Thursday, 11 August 2016

On Saying 'No'

I struggle with saying no. I feel like I have to build a roster of achievements to try and compensate for pursuing a PhD without funding. Since the opportunities don't come as part of my funding, I have to make them for myself: interning for 8 hours a week; organising a graduate conference; planning outreach activities for 7-12 year olds. Each has been rewarding in its own way, but doing them while working (and researching!) has been stressful.

I'm sure you know where this is going: I took on too much at the start of this summer because I couldn't say no.

There's another reason I need to learn to say no, and fast. As of this past Tuesday, I'm working full-time. This is good news! The job plays to my strengths, and offers plenty of learning opportunities. But it also means sacrifice: less research time; fewer conferences; postponing teaching for a few years.  This means I'll have to be more intentional with how I use my time.

There's a risk of being too instrumental in how you spend your time to the point of selfishness. I'd never want to get to the stage where I'm only chasing prestige. But there's also a need for balance. So in the future, I'm going to ask a few questions before I take on anything new.

Will this let me do more of what I love?   If the aim of these opportunities is to build experience and build a network, there's no sense in doing things half-heartedly. No one wants to be remembered as disorganised, disinterested, or distracted.  For me? I love sharing my enthusiasm about my research. For you? It might be writing; it be archival work. Either way, focusing on opportunities you're enthusiastic about enables you do things properly.

My second question seems to contradict the first: Will this opportunity challenge me? Will it enable me to develop? Building on your strengths is good, but it's too easy to bobble about in your comfort zone

For me? I gravitate towards anything that requires enthusiasm. So outreach events are exactly my forte. But I'm terrified of anything that sounds like academic competition. You might be the opposite: public speaking might terrify you. In the end, academics need to do both so it's worth developing both.

And then there's the question I most often get wrong: how much of my time will this opportunity take up? It's the question I've got wrong over the last few months: "of course I can intern for 6 hours. And do conference admin for 2 hours. And read 4 journal articles. And still be a pleasant human being to live with." You can imagine how well this goes.

This is a brilliant way to feel unproductive and anxious. It's also a cycle. Overestimate your ability > fail to finish tasks > feel like a failure > place more demands on yourself to compensate.  My new rule of thumb? Estimate the time commitment. Multiply it by at least 1.5. If it still seems reasonable, it probably is. 

Three questions do not mean a perfect PhD/work balance. But my hope is that thinking a little more critically about these opportunities will enable me to focus on the right ones for me.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Stupid

Sorry for the radio silence over the last few weeks. I wish I could say it was because I was being brilliant. It’s not. Instead, I’ve spent the last month feeling stupid. Dumb. Idiotic. Wrong.

This is because I’ve reached the hard bit in my research. I’ve reached the stage in my thesis where I’m researching the very thing that makes this thesis worth doing: the new approach that will actually make this an original contribution to the field. So far, this has involved researching approaches – and even disciplines – well outside my comfort zone. It’s involved venturing into new parts of the library. It’s involved trying to understand foreign concepts, then try to apply them.

And while I recognise that is possibly the single most important part of my research, I hate it. I hate it because it makes me feel stupid. And while I’ve been wallowing about feeling like an idiot, I’ve also been trying to figure out what kind of stupid I feel. And I think there are three flavors of stupid I’ve been encountering:

1) I feel stupid because I don't understand this idea clearly.
2) I feel stupid because this seems self-evident, so I must not understand it properly.
3) I feel stupid because I can't see how this topic is in any way related to my research. Even though it seems like it should be.

Like a box of budget Neapolitan ice cream, each flavour is disappointing in its own way, and putting the flavours together doesn't help. It's wearing when the stupid keeps popping up day after day, in article after article. And - much like with budget Neapolitan ice cream - there's only so much you can take.

I wish this post offer you three pieces of advice to help you when you're feeling this way. Unfortunately, I'm right in the middle of the stupid, so I don't have advice. All I can offer is the same perspective I try and offer myself:
1)  It’s possible the stupid will pass once ideas have had time to percolate?
2) Maybe I do understand this thing?
3) Maybe this is a moment of developing academic judgment?

Unfortunately, the stupid doesn’t seem like it’s going to let up any time soon. I still have a lot of reading to do. And while some ideas are starting to formulate themselves in my head, it doesn’t feel like anything definite yet. 

If I have answers, I'll let you know. In the meantime, I'm going to keep wading through the stupid. 

Monday, 4 April 2016

PhD and FOMO

Story time: a few weeks ago, one of my best friends from university came to visit. It was the first time she's visited since I started the PhD, and we had a fantastic time. There was only one thing that made the weekend less than perfect. From time to time I would get a pang of jealousy. Not a malicious one. But the sort of pang where you think, 'god I wish my life was more like that.' And I felt awful about it.

Let me tell you about said friend. She's talented. She works hard. She lives in a city she loves and owns her own home. After a few years of hard work and low pay, she's now established in an industry she loves. And, knowing what she's like, I know that she must be amazing at what she does.

And yet. Knowing all this - how talented she is, how hard working - didn't stop me comparing our lives. Unfavorably, of course. And even though I love doing my PhD, I recognise that it's the root of a lot of my comparisons.

Even though I enjoyed that weekend, I've been thinking about this Fear of Missing Out ever since. I don't know how other people cope with FOMO, but I'm trying to focus on gaining perspective. Here's how.


Most people focus on the positive.
When we meet up with people, want to be positive. We all do this: we talk about a successful conference paper we gave, not the rude question that followed it. We'll mention our new job, and focus less on our tiring commute. We'll talk about our new home, not about the cost of replacing the kitchen.

This makes sense. Most people want to spend time talking about what makes them happy and fulfilled. Most people don't want to come across as ungrateful for their successes. When you meet up with people, they're offering to share the best of what's going on with you. And that's something to be celebrated.

Success and fulfillment aren't limited commodities.
This is so obvious I feel silly typing it. But, success and happiness aren't limited commodities. Someone's career success doesn't mean everyone else is going to languish. Someone's new puppy doesn't mean there are fewer dogs out there to adopt.

This truth - while obvious - is important. Acknowledging it frees you up to be genuinely happy for the people you care about, instead of quietly resentful.

Be realistic
I find I often  like the idea of what other people have: important jobs, fancy houses. But if I'm honest? I'm less keen on the practicalities of these ideas. While I wish I could do lots of international travel, I'm quite happy not having to pack my bags every week or two. While I'd love to be able to decorate my home, I'm grateful that when my washing machine broke, I could just call my landlord.

Every success has some sacrifice involved in it. And my friend doesn't live with the idea, she lives with the sacrifices too.

Remember that this isn't a race.
I feel ancient by PhD standards. I've just started my second year and I'm 26. I won't finish until I'm at least 30. It's likely to take several years after that to land a permanent job. Whatever age you are, your friends outside of academia may well be reaching milestones that you aren't.

But this isn't a race. The age of 26 is not the finish line. Not is the age of 30. Or 40. Or 50.  There is plenty of time to buy a car, or a house, or have children, or run that marathon.


Do you get this feeling sometimes? How do you cope with a fear of missing out on the rest of life?

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

#14daypaper Part 5: Lessons Learned

Welcome back to  #14daypaper - the short series in which I try to write a conference paper in a fortnight. As always, this is not the definitive way to write a conference paper. It's just the way that I'm going about writing this particular conference paper.

Introduction: How to Write a Paper in a Fortnight
Part 1. Planning
Part 2. Research
Part 3. Write, Write Again  
Part 4. Fine Tuning

1) Everyone writes to their own schedule.
When I've spoken with people about this project, reactions have varied. Some people think 14 days isn't long enough. Others have wondered why on earth it would take so long to write roughly 2,500 words. In short, I've realised I work quite slowly. It's likely that practice will enable me to work more quickly. But I doubt I'll ever be cavalier enough to write a paper on the way to a conference, or while I'm there. 

2) It helps to walk your audience through your ideas.
This (along with 4.) is the most important technique in this whole process. By framing my paper around what the audience knew, I could easily identify where to offer more detail. Focusing on the audience also made it easier to identify where my argument needed to be stronger This meant that when I sat down to research my paper, I had a list of things I needed to know. This is useful if - like me - you have a tendency to fall into research rabbit holes.

You don't need to do this with coloured pens or pencils. You could do it in blue biro on a piece of lined A4. But whatever method you choose, focusing on the audience will change the way you write.

3) Taking 'quick notes' can be a false economy.
Like the use of coloured pens, this might be something that only applies to me. I've spent most of my academic life loathing the process of writing. I've always found it to be long-winded, stuttering and dull. This is because my plans always contain either a) a scribbled half-quotation that I can't quite read or b) a note like 'see J.Blogs page 50.' This means pulling out my original notes and rifling through them. Or worse, going through the book or article, and trying to reconstruct which bit of page 50 was relevant.

Writing down quotations in full meant that when I sat down to write, it was surprisingly easy. I didn't use all the quotations I wrote down. In most cases, I re-drafted the contextual sentences I copied down. So, some of the time copying down notes didn't produce results. However - for me - it was worth the extra time because it made writing less painful.

4) First, record yourself. Then, re-draft.
This. I know I've already been harping on about this on twitter. But, really. I found that recording myself reading my paper has improved it for the better.

Firstly, recording myself meant that I could identify which sentences or phrases are jarring when you try and listen to them. This makes sense: papers are heard by our audience, but we write them as though our audience is readers. When I listened back to the recording, some sentences that sound fluent and clever on paper just sounded convoluted. 

Secondly, recording myself - and listening back to the recording - meant that I could identify where my argument got a bit fuzzy, or a bit lost. This has enabled me to go back and tighten up those sections, and make my argument clear. 

Is it a slightly painful process? Yes. Is it awkward? Absolutely. But recording yourself has benefits in a way that practicing in front of someone doesn't.  But I believe it will make it easier for people to engage with the final paper. And, ultimately, the means the paper will do exactly what it's supposed to do: share new research with a broader audience.

And with that, it's done. I have a paper which is almost ready to present. You (hopefully) have come away with something that might help you write your next paper.

I've really enjoyed having a chance to reflect on writing. It can be a fraught process, especially at the start of a PhD. If you've read along with the whole series so far: thank you.

And happy conferencing!

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

#14daypaper Part 4. Fine Tuning

Welcome back to  #14daypaper - the short series in which I try to write a conference paper in a fortnight. As always, this is not the definitive way to write a conference paper. It's just the way that I'm going about writing this particular conference paper. I would love to hear how you handle these challenges, so please join in the conversation!

Introduction: How to Write a Paper in a Fortnight
Part 1. Planning
Part 2. Research
Part 3. Write, Write Again 

Day 13
That introduction is still irritating me. On reading through my paper again it seems clunky. I spend a good hour or so trying to come up with something that's punchy rather than procedural.

I fail.

Instead, I decide that it's ready for my supervisors. They're both experienced academics and fantastic public speakers. They're also generous with their feedback. I have the usual moment of anticipation/worry/imposter syndrome when I send off the draft. I feel the fear and press 'send' anyway.

In the afternoon, I work on my handout. This involves a lot of quote-checking and fiddly formatting. I'm halfway through  a rant about Microsoft Word I realise the 14 day paper project is almost over.

Day 14
Day 14 actually comes nearly a week after Day 13. Extra work commitments mean I don't have a single PhD day. I meet with my supervisors. I expect them to agree with me that the introduction is haphazard.

Turns out, they love the introduction. But they do pick up on my other weaknesses. Both suggest more on the debates around these texts. After 45 minutes of discussion, we realise that the arguments I'm making should - really - lead to an entirely different conclusion. This is a little embarrassing. (Who writes a paper that doesn't support the conclusions they draw?) But, thinking this through now changes how I think about this codex as a whole.

I leave the supervision a little flat. All I can think about is how there's still so much work to be done. After wallowing a little, I get some perspective. This paper will be better for that work. Ultimately, the thesis will be better.


And with that, the 14 day period is over. And my paper is not finished, exactly. Admittedly, I could give the paper as it is. But I also want to make it as good as it can be. Is this how other people approach papers: always striving to improve them? Or is done good enough for you?

While I make my revisions, I'll also think about what this experience has taught me. So there's one part left to go in this series.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

#14daypaper Part 3. Write, Write Again

Welcome back to  #14daypaper - the short series in which I try to write a conference paper in a fortnight. As always, this is not the definitive way to write a conference paper. It's just the way that I'm going about writing this particular conference paper. I would love to hear how you handle these challenges, so please join in the conversation!

Introduction: How to Write a Paper in a Fortnight
Part 1. Planning
Part 2. Research

Day 9 (Half Day)

Extra work pressures mean that I only have a day and a half of PhD time this week. I get through my admin tasks surprisingly quickly. With no excuses left, and a full plan, I start writing. At this point, I remember something: introductions are HARD.  Or rather, I find them hard.

I know historians have a habit of start by describing a moment, an event, or a quote. I'm trying to do the same. Since I'm late Medievalist, this (of course) means quoting Chaucer. But there's a fundamental problem: I find this method effective when other people do it. But when I do it? I want to punch myself.

I cringe and keep going. By the end of the afternoon, I've written the literature review section. 600+ words down. I congratulate myself and spend the night knitting.

Day 10 

I write best in campus computer rooms. With this in mind, I arrive early and start writing. Within three hours, I have a first draft. Hurrah! After running some errands and having lunch, I begin re-drafting. I re-draft using a pen and paper because I find it easier. Most of my edits are to clarify points. I take this as a good sign: no restructuring!

The only problem: that Chaucer-themed introduction still seems a little tenuous. I spend ages fiddling with it, re-writing it in my head, approaching it in different ways. Finally, I accept what I have.

Since it's Friday, I'm heading out for beer and pizza with my other half. I end the day feeling pleased with my progress. But also mindful that I only have four days left!

Day 11 (Half Day)
Studying part-time means it's hard to build momentum for writing and redrafting. I come back to my fist draft 5 days after making my initial edits. I type up my edits. 

In the evening, I seek feedback from my first port of call: my husband. Usually, he reads a printed copy of the paper. I suggest something different. I read the paper to him, as if I were presenting. I figure that what is clear on paper isn't always clear when read aloud. I feel  self-conscious, but this helps. He identifies a few areas where the argument isn't 100% clear. He's also thinks the Chaucer introduction needs more clarity. I take notes.

Day 12
Usually, I do a lot of ad-libbing when reading papers. While ad-libbing works for training, it doesn't always work for presenting a paper. So, today I focus on polishing the paper so I can avoid ad-libbing myself into a tangent.

I record myself reading the paper aloud. Like last night, I feel self-conscious. And I feel even more self-conscious listening back to my recording. I sound posh and pompus, but also young and terrified.

However! This is a brilliant approach. So much of the phrasing that works in written pieces doesn't work when speaking aloud. Recording means I can correct these now, rather than risk being unclear. 


And with that, I only have two days left. I still need to design my power point. I also need to design a handout so that the audience has quotes to hand. But at this stage? I feel good. I have a lot focus because I know that I'm going to have to document my progress.

But I still struggle with my introduction. And I'm having a crisis of confidence about using handout. What are your thoughts? How do you approach introductions? And are handouts passe? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

#14daypaper Part 2. Research

Welcome back to #14daypaper, the short series in which I try to write a conference paper in a fortnight. So far, I've explained a bit about why I'm doing this. I've also talked a bit about my attempts to write a good plan:

Part 1. Planning

As always, this is not the definitive way to write a conference paper. It's just the way that I'm going about writing this particular conference paper. I would love to hear how you handle these challenges.

Day 5
After making a reading list yesterday, I know which texts I need to revisit. I also have a few leads for further research on a few key points. This is where I run into a slight problem. 

My paper compares two texts that appear alongside each other in a manuscript. One text is a version of a saints' life, so there's plenty of research material. My other text is more obscure - it's an extract from a longer text. Finding any sustained reference to my text proves difficult. After spending most of the day researching, I can only find dismissals of the genre. I can't even find any critical dismissals of this specific text.

I have a tendency to neglect secondary criticism when I write a paper. However, if I don't have any criticism, what can I do? Should I mention this in my paper? Is it a strength? Or does it make seem like I'm studying nonsense?

Day 6
I have my monthly volunteering session in the morning. After lunch, I sit down to work. I compare my obscure text with the original. I read them side-by-side to see if there are any differences that are relevant to my argument. No luck: apart from a few lines, they're the same. 

I've now filled all the gaps in my knowledge that I identified on Day 1. This means I'm ready to start planning. I follow Nadine Muller's fantastic advice and collate all my notes  and evidence in one document. I then arrange them under one-sentence headers that outline each part of my argument.

This means that tomorrow, I'll just take my evidence, link them together, and write a first draft. Out of curiosity, I check my word count. I have 1200 words already: I'm worried this paper might end up being too long.

Day 7 and Day 8 
I wake up halfway through the night with excruciating stomach cramps. I'm not sure what's caused it, but I spend the next two days between the bed and the bathroom with a tummy bug.

During the long nights, I listen to the World Service to distract myself from the pain. After hearing a piece about Donald Trump, I then have a feverish nightmare where he tells me my paper is crap. Hurrah!


And on that terrifying note, I've lost two days of writing to Trump-related dreams and stomach cramps. And I still don't know how to approach the fact that one of my pieces is largely unstudied.

Does a lack of existing criticism position a paper as pioneering? Or does it make the speaker seem like they're studying trash?

Monday, 22 February 2016

#14daypaper Part 1. Planning

Welcome! This is the first in a series where I try to write a paper in a fortnight, and document it. If you're wondering, 'why on earth would anyone do this?' check out part one here.

I started by focusing on two things. Firstly, getting my main points clear. Secondly, by identifying gaps in my knowledge so I don't spent far too long on tangential research.

Which begs the question(s): how do you start writing a paper? Do you take it from something you're working on? How do you condense your ideas? Do felt tips help anyone else? 

Day 1
I'm developing this paper from a piece I wrote six months ago, so I start by re-reading the original piece. It's about 4000 words, so I need to cut it down by about half. I use an orange pen to cross out what I don't need and highlight areas I want to keep.

Next, I need to plan the structure of my paper, so I get out my coloured pens and go to work. This is what you can see above. I test out an approach I learned at a recent training session.  Usually, I would write out a long list of things the audience need to know. Instead I map out my key points, and how they relate to each other. I have three main points I'm taking the audience through - they're outlined in orange. Red indicates detail.

This is the basic outline of my paper. Now I need to focus on supporting information or quotes which I already have. These are in lavender.  This leaves the gaps in knowledge I need to fill in to support my arguments. These are in brown.

I'll admit, I feel silly playing with felt tips. However, this approach means that my paper already has a structure. And I know exactly where I need to focus my research.
I finish by re-reading my two primary texts, and review my notes on them.

Day 2
Today I have 5 hours of meetings other projects. By the time I sit down to start work at 3pm, my mind is already occupied. I have a late lunch and write a to-do list for all my other tasks.

Back to the paper. Since lunch hasn't revived me, I decide to review the criticism I read for my original piece. I still have some of the articles I used, so I skim read them. I order additional books from the library. Where I find a useful quote/paragraph, I write it down in full.

Day 3
I arrive at the office for an early start, and the books I ordered yesterday arrive at the library. I carry on taking notes. Even though I read these books 6 months ago, I'm surprised by how much I missed the first time round. (Is this a sign of intellectual progress? Or sloppiness?)

I park that thought, and focus on taking useful notes. I usually scrawl notes, then have to come back to them when I write my first draft. Then, I flail around for the right way to contextualise the quote or the paraphrase. This tends to slow down my writing process.

To try and avoid that, I'm not scrawling notes. I'm taking down quotes in full and phrasing them the way I want to use them in my paper. This is only possible because my felt pen map has made it clear where I need more evidence.

Before I can feel too smug about this, I start feeling a migraine coming on. I go home.

Day 4 (Half Day)
I come to the office straight from work. Since I've been up since 6am, I find my half day is useful for smaller admin tasks. This means I spend most of my day working on other projects.

I plan my reading for tomorrow so I'm ready to get ready.


Using the map has made the first stages of writing the paper much easier than usual. However, I know that I struggle not to go off into research tangents. That'll be the next challenge. 

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

#14daypaper How to Write a Conference Paper in a Fortnight

One of the many new and scary things at PhD level is writing a conference paper. It's new because it's the first time you're asked to condense your research into 20 minutes for an audience of non-specialists. It can be scary because there is  no guide on how to write a conference paper. People work differently, think differently and write differently. This means that most guidance is quite general.

General guidance can be useful, but I don't want to be general. I want to be specific. So, I'm starting a new series. Starting from the 22nd February, I'm going to share exactly how I go about writing a paper in 14 days.

A disclaimer: I am not an expert. This is only the third conference paper I've ever written. So this series is an example, not a comprehensive guide. You might find my way of doing things is perfect for you. You might think this is most absurd approach possible. You might think both. Both is good because what I'd like to do with this series is spark discussion about how different people approach this challenge.

Before I start, I should a few more disclaimers, for context:
1) I am a part-time student. So the 14 days I'm counting are PhD work days, not calendar days.
2) This paper is for a graduate-level, non-specialist conference, so the tone and content are specific to that context.
3) I'm developing my paper from a piece I wrote 6 months ago, so I already have something to start on.  

To help foster conversation, I'll be tweeting the process at #14daypaper. Please join in. I'll storify the tweets once the project is over. If you want to write along with me, please do! Let me know how you get on.

Ready? Let's do this.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The PhD: Year One

This February (today, in fact!) marks a year since I started my thesis. This is both a scary and wonderful thing. On the one hand, this means I'm going to have my first thesis advisory panel soon. On the other hand, I'm now far enough into research that everything isn't new and scary.

Perhaps in a year or two, I'll be able to put these last 12 months into a grander narrative that I can describe more eloquently. For now, all I have is scattered reflections.


What is surprising is how many opportunities there are, and how socially-acceptable it is to take advantage of them. For some reason - don't ask me why - I had this idea that your first year should be spent toiling in obscurity. After that, your supervisor might suggest giving a paper at a conference, or maybe some teaching. But the reality is different, and I've been lucky enough to get involved in all sorts of things: tutoring, conferences, outreach projects, internships. These things aren't directly related to my research, but they're as much a part of this experience as my writing.

Impostor syndrome (much like the real troubles in your life) is something that blindsides you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday. That is to say that - for me - it isn't constant. Usually, I manage to be quite pragmatic. But then suddenly it hits me like the mental equivalent of being smacked in the side of the head. I'm thrown off balance by the insidious, insistent little voice that says what the hell do you think you're doing? The first time this happened, I thought my confidence must just have been bravado, that it was gone for good. But even though I know these moments don't last it doesn't make it less scary.

Finally, I've remembered that feeling stupid is a good thing. The last year has very much been one of building up a baseline of knowledge and getting a general view of the area around my manuscript. Now that I'm moving beyond that, I feel much more intimidated. I've been reading about microeconomics recently. Maths and sciences never made intuitive sense the way textual study does to me, and so I've spent most of January feeling wretched. Until I realised: this is how I felt for most of my undergraduate degree. That is to say, this is how I felt during the most educational, informative, outlook-altering three years of my life. I still have no idea if January will end up being a wasted month of research. But even if it does, it will have had its own value.

One year down; 5 to go.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Blogging Resolutions: 2016

When I started a blog, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was hoping to achieve, but I did know a few things:
  • I wanted this blog to be about the process of doing a PhD, not about my research output (hence the name);
  • I wanted to use this blog as a platform for building community with other PhD students;
  • I wasn’t averse to using this blog for non-PhD things, when they came up.

As time has gone on, these desires have caused me no end of problems. I’ve often thought that if I’m documenting the process as it happens, that requires me to accept that I’m not an expert. I think, if I’m not an expert why should anyone read what I have to say? And then I think, but surely community-building is about being authentic, so why do I have to be an expert? I'm not! But then, I think isn’t that just self-indulgent? And then I think well what is the point of a blog anyway?

Are you bored of this already? I know I am.
I haven't resolved this pull between being authentic and offering something of value. I still don't know if this blog is 'right' or 'useful.' I certainly don't think it's contributing to my overall academic output. But it does bring me enjoyment, and has introduced me to some very awesome people in the field. So despite the fact I don’t set much store by resolutions, I am going to make some resolutions about  this blog, right now.

  • I resolve to stick with my intended aims when I blog.
  • I resolve to post only when I have something worth saying, and accept that this might mean posting less frequently.
  • I resolve to offer my own experiences, not as though I’m an expert, but just because they’re my experiences.

2015 was an amazing, life-changing year. This blog - imperfect as it is - has already done more than I thought it would. (Not least of all because people have actually read it!) If you're here reading this, thank you. Here's to 2016!

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Laughing at Misogyny

 So. Allen Frantzen. Already, medievalists are responding with fantastic pieces. Peter Buchanan summarises how disheartening this is for new scholars in the field. Lavinia Collins highlights that - like most MRA rhetoric - the post fundamentally boils down gender relations to whether women are willing to offer men sex. Jeffrey Cohen has noted that in using his cachet as an academic to support his rhetoric, Frantzen is doing something that should worry all of us.

And me? Well, I'm sat here, dipping into the #femfog tweets and laughing. I'm aware that it's easier for me to do this because I'm a late medievalist. Sure, I've read Before the Closet, but my work and research isn't directly indebted to Frantzen's work. I won't run into him at conferences, or interact with him professionally.

But also, I'm laughing because 10+ years of being a feminist on the internet means that my first instinct when encountering this sort of rhetoric isn't always to jump in and debate. Sometimes, I do debate. Sometimes - depending on the situation - I get off twitter and do something about the issue. But not in this case.
There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, in certain situations, laughter and mockery are powerful tools. They aren't a substitute for rational debate, or engaged discussion. But they send a powerful message. More than just 'I don't agree with what you think and here are my reasons why,' mockery says something more than this: 'I find your opinions unworthy of academic debate.' 

