Monday, 27 July 2015

"It's just a platform for narcisists" and other twitter myths

I’ve been using twitter for just under a year. I started using it pretty reluctantly, because I needed to teach sessions on social media and my lack of knowledge about Twitter made me less credible. I was sceptical that it could be useful, insightful, or in any way a part of my life.

And I was so wrong.

Twitter isn’t perfect. Mostly because it’s used by real-life people, and real-life people aren’t perfect. But it continues to surprise me.

1)      “You can’t post anything meaningful in 140 characters, so why bother?”

The 140-character limit is a challenge, I’ll admit. I find myself re-phrasing what I want to say and abbreviating words. Does this have a detrimental impact on what I want to say?  Not really. But mainly because I don’t use twitter to post anything deeply meaningful.

So, no, I won’t be composing 140-character summaries of late medieval gender practices. Nor will anyone else. But what they might do (and what I like to do) is use twitter a signpost to something that doesn’t have a 140-character limit: a blog post, an article, a study. 

Before I started using twitter, I thought of it as a self-contained platform. Now I think of it more as a series of signposts to all sorts of interesting, useful, challenging resources. 

2)      “It’s just a platform for narcissists.”

Before I signed up to using twitter, the concept of individual feeds (rather than walls as you have on facebook) seemed absurd. Surely, twitter was the online equivalent of a bunch of people in a room, each with a megaphone, each broadcasting their own opinions?

Well, yes and no.

It’s perfectly possible to use twitter purely as a platform for your own ideas. (That is, stand in the room shouting into your megaphone.) However, what has pleasantly surprised me is that it’s just as easy (and seemingly socially-acceptable) to respond to what other people are saying. (That is, it’s perfectly okay to hear someone else shouting into their megaphone, tap them on the shoulder and say ‘good point’ or ‘I disagree.’) And that's where things get interesting.

3)      “There aren’t going to be people like me using it.”

This is the one that seems most absurd in hindsight. There are so many PhD students, early career researchers and established academics using twitter. Hashtags like #phdchat #phd #acwri and #withaphd are platforms for reflection on the day-to-day experience of doing a phd, but also platforms for broader discussion. Although I don’t always agree with what other people are saying while using these hashtags (don't get me started on #phdweekend), hearing their voices gives you a certain sense of solidarity.

In my professional life, the same is true: most senior people at some of the most relevant organisations are on Twitter. Following them means I can develop my knowledge of this industry. Interacting with them (often through conference hashtags) means adding to debates and conversations that are happening in real time.

4)       “I don’t have anything to say.”

I’ve always had pretty wide-ranging interests, but this was a big worry at a time where I worked full-time and my only hobby was swimming. What would I tweet about? My walk to work? My lunch? How many lengths I’d done?

My life has changed a lot in the last six months. I now work and study in two interconnected industries. I also do a lot more in my free time (and in my city) than I used to. Because I’m pursuing so many different things that I’m interested in, it means that I can use my twitter to take part in several different conversations at any given time.  

(On a sidenote, it means I always feel sorry for new followers: if they’re following me for one thing, they’ll only be getting it about 30% of the time.)

5)       “Even if I did have something to say, who would care?”

In hindsight, this worry sits awkwardly alongside  2). On the one hand, I was worried that everyone else on twitter would be a narcissist. On the other, I was worried that my amazing, pithy, brilliant quips wouldn’t deserve the attention(and followers) they so obviously deserve(!).

In truth: I don’t have many followers. I often tweet things that don’t get replies. But that doesn’t really matter that much to me at this point in time. I'm still new to all the areas I tweet about: although I can pitch in with my opinions, I'm more interested in listening (or, reading) and learning.

This is the first social network I’ve used where I’ve been more focused on engaging with people  than trying to get attention for myself. And I think that’s a large part of why I enjoy using it so much.

6)      “What use is it to me, anyway?”

Given that before I got into it, I thought twitter was a haven for narcissists to [humble] brag, I would never have anticipated the generosity of spirit, time and expertise that you can find on twitter. 

