Obliged to blog?

I blog without obligation, as and when I’ve something to blog about.  During my PhD, blogging started me writing, recording the process, thoughts and ideas that sometimes were worth remembering,   Now, at post-doc, it’s different.

One reason it’s different is that post-doc research isn’t lonely, not a one-man job like a PhD is, but team-work, so thoughts and ideas can be, nay, must be shared, with team members, and loneliness no longer provides that need to blog to someone, anyone in the world who might know something about your topic and be interested enough to reply.

Another reason that makes blogging different post-PhD is that being team work, it’s not for one person to make public what is the team’s effort.  For example, I’m on an EU project called JuxtaLearn, and its news and progress is recorded on its website at http://juxtalearn.org/joomla/.  The initial news as the project started was available on the various university web sites, such as the Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology at http://www.open.ac.uk/iet/main/research-innovation/research-projects/juxtalearn and http://www3.open.ac.uk/media/fullstory.aspx?id=23649. Gradually more partners are posting news about progress, such as the SME partner, Catcher Media, and the JuxtaLearn website will have news items and a blog .

I’ve got work to think through and develop for this project – I have to write guidelines to making a JuxtaLearn video performance – step 4 of the process that you can see in this diagram.  Image

I’ve started discussing these guidelines with some team members, but a team of European universities (in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Sweden & the UK) and an English SME is spread far and wide.   Now guidelines must be read by people who need guiding, and I need to know they work before giving them out as definitive, so I’m going to be blogging these guidelines.  Whether I blog here, or on the JuxtaLearn site, is not yet clear.  But now that I have something to blog about. I’ll let you know.

PhD: a waste of time, money and energy?

Two years after completing my PhD, I compare work with expectations. Several fellow PhD students went on to teach, though that stints their opportunities to research and publish. If you like teaching, carry on. But some don’t want to teach.

One of my colleagues, having taught for a couple of years did some interesting work though a voluntary position (the Olympic games), presented her findings at conferences, and has now got a research position, but as self-employed. Another sadly, was rejected for a Research Associate position and having no renewed teaching contract, right now doesn’t know what to do for a job. She assesses doing a PhD as a waste of time, money and energy so far.

I don’t think the PhD was a waste of money, time and energy for me. I had a scholarship, which was worth a lot, so I was prepared to invest my time and energy on the learning process. Mind you, the way I would have earned it, teaching ICT in a local school would have required a lot more energy and driven me to a nervous breakdown. In fact, now I have skills that I would like to go back to the school with and share with my students: public speaking, the use of technology in the classroom such as getting them to use their phones to photograph the board or record discussions, research skills such as searching on line for information. But I am not going back to a secondary school classroom. I’ll plod on with what I’m doing. You know, some people do two PhDs, and I know that if I could get the funding again, in a fun subject, then I’d seriously consider doing that!
But on the other hand, now I find I enjoy working with others in a research team and learning collaborative skills, collaboratively.

Inter-disciplined research

Do you find you’re now working on something you never thought you would when you were planning your career?  The variety of experience that you accumulate might  allow for creativity; playful combinations create new ideas (Mednick, 1962).  Working across disciplines allows you to bring ideas from one experience to another.  You’re being a boundary creature (Adams, 2013).

As a research associate, it’s wonderful to be working with other people instead of isolated on a PhD.    A PhD should be a research apprenticeship, but an apprentice learns sitting next to Nellie, not in isolation.  Now I learn from the others around me, work in a team with people who have experience in other disciplines, and share my scribbles with peers not just supervisors.  Now, I see project management in action having been exposed to the vagaries and wonders of electronic portals such as Glasscubes and Box.com.

Interdisciplinarity becomes important now. My PhD was under the auspices of the business school, proposed from my business experience but I worked in business IT; I can program and analyse, which is why I now tutor so many technical and computing courses, and I’ve achieved my aim – to be a hybrid. However, in moving between disciplines, I realise that I don’t know how to access some papers, such as the ACM conference papers, which are very important in my new fields.  Indeed, I don’t know the fields well enough to realise when a pair of words represent an important concept, not just a piece of management speak. For instance, an EU deliverable requires identification and specification of “orchestration factors”.  For four days, I meandered around the wrong  literature looking for “orchestration”.  Thank goodness for team work – a colleague said, “Dillenbourg” and I was immediately into the right realm.

Interdisciplinarity then comes with advantages and disadvantages, pitfalls and pleasures.  Enjoy the pleasures

Pat Thomson blogs on interdisciplinarity http://patthomson.wordpress.com/2012/02/11/why-it-is-helpful-to-read-out-of-your-area/

Adams, A., Fitzgerald, E. & Priestnall, G. (2013) Of catwalk technologies and boundary creatures, ACM Transactions of Computer-Human Interaction (In Press).
Dillenbourg, P., Sharples, M., Fischer, F., Kollar, I., Tchounikine, P., Dimitriadis, Y., Pablo Prieto, L., Igancio Asienso, J., Roschelle, J., Looi, C.-K., Nussbaum, M. & Diaz, A. (2011) Trends in Orchestration: Second Research & Technology Scouting Report. STELLAR Consortium
Mednick, S. (1962) The associative basis of the creative process, Psychological Review, 69, 220-232.

Learning research post doc

I’ve been so busy learning about research, researching with others instead of on my own like you do in a PhD that I haven’t had time or thoughts to blog.  Shortly after my last blog posting, I joined another research team, so I’m now working on two research projects.  One is about older people on-line, and one is about juxtaposing learning and performance.

I’ve been consolidating the learning I did on my PhD but also learning more, like how to run focus groups, and how to set up an analysis database that I must share with others who might want evidence from it.  I’ve used qualitative data analysis software (QDAS) before, and set up codes for analysis, but not shared my codes.  For example, if you’re looking at the advantages of participating on line, an advantage might be physical, and I’ve created a node in the database called ‘physical’.  But that’s not enough to share with someone else.   Like using one character identifiers for variables in programming code, it’s not self-descriptive, and I must rename it ‘physicalDifficultiesSurmounted’.

The JuxtaLearn project is an EU project and seems to involve an awful lot of paper work and bureaucracy, but then there are lots of people researching together, people from Portugal, Spain, Germany, Sweden as well as the UK, and we all have different things to do.  Apparently, what we do comes in work packages (WP) and there are nine or ten work packages, and each work package has deliverables due at various times over the next three years.  So you can see that serious project management is needed to pull all these packages together in the right order and on time, or at least in time.  It’s an interesting project because it is about learning and technology, both of which interest me.  Learning’s about what people do and I can’t think of anything better than researching people and technology.

Finding early career researcher work

Research is fun and being an early career researcher seems to mean having a number of interesting part-time fixed term contracts, albeit along with a heavier tutoring load than when a PhD student.
As a qualitative researcher, contracts so far have included:
  • coding text
  • collecting interviews
  • coding and analysing interview transcripts.
Most recently, getting a proposal written and accepted took several months – no, I didn’t do it, but was lucky to be in a small team working on it, so I observed and learned what was happening, what questions were asked and how they were answered.  Now we start the investigation – older peoples’  participation in on-line communities.
It’s a small investigation with a limited budget over a short time span.   We’ve already planned and run a workshop with around a dozen participants.  How different that was from working alone on a PhD!  These participants came with experience in older adults, carers and caring, provision of laptops to families on benefits, and research experience in IT and in gerontology.   Within in three hours, we gained more information on how we might use our research resources than you’d get in six months as a PhD student.
If you know older people who use on-line communities (e.g.Twitter, Skype, a Ning community, Facebook, SocialLearn, Farmville),  please tell me.  Let’s share information because research is fun.

Early career researcher problems

“Life stuff distracting me from work stuff”

tweeted Katie Wheat in today’s Twitter Early Career Researcher chat stream (#ecrChat).  Today’s Twitter #ecrChat is on the topic of work/life balance, hosted by Andrew Frayn.

At the same time, I was in the middle of an email discussion with a colleague early career researcher who’s been offered a full-time one year teaching post at a minor northern university, while she’s also got a full-time six month post near home.  The poor woman has a dilemma, whether to choose  the job close to home but away from a research career, or the lecturer job that should help her to build up an academic career but too far from home.

 Inger Mewburn tweeted a link to a Guardian article relevant for couples – see
http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2012/aug/10/academic-spouses-two-body-problem? though the article discusses academic couples rather than where only one is an academic.  That’s another issue being debated in the Twitter #ecrChat – the problems of communicating what you do when your partner isn’t in academia.   I’ve not too much sympathy with that communication problem since it must happen to many couples – for example bankers married to teachers, teachers married to carpenters, carpenters married to housewives, housewives married to bankers.  It’s perennial.  But regardless of communication, career choices must be made: the Guardian journalist writes,
“We cannot be the only couple in this position, forced to compromise the career of one so that the other may flourish.”
and then discusses it in the academic case, but ’twas ever thus.  Time was when a woman had no career, or relinquished it when the children arrived, perhaps earlier, on marriage.  I know a Shakespearean actress who stopped working as soon as she married her engineer husband, and a teacher who forewent further training on running a nursery school because she expected to have children.  Nowadays, a couple would  debate more on whose career would take prominence.  Thank goodness.
Here’s Melissa Terra’s take on how she keeps her career and her life in balance.   She has a supportive partner, flexible hours, can afford help, takes short cuts, uses the technology.  In short, she’s not superwoman.  I’ve done those, got those opportunities, used them, and that’s just how it is; you can hardly separate life and work when you enjoy them.
Now I’ve not the usual balance issue of too much work and no play.  I get enough play but not enough research work.   I’m pleased with what I’ve got, but like my colleague it’s not enough to make a research career because it’s not a permanent research position in a university, and paid tutoring work tends to take over.  Perhaps the next #ecrChat (See http://ecrchat.wordpress.com/ for future chats) will spur me on to more research, and work stuff will distract me for life.

Papers and stuff

Eiffel Tour, Paris

In Paris, a couple of weeks ago, I presented a paper on how boundary objects afford engaged behaviours and thus engaged behaviours allow strategising activities.   The presentation elicited half a dozen questions, all useful.

One of the biggest problems is my anecdotal discussion of boundary objects, probably because when I collected my data, I noticed them but without enough detailed analysis or reporting of them.  So I need to identify their categories, attributes and functions.  Boundary objects seem to be stuff shared between different stakeholders to a project.  Definitions of boundary objects include Star and Greismer’s (1989) initial referral to one as “an analytical concept of those scientific objects that inhabit several intersecting worlds,”  the “intersecting” implying a shared overlap between the different worlds of the object holders.  Boundary objects are adaptable and robust, “adaptable to different view points and robust enough to maintain identity across them“.  I think what they mean is that when people who different things meet, this stuff that they share helps them also share meanings, value, knowledge and indeed to create new knowledge – the excitement of meeting at the boundaries, of pushing at the boundaries of your own discipline and of learning from another discipline.  What categories of boundary object push you into another discipline?

Categories according to Star & Greismer again are four: repositories, ideal type, coincident boundaries and standarised forms.  Later Levina and Vaast (2005) identified boundary objects as either designated (you’ve got to use them) or objects-in-use (more informal stuff that people develop as they go along).

I haven’t got a research question for this paper but perhaps there’s something about whether particular categories of objects span particular boundaries, and whether particular categories afford engaged behaviours better at some boundaries than at others.  How do you get a research question?

Levina, N., