travel diary – love the unexpected

After my intensive writing in Melbourne, I went on to Canberra for a few days. I wasn’t occupied the entire time and, with colleagues, managed to get to the National Gallery. The National Gallery has a good collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander work and I was keen to see what was new since I was last there.

There was a lot more of the gallery taken up with Indigenous art than I remembered and it took a bit of time to get around. At one point, in one of the rooms, I was overcome with acute homesickness, not something I normally experience when I’m back in Australia, and not something I’d expect to happen at all in a gallery context. I’ve been puzzling about it ever since. What was it about that particular place and/or those particular art works that produced this inexplicable emotional response?

I haven’t worked out the answer to the question yet… the closest I can come at the moment is something to do being surrounded with works that were red ochre – the dominant colour of the earth in my home state. Of course this may not be it. But the sudden and unexpected nature of the event and its continued lack of persuasive explanation have stayed with me.

Something like the same ‘being struck by something unexpected’ can happen during reading, or during a research project. Some thing, saying, sentence leaps off the page, or out of the research site and makes itself felt. It’s impossible to ignore. It registers as an instant emotion, or maybe a more cerebral flash of something, something … There is no immediate rhyme or reason why this particular thing, saying or sentence has this effect. It just does. And this unexpected intrusion is often just out of reach. The thing, saying or sentence stays with you and periodically you think about it trying to make something of it, trying to work out why this, why now, what does it mean…

I’ve learnt not to worry too much about these serendipitous and idiosyncratic research and reading happenings. They often become clearer over time. Sometimes they turn out to be quite significant. They may be the germ of an idea, a turning point in thinking, an insight into something previously unexamined.

While we generally present research as a systematic affair, and it is, it is more often than we acknowledge these unanticipated elusive moments. A hunch, a feeling, a something that insinuates itself into your consciousness… not a Eureka… more nagging, unsatisfactory and persistent. Such attention grabbing interruptions are worth hanging onto. You never know what meanings they might eventually yield.

I await an explanation for my wave of homesickness.

Posted in unexpected events | Tagged , | 3 Comments

digital academic – new research project

Last week Inger Mewburn – @Thesiswhisperer – and I were at the Digital Academics seminar in Canberra. We presented some ideas for a research project we have been talking about.

This was our handout to participants. We’d be interested in anything you have to say about our questions as we go about forming and firming up the project.

The aim of this research is to explore doctoral student engagement with freely available sources of advice on writing and research practice on the web which we are calling (for lack of a better name) ‘academic development content’. Is there an emerging set of practices we could label the ‘DIY doctorate’?

Academic development advice is packaged on blogs and other web based forums and is shared and circulated via social media. We have a series of questions about these practices, specifically the identities and experiences of the content creators/users. If we know more about who is making the material, and who is accessing it and sharing it, we can better understand its role in research training and create strategic interventions for doctoral researchers and their supervisors.

The questions we have in mind at the moment are:

*  How widespread is the use and sharing of this ‘academic development’ content?

*  Who is making the content? Are there bio-demographic or disciplinary patterns?

*  Who is accessing it? Who isn’t? Why?

*  How do users find material?

*   How do users decide if the material is good (or not)?

*  What material is consumed most? least?

*  What are the sharing practices and patterns of sharing in academic networks?

*  How does use compare to more traditional sources of support and information, ie: supervisors

*  Do supervisors use online material in their teaching practices and how?

*  What opportunities does this space open up? Is participation a a content creator an advantage or a disadvantage? How?

*  What vulnerabilities are being created? Is anyone preying on researcher data traces? (is: predatory publishers, dodgy conferences, POD publishers.)

So, in summary:

Does this idea of the ‘DIY Doctorate’ make any sense?

Does this make for better doctoral education, or doctoral experience? Or are we seeing the emergence of another kind of digital divide?

Are there any missing questions?

Is there similar work out there already?

What methods might we use to explore these questions?



Posted in advice, DIY PhD, Inger Mewburn | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

bourdieu and blogs (yes, really)

Today I’ve been wondering about a field analysis, a la Bourdieu, of academic publishing. I dare say someone’s done this and it’s just one of the very many, many things that I haven’t caught up with.

I’ve been thinking about academic writing as a field. That’s because blogging is generally seen as a pretty low’ form of academic writing/publishing, certainly when compared to the ‘high’ status peer reviewed journal article and scholarly monograph. While both journals and books have different exchange value in different disciplines and policy contexts, they patently have much more status than blogs.

Some minority activities do of course have status in their fields – like the avant garde in art for instance. Well, I mean what used to be avant garde before we all became unshockable and it all became big business. But the vast majority of academic blogs are not avant-garde, certainly not in the way that some other scholarly digital publications are – collaborative platforms, non linear publications and so on, as produced by the digital just-add-name-of-discipline folk.

Blogging seems to have taken over from writing for newspapers as a suspect scholarly writing activity. Once upon a time, and certainly in my living memory, academics who wrote for the popular press were seen as somewhat egotistical. They were often assumed to be tainted by a need to expose themselves in public. It was all a bit unseemly, excessive and untoward, unnecessary hubris. These days, writing for newspapers, certainly in the UK, has less of the cheap and tawdry about it. It’s public engagement. It’s impact. It’s talking to the research user community. Writing for the press has come in from the margins of scholarly activity and is much more mainstream.

The outcast position on the nether regions of academic writing has transferred from writing for the media to writing the blog. The academic blog seems to have about the same kind of cultural cache as your average airport novel. It’s a low status time wasting activity. Of course, some blogs are more respectable than others. Any Bourdieusian analysis would have to do a bit of work on which kind of academic blogs were most on the nose and why. There are hierarchies even at the edges.

But if blogging is a ‘low’ scholarly practice, it’s also one where many of those/us who are involved have a bit of an attitude. We like blogging, we can see a point and we’re a bit tired of the assumption that it’s a kind of self indulgent distraction from the Real Work. At the same time there’s perhaps a certain pleasure in being part of a minority who are out there on the boundaries of respectable academic activity, dabbling in something that just may, in its turn, become mainstream at some point in the future. In fields, many things on the borders of respectability do eventually have their day.

Posted in academic blogging, academic writing, blogging | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

book blogging – it’s done but not dusted

We’ve played The Hallelujah Chorus. We’ve bounced around to Bowie’s Let’s dance. We’ve shouted Ole and Hooray several times.

Yes, we’ve finished a first draft.

We have 80,000 words or so – 60,000 of which were written in the last twelve days. We are indeed, with apologies to Sophie Tucker, the red-hot writing Mamas.

We still can’t quite believe what we’ve done. In trying to work out exactly how we’ve managed to get this book into its crappy first draft form, the only metaphor that comes to mind is that of an island.

We’ve been in self-imposed exile on Writing Island. We sailed off somewhere between 8 and 9 each morning and left after a full eight hour day’s work around 4pm.

We weren’t entirely cut off from the world of course – there were strategic trips off-shore for the odd bit of essential shopping.  But the reality is that the writing continued even in apparent down-time. We talked about what we were doing over lunch and thought about it when we were making cups ot tea. We did go out a few times at night, but at the end of an eight-hour stint on the island all we really just needed to do was sit, mute, with a glass of wine and some mindless television.

We ended our triumphant day today organising how to work on the text once I go back to the UK. There isn’t going to be any more face-to-face co-writing, no more eight hour days, no more waking up with a new thought about how to organise a chunk of material. We’ve left our Writing Island for good.

We now have to manage revisions – remotely.

So we’ve constructed a formidable diary of reading and skyping. We’ll start by reading the whole text looking for omissions, misplaced sections, and the way we’ve used metaphors and examples throughout the text. We ‘ll then go through the text, chapter by chapter – one chapter per week. A third run-through involves working with bundles of chapters. By the final once-through in mid May (that’s the fourth), we expect to have turned our crappy first draft into the final fabulous version ready to submit to the publisher.

There’ll be no more Writing Island. That’s a relief, but also somewhat sad. I don’t think I can twist Barbara’s arm to write yet another book. However, getting this text revised and finessed will be a constant feature of our lives for another six months.

Posted in book writing, drafting | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

book blogging – managing tiredness

We’ve now recognised a pattern in this two-days per chapter fast-writing business. The first day is harder than the second. That’s because on the first day we have to work out how to rhetorically frame the chapter and the order that things will go in, as well as decide on the strategies and exemplar texts that we’ll use. This means that we have to produce more words on the second day – but we make less decisions.  Inevitably, the first day is more frustrating than the second; the writing feels harder and is generally much less enjoyable than we’d ideally like.

We can now add to this two-day pattern the fact that we are getting tired. We’ve never actually written together for as long as this. We did a pretty decent slab of time in Singapore, but not the two and half weeks that we’re doing now.

We’d liked to have stopped  yesterday. But we couldn’t. We have more to do and still have a few days together. Although we can see our next Monday evening end-point looming, we have quite a bit of text to churn out before then.

So how are we managing this intensity and creeping exhaustion? Well, this morning was a bit sweary. Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I do have a tendency to sweariness, and this gets worse when I get tired. My will is centred on keeping going rather than keeping my tongue in check. Barbara’s computer is playing up and, as she was doing a lot of the typing this morning, she had the odd uncouth word to say too. So a slightly sweary morning.

But by this afternoon we had to do something drastic. We really, really wanted to stop. So we resorted to music clips on youtube to summon up a bit of energy.

We started with Working in a coal mine, by Devo. “ Whew, about to slip down, Lord I’m so-o-o-o-o tired. How long can this go on”… followed by Kraftwerk on the endless Autobahn. “Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn”. etc etc… We didn’t quite manage the 22 minute version. Finally, and not too far off hysteria by this point, we opted for Talking Heads Burning down the house. “Hold tight, wait till the party’s over, Hold tight, we’re in for nasty weather, There has got to be a way, Burning down the house…”

Hands waving in the air, singing loudly, we pumped ourselves up enough to make the last run at the chapter for the day. Both of us are now comatose and semi-coherent. We will have a very quiet and anti-social evening to ensure we can get back to it again tomorrow.

Today we managed 4,500 words and amassed most of the bits and pieces we need for the rest of Chapter 8.

Posted in book writing | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

book blogging – making room for two

Ta dah. Loud fanfare. We have now written seven chapters, five of them in this sitting. That’s two days per chapter. Whew.

We’ve had to be pretty organised to achieve this level of productivity. We’ve not only done a lot of pre-preparation and made a good and flexible plan, but we have our working space organised too.

As some patter readers will already know, Barbara and I use the sit-and-write-together approach. We talk and talk and take turns typing. We compose the text together – sometimes speaking at once, sometimes talking over each other and sometimes speaking in turn. Our joint method of writing produces ‘one voice’ – this is neither Barbara nor I, but is the ‘voice’ of our books and workshops.

This is not the same as other forms of co-writing and is something that cannot be achieved with everyone. Most people who write together either write separate sections of the whole text, or one person writes a full draft with the other(s) doing the next version. We can’t do this. Our first draft is always written side by side, written together.


Barbara’s office is set up for our joint writing. Two chairs are positioned so that we can both see the big screen of the desktop computer. One of us sits on the side chair – this is so they can turn around and use the notebook to search out files in our shared Drop Box, or google something we’ve suddenly decided we need. If one of us in the side chair gets impatient they are close enough to reach over and take over the mouse and keyboard temporarily. There’s usually an ipad floating around too because that’s a bit quicker to use than the notebook.

We have the books we use most on the table so that we can refer to them, and we have some files printed out ready for examination. However, most of our pre-prepared work is not paper-based but online.

There’s lots of pens and paper for making notes of things we don’t want to forget to do.  And there’s various kinds of paper. Barbara favours yellow legal pads. I prefer post-its. We have plenty of both. And we have hand lotion. Well, you do notice your hands a lot when you’re working all day on a keyboard!

We’ve worked our little fingers quite a lot already, but there is still a way to go. We have four days left to write and we are getting more than a bit worn out, but there are two more chapters to go… Stay tuned.


Posted in book writing, side by side writing, space | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

book blogging – a day to remember

No matter how good the plan you started with, chances are that at some point in the book writing you’ll change some of it. Sometimes this is because, as you write, you realise that things need to be in a slightly different order or they need to be grouped differently. Another reason for plan-changing might be that you remembered something that you ought to have put in in the first place.

That’s what happened to us. We finished off the chapter we’d been working on by mid morning. We didn’t think that was what we were going to do yesterday, we thought it would take the whole day to complete. But that wasn’t the case.

It’s not that we wrote extra fast. No. It was more the case that we had finished without realising it. After we’d completed what we had planned as the penultimate chapter section, we realised that it really was enough. It wasn’t penultimate at all. It was The End.

In reality we’d written a chapter’s worth already – about seven and a half thousand words. This meant that what we had originally planned as the last section of the chapter was really far too big to end on. In fact, it was so big it was about another half a chapter’s worth of words. We actually had a chapter and a half in our plan.

It was back to reshuffling content again. We had to make a whole new chapter. What to put in it without destroying the integrity of the other final chapters? Did we have to come up with something new at this late stage? AARGH.

And then, we remembered. How could we have forgotten? We know that we have to address this question. It obviously goes in this brand new chapter… where was it in the plan? Nowhere. We heaved a big sigh of relief because we knew it would all be OK. We had something else to say. We knew what we were doing again.

So what was it we’d forgotten? Well, I’m almost too ashamed to say. But you won’t tell will you …  It was the perennial question about writing the researcher into the thesis. We needed to provide answers to the questions that we get asked all the time. Should I use “I”? What’s the difference between an ordinary first person plural and a scholarly “I”? How can I talk about myself in the thesis without sounding really egocentric? Do I have to write anything about myself and if so why and how? How much do I have to write about myself?

We can’t really believe that we forgot this, but we did. However, our trusty collective subconscious saved us from the ignominy of a doctoral writing book that doesn’t deal with one of the most common dilemmas faced by many doctoral researchers. But we remembered.

Today, we love our book writing process – and that part of the brain that keeps on checking that we’ve included everything we need to. And it does this magic remembering even if we don’t explicitly tell it to. As Poirot would put it, “It is the brain, the little grey cells on which one must rely. One must seek the truth within–not without.” Or in our case, rather than the truth, one must seek the blindingly obvious within … 

We sought, and we found, Hercule. We found. Bless our little grey cells.

Posted in book writing | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments