conference blog: beware the conference app

This is a guest post written by Dr Julie Rowlands from Deakin University, Australia.

Greetings from the ECER conference at Porto. As a recently appointed academic after a mid-life career change, this is my first international conference. It is very exciting and a little bit (OK, a lot!) nerve wracking. However, this post is not about the conference itself. It’s about what I did and what happened to me before I even got to the conference, because I hope that sharing this story might make the first international conference experience a little easier for others also.

This story starts in Australia, where I am from. Like all conscientious early career researchers I read every pre-conference email from the organisers and was keen to be prepared in terms of knowing where I wanted to be, when and with whom, before I even got to Portugal. As soon as the conference app was available I therefore downloaded it and carefully selected the sessions I wanted to attend. The first of these was my own session of course – there was no way in the world I was going all the way to Portugal only to miss my own session. But there were lots of others also – sessions being given by my colleagues, sessions by luminaries whose work I admire and have cited (and who I hope I might get to meet at the conference), and sessions by those whose names were not familiar but whose work was interesting and relevant to my own in some way. When I had finished selecting all of these sessions the conference app asked if I wanted to sync the details with my calendar. I said yes – and all of the relevant details magically appeared in my Outlook. This was neat! I also registered through the ECER conference website for the personalised online programme. Of course, I also polished and rehearsed my presentation. In short, I left Australia on the 23 hour flight feeling quietly confident with my pre-conference organisation.

My first inkling that something was not right with all of this came when I had arrived in Porto and was having a chat with my presenting colleagues about where we had to be, when. I dutifully pulled out my smartphone, opened the Outlook calendar to check the venue for our first session, only to find that we were presenting – at 6.45 am! This can’t be right, I thought, and carefully checked all other sessions I had selected. They were all at odd times too. Worst of all, my own presentation was showing as being at 2.00 am. It seems that when I arrived in Portugal all of these events were helpfully moved back nine hours, corresponding perfectly with the time difference between Australia and Portugal. That was when I noticed that it was not only the conference sessions that had moved – my son’s swimming sessions and my next eyebrow wax were also in the middle of the night! It seems that by downloading the conference app and moving selected events into my calendar before I left home, everything in my calendar had moved back nine hours, even though I did not have ‘time-zone sync’ selected in my calendar settings. Not to worry, I thought, I will muddle through with the online programme and at least when I go home all of my other commitments will go back to normal. Apparently not, advised more experienced colleagues who had been through this before – some pre-existing calendar entries never recover from this international conference-imposed time warp and need to be deleted and re-entered, from scratch!

The moral of this story is that sometimes too much pre-organisation can be a bad thing – especially if it involves conference program apps. The rule, which I shall be sticking to slavishly from now on, is don’t download your conference app until you have arrived at the venue and are safely in the same time zone as the conference. Then you can download to your heart’s content.

Posted in conference app, conference papers, conference presentation, Julie Rowlands, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

conference blog: managing the programme

So you’ve registered for the conference, and now you have the programme. It might be slim, or not. The ECER conference I’m at is not small but it’s not the largest around either – it’s usually somewhere around two to three thousand people. But that many people means about that many papers too, and a printed progamme which, if not quite the size of an airport novel, is certainly big enough to take a few hours to read thoroughly.

These days you can usually get a conference programme online so you can look at it before you come. Many conferences now also have an app that feeds your choices of sessions straight into your diary. I had a brief look at the ECER programme before I came but mainly focused on the first day.

But when faced with the programme, how do you decide what to go to?

Finding your way around a conference programme is always tricky. First-time conference goers may think that there is some kind of hidden knowledge about how to choose which papers to go to. But there isn’t. A quick and very un-random poll of five people at dinner on Sunday night – on the riverfront, grilled fish and very nice – suggested that, regardless of conference experience, choosing which sessions and papers to attend involves generating a menu of opportunities. This means:

(1) picking some papers given by people you know – you either use or are interested in their work. You have a rough idea what you’ll hear. Sometimes you only know people through their writing, and the conference is a chance to see them in person. Sometimes you may also know people who are just good presenters and/or who always do interesting work.

(2) choosing other papers on the basis that the topic seems to be strongly related to your own work. This might mean following the sessions in one or two strands, or interest groups, within the conference. If the conference is large, then finding a subgroup of like-minded people in a strand is often a good way to get to know people and to avoid the lost-in-a-huge-crowd feeling you can get in really big conferences.

(3) selecting a few papers where the topic sounds interesting, but isn’t strongly related to your current work, but nevertheless could be interesting. Sometimes the most stimulating ideas come from, or come to you, in those slightly-off-your-main-focus sessions. However, beware the clever title. It’s not unknown for papers to have a snappy title and then be just the opposite – very tiresome indeed when you find this out as the paper goes on.

It’s a very good idea not to fill up your entire programme with sessions, or you could mark some down as more optional. It’s not a waste of hard won registration money to leave some time for hanging about in the book displays, going to special interest group meetings, association business meetings, and/or just spending a bit of time chatting to new people. Conferences precede social media in being the place to make new academic connections. Making the time to follow up those quick chats after presentations (more on this later) is essential. I’ve been known to spend as much time outside paper sessions as in, although I’m not assuming that will be the case at ECER.

The ultimate rule of conference thumb is not to expect every session to present you with a breathtaking new analysis, ground breaking new results and/or elegant argument. Some sessions will be good, and some won’t be. You may well hear experienced researchers fumble their way through their presentations, some people who should know better reading their papers in a monotone and others racing through a set of densely packed powerpoints. Amid this, there will be presentations that are polished, and others that are dead interesting. The dead interesting are often what makes the conference memorable.

I’m hoping for some memorable moments at ECER this year.

Posted in conference papers | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

conference blog: getting ready to network

This is the first of five posts written to coincide with attending the European Education Research Association conference in Porto.

There is more to getting ready to go to a conference than getting the abstract written and accepted. Indeed there’s more than preparing and rehearsing the presentation. That’s all necessary and not exactly straightforward. But in this case, it is all done.

And getting ready for a conference is not just about packing up the various bits of technology needed to keep up during a week away from the desk – laptop, ipad et al. It is that and my carry-on luggage attests to how much I feel is necessary to carry with me! As it happens I forgot an adaptor but my hotel came to the rescue, so I’m all powered up.

Nor is getting conference ready just about anxiously sorting out what the weather is likely to be, and packing appropriately, within the weight limit allowed by budget airlines. It’s likely to be hot and sunny in Porto so not much to worry about on that score.

Hang on, there’s still more. There’s also the getting-ready-conference-work associated with networking. You see, networking doesn’t just happen. It needs a little help.

These last few weeks I’ve been checking out which colleagues are going to be at this particular conference. I’ve touched base via email with a few of them and we’ve agreed to have a coffee or drink together. Some of these arrangements are pretty loose and will be relatively spontaneous, others actually already have times attached to them. I also haven’t contacted some people I know well, because I know they will be here – they always are at this conference, and we always do spend a bit of time catching up. But I’ve also had a quick look at the online programme to see who is around that I might want to talk to, people perhaps I don’t feel so confident about just emailing, but will feel OK about wandering up to afterwards and chatting to after their presentation, or when we are hanging around the coffee at break times.

I don’t have an agenda for most of these conversations, although something interesting might well arise in talking. That’s always possible. I reckon that it’s just good to find out what interesting work other people are doing. But there is one definite conversation in the offing about a potential research collaboration.

I’ve got a couple of meetings with publishers in the diary. These could be made by email but in this case were decisions made a while ago in other meetings. These are more of catch-ups than pitching sessions, but they are still important conversations, particularly for someone like me who has a grossly overdue book manuscript to make apologies about. It’s important to keep in contact with your publisher, it makes the whole process of publication much easier for everyone. But for anyone wanting to talk about a new book, conferences are certainly a great place to talk face to face to publishers and comissioning editors. Much better than by email.

I’ve even had a little bit of a think about what books I might be carrying back in my luggage. There are always publishers’ stands at the big conferences, and books are discounted. I do think a little about which of the multiple possibilities might have to be added to the weight of the bag and carried back because I want to read them now – rather than being posted to me some weeks later by the publishers. So I’ve made sure I’ve left a bit of room for these must-read-now-books.

And in keeping with the prejudice about academic conferences being nothing but a big junket, I did arrive here late yesterday afternoon. There is now the best part of a day to explore Porto before the conference registration opens this evening… I’ve come to the conference with my good friend Jill, and we’ve got our day organised to pack the absolute maximum amount of touristing in.”Tem um bom dia”, I hear you say? Indeed, we certainly will.

Posted in networking | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

handing in the PhD – yes, it’s a checklist!!

There’s nothing quite like the countdown to handing in the PhD. Puff pant, puff pant. I think I can, I think I can. But….

On the one hand, you may be absolutely sick of the sight of the text and just want to get it in and get it all over with. The danger is that you don’t spend enough time doing the last round of revising and editing. On the other hand, you might be utterly terrified about what you’ve done, convinced that it’s nowhere near ready. The danger is that you keep adding and adding and rewriting and rewriting and never get to the end.

Finishing is a really important moment. Just like a marathon runner, the doctoral researcher has to have stamina – you have to save some of your energy till the end. You have to summon up the last bit of chutzpah to finish off well.

So what does finishing look like? It’s primarily about checking what you’ve got, and adjusting where necessary. Now is not the time to start off any big new line of argument. Now is the time to be brave and call a temporary halt.

There are three areas that bear looking at: content, refining the writing and proof-reading.

CONTENT
Here’s a few pointers to get going with and some links to some other relevant posts. Don’t forget to ask your supervisor and other experienced people in your discipline for more! This is not an exhaustive list.

Introduction to the thesis
• Does the introduction create a compelling mandate for the study?
• Have you clearly stated the research question/problem/thesis somewhere near the start so the examiner can find it easily without having to search for pages and pages?
• If you are in a field where it is customary to say something about yourself at the start, is this section concise and to the point? No diary like rambles required! Does the personal story tell the examiner that you have been critical and reflective about your life story and its connections with your research?

Literatures
• Have you just found the definitive new paper? Now is not the time to be adding swathes of new literatures to your text. If you suddenly find an important paper that’s just been written, don’t panic. Don’t rewrite your chapter now. You can mention the paper in the viva, or note it in a very short postscript. (Examiners understand that this happens.)
• If you have a conventional literature review chapter, does it read like a list? What can you tweak to foreground the ideas rather than authors?
• Have you made the connections between the literatures and your methods – what ‘stuff’ are you carrying into the study? Is there a clear statement about how the literatures have informed your thinking and design?
• Have you made the connections between the literatures and your results discussion? Have you established the aspect of the literatures that your work will speak to?

Methods
Remember this is not an essay – the examiner is interested in what you did and why.
• Is there a justification for your approach as the way to answer your research question? Are you clear about the difference between methodology and methods?
• Are you clear about what your approach allows you to see and say; do you know its limits?
• Is there an audit trail?
• Is there unnecessary verbage – an essay on poststructuralism, a big trawl through all of the possible methodologies, a long consideration of methods you haven’t used?
• Is there any material that could or should go in an appendix?

Discussion (either as separate chapter or integrated with the results)
• This is a PhD – the Ph is Philosophy – so have you done something more than describe your results – have you provided an interpretation of them, do you say what the results mean?
• Is this discussion more than a report? – it should be an argument that leads to a succinct statement of your contribution.
• Have you clearly linked your results to the existing literatures so you can establish your contribution?

Conclusion
• Have you economically restated the research question and provided your answer to it?
• Have you spelled out the implications of the research? Do you have a good answer to the So What and Now What questions?
• Are the claims you make congruent with your results? In other words – have you over- or under-claimed?

Does your thesis abstract clearly state the problem, the methods, the results and your claims to a knowledge contribution?

WRITING

Read the table of contents
Can you make sense of the argument by looking at the headings and subheadings? Are there any headings that are too clever by half or badly worded?

Read the introduction and conclusion of each chapter
Is there a good don’t-forget-this summary at the end of each chapter?
Does it take a long time for any of the chapters to get going? Revise – the examiner doesn’t need a clever embellishment to get them into substance of the chapter – they need to understand what the chapter is about and to be stimulated to read it, not driven down a side road.
Does the introduction locate this chapter as the next move in the overall narrative?
Do the chapters logically follow on from each other?
Do you get déjà vu going from one chapter to the other? Revise the introduction – any links you established to help you to get the writing to flow between chapters need to come out when you write for the reader. If you haven’t lost the link backs already, do it now.

Look at the signposting
Does the introduction to the thesis have a road map to the text?
Is there a little guide, an overview, to each chapter in its introduction?
If you are making a very complex argument, have you paused to remind the reader where you are up to?
Is there signposting you can now take out – it helped you in the writing, but is it all necessary for the examiner?

Look at the way you have used quotations from literatures, media and/or any participants
Are there too many jammed in together? Can you say some of this in your own words?
Have you interpreted quotations? They don’t stand for and by themselves – the examiner needs to know how you’ve interpreted them. Sandwich quotations.

Read the whole text looking particularly for signs of ‘voice’ and authority’
Are you IN the text rather than hiding behind other voices and texts?
Do you make evaluative comments?
Are there ways in which you have got beyond ‘dispassionate reporting’ to writing which signals your passion for the material?
Pick a couple of pages in each chapter and look particularly for the number of times you use the passive voice and nominalisation. Is the text overloaded with dead writing? Is this a clue you need to read the lot for this kind of impersonal writing.

PROOF READING

• Is the manuscript in a coherent style? This includes the references – check the style guide for rules about brackets, stops, commas, capital letters and italics.
• Do all citations have dates and page numbers, if appropriate?
• Do you suffer from wandering tense, over use of particular words, incorrect subject-verb agreements – even poor spelling?
• Have you got some shockingly long sentences – break them up.
• Have you got some shocking long paragraphs – break them up around the key ideas/moves, and make sure your topic sentences are well focused.
• Have you got pages and pages of prose where all the sentences are the same length? (Zzzzz) Get some variety in there.
• Typos typos typos.

After all this, go for a walk and then start to print! And good luck. :)

Posted in doctoral research, drafting, examiner, revision | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

universities to give hugs to staff ????

A while ago I visited a Nordic university with an absolutely huge staff room. Taking up most of a floor of one building, the room was above all else filled with light. Floor to ceiling windows, pale wooden tables and chairs, artfully scattered cushions, candles, shelves of designer mugs and serviettes…. One day there was a faculty lunch, and the room was big enough to fit everyone in. And the kitchen was big enough for the caterers to serve a three course meal. I’m joking yes? Well actually, no I’m not.

Although this was something of an exception to the more usual experience of unviersity staff rooms in the Nordic region, it was only a question of degree. By and large, most Nordic university staff rooms I’ve been in have been better furnished and equipped than their British counterparts. Space, light and well designed furniture are not seen as something only for the home, but also for workplaces as well.

Without falling prey to romanticising all things Nordic, I do wonder if there aren’t a couple of ideas we could usefully take from our academic cousins in the north.

How about introducing the Swedish notion of fika?

As I understand it, fika means time out for taking coffee/tea together – deliberately finding a common time and place together. Fika is not simply shutting out the usual everyday stresses and taking a moment for relaxation, not just taking a break from work routines and isolation. It is that, but it’s also a social occasion. Fika is gregarious time/space, it’s an interruption to the isolation of the daily routine. It’s a time when people come together. Fika is communal, it’s conversational.

Now maybe these kinds of social moments do exist in some British universities, and in some faculties. However, what I mostly see when I go around the country are badly furnished staff rooms, motley cups and posters with stern reminders about washing-up routines. Many academics eat lunch at their desks hunched over the email. I do this myself far too often. It’s no good. We need to fika far more often.

And what about the Danish hygge?

As I understand it, hygge is both physical and a state of mind. It’s about creating an atmosphere which is cozy, wam, convivial, comfortable, and which promotes intimacy and social interaction. Attention to the material environment creates an ambience in which one feels at home, secure, nurtured… For me, hygge is epitomised by that light filled staff room with candles and designer cups and serviettes. Hygge was the institution providing a human and humanising space for its staff.

To an English speaker, hygge sounds like hug and I think this is probably about as good a translation that someone like me can manage. I know it seems really dopey and fanciful, not to mention downright un-British, to be suggesting that it would be good if universities gave their staff a big hug everyday … but hold the scepticism. It might be a step that is worth taking. Given the continuous reports of over-working in universities and acrimonious relations between staff, it would be a positive symbolic and material gesture if fika and hygge became institutional priorities. Adopting fika and hygge might well promote well being, reduce illness and generally make us all more social and sociable. Who knows? While this is no substitute for more substantive structural change, employer attention to staff taking time out together might be a good thing. Some Nordic learnings and leanings may be just what we need.

I’m at work? Nu er det hyggeligt!

Posted in fika, hygge, staff rooms | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

crap detection and blogging

I’ve got an inbuilt fondness for the encyclopaedia. As a child from a family with a pretty modest income, but one which valued books, Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia took pride of place on the bookshelf. Whether there was a school project, a trip to the museum, a holiday or a family argument, one of the encyclopaedia volumes was sure to help. It’s hardly surprising then that I’m a Wikipedia fan. At the start of its existence Wikipedia was tantamount to vanity publishing and anyone who wanted could put up blatantly flattering pieces about themselves. But it has grown to be more genuinely encyclopaedic.

I regularly go to Wikipedia. I come across something I can vaguely remember or I haven’t heard of at all, and Wikipedia provides a bit of a definition, a snippet of a history and a few clues about where to follow up. This is generally enough for me to decide whether I want to pursue whatever-I’m-looking-for or whether it’s a not-what-I’m-looking-for. Wikipedia kicks off a process, or gives me enough information to stop bothering.

I’m far from the only one. The eminent Prof William Cronon, President of the American Historians Association also also advocates its use.

Wikipedia is today the gateway through which millions of people now seek access to knowledge which not long ago was only available using tools constructed and maintained by professional scholars. Whatever the reference tools we consulted—dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopedias, books of quotations, finding aids, bibliographies—we did so because their contents had been carefully scrutinized by professionals with appropriate scholarly training.

No longer. Wikipedia and its kin have changed all that, and those of us who inhabit the world of scholarship need to ponder the ongoing role of professional authority when traditional disciplines can no longer maintain the kind of intellectual monopolies that their members once took for granted. No one needs a PhD in a subject, or even a baccalaureate major, to contribute or modify Wikipedia entries. Although the wide-open Wiki world sometimes harbors howling errors, even outright fraud, the overall quality of Wikipedia content is remarkably good. If one’s goal is quick consultation for information one can check in other ways, or a brief orientation to an unfamiliar topic, then it’s hard to imagine a more serviceable tool than Wikipedia. I even have an app that downloads to my iPhone the entire English-language contents of the site—over four gigabytes—so I always have it at my fingertips even when I’m offline.

So Wikipedia may have actually woken the academy/us up to the need to ensure that we – and those we work with – are able to deal critically with any online information available to us. We scholars wouldn’t assume that any single source of print information was sufficient. We would always assume print sources were partial – not complete, particular, written from a point of view – and situated – written in a particular time and place. We are trained to read not only for what a source says, but also what it doesn’t say, what it might emphasize, what it might have in common with other texts and where it might differ. There is no reason that reading Wikipedia or any other online material should be any different.

I agree with Cronon’s argument. As more and more information moves on line, our scholarly critical reading processes must move too.

Blogs, just like Wikipedia, contain useful information, but none of what is written is value free or comprehensive. Blogs of course generally don’t pretend to be anything but the writer’s views, and it is perhaps the commonality of the ‘pedia’ in encylopaedia and Wikipedia that makes us think that the material is somehow above and different from any other source. But it seems pretty clear that, regardless of the scholarly source – print or digital, Wikipedia or blog – we need to be on the lookout for: the origin of the material; the currency of the information; the author, their credentials and their sources; the reliability of the material and the capacity to check what’s on offer; and the point of view or agenda through which the information has been provided.

I’m still fond of this old Howard Rheingold talk on crap detection. Riffing on Hemingway, it is aimed at people who are unfamiliar with the web and social media. However, the basic points that Rheingold makes about crap detection are pretty applicable to all of us, no matter how deep into the digital we are or whether we are or have children, or not.

Rheingold suggests that we all need to find a community of people who provide trustworthy information. And I particularly like his notion of a community of scholarly crap detectors and the kind of mutual obligation we have to be trustworthy in the information we provide. That seems pretty helpful advice for people reading and writing Wikipedia, but also for those of us who blog. It is perhaps one of the ethical principles that I/we bloggers might adopt – I will not knowingly write crap…

Also see Rheingold and Good’s very useful crap detecting tools.

Posted in crap detection, Howard Rheingold, Wikipedia, William Cronon | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

an academic writing playlist

1. A song for staring at the blank screen
2. A song for explaining to your lover why you didn’t hear what they just said
3. A song for reading reviewers’ comments
4. A song for that feeling of being really, really stupid
5. A song for pressing the submit button
6. A song to drown out the noises in the hall
7. A song to remind yourself to get off twitter now
8. A song for an impossible deadline
9. A song to soothe the savage writing
10. A song which prompts you to go sit outside
11. A song to celebrate getting the book proofs
12. A song to remind you why you became a scholar
13. A song that speaks back to administrivia
14. A song for finding a typo in the just published paper
15. A song to mark a co-author’s retirement
16. A song which encourages you to think slowly
17. A song which thanks your dog for just being there
18. A song which counts ALL the work you’ve done
19. A song for making new academic friends
20. A song for waking up at 3 am writing in your sleep

Posted in academic writing | Tagged , , | 11 Comments