Tag Archives: PhD

The first University of Kent “Shut Up And Write!”

Last term I came across this post from Dr Inger Mewburn (aka The Thesis Whisperer), Director of Research Training at the Australian National University.  Inger was, as far as I can work out, the first person to set up an academic Shut Up and Write! group at a University, and it seemed like a fab idea.  The crucial components are: caffeine, other people, and silence – all of which I thought we could gather together in the pursuit of Words.  So, I put together an application to UKC’s Graduate School to start the group.  After a few logistical hiccups (the mysteries of the Timetabling Office are not for us mere mortals to comprehend), here’s how the first one went.  Unedited.

This is interesting.  The timer is currently on 29:10 (and thousandths of milliseconds – it’s immensely precise) and there is a suspiciously quiet room of about 18 peopole*  (dammit, interruption – latecomer!) typing studiously away in an atmosphere of huffs, sighs, and the very large looming timer countdown on the projector screen.

This is the first meeting of the University of Kent’s Shut Up and Write group – something that originated in San Francisco (see the early meeting reports here-link**) – and is spreading across the world.  Originally for novelists, academic SUAW meets have now been set up at several UK universities with many being run by libraries and academic learning support units.  (It’s very odd, esp as I’m sitting at the front and can’t really know what’s going on behind me without turning round and gawping, which would kinda defeat the point, all I can hear is frantic tapping at keyboards and the occasional cough (it’s lurgy season)).

All was going swimmingly planning-wise until my lovely officemate put the frighteners on me – I’d ordered catering for 25, he proceeded to tell me that EVERYONE he knew was coming and was the room big enough?  Duly scared of running out of cookies, I upped the order to 40 and proceeded to panic.  (It’s odd how people start to fill a room from the back)  The timer is now at 22:25.  I want another cookie.

At five to one I had a wibble as I was the only one here, but, miraculously, more arrived and now we’re at around x (how many?).  Am thrilled – esp as most are people I don’t know (I was worried it would just be me and a few friends from the dept) – looks like word has spread.  People poured coffee, passed cookies, introduced themselves.  I wandered round like a numpty saying hello to people (and directing to the loo – having stuck green arrows from the building entrance to the room, didn’t think to include the Facilities).  (It’s also odd how I have to keep glancing at the timer to see how I’m going.  19:58.  Others are doing it too.)

Arrivals are impressed by the cookie provision and ask who has paid for it – a shout out to the Graduate School, who have very kindly awarded a Postgraduate Experience Award allowing for catering provision and printing.  The cookies are homemade and excellent brain food.  If there are any left, I might take a couple down to the Grad School office to say thank you.  (18:09, still typing, very loud bus outside).

The principle of writing in short but uninterruptible bursts is an adaptation of the pomodoro technique (website here:*** )  I’ve been trying to find anything (other than the website) written on its use but have been struggling a bit – I’ve only come up with one or two, and nothing that really tests it as a writing/productivity technique.   The idea, I think, is based on measures of attention span; i.e. you can only concentrate for so long before your brain wanders off, and therefore it makes sense to structure your work around that.  (halfway!)  The other feature is the (ideally) complete lack of distractions – mobile phones switched off and put away, and, crucially and horribly, internet connections switched off.  What if someone retweets one of my tweets?  Or sends me a Facebook message?  Or even an email?  I won’t know within seconds!  The WORLD could end!  That said, the opportunity (or compulsion) to Just Write It (to adapt an advertising slogan) is actually rather nice.  I have nothing else I should be doing.  I put up some quotes at the start of the meeting while people were getting coffee, etc; one of them is by Gertrude Steinem (no idea who she is – must look up once am allowed internet connection back****), who apparently said “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”  I know how she feels.  I have my upgrade paper due in a week and a bit (actually, maybe that is what I should be doing… bummer.) and I feel guilty pretty much whenever I am not writing it.  It’s coming together slooooowly.  But writing, somehow, is always a worthwhile pursuit.  The process of writing itself helps to formulate and xxx thoughts (ref! – under normal circumstances, I would have looked up a reference for that – internet search, quick check of facebook, email etc while I am there – none of that today so that thought will have to go uncited.  I am a Bad Scientist).

Gosh, 08:57 and I’ve somehow written 784 words.  If I’d been this productive over the last year-and-a-bit of my PhD, I reckon I’d have finished by now. 

OK, brain freeze and I’ve run out of things to write.  The interesting thing is, however, that the fact that you’re in a room full of people who are all typing away does actually compel you to join in.  Call it a herd mentality or something, esp as I’m sitting at the front (and I’m technically in charge of the session), I feel guilty if I’m not joining in.    I’m not sure whether this is a good thing.

The idea is to post this post as a blogpost.  I did think about posting its raw, unedited, stream-of-consciousness version; along with a cleaned-up, edited, made-nice-for-public-view version; to see how much revision would go into it (and how much rubbish I talk when given free rein that then has to be wrestled into something coherent), but I’m not sure about that.  Maybe it’ll all go up, stream-of-consciousness and all.  I might have to add a ton of footnotes, though, as I’ve got gaps and contractions and “xxx” (where I know I need a different word there but can’t think of it right now – somehow using Shift+F7 seems like just as much cheating as using Google in this context…) so I probably won’t make much sense.  3:19 to go and I want another cookie.  They’re very good, kudos to Kent Hospitality.

The group in general seems to be from all over – literature MAs, postdoc maths, etc, which is nice (I think I’ve said that already).  I’ve sent round a register to get an idea of who’s who and what they’re writing, so it’ll be interesting to see exactly who’s here.  I haven’t even done a headcount as was too busy setting up the timers etc (from here), and can’t now as everyone is behind me.  1:09 to go, I think I might run out of steam. 1,110 words.  Blimey.

Quite scared about how loud the alarm is going to be when the timer gets to zero*****.  Hmmm…

* Yes, this is the unedited version, so I’ve left in the typos
** The link is in the introduction, it’s worth looking at
*** Pomodoro technique website
**** Gertrude Stein (I did say it was unedited!) – author and art collector, 1874-1946
***** It wasn’t, the sound was switched off

And that was that – just over 1,100 words in 30 minutes.  Rough and unedited, but there.  In the second writing period, I wrote what I had intended to – a section of the paper I’ll be submitting for my PhD upgrade.  The great thing about writing like this is that, because the point is simply to get words down on paper (or screen), with no requirement to start at the beginning, write well or in a particular style, you are provided with a kind of literary get-out clause to bypass the where-do-I-start blank-page panic.  If you’re someone who suffers from procrastinitis as much as I do, it’s hugely helpful.

It was great to meet everyone this week – if anyone would like to join us, we meet at 1pm on the last Wednesday of every month, usually in COLT3 on the Canterbury campus, all PGs and postdocs welcome.  Here’s the flyer, you can also find details on the University of Kent’s events calendar, or tweet using #KentSUAW.  The cookies are excellent, and free.

Top Ten Ideas for starting points for Social Science seminars

It’s pretty much impossible to start a debate with “Topic X.  Discuss.”  An interesting, controversial or downright unusual source is a great way of getting things going – introduce it at the beginning, show it on screen or pass copies round, get everyone in the class to note down anything about it that strikes them, and away you go: who has written down the same thing? Who agrees/disagrees?  Why?  Who might have a different point of view?  A good source should provoke a response – either positive or negative – and serve as a starting point for marshalling opinions.  Here are my Top Ten ideas for discussion-starters to get you thinking:

1. Crime maps.  These are amazingly detailed and available online from the police website.  Put in a postcode and you’ll get the crime stats for the area on the right – click on “Crime and outcomes in this area” for detailed maps and a breakdown by type of crime.  Look at the stats for your local area and ask why certain types of crime occur in different areas?  Where are the “hotspots”?  Why?  Look at the types of crime listed – what occurs where?  What constitutes “anti-social behaviour”?  According to whom? Why has it become a policy priority?  Compare different parts of your town, different towns, urban/rural, university locale vs rest of city, what happens where students live?  Look at the historical data – what is going up/down?  Where does this data come from?  How reliable is it as a source?  Good for: Criminology, Environment, Social Policy.

2. Census records and the national archives.  The census records for every 10 years beginning in 1841 are online.  There’s a 100-year embargo so the most recent available is 1911.  Although most commonly used for tracing family histories, there’s a wealth of social information contained in them, particularly after the late 1800s ones when more detail was recorded.  You need to register (and pay!) to view the original copies but you can get samples for free – just do an image search for “example census page” and there’ll be material you can use.  What is recorded on each page?  Why was this data captured?  Discuss privacy and personal data.  Look at the family structure at each address – what do you notice?  How does it compare with the modern family?  Look at a few from different censuses – what is different?  Look at the employment column – what does it tell you?  How is this linked to the area lived in?  Are there regions today which are associated with a particular type of work?  Why?  Link this with the “where born” column – who moved where?  Why?  Does this still happen?  Look at the last column – for example, the 1901 census asks if the person is “(1) deaf-and-dumb, (2) blind, (3) lunatic, or (4) imbecile, feeble-minded.”  Huge amounts of mileage there for a discussion on attitudes to illness and mental health, why was this recorded, what health information is taken in modern censuses? Why?   Good for: Health/Medical Sociology, Work, Families, Education, Migration.

3. News stories.  There are vast amounts online – start with the BBC and newspaper sites, look at local newspapers, local radio, student publications, it’s easy to link to a video clip to start a seminar.  Compare coverage of a news story in different media, whose angle is it?  Are they for or against?  Why?  Is the news source impartial or does it have an underlying ideology informing its news coverage?  Who is producing/writing the story?  How reliable are news sources as factual data?  Will the story influence the behaviour of those viewing it?  How/why?  Don’t restrict yourself to UK news sources – everything is online, so see how a foreign newspaper has covered a British story, compare and contrast – especially if you’re teaching a comparative policy course.  Good for: All social science branches, Media.

4. Government departments.  All departments produce vast numbers of publications, reports, papers, press releases, etc, etc.   You can use most of it for something!  Assess both the content and the presentation: evaluate who the perceived audience is for the material, who wrote it, for what purpose?  How is the material being presented and why?  Is it successful?  Look at any statistics – are they reliable?  How do you know?  Again, what is being portrayed and why?  There’s too much to cover in much detail here (maybe a future blog post!) but a few examples of bits I’ve used are:  the Government Art Collection (How much should be spent on public art?  What is its value? How does it contribute to British culture?); weekly A&E statistics (Who sets the targets? Are they meaningful? How are they used/abused?);  Dept for Education advice on drugs (whose responsibility is it to teach young people about illegal drugs? Is the advice valid? Useful? Appropriate? How would/should it translate into the classroom? How involved should schools be in the home lives of their pupils?).  You get the idea.  Good for:  All social science branches.

5. University publicity material.  Gather prospectuses, brochures, flyers, website screenshots.  It’s instantly relatable but harder to critically assess from an objective viewpoint.  How is the University’s publicity department trying to portray itself?  What pictures are used?  Did the class use such material in deciding to apply?  Was it effective?  Does the material convey a sense of place?  Community?  How?  What language is used?  What is its effect?  How would you design publicity material to convey the campus culture?  Good for: Environment, Culture, Identity, Visual methods.

6. Mass observation material, searchable here.  Again, vast amounts of material are available here so pick one or two items and use them to start a discussion.  Try a section of personal diary from the 1930s, one of the “panel” day observations or questionnaire responses.  An interesting subsection is the Worktown Collection, a special study of Blackpool and Bolton.  Beware the website, once you get into it there’s a real risk you won’t be seen for days…  Use for a historical perspective on contemporary topics around daily life.  Find a modern cohort study and compare the methods and data generated.  Good for: Work and employment, Culture, Politics.

7. Non-news magazines.  This will cost you a few pounds and may involve slight embarrassment if you are doing the buying (Nuts magazine, anyone?), but works really well in seminars.  Buy a selection of magazines, compare and contrast.  For example, to look at sources of health advice – Men’s Health, Women’s Health, the aforementioned Nuts, Saga magazine, a fashion magazine, a teen magazine, a sports magazine.  Evaluate differences in content and presentation between Men’s and Women’s Health, look at health and wellbeing content of different magazines – who is the audience? Who is the author? Why is this material being presented? Does it work?  Good for: Health/Medical, Media, Gender.

8. Wikipedia (bear with me), here.   Not so much the content of the site, but the way in which it is constructed.  Look at a relevant topic and evaluate it in terms of content and layout.  Use the Wikipedia principle to construct an informative handout on a different topic – where does one person start in writing it?  How is it edited?  Who agrees?  Who has control over online publishing?  Who is responsible for fact-checking?  Does it work?  What about other user-editable sites (eg Wikileaks)?   What are the implications for incorrect information entering the public domain?  Good for: Most topics, Media, Education.

9. British Social Attitudes survey, hereA great resource for all sorts of data on everything from health and welfare to crime and transport.  Pick a statistic and go with it – ask Why?  Says who?  So what?  Can you identify problematisation? Look at the methods section and analyse how the survey is carried out.  What can it be used for?  How would you improve it?  Good for: Most topics, Research Methods.

10. British Library’s sound archive, searchable here.  Again, this is a website you can disappear into and not surface until your coffee alarm goes off.  Use the Accents & Dialects section to start a discussion on place and identity; use the Sound Maps to debate representations of environment and culture; use the Oral Histories on any topic you can find – this a rich source, there’s everything from a collection of children’s songs to a history of the common cold.  Go explore.  Good for: Pretty much anything.

Have you tried anything similar?  How did it go?  Any more ideas to add?  Leave a comment!

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy, and Assistant Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Kent, with interests in clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions. She blogs about her research and HE topics at www.hcperrin.wordpress.com; or follow @HCPerrin.

Top Ten Tips for PhDs starting to teach

If you’re new to it, standing in front of your first seminar class can be a terrifying prospect.  As a new PhD student last year, I was thrown in at the deep end with two seminar groups a week on a topic tangentially related to my PhD, and I don’t mind admitting it took me a while to find my feet.  It’s easy to recognise one’s (many) mistakes with hindsight, so here is the benefit of, oh, a whole year’s experience: my Top Tips for those finding themselves in the same situation this September.

  1. Preparation.  It’s all about balance – have an overall plan, but allow for interesting deviations.  Always have a couple of “last five minute” activities up your sleeve in case your session runs out of steam (one of the simplest is to ask, “if we were going to investigate this empirically, how could we do it?”).  However, the converse… don’t spend so long on preparing a one-hour session that you neglect your PhD (note to self, must take own advice).
  2. Learn your students’ names.  If you’re not automatically sent it, ask your department office for your university’s version of the “mugshot sheet” – a printout of your group’s student ID photos with their names and email addresses underneath.  You can use the register to get to know your students.  You should have one (because we’re all keeping tabs on our overseas student attendance, now, aren’t we?) but even if you’re only required to pass it round, doing an informal version of the traditional roll call will help put names to faces.  It helps to do a quick layout of who’s sitting where that you can refer to if you want to call on individual students for contributions (which I generally find works better than asking a question of the whole class, who then look at the floor…).
  3. Watch others teach.  Even if you’re not enrolled in a PGCHE or some kind of teacher training programme, observation of others’ seminars is a great way of picking up tips (good and bad!).  As a new PG, it’s probable that you’re not long out of being on the receiving end, so use that experience – who inspired you?  How did they do it?  What was it about their classes you enjoyed?  This is one case where plagiarism should be positively encouraged.
  4. Get feedback.  Generally, the formal feedback mechanisms will only kick in at the end of the term/year, when it’s too late to change anything.  Try a post-it note “last-five-minutes” exercise – on red, yellow and green, ask for anonymous suggestions for “I don’t understand/enjoy…”, “Why don’t we try…” and “I enjoy/find useful…” relating to the course.  You might get a few blunt comments, but with any luck they’ll be outweighed by positive suggestions, and maybe even a compliment or two that will make your flippin’ week.
  5. Relate your material to the outside world.  As a seminar leader, your job is most likely not to actually deliver content, but to situate it in a real-life context, discuss its applications, debate its worth.  Use news stories and current events, give examples of actual uses, find people doing jobs actually using the topics on your syllabus.
  6. Keep copies of essay feedback.  It helps you keep track of what you’ve said to who (particularly if a student subsequently asks you about it); and you can see whether your advice was acted on for subsequent work.  If the same mistakes reappear, you’ll have to come up with something else.
  7. Be positive with feedback.  The old adage of “criticise the action, not the person” applies.  Don’t shy away from pointing out substandard work, but do offer suggestions for how it could have been improved, particularly if a mark is just below a class boundary – what would have put it over?
  8. Don’t beat yourself up if it isn’t perfect at the start.  It’s easy to feel a certain amount of guilt if you don’t have a great seminar – after all, you are responsible for delivering the session, your students are paying for the privilege, etc; and it’s easy to have unrealistically high expectations – images of enthusiastic, inspiring debates can seem a long way from your first teaching experiences.  Learn from what didn’t work, change it, move on; and don’t be afraid to ask for advice.  Your university will have a teaching support unit – find it, and get as much training as you can.
  9. Communicate your enthusiasm.  You are (presumably) teaching a subject you’re interested in enough to dedicate three years of your life to, so explain/demonstrate just what it is that you find so fascinating.  If I had a pound for every time I used the phrase “…and I think this is REALLY COOL because…” in my classes, well, I wouldn’t need to be teaching.
  10. Take your own board pens.  Nobody tells you this.

Got any of your own top tips?  Any of my mistakes sound familiar (tell me I’m not the only one…)?  Leave your comments below!

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy at the University of Kent with interests in health professions, clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions.  She twitters on about her research @HCPerrin.

Networked Life MOOC – Week One

Week one is just getting us started with four videos totalling just over an hour of lecture.  The format is surprisingly similar to the traditional lecture – slides on the screen, and the lecturer’s voice accompanying note-writing.  It feels strangely out-of-touch – it’s odd to think that the person speaking is a genuine professor (you can look him up at UPenn!) and that there are actual students taking the course in an actual lecture hall (as part of a degree in Market and Social Systems Engineering, in case you’re interested).  There are also a few pond differences – no lecturer has ever started off with “greetings and salutations”, as far as I can recall, and there’s something uncomfortably American-Idol-ish about the opening “I’m Michael Kearns, and this… (dramatic pause) …is Networked Life”.  I expect sequinned backing singers and dry ice any moment now.

Once we get into it, however, I’m rather impressed.  The distracting font aside (Comic sans?  Really?), the content is well-presented and engaging, with just the right balance of theory and demonstrations (modelling the spread of a forest fire, then explaining how to “mathematise”, sorry, “mathematize” the pattern of spread).  I particularly like the directions to empirical work and other applications – for example, the mathematicians’ Erdos Number (how many links via co-authored papers to the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos – the lower the number, the higher the prestige –  getting harder as he died in 1996); or a six-degrees-of-separation experiment from the pre-email 1960s where participants had to get a letter to a named but unknown-to-them recipient via the fewest intermediaries.  Terrific stuff.

These examples were by way of explanation of the “navigation problem” – in an increasingly networked world, how to we gain an introduction to, for example, a particular expert without direct contact?  We know our immediate colleagues but colleagues-of-colleagues become increasingly distant and, without a view of the whole network, it is impossible to know who knows who, if you see what I mean.  Imagine an endless line of requests for retweets, hoping that the target person will eventually see the message but not knowing how it will get there.

There’s a reasonable amount of maths but if you can read the phrase “let p represent the proportion of area that is forested” without coming out in a rash, you’ll cope.  The quizzes at the end of each section of video do require a surprising amount of application – it helps if you’ve taken notes from the lectures – as you’re asked to apply your new-found knowledge to a set of problems.  The technology has the occasional hiccup – for example, the audio continues with a few seconds of freeze on the video – but nothing that gets in your way.  The lecturer also seems to have some kind of pointer/drawing tool which occasionally whizzes around the screen and does some etch-a-sketch-style additions to the slides – mostly underlining and the occasional slightly wonky arrow to reinforce a point.

Overall, I have two A4 pages of notes from week one, a smug quiz score of 31/31, and a feeling that although I’ve spent much of the afternoon watching internet videos, it’s all been rather worthwhile.