the academic cv part one – think of it as an autobiography

It’s commonplace for professional cv consultants to say that the cv isn’t an autobiography. An autobiography is the story of your life, the cv is a marketing tool to sell yourself to an employer. A cv is something written for a job selection, promotion or other kind of review body so it ought not to include every detail of your life up till now. Don’t put in the name of the dog, where you last went on holiday and what kind of car you drive, the advice goes. What you have to do in a cv is to select those things that are most important for the very particular reader you want to convince to want you.

At one level I agree with this but at another, it’s so wrong.

The imperative to stay away from extraneous detail is important for the academic cv. But I don’t think there’s any harm in thinking of the cv as an autobiography (see Miller and Morgan 1993 for a scholarly explanation). To suggest that autobiography is a dangerous headset through which to compose your cv is actually a fundamental misunderstanding of the literary form. An autobiography is simply a story of a life. And that little pronoun is important. A story. An autobiography is not the story or the only story you can tell about yourself. One life can produce many different kinds of autobiographies depending on the intended readers and the purposes for which the narrative is written. Autobiographies are selective in what they discuss, and highly edited in order to make the story interesting. If autobiographers didn’t select and edit their life stories then their books would be interminable, and their readership zip, zilch and none.

Why the cv as autobiography ?

The cv as autobiography foregrounds the notion that this is a telling, it’s selective, and it’s meant to tell the particular reader about who you are and how you got here. Your cv-as-autobiography is read as a representation of you-the-writer, as an account of a working life–in-progress.

It is critical to understand that the academic cv-as-autobiography is not a summary – it is not a list. It is not simply a bullet-pointed resume of everything that might be relevant to someone, somewhere, some time. It is a concise presentation of the things that are relevant to the particular position. Even if it is formatted in a relatively listy form, and organised under relatively uncontentious headings, the bullet points will be read as a set of signposts to the things that you have done. The reader will fill in the blanks around the points. The reader will create the story if you don’t give them one.

So the cv writer needs to think very carefully about what it is that the academic reader is looking for. It won’t be the same for a selection committee as for a promotion or grant reviewing reader. Matching the cv story to the expectations of the particular job – thinking about the work that this particular autobiography has to do – is critical.

I’m not a fan of the generic cv that gets trotted out for all occasions like a textual LBD. I think that the cv has to be tweaked depending on the job its being tailored for. If the job is as a researcher then paying particular attention to the information about research positions and publications is important. However, for a teaching position, you will want to put in more detailed information about your teaching experience than you might if you were applying for a researcher position. If it’s for a post doc, then the cv-as-autobiography needs to foreground the research agenda and ambition that you have. The cv-as-autobiography is about selecting and foregrounding the things that are most needed for this job.

It’s as well here to think about the particularity of academic readers. Academics are trained to do critical ‘reading-between-the-lines’. The academic cv needs to steer the pernickety academic reader in particular directions, and steer them away from others. This is exactly what an autobiography does. The autobiography anticipates critical readers. It provides explanation as well as saying what happened. It offers a narrative thread that allows the reader to understand why things happened when they did, and how things hang together.

An example: publications

All academic cvs list publications. A lot of the early career researcher cvs that I see lump all publications together – book reviews, conference papers, journal articles, work in progress, professional publications all in one list. What this says to the critical academic reader is that the writer of the un-sifted publications:

a. probably doesn’t have that much out there yet, and they are trying to make the section look bigger by putting everything together. But there is nowhere to hide if there isn’t a lot written yet. It’s much better to face the lack of published work head on, because trying to fudge it allows the critical reader to assume that –

b. the cv writer either doesn’t understand the different weightings put on different kinds of publications in their field and in the academic world generally, or they haven’t bothered to think about this when putting the cv together. Either way, the assumption of lack of knowledge or lack of care is not what you want the cv reader to think. You want them to understand that you are making a good job of publication in the time you’ve had.

In general, The Book and the Peer Reviewed journal article or conference paper are much more highly regarded than any other kinds of publications – I am talking here only about academic research and teaching positions. These are then usually listed separately. The book review and the conference paper are minor writings, and while it might be helpful to list them for some kinds of positions in some disciplines in some places, this information often carries no weight – other than to show that you are engaging in normal scholarly activities. And too many conference papers just looks as if you give a lot of papers and can’t convert them to the refereed form.

It’s really worth noting that professional publications, blogs and other media writings are highly valued in some countries – in the UK for example these can now be listed as ‘public engagement’ rather than ‘other’ in the publication list. Saying and showing ‘public engagement’ in the UK context demonstrates that the cv writer knows that writing for a variety of audiences is considered an important and valuable scholarly activity. It also says that they are able to do ‘public engagement’ and already are. In the UK this kind of writing may now be a positive differentiating factor in applications, rather than the negative it is in other places.

To sum up- the tip for the publications section of the cv is to differentiate.

More coming

Of course, this is not all that there is to say about the academic cv as autobiography, and in the next post, I’m going to talk about some of the common ‘life-story’ problems that early career researchers have to deal with when applying for academic positions. I’m also looking for someone for a guest post on writing a cv for non academic posts too (hint hint).

Other posts related to the academic cv and jobs:
Make your cv work for you
Research track record – how do you get it?
Preparing for the academic job interview

Posted in cv, publications, representation | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

ideas to play with 1: the thesis as Linus blanket

Researchers often come across interesting ideas that have no immediate purpose. The ideas are engaging, but you don’t know where they are going or how they might come in useful. These kind of ideas often spark an unformed, half-way connection/explanation/theorisation. They are almost something, but not quite.

I think that it’s always worth hanging on to these emergent notions. You never know when they might find a home. I have a file on my desktop of bits of thoughts. They range from quotations, titles and phrases to slightly more expanded texts where I’ve partially worked with an idea and then stopped, unable to take it any further. I’ve decided to post a few of these incomplete concepts, partly to see whether they have any resonance with other people, and partly to see if, in the posting, I get any further with them. So here goes this little experiment in thinking-in-progress.

A while ago I fell over some writing on transitional art works by Anna Dezueze (2010 – a chapter entitled “Play, ritual and politics: transitional artworks in the 1960s”). According to Dezeuze, transitional artworks are those which seek to create a ‘something’ between an object and a viewer. She says that when a viewer interacts, either physically or through the imagination, with an object, then a something inbetween is created. The something inbetween is neither the object nor the viewer, but is in fact a fleeting, ephemeral art work. The work itself is not art. The viewer is not art. Art is created in the interaction, the transition, between the viewer and the thing.

Now in order to explain the idea of transition, and a transitional object, Dezeuze went to the work of the psychologist Donald Winnicott . Among other things Winnicott studied small children as they separated from their mothers. He examined transitional objects in the processes of this mother-child separation, saying that a much-loved toy or blanket could be thought of as a transitional object. On the one hand it was controlled by the child, and they therefore thought it was part of them. But at the same time the toy or blanket was also an independent object, able to be seen as a separate thing, able to be given away, able to be shared, able to be lost. In giving the transitional object away, the child is able to see themselves as a separate being. Winnicott argued that the developmental process of separating from the blanket-toy-object mirrored and actually helped the child’s emotional/developmental process of growing up, moving away from their mother and becoming independent.

So to the art object. This is what I think Dezeuze might be saying. The inbetween-ness that happens between art object and viewer, the fleetingness of the ‘art’, can be understood through the notion of a transition from one state of viewer being to another… and the art object that is involved can be seen as a transitional object that assists this shift. The actual moment of inbetween ‘art’ may be fleeting, but the viewer becomes something/someone else in the process of viewing it and leaving it behind.

When I read Dezeuze, I immediately stopped thinking about art and started thinking about the thesis. Well, as you do. Well as I do anyway. Can a thesis be a transitional object, I wondered.

So, in no particular order, my thoughts about the thesis as a transitional object are:

1. There is something in the idea of research as a transitory thing – it happens between the text and the reader. The thesis as a transitional object, the research that is brought into being, brought into life in the moment of reading. There is no research until the thesis-object is read. It ceases to be research until it is read again. And the thesis reader is changed by reading it.
2. There is also something in the idea of the thesis as a much loved or loathed toy or blanket. The thesis as something that is controlled by the researcher, is part of the researcher themselves. And of course, the thesis as a separate object that is read, commented on, passed and failed. The thesis-toy- Linus blanket that some researchers are really ready to get rid of, and the thesis-Linus blanket that some researchers don’t want to part with, and feel a great loss when they do. The thesis as transitional object between the nearly institutionally approved scholar and institutionally fledged scholar. The thesis that when given away changes the thesis writer…

However, maybe the idea doesn’t work at all. After all, the child hasn’t made the blanket or toy, and the viewer hasn’t made the art object in the same way that a doctoral researcher makes a dissertation. The viewer ‘shift’ may not be the same as a maker ‘shift’.

And maybe there is also a less-than-helpful link to notions of childhood and to the idea of apprenticeship. It’s not unheard of for doctoral researchers to feel infantlised by the process of supervision. That’s insulting and not something that I want to do. And it’s not uncommon for the metaphor of apprenticeship to obscure the kind of reciprocity than can occur in supervision. I don’t want to do that either. So maybe I need to dump the idea.

Nevertheless, something about the idea of the thesis as a transitional object resonates with me. A half formed idea… A possibility, a notion to be played with further.

Posted in research, thesis | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

the research proposal as writing ‘work’

A while ago I was asked to write something about research proposals. I hesitated because there is already a lot written about the topic. I didn’t want to try to condense all of that writing in an abbreviated post. So I parked the request and the idea. However, right now I think that maybe there is something to say about the research proposal. It’s about the work that it has to do.

I was reminded about the request when I received a cold-calling PhD research proposal. The proposal began by assuming that the research I do on writing is TESOL, Teaching English as a Second Language. The writer didn’t actually say TESOL in the text, it’s just that all of the proposal was written using in TESOL terminology, referred to TESOL literatures and the research proposed was something that TESOL scholars would be interested in. I wasn’t. Not my field. It didn’t resonate with me at all. It jarred. Of course I politely passed the proposal on to my colleagues who do work in this space. But the incident brought the research proposal request back into my mind…

I like the notion of writing doing work. Writing doesn’t just sit on the page. It is written for a purpose. It aims to make something happen. Texts do things – they can be said to act perhaps – in the world. And if and when they can’t make anything happen, texts literally get shelved. Anthony Pare explains this much better than I can:

… language is a technology: it can be used to do things; but it is no simple or single-purpose tool. It is the ultimate Swiss Army knife, with a different implement for every use or purpose we can dream up. In our daily lives we use language to ask, amuse, inform, tell, demand, propose, and on and on through an endless list of routine rhetorical goals. At a more sophisticated level, and in complex collaboration with others, we use this basic quality of language to shape specific results: we design and regulate language practices in law to produce justice, in governance to produce policy, in education to produce learning, in business to produce profits, and in science to produce new knowledge. Within the university, we shape modes and methods of disciplinary inquiry, at the heart of which are the language forms and practices that help us produce the specialized knowledge we need and value. Different rhetorics create different knowledges.

So what then might be the work that a research proposal has to do? What is its rhetorical intent?

A research proposal – regardless of whether it is written for a PhD or for a funder – is a bid to be taken in and taken up. The work of the research proposal is to demonstrate that the researcher has the capacity to produce disciplinary knowledge. In order to do so, the proposal writer must show familiarity with the ‘right’ language, knowledge production practices, existing debates and taken for granted ‘truths’ of the relevant scholarly community. The proposal writing must signal that the writer is either a potential, or already a contributing member, of a particular discipline/interdisciplinary field.

The cold-calling PhD proposal didn’t do this work for me. It literally didn’t work. It didn’t do the work. It might however do enough for my TESOL colleagues to take it up, and take on the proposal writer.

It’s the notion of writing as work that sits behind conventional research proposal advice; this usually suggests that proposal writers read the relevant literatures in order to talk the talk – to write in ways that are expected and recognized by the reviewer-reader(s). It’s also why the advice to proposal writers continues by saying that the proposal writer should get to know who the reviewers of research proposals are – that they will know what to read and write if they have an idea of the research and writing of potential reviewers. This kind of getting to know-the-community homework is not tokenistic, not about simply nodding in the direction of citations or egos. Getting familiar with the literatures and reviewers is so that the research proposal writing can do its work properly. It is so that the proposal rhetoric signals ‘belonging’ and ‘contributing’.

As Pare puts it:

Writing is social action. We don’t write writing, we write something – a proposal, an argument, a description, a judgement, a directive – something that we hope will have an effect, will have results, change minds, spur to action, create solidarity, seed doubt. … writing works in and on collectives to produce desired or required outcomes.

All of the technical advice out there about proposals aims to help writers to make the writing do this work. Writing a research proposal is not just about getting ideas down in an expected form, getting it ‘right’ is only a small piece of what counts. The expected form/structure is there as the accepted scholarly way to persuade, convince, engage, stimulate interest and encourage entrée and/or approval. It’s doing this rhetorical work that matters.

It is this thought about the work that writing does, this thought above all else, that I have in mind when writing a research proposal for funding. I know that I have to write to do the work that will mean I and my project will be selected, be legitimated, be acknowledged.

Posted in Anthony Paré | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

co-writing the messy first draft

another of those posts where I talk about my own practice…

I’m currently engaged in several bits of co-writing. They are not the talk-and-write-together model that I do with Barbara. No, these are variations on the write-together-write-separate process. Because this is very often the way that joint authoring goes, I thought I might share how I go about this and the adaptations that occur.

Now, as usual, the health warning. I’m not suggesting that these are the only ways to co-write – and they may not even be a best way. However, it does seem to me that it’s worth talking about co-writing, as both co-researching and co-writing are likely to be the lot of many post PhDs. The other reason for writing this post is that I want to promote the usefulness of (1) talking in order to write, (2) planning and (3) writing in chunks.

I currently have on the go:

(1) Three papers from a research project.
I probably know more about the topic than my co-authors and more about writing papers .

These papers are being written with two early career researchers. Both have their PhDs, and they were really good ones, and they have clearly shown that they can write and argue. So for them, writing these papers is in part about getting onto and into the genre of the journal article, as well as getting publications for the cv. For me, it’s about getting the research output lined up so it can be read and used (and reported to the Research Council). Each of us is going to first author one paper.

I always start a journal article with an abstract and a clear idea of what journal and readership to write for. So step one of these co-written papers has been exactly that; we started with a discussion about the argument and the point that we wanted to make and for whom in what publication. We have separately written an abstract for the paper we are leading on and we’ve then discussed these in a meeting. In one case, there are a few iterations of the abstract happening because it’s a hard argument to get straight. The next step is that one of us will produce a plan, or write a first draft, and this will go around the group for iterative comments and revisions. The precise process is still being worked out, as we are just moving past the abstract stage. We’re not in a desperate hurry, so we have as long as it takes to get these papers done.

As the senior academic and the director of the research project I have more power in this situation, and so for me the process is about finding the right balance in how much to write over what my colleagues have written and how much to leave. We don’t all say things in the same way, and it’s important to try to get the first author’s ‘voice’ into the text. At the same time, we do all want to make it through the reviewing stage so it’s important for me to make sure that we get the paper as ‘right’ as we can. This will mean, I think, that we will need more discussions face to face, rather than simply me communicating via a bunch of track changes.

(2) A chapter with a colleague.
I know a lot less than my colleague does about the topic but probably more about academic writing.

I was the one invited to do this chapter and I asked her to join me. She will be first author. I see my job as putting in the stuff that the editors, who I know, expect to be included. We are about half way through the first draft at present. We’re on a deadline, but not an impossible one.

We started with a conversation about what argument we could make, and this led to an abstract which I wrote and sent off to the Editors for approval. This was quite a long abstract, about 500 or so words. I then wrote a plan for the paper with word budgets for each section, and with some suggestions about who would do what.

In the first instance we wrote about a third of the paper. My colleague started the text off, sent it to me, and I then added three chunks. I didn’t do any revision at this point, and neither has she when she got my added sections back.

I then decided that the previous plan I’d developed didn’t make sense and so we had a face to face conversation about how the rest of the chapter should go. Because she is more knowledgable than me about the topic, this was very much me focusing on the argument flow, and her telling me what the key points were. I’ve just roughed out the new plan and sent it off to her to add the next chunks. When she’s finished, we’ll need to do a short methods section and smooth over the conclusion. But yippee, we will then have a complete messy first draft. My guess is that we may then have another short conversation about how and what to revise.

(3) A report with a research partner
We each know about the topic and we are co-investigators.

Because my research partner and I come from different disciplines we have a partnership where listening and understanding each other’s point of view is a key to any writing. Our goal is always to work out how our two perspectives can be brought together in ways that are meaningful. Our research project has a blog where we do some of this work. We have been writing about our thinking on the project from an early stage – this is not simply a writing exercise, but we have been testing out ideas and theoretical resources. Our ‘testing out’ writing is analogous to the kinds of advice given to doctoral researchers – write early and keep it up – and here, just as in doctoral research, what is actually meant by that is that it is good to use writing-along-the-way to develop thinking and keep track of ideas.

We began our end of project report as a powerpoint – we talked and did this together. We tested this version of our results out at a public seminar and got some helpful feedback, mainly about the (many) things that weren’t clear.

I then produced a summary document based on the powerpoint and my colleague added to it; this little paper was presented to a small seminar. Again the feedback highlighted things that we needed to make sure that we explain properly in the report. Finding out people’s critiques is very helpful.

We are now working on the actual report after having a Skype conversation to develop a broad report plan – during this we made a number of amendments to our initial plan on the slides. I have just written some of my part of the draft and sent it off to my partner so she can add some of her section too. Because we are both busy, we are writing in fits and starts as we can; neither of us will be able to do the sections that we are responsible for in one sitting. Having a kind of document that grows like Topsy between us is the only way we will get it done.

Final word:
So these are variations on a co-writing theme. It’s all about the talking, the planning and writing in chunks.

But co-writing is never just about process – it is also always about negotiation, support and clarity around who does what, when and in what order. Issues of power and expertise are involved in all co-writing, as I’ve suggested. And talking, planning and writing in sections are very helpful as processes that allow issues of power, identity and disciplinarity to be made explicit. They can then be sorted out as the writing happens, as long as identity,voice, power relations and (inter)disciplinarity are also understood as in formation throughout the entire talking together/co-writing process.

Posted in abstracts, co-writing, planning, planning a paper, word budget | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

are we heading for a DIY PhD?

This is an op-ed piece I’ve recently written. It’s still in press but I thought I might give it a little pre-publication outing here. The DIY theme is one I’m doing more work on right now.

In the humanities and social sciences, the PhD is usually equated with a supervision relationship; thinking about this supervision relationship as a pedagogy is however relatively recent. One of the landmarks in the supervision-as pedagogy-thinking came in a 1995 issue of The Australian Universities Review (Vol. 38, no. 2), when editors Bill Green and the late Alison Lee brought together a range of ‘down-under’ scholars to discuss “postgraduate studies/postgraduate pedagogy”. The special issue addressed the emergence of a mass higher education system in which a normative ‘rational’ science model of research and supervision and discourses of ‘quality’, ‘experience’, ‘competency’ and ‘accountability’ were rapidly becoming dominant. In this context, the editors and authors collectively argued, the PhD was still subject to its popular caricature of apprenticeship. This, they said, ignored key questions of disciplinarity, identity and the production and reproduction of knowledge and knowledge elites. While addressing the Australian context, the special issue also suggested that the same practices could be seen elsewhere, including in Britain.

Arguably, much of what the writers in this special issue saw as trends in higher education postgraduate education have become reality. British universities no longer see the PhD as the production of a ‘genius elite’ (Yeatman, 1995); rather it is ‘training’ for a career in some form of knowledge work, research or teaching either in higher education or elsewhere. It would be hard to find a British university that does not now have a Graduate school and/or Academic Development Unit which runs a menu of doctoral training programmes. Some of course also have Research Council funded Doctoral Training Centres which offer ‘core’ methods modules, as well as master classes. Supervision too has become more formalized and normalized with various kinds of confirmation papers and vivas, annual reports, and proforma to provide audit trails of supervision meetings. Doctoral education is now much more than the sole responsibility of the supervisor.

However, a recent google search, combined with conversation on social media, suggests that in Britain, despite all this ‘academic development’ there seems to be pretty patchy institutional engagement with supervisors on the topic of postgraduate pedagogies – despite the growing body of research in and around supervision pedagogies and doctoral education. There is even less discussion with supervisors about the changes that might be produced by what I see as rapidly expanding DIY doctoral education practices.

Doctoral researchers have probably always acted outside of the supervision relationship, talking to each other, swapping ideas, books and experiences. These days it would be a rare supervisor, graduate school or academic developer who frowned on self-managed reading groups – such groups are often formally organised within institutions, and more often than not, within shared disciplinary frames. Supervisors are not averse to referring doctoral researchers to selected volumes from the shelves of advice books that are now available on every aspect of the PhD. There are also now academic writing groups that function in the same way as reading groups, within and beyond universities and within disciplines (Aitchison & Guerin, 2014).

The plethora of advice books (Kamler & Thomson, 2008) were probably the first major indication of the trend to de-institutionalise doctoral education through DIY pedagogy. The advent of social media has exponentially accelerated it. Doctoral researchers can now access a range of websites such as LitReviewHQ, PhD2Published and The Three Month Thesis youtube channel. They can read blogs written by researchers and academic developers e.g. Thesis Whisperer, Doctoral Writing SIG, Explorations of Style, and of course this one. They can synchronously chat on social media about research via general hashtags #phdchat #phdforum and #acwri, or discipline specific hashtags such as #twitterstorians or #socphd. They can buy webinars, coaching and courses in almost all aspects of doctoral research. Doctoral researchers are also themselves increasingly blogging about their own experiences and some are also offering advice to others. Much of this socially mediated DIY activity is international, cross-disciplinary and all day/all night.

We know too little about how doctoral researchers weigh up the advice they get from social media compared to that of their institutional grad school and their supervisors. We also don’t know much about how supervisors engage with this DIY sphere, particularly about how much they talk with their supervisees about what they are doing online. We don’t know what support doctoral researchers get to work out what is good and bad online advice. We don’t know how supervisors and academic developers build on what doctoral researchers are learning elsewhere.

As someone who is engaged in this DIY field with books, blogs and twitter, it seems pretty apparent to me that something is happening here and we (collectively) don’t know what it is. It’s largely outside the normative audit oriented training processes that Green and Lee were so concerned about. It’s a field which is fragmented, partially marketised, unregulated and a bit feral. But it’s big, it’s powerful, more and more doctoral researchers are into it, and it is profoundly pedagogical. I’m concerned that British universities are generally (and of course there are exceptions, but mostly this is the case) not helping supervisors to think about this DIY supervision trend and what it means for how doctoral education is changing – and crucially, what the implications for their supervision practices might be.

Aitchison, C., & Guerin, C. (Eds.). (2014). Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond. London: Routledge.
Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2008). The failure of dissertation advice books: towards alternative pedagogies for doctoral writing. Educational Researcher, 37(8), 507-518.
Yeatman, A. (1995). Making supervision relationships accountable: graduate student logs. Australian Universities Review, 38(2), 9-11.

Posted in advice, doctoral pedagogies, pedagogy, supervision | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

well, I’ll be bloggered

This week a few bits and pieces about blogging have arrived in my inbox – and since I only seem able to hold the most urgent pile of events and demands in my mind, they’ve commanded my attention.

First of all there was Deborah Lupton’s report of a survey she did about academic’s use of social media. She says that academics use social media for

… connecting and establishing networks not only with other academics but also people or groups outside universities, promoting openness and sharing of information, publicising the development of research and giving and receiving support.

However, she suggests,

While the majority of the respondents were very positive about using social media, they also expressed a range of concerns. These included issues of privacy and the blurring of boundaries between personal and professional use, the risk of jeopardising their career through injudicious use of social media, lack of credibility, the quality of the content they posted, time pressures, social media use becoming an obligation, becoming a target of attack, too much self-promotion by others, possible plagiarism of their ideas and the commercialisation of content and copyright issues.

So some enthusiasm for, but also concerns about blogging…

Then Taylor and Francis appeared in my inbox in the form of their own guide to academic blogging. T and F has turned the “Why do academics blog?” paper that Thesis Whisperer and I wrote into a neat little info-graphic. As Inger remarked to me when we saw the proofs, it’s interesting and just a bit scary to see something about which you’ve written a fair few academic caveats – on the one hand and on the other and you need to know this about these figures – turned into something that looks so ‘certain’ and ‘sure’ and ‘authoritative’.

Next I was asked how I managed to blog so regularly. “Monday morning and Thursday lunchtime” I responded, “It’s just a schedule” – so it’s something I do each week. I generally write both blogs on Sunday morning, although sometimes (like now) it’s the day before. I do think that the rhythm of the schedule helps me (well that’s all a bit Henri Lefebvre, but he was onto something in saying that the way that rhythm works is important). I’m not sure I would keep up with this blog if I wrote more sporadically. I have a kind of blogging rhythm which is self regulatory. I impose my own deadlines which I can generally keep to. Blogging is now a bit like washing the towels and sheets – it just gets done on a regular basis. So has blogging become my writing housework, I wonder?

And because I’m coming up to the three-year mark with this blog, I’ve been thinking about how many words I’ve actually churned out. It’s at least three books worth. I’m quite forcibly struck by how inaccessible many of those words now are. The archiving system for blogs is not that good and it takes a bit of effort to search through the back-lot of posts to find anything – and that’s just me and I mostly know what’s there!! I’m promising myself that I’m going to find a way to make some of these back-lot posts more accessible. But that means having time of course, and so it might take a while to get round to. But the access and organisation question is also a reason to keep writing books as they do have some kind of coherence, they are a much more curated form of academic writing.

The most rewarding part of the blog is the feedback. This comes in part through the data that is made available by wordpress in counts and graphs of hits, but it’s also from posted comments that engage productively with what I’ve put out. As well, it’s when people quietly tell me that the blog has been useful to them in some way. I know that I should probably call these comments something policy-wise like impact, but it seems more in keeping with my sense of my self as a researcher and teacher to have someone say they find something that I’ve done of interest and use.

This blog has certainly got way, way more readers than any other kind of writing that I do. And these readers are everywhere. Patter reaches into bits of the world that expensive English language journals and books don’t. So there’s a politics about this kind of blogging too; making things accessible, sharing academic knowledge. This runs somewhat against the grain of the dominant consumption publishing models that we academics are now too often held hostage to.

My final thought this week was prompted by a request to write a piece about some of my education research. Because it was a short piece, I automatically slipped into what is now my accustomed blog genre – thinking first of all about the point I wanted to make and then brainstorming a title and playing around with an introduction designed to capture a bit of interest and encourage people to read on. I haven’t fully figured out whether I do have a constant format for blogs – and if I do, this one certainly isn’t sticking to it, as it’s more in the form of a bit of musing – but I guess I can sort out blog-as-genre in the next year.

Meantime I’ll just blogger off.

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aims and objectives – what’s the difference?

You’re ready, you’re aimed, and now you have to fire off the objectives. But you’re a bit confused. What”s the difference between the two?

An aims-objectives confusion might arise when you are writing thesis proposal and the introductory thesis chapter. It’s always an issue in research bids. The what’s-the-difference question can have you going around in ever smaller unproductive circles if you can’t figure out a way to differentiate between the two things. And the difference is something I’ve recently been asked about, so I’ve decided to post something of an answer.

Dictionaries are only vaguely helpful when thinking about aims and objectives. My desk dictionary says that an aim is to do with giving direction. An aim is “something intended or desired to be obtained by one’s efforts”. On the other hand an objective is to do with achieving an object, it’s about actions, “pertaining to that whose delineation is known”. Now who actually speaks like this? The fact that these definitions are offered in this very formal language doesn’t help clarify matters. But, once past the antiquated expression, you might discern that the difference between the two is somehow related to a hope or ambition (aim) versus a material action (objective). Or we might say – and it is what is commonly said about aims and objectives – the aim is the what of the research, and the objective is the how.

So taking this what-how as a kind of loose and sloppy differentiation between the two, the rough rule of thumb with aims and objectives is generally that:

(1) The aim is about what you hope to do, your overall intention in the project. It signals what and/or where you aspire to be by the end. It’s what you want to know. It is the point of doing the research. An aim is therefore generally broad. It is ambitious, but not beyond possibility.

The convention is that an aim is usually written using an infinitive verb – that is, it’s a to + action. So aims often start something like.. My aim in this project isto map, to develop, to design, to track, to generate, to theorise, to build … Sometimes in the humanities and social sciences we have aims which attempt to acknowledge the inevitable partiality of what we do, so we aim ‘to investigate, to understand, and to explore… ‘ But lots of project reviewers and supervisors prefer to see something less tentative than this – they want something much less ambivalent, something more like to synthesise, to catalogue, to challenge, to critically interrogate ….

(2) The objectives, and there are usually more than one, are the specific steps you will take to achieve your aim. This is where you make the project tangible by saying how you are going to go about it.

Objectives are often expressed through active sentences. So, objectives often start something like In order to achieve this aim, I willcollect, construct, produce, test, trial, measure, document, pilot, deconstruct, analyse… Objectives are often presented as a (1) (2) (3) formatted list – this makes visible the sequence of big steps in the project. The list of objectives spells out what you actually and really will do to get to the point of it all.

You have to make the objectives relatively precise. Having a bunch of vague statements isn’t very helpful – so ‘I will investigate’ or ‘I will explore’ for example aren’t particularly useful ways to think about the research objectives. How will you know when an investigation has ended? How will you draw boundaries around an exploration? In thinking about the answer to these questions, you are likely to come up with the actual objectives.

Objectives have to be practical, do-able and achievable. Research reviewers generally look to see if the time and money available for the research will genuinely allow the researcher to achieve their objectives. They also look to see if the objectives are possible, actually research-able.

Because the objectives also act as project milestones, it’s helpful to express them as things that are able to be completed – so for example scoping an archive of materials will have an end point which may then lead on to a next stage/objective. Even if objectives are to occur simultaneously, rather than one after the other, it is important to be clear about what the end point of each step/objective will be, and how it will help achieve the aim.

What not to do

It’s really helpful to think about what can go wrong with aims and objectives. There are some predictable problems that you want to avoid when writing them. These are some common aims-objectives issues:

• There are too many aims. One or two is usually enough. (I might stretch to three for other people’s projects if pushed, but I usually have only one for my own projects.)

• Aims and objectives waffle around, they don’t get to the point and the reader doesn’t have a clue what is actually intended and will be done – aims and objectives need to be concise and economically expressed.

• Aims and objectives don’t connect – the steps that are to be taken don’t match up with the overall intention.

• The aims and the objectives are not differentiated, they are basically the same things but said in different words.

• The objectives are a detailed laundry list rather than a set of stages in the research.

• The objectives don’t stack up with the research methods – in other words they are either not do-able, or what is to be done won’t achieve the desired results.

The final thing to say is that aims and objectives can’t be rushed. Because they generate the research questions and underpin the research design, sorting the aims and objectives are a crucial early stage in planning a research project. Aims and objectives are a foundation on which the entire project is constructed, so they need to be sturdy and durable.

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