(1) instrumental work. We want our academic profile to help us do something – get a job either outside or inside a university, get funding, get published, tell readers who we are and the basis on which we write.

(2) disciplinary and scholarly work. We want our academic profile to indicate the kinds of intellectual traditions we work in, show the scholarly/policy/practice/professional communities with whom we sit and talk, and the ways in which our intellectual contributions to policy/practice/scholarly conversations have gone and will go.

An academic profile is profoundly text-ed. And there are multiple texts involved. Our prolife is our cv, but there may be multiple versions of that cv produced for different audiences. It’s also other texts that we produce for various purposes and people – bio-notes for publications and conference programmes; annotated publication lists for funders; about- me notes for web-pages, blogs and twitter. Our academic profile is distributed across and through multiple texts, platforms and media. However, at least some of these texts might well end up being read together so producing texts with some degree of cross-referencing is always a Good Idea.

An academic profile is of course also embodied. Whenever we present to a class, a conference, a meeting, at an informal event we begin to give off signals about ourselves as scholars. What we choose to speak about and with whom may or may not chime with the narrative that we want to construct about ourselves… So there is always a degree of self conscious-ness about the performative aspects of our profile that can be very disconcerting and self-conscious-making.

An academic profile is something that we can be more or less concerned about. We can deliberately think a lot and /or constantly about how we want to go about manufacturing our profile, or we can be somewhat more casual about it. Whichever of these options we choose, we should always, it seems to me, have in our mind the work we want our profile-narrative to do and, of course, who the intended audience of our text-ed profile will be. And we can think about the style. Academic profiles vary from the unbearably slick, the overwhelmingly self-absorbed and the simply overbearing, to something rather more conventional.

The point I’m making here is a pretty simple one. We choose the kind of academic profile – our texts and narrative – that we wish to convey to whom, and in what circumstances. This what those classes on doing your cv and how to get a mentor are actually about. They present the choices about how we want our scholarly selves and our work to be seen and understood.

Of course this doesn’t mean that our intentions for our academic profile are actually what happens when we/our narrative texts go out into the world… but that’s another post.

See also:

make your cv work for you
the cv as autobiography
the cv as forward looking

Posted in cv, cv as autobiography, cv as forward looking, text | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

flipping the conference: experiences from the Temporal Belongings project

This is a guest post from Michelle Bastian (University of Edinburgh)

In response to Pat’s recent call to flip the conference format, I wanted to share some of my experiences from the Temporal Belongings project. Our focus is on exploring the relationship between time and community and starting from our first meeting in 2012 we have tried to bring our research topic into the heart of how we do things. That is, rather than just talking about time and community, we have also experimented with our own ways of being together in time. Inspired by facilitation training from Cliodhna Mulhern which I undertook as part of my involvement with Transition Liverpool, I developed a hybrid framework for the event that addressed three key issues:

1. Recognising that a workshop constitutes a temporary community
Too often we treat attendees as a collection of individuals and do very little to help build a shared sense of who is in the room, what their interests are and how we might work together to explore the workshop theme. To avoid this, bios were shared online prior to the event, these were tagged with keywords so that it was easy to find people with related interests. Everyone also sent in three key texts related to the conference topic to create a shared bibliography. A wordle of authors allowed people to see which approaches were influential amongst the group. At the event we had a generous amount of time to introduce ourselves and discuss expectations and fears.

2. Emphasising analysis over content provision
Flipping the usual practice of letting presenters overrun and retaining tight control over the question time, presenters were strictly timed and discussion time was much more generous. We had short keynotes (30 minutes), even shorter papers (5 minutes) and at least half an hour for discussion in each session. Importantly rather than focus on the speaker by moving to a Q&A, we instead talked in groups about how the presentation related to the attendee’s concerns and interests. This allowed the content to be integrated and analysed in a multitude of conversations rather than a narrow back and forth between the presenter and their audience.

3. Taking time to develop a synthesised response to the workshop theme
At least a third of the workshop was devoted to activities that allowed participants to step back from the details of the presentations and begin to ask what it all might mean. This included conceptual mapping to develop a sense of emergent themes, open space to explore participant proposed questions in greater depth and world café to iteratively develop a shared understanding of what we had all learned. (More info on these activities, as well as outputs, is available on our website).