People using #imc2015 meant that even though I couldn’t go to the conference, I could get some idea of what was being discussed. People using storify to record the discussions around certain sessions  (for example, the much-debated #s1041).

People like Jennifer Polk (@FromPhdtoLife) who curates twice-monthly PhD chats.

People like Dr. Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) and Dr Nadine Muller (@Nadine_Muller) who offer advice and practical guidance on how to tackle the shady beast that is the PhD process.

All of these people take time and effort to provide guidance or provoke discussion. 

The last thing you could call them is narcissists. 

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The 17-Step Plan

I've come into this PhD with a determination to try and write often. This is for two reasons: mainly because I want to hone my outcome (my writing). But this determination is just as much because I want to refine the process (how I go about writing).

Here's how my writing process looks at the moment.  After I finish all my reading, and make all my notes, I:
  1. Make a brainstorm of criticism and my ideas;
  2. Group ideas and number this. Use this as basis for my paragraphs;
  3. Wait until tomorrow, because you can't possibly start writing in the middle of the day;
  4. Add headers;
  5. Crack out 2,000+ words in less than 4 hours;
  6. Print off first draft;
  7. Wait until tomorrow, because you can't possibly write and proof-read in the same day;
  8. Read first draft;
  9. Scribble notes all over it;
  10. Despair because I have so much editing to do;
  11. Spend 3+ hours making corrections/editions and refining my argument;
  12. Print off second draft;
  13. Wait until tomorrow because you can't possibly write and proof-read in the same day;
  14. Despair because I don't want to read it again;
  15. Palm it off on husband to proof read;
  16. Make corrections as quickly as possible because I don't want to look at it any more;
  17. Send off to supervisors with a feeling of dread because it's drained me so much; then
  18. Spend the time until my next supervision berating myself for being bad at this writing lark.
It is possible for me to write, but I can't help that feel this isn't the most efficient way to do it: just typing out this 17-step process has made me feel drained, and anxious. However, typing out the process is making me think about which particular elements of this make the process so hard. I'm going to try and suggest a few changes for the next time I write. I might do a follow-up post to see how they go.

Firstly, it takes a few consecutive days. Which as part-timer, I don't have. The intensity of the process (along with my natural tendency to procastinate) means that by the time I finish one stage (usually within a few hours) I run out of motivation to keep going. There are two solutions to this: stop procrastinating (yeah, right) and allow the process to take longer: I'd rather spend 6 hours writing at a manageable pace then spend 3 working flat out and then be drained.

Secondly, my argument changes between my first and second draft. Not majorly, but it often changes in focus or tone. Often I add more evidence. Often I remove points entirely because they suddenly seem weak. I know this isn't unusual; in fact, it's the whole point of editing. But it happens so often, with so many points that it makes me doubt my academic judgement in including them in first place. With the next piece I write, I want to have my ideas clear and present in the first draft, then keep most of the there.

Thirdly, that last draft almost always involves making bitty corrections to references. This one is simple, I think: I need to do my references as I write! More to the point, I need to start using the bibliography function on Microsoft Word. Or finally figure out EndNote...

I'm finally coming up with ideas that I'm proud of, and I think might go somewhere. I'm hoping that if I sort out these areas, I can actually focus on my ideas, not the strain of getting them down on paper.

Of course, in the meantime, I'd love to know what writing blocks you've faced, and how you cope with them.  

Monday, 13 July 2015

7 Thoughts on Leadership

You may remember a few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about attending the Aspire Trailiblazing Leadership conference. You don't remember? Don't worry: it's here. If it isn't evident from that post, I went to the conference with very clear professional goals that I wanted to explore. But I couldn't do justice to everything I learned. So, instead, here are 7 things I learned from the conference.

1) Everyone is Terrified of Failure
For me, one of the most powerful exercises was early on in the first day. We were paired off, and asked to share with a partner our biggest fear, and accept it.
All the women I spoke to about this exericse said fear of feeling like a failure was at the heart of their fears. What varied is what will trigger that feeling of failure. For me, it would be failing this PhD. For another, her charity not getting funding. For another woman, it was failing to get a promotion. For another woman, it was not keeping a roof over her kids' heads.

But all these fears are necessary if you want to finish a PhD, run a charity, be promoted, house your children. Leaders are the people who welcome the fear, brave the possible bad outcomes. They risk feeling like a failure. But they also risk doing great things.

2) Leaders Start From the Inside Out
One thing that concerned me with this conference was the fear that, really, I'm not a leader. I don't line manage anyone at work (and never have). I'm only four months into a PhD - I haven't organised anything, and don't really know my way around the system.

What was stressed throughout the two days was that leadership is a ripple effect. You lead yourself, then your immediate circle. Maybe then you lead your organisation. Maybe then you lead the world. But those outer circles require self-leadership. Or - as I like to think of it - getting sh*t done. Leaders find something they care about and they motivate themselves to do something about it.

And sometimes, these actions get them titles, or accolades. But often, their actions change things, including the people around them. And so, at the ripe old age of 26, I feel comforted that getting sh*t done is a good start.

3) One Goal Doesn't Negate Another.
As I mentioned above, my aim was to go in, figure out all my professional aims and find people who could help me with them. And then, things about family started coming up. In every exercise I did, my relationship with my family kept coming up. I hadn't even been thinking about it when I went in.  A voice in my head told me to focus on what I was there for. I ignored it, and I've been putting some of what I learned into practice. And it's already improving my overall happiness and - by extension - my desire to work on my thesis.

For you, it might not be family. But I firmly believe that everyone is more than just the sum of their wordcount, their paygrade, or their title. And that working on one area doesn't detract from your desire to work on another: in fact, it's neccesary.

4) If Something Seems Like Second Nature to You, it's Probably Because You're Pretty Good at it.
On Day 2, we split up into groups of 10 and instructed to ask for exactly what we needed to achieve our goals. Again, I thought What can I offer? No one is going to need help interpreting romances, or identifying episodes of the Simpsons by opening scene. Either side of me, women were saying the same. What do I know? But as people shared what they needed, we each realised we did have skill or knowledge to contribute: we just didn't value them because we were already good at them.

I offered my email address, and am already helping people out. And those same women who said they had nothing to offer, they're helping me, too.

5) Surrounding Yourself With the Right People is Vital.
Every person I spoke to was open, interested and engaged. Yes, plenty of us were nervous, but this was the first conference I've ever been to where I felt that people were interested in me. And I can't separate the work I've done (and will do) as a result of this conference from that atmosphere.

As PhD students, we can often be cynics. And I understand why: a PhD is grueling, requires a lot of sacrifice, and the outcomes are becoming less and less certain (oh what, you want a tenured position? ha!) The mental health issues and financial insecurities don't help, and are often not discussed at all.

But, the way we interact is so often based on low-level scepticism about the administration's latest blunder, or the replacement of chairs in the common room. We don't even talk about the big things. And I can't be alone in finding this constant, low-level skepticism tiring, can I? And I can't be alone in finding that my best ideas and aspirations don't come when I'm complaining about the department's foibles, can I?

6) There is another way for conferences.
Here's what the Aspire conference lacked:
  • Name tags
  • Rows of seats (think circles of 10)
  • Formal sessions (more circles)
  • A formal conference dinner
  • Powerpoint (mostly)
  • Jargon (entirely!)

These very simple, very deliberate steps meant people spoke to each other honestly and openly. The sessions were interactive. They invited discussion (and not the kind with destructive, self-focused questions). And, with minimal powerpoint, we focused on the speaker. No formal roundtables. No confrontational questions. No awkward people who came alone and are shut out of cliques.

I know that a professional development conference is aimed at a difference audience. And I know that the ExCel centre is very different from your Postgraduate centre. But all I can think about now is, what would an academic conference look like if we deliberately planned it to be more open?

7) You don't need always second helpings.
No-one needs two fudgy chocolate brownies. You will just feel sick.