Historically, the question of whether people agree or disagree would have taken place privately, quietly. This means rhetoric like Frantzen's could be excused, or diminished. Opposition could be dismissed as one person with a personal grudge. But, with such public disagreement, it's clear that this view is not widely-held, and that it's contested.

Secondly, I don't think reasoning is the right approach here because these views are too entrenched. Frantzen has had a long, distinguished career which has brought him into contact with women. He's worked alongside women. He's taught women; he's supervised women's PhDs. He's accepted women's conference papers and heard them speak. In short, he has had a long time, and many examples of women, which might counteract his views. And yet these views persist.
Finally, I want to return to this point: views like this aren't held in a vacuum. Academia is part of society, and society is structurally sexist. Which means most of us are going to come up against the misogyny in our careers in lots of horrible and awful ways. I don't have enough resources (emotional or mental) to engage with every incident of misogyny with the same vehement refusal, argument and debate.
So, alongside debate, we have mockery. And each person who contributes to the  #femfog (whether with a joke, a meme, or with condemnation) is signalling that Frantzen's rhetoric is not part of the future of the academy.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

TEF and the Missing Metric

My thoughts on the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) have changed a lot over the last twelve months. When the first suggestions of the TEF were raised in late 2014, I was quietly optimistic. As a PhD student who can't wait to teach, I was hopeful that perhaps the TEF would accord my future labour the same prestige as the work being done by research-focused peers. I (although not with much hope) pondered whether this might lead to the establishment of two career tracks in academia, and that each one would be respected equally.

I still quietly hope those things, although with much less certainty. We're still at Green Paper stage, which means that there are precious few details. And, for me, the TEF will be all about the specifics - what is measured, how it's measured, how these measures are used. There is one metric that is missing, which I think is the single most important metric that a TEF could introduce.

The TEF must measure the proportion of teaching that is delivered by staff on part-time, fixed-term contracts. An ideal TEF would require institutions to provide a breakdown of how many staff are employed on part-time, fixed-term contracts. It would also require institutions to outline what proportion of teaching is delivered by staff on these contracts,  alongside an explanation of why this is the case.

 I can't imagine this measure would be popular, but it could benefit for students, for staff, and institutions' reputations. 

Undergraduate students would be better able to read prospectuses critically.
There aren't many instructions that don't promise their students access to 'leaders in the field' or 'world-class experts.' Having worked closely with students, this is often something they cite as being misleading about prospectuses. Incoming students would be better able to question these claims if they see that 90% of undergraduate teaching on their course is actually delivered by short-term, hourly-paid staff. If, as the government claims, the TEF is supposed to offer students the means to make more informed choices, then this data set would be an obvious way to do it.

Staff currently on insecure contracts would benefit. 
For institutions, an obvious way to mitigate any reputation damage (and resulting fall in recruitment this might cause) would be to alter the contracts they offer teaching staff. I'm relying here on the fact institutions generally want the simplest solution to a challenge. I concede that some HEIs need these sorts of contracts to deliver good teaching - the most obvious example I can think of is one-to-one music tuition, which has to be flexible to respond to the number of students who play a given instrument in a given academic year.

But most institutions don't rely on insecure contracts to address their teaching needs: they rely on them address their financial concerns. And for all those staff who currently deliver the full range of teaching on what amounts to less than the minimum wage, a change in contracts could be career-altering. would be fantastic. If you don't have supplement your teaching income with work elsewhere, you have more time to dedicate to teaching.

And this, in turn, would benefit institutions. 
Finally, part-time, fixed-term staff are not in a position to provide teaching excellence. This isn't through lack of dedication, skill or passion. It's simply because humans have finite resources, be they financial, intellectual or emotional. Moving staff off insecure contracts would enable staff to teach better: they could have access to induction, training and support to provide better teaching. They'd have enough money that they don't need to work elsewhere. Their teaching would improve. And students would notice. And this would enhance institutions' standing.


Ultimately, I still have reservations about the TEF. But I'm pragmatic enough to recognise that it is probably going to happen. And I'm also cynical enough to think that it's perfectly possible for institutions to game the system, no matter which metrics are chosen.

However, if the TEF is going to happen, I think we should use metrics that might provide some material benefit to those people within the system.