Despite a lot of nerves going into the first event, the response to these experiments was so positive that I’ve continued to use this approach in the eleven or so events I’ve organised since then. Collated feedback from subsequent events suggests that people really appreciate the extra time for discussion. In fact many of the suggestions for improvement ask for even more time to talk. I’ve yet to have anyone ask for more presentations! Attendees also comment on how well the methods work for an interdisciplinary group. They enjoy meeting such a wide range of people from so many different backgrounds and actually having time to explore ideas together. Shorter presentations seem to facilitate this. If a talk doesn’t seem related to your work, or goes over your head, you can be comforted by the fact that it will probably only last for 5-6 minutes.

Of course there are some drawbacks to consider. These events can get noisy, with 20-30 people talking in groups, sometimes in the same room. So people with hearing difficulties can find it uncomfortable, as well as others who find noise distracting. There are also always one or two people who miss having a Q&A session with the speaker and I’ve yet to develop a good answer to this. Perhaps most importantly, these methods aren’t foolproof. I’ve been to events that claim to be open space but are run without regard for the underlying ethos that inspired its development. These kinds of events can end up feeling too corporate (or too much like high school). Running a collaborative event also requires a lot of careful planning. Facilitators need to consider shifts in energy, managing the flow from one activity to another, how to allow for the different stages that groups pass through and also not sticking too rigidly to a plan that isn’t working out in practice. All this suggests a better recognition of the distinct skills and experience needed for facilitation and particularly the worth of paying for this expertise if need be. Even so, seeing groups of people linger after an event, sharing contact details, not quite ready to break the new connections they’ve made, or having people tell me that they didn’t know an academic event could be this interesting, fun, and enlightening make it all worth it.

Recommended Reading:
Chambers, Robert (2002) Participatory Workshops: A Sourcebook of 21 Sets of Ideas and Activities. London & New York: Routledge
Holman, Peggy et al. (2007) The Change Handbook: The Definitive Resource to Today’s Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler
Owen, Harrison (2008) Open Space Technology.: A User’s Guide. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler
Impact Alliance’s A Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Workshops. Available here
This blog post by Nancy Dixon: Guidelines for Leveraging Collective Knowledge and Insight

Posted in conference format | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

practice – writing field notes

It’s the time of year when doctoral researchers – and those with new research projects – head off enthusiastically, and sometimes a bit fearfully, into their field work sites. Field work usually – but not always – involves going away from your usual location. And that’s something you need to, and can, prepare for. In this post I want to talk about getting yourself ready for the note-taking you’re going to have to do.

Now the most important thing about any field notes you take is that they become a record that you use in your analysis. While you’re going to read them over and over, you’re probably only going to get one chance at writing down what you see and hear. Your notes therefore need to be as accurate and as detailed as possible. There’s no going back to fleeting events. Instead of having to just rely on your memory, you need to make the best possible description of the things you saw and heard at the time they happen – or as close to this as possible.

Why only close? Well, you might be in a situation where you can to sit on one side of the action and watch what is going on. If so, you can take pretty good notes there and then. But actually, some – or most – of us don’t have this luxury. We can’t write down what’s going on in the moment. We might be taking part in the action, or just be in a social situation where it would be pretty off-putting to everyone if we sat taking notes. So while some methods texts will try to tell you that your notes must be accurate and verbatim, this is a norm you try to live up to – but not beat yourself up if you don’t quite get there.

So it’s likely you’ll have to find a way to write down enough at the time to help you reconstruct events afterwards. You might be able to make scribbles which you can expand later while you still remember what happened. You might find yourself rushing off to the loo or into the stationery cupboard to make a few surreptitious marks on paper. Most of the time you will work later that night or the next day to expand those notes you have managed to take into a relatively accurate record, the best that you can do in the circumstances.

It is a really good idea to get some practice taking notes before you go to your field site. Here’s one easy way to do this. You can simply pick up your notebook and pen and head off for a coffee, and observe what happens around you in your chosen café. It’s not at all odd to see people sitting in cafes with laptops these days, so you probably won’t get a second glance. It’s important that you do this with an ethical mindset – you’re not there to observe any individual people and you aren’t going to use the field notes afterwards. But you might need to check if this kind of work is OK with your institution’s ethical procedures – remembering this is a learning occasion for you, not a piece of actual research..

So there you are in the café/public park/town square … now what? It’s good to focus the writing in order to practice, and here’s a few suggestions you might want to focus on to begin with:

(1) The built environment. Begin by recording the material surroundings, the room, the windows, the furniture and so on. Draw a map of what is where. You may be able to take a photo or two if you have permission. Remember this won’t include people unless you are prepared to go through a long formal ethics process! What signs and symbols are in this space: what words, languages and images are used?

(2) The sensual environment. Write about the things that you can see, hear and smell. What can you touch and not touch? You may be able to bring a recorder and make a little soundscape of what you hear to accompany your notes.

(3) The human environment. Who is here? What kind of people are they? Can you see various roles? What do people do in this site? What are their movements in and out of the site?

(4) The social environment. How do people interact with each other? How do people interact with the physical site and all the “stuff” that is there? What are the interactions within and between the natural environment, between humans and the natural environment? Are there any conversational and/or movement patterns that you can observe and/or hear? Take this pattern and describe it in detail. Record conversations and movements as near as verbatim as possible.

Now here’s two things that are perhaps less commonly thought about by many social scientists:

(5) The natural environment. What kind of animals, insects, birds, plants are here? What are they, what are they doing and how? Is there weather, and does it make a difference to what happens here? What else is here – water, earth, air –what and how are they in this place? How do they interact with people?

(6) The temporal environment – are things fast or slow here? How does time matter, why, how and to whom? How is history here – what signs of the past can you see?

Now while you are writing your practice field notes about all of these things, you may find that you’ve also thought the odd thought, come up with a question or perhaps half formulated some kind of analytic proposition. The convention with field notes is that you try to separate these thoughts from your description. This is so that you don’t get confused later between thoughts and what you were trying to record. Some people use double column pages in order to do this, or Cornell notes. Other people use some kind of consistent signage in their notes which indicates to them, some time later when they are reading through, that this was a thought not an observation. I’ve seen people use square brackets to do this work. I’m a bit messier and always draw a little cartoon-like cloud symbol which I place on the side of the page and I write my thought inside it.

As part of your field note practice it’s a good idea to try to write from your field notes . Turn them into a page or two of prose. This means you get to see what it’s like to use the notes you’ve taken. How well do they allow you to describe where you were and what happened there? What information did you find yourself wishing was there – is there a way that you can think of to include this missing stuff next time?

You can of course use time in your actual field site to practice taking notes and to work out what’s going on there – it’s a kind of reconnaissance. But if you can find the time to practice before-hand, and make that practice somewhere else, it will pay off when you first go into your real field work site. You’ll just be much more confident that you know what you have to do in order to record what’s going on. Dib, dib, dib… You’re prepared.


The usual reference to writing field notes:
Emerson, R., Fetz, R., & Shaw, L. (1995). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The problems with making field notes – start here:
Behar, R., & Gordon, D. A. (Eds.). (1995). Women writing culture. University of California Press.
Sanjek, R. (Ed.). (1990). Fieldnotes: The makings of anthropology. Cornell University Press.

Scientific field notes – some with beautiful illustrations
Canfield, M. R. (Ed.). (2011). Field notes on science & nature. Harvard University Press

And for not just writing, see:
Back, L. (2007). The art of listening. Berg.
Pink, S. (2009). Doing sensory ethnography. Sage.
Pink, S. (2013). Doing visual ethnography. Sage.

Posted in academic writing, Ethnographic kit, field work | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

a little Romantic messiness

A post for National Poetry Day.

It is pretty common for research methods courses and books to suggest that qualitative researchers read through their data – such as interview transcripts – several times. Reading through happens before you get down to the ‘real work’ of ‘actual analysis’. The idea is that you get familiar with what’s been said, as a whole, before you begin to deconstruct. It’s perhaps a bit like having to understand what a cheesecake is before you begin the cheffy separation into crumbs and mousse.

There are various reasons for comprehensive data reading at and as the start of analysis. Narrative researchers might suggest that by reading the lot you start to apprehend the overall story that is being told, and you often identify any sub-stories that are lurking in the text. Grounded theorists might argue that you start to pick up the themes as you read – they either leap out at you or gradually come into view. Arts-based researchers might say that reading through allows an early hearing of the literary qualities of speech – the metaphors, repeated words, pauses and stumbles that often get missed in coding and thematising processes.

I’m always interested in early wholistic reads as a way to think about, say, how a person being interviewed makes meaning. Of course to do this kind of activity, you have to try to do the impossible and get into the other person’s head… And of course this really is completely impossible. You can however have a go. Having some questions in mind can help in this process of mind-reading. What sense does the interviewee make of my questions? What do they do with the topics I’ve directed them to? What resources do they call on to put their point of view? What experiences do they reference, what relationships and networks do they choose to make visible, what histories and contexts are fore-grounded? What seems to be the logic of what they are saying? Or, in the case of field notes, what on earth was I thinking then? (That’s a joke, Joyce.)

But as well as some orienting questions, I reckon it also helps to be open to qualitative data as a mess, a muddle, as profoundly not logical and reasoned.

I’ve been vaguely interested in Keats’ notion of ‘negative capability’ for a while. I’ve wondered what it might have to say to very early readings of interview transcripts and other qualitative data. I’ve recently returned to the idea more seriously. This revisit came about as I was faced with the refusal of some data to make nice, neat sense. The words and images just wouldn’t let themselves be packaged up into definite know-able and name-able clumps. And negative capability came to mind.

Now, if you didn’t get Keats’ notion of negative capability offered to you in your undergraduate years, then it might help to know that it’s generally attributed to a mere couple of lines in a letter written in 1817. Keats says…

…I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man (sic) is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

I was taught in my undergraduate English degree that this fragment meant that Keats thought it was foolish to go searching for an ultimate truth. He thought that this was particularly so for poets and other artists who ought, he thought, not to bother about essential truths at all. Rather, they ought to be open and receptive to the unknowable. In other snatches of writing Keats also talked about the necessity of artists being able to empty themselves of what they hold most dear; they ought to let go of their customary ideas and aspirations in order to be open to the ineffable.

When faced with my difficult data, it struck me that something of the spirit of Keats might be appropriate. I’m attracted to Keats’ urging to resist the rush to find truths, to dispel all of the usual thought processes and to embrace the contradictions, vagueness, and elusiveness of speech/life/the world. I like his notion of being uncertain and of the receptiveness to alternative ways of talking/thinking/being that it might offer. And the notion of negative capability might also act as some solace when the analysis just doesn’t do what what it’s supposed to.

But I also thought about his idea more generally. Negative capability would certainly be useful to bring to first readings of interviews and conversations. It would put off the urge to get things sorted quickly, a virtue that methods books and doctoral training often don’t explain sufficiently.

I’m not wanting to argue here for negative capability – read as a resistance to some kind of approximate and contingent attempt at truthfulness – as a permanent research sensibility. I might argue that at some other point in time, but right now I’m just thinking that it might be a pretty helpful notion to insert into some of the highly technical conversations I hear in research methods training. A focus on negative capability as an early stage of meeting-and-greeting-your-data would certainly slow down the leap to decide what the stuff ‘says’. A focus on negative capability might also encourage a little scepticism about the processes that are used to force data into apparently resolute categories called themes and codes.

And of course in my case, negative capability might also legitimate tolerance of mess and ambiguity – which is after all an inevitability for data (words, images and numbers) which rely on human interpretation.

See also:
Doctoral training and the messiness of research

Mess in a PhD as a good thing

messy research – following your nose

mess and recruiting participants

writing about mess in your thesis part one and part two

Posted in data, interview transcripts, John Keats, mess, negative capability | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

what’s the use of ‘out of office’ notices?

I’ve had a pretty busy September. I was on leave for a week in late August and then went straight to a conference in Portugal. After a brief and frenetic period at home/work, I had two back-to-back conferences in London.

For most of late August and September I’ve had an out-of-office notice on my email saying I was away and that I would look at emails when and as I could, but I wouldn’t be able to deal with any attachments. So what did saying that accomplish?

Well, not much as it turned out. The rate of emails slowed marginally. One person actually cut and paste what would normally be an attachment into the body of the email so it could be read. Another couple of people apologized for needing an answer while I was away. But many still required me to respond straight away to requests for meeting dates, answers to questions, comments on documents – and several made decisions for me if I didn’t answer immediately. Everyday work just seems to have continued as usual – the customary expectations of turnaround time and responsiveness were the same as if I was actually present. I know this is a full-time academic first-world problem, but it is a bit of a problem nevertheless… Let me explain.

The thing I really need to say here, just in case there’s someone out there who doesn’t know this, is that academic conferences ARE work. They might be away from home, and there might be the odd dinner in restaurants or a moment of sightseeing, but giving and attending papers, networking, talking to publishers, meeting with potential collaborators – that’s academic work. And what’s more, the work doesn’t just benefit us. The conference is academic work that’s good for our institutions too. Universities get reputational benefit from their academics being out and about, and there are future benefits for them in the form of bids, publications and citations. The more citations and league tables matter to university reputations and enrolments, the more conferences matter too.

Being away at a conference meant that my workload substantially increased – because there was the work at the conference and then there was the relatively undiminished everyday work that needed doing at home. I know from talking to colleagues that I’m not the only one who experiences this double-trouble phenomenon. Lots of people find that being away at a conference is a very mixed blessing.

I don’t think this additional load was necessarily anyone’s individual fault. Everyone who sent me emailed demands was beavering away doing their own jobs. Some just couldn’t adjust deadlines and processes to account for one absent member of the group/task they were managing. They had to go with the set process. Others however seem to have internalised a set of very speedy institutional time-frames – I’m not convinced everything had to be this fast – and everyone inevitably depended on digitally mediated communications to conduct their speedy transactions … aka email.

Do you remember the time before email? When someone was away their office door would be shut and they just wouldn’t turn up at a meeting, and this wouldn’t matter. Only if the situation was extremely important would their away-activities be interrupted by a telephone call. These days however, the sheer ubiquity of mobile technologies means that the expectation more often than not seems to be that no-one is ever truly away doing something else or on leave. We all carry phones, tablets and notebooks everywhere so we’re always contactable.

It sometimes seems difficult to even contemplate that we might not all actually want to live on these gadgets, that we need a break. An example – I just noticed from the bounce-back on one of those routine group emails – now the way we routinely communicate with each other – that one of my colleagues had an out of office notice saying that they weren’t available over the weekend! The weekend …

I plead guilty to pandering to this be-available-all-day-all-year situation. When I was away over summer in a remote part of the country where there was pretty patchy mobile access, I and my mates ended up at the local pub each morning to check our emails. That’ll be four coffees please, and an hour or so dealing with queries, demon diaries and the please-respond-even-though-I know-you’re-on-holidays-because-I’m-desperate. Some ‘leave’.

However, there were lots of things I didn’t do during my leave and conference time. I’ve now forgotten what a lot of them were and if I don’t get re-contacted about them – well they can’t have been that important. And I did just tag a lot of emails while I was at conferences so that I could follow them up later. And that ‘when’ means, I’m afraid, when I have time to squash them into the everyday work that is already in my diary for the coming weeks.

But I figure I need to do something about this situation. My un-new years resolution is to get more ruthless about the continuous stream of communication. It’s clear that out-of-office messages are utterly useless as a means of controlling the onslaught of stuff that ends up in the mailbox. More hands-on tactics are required. I’m not sure how I will adjust to a new less responsive routine, as I have been well-trained to respond like Pavlov’s dog to the churn and to feel overwhelmed if it turns into an unanswered glut. I’m already one of the professionals who has highly permeable work/private life boundaries – Christina Nippert-Eng’s classic study documented this problem a long time ago. So it won’t be easy to change. But I’m going to try.

You heard it here first. Don’t always expect an immediate response to your email. Maybe you won’t get a response at all. Maybe you will. So, if you really want to know what I’m thinking, maybe you could ask me for a conversation and a coffee instead. But then, *shakes head*, how will we set the date and time???

Posted in work | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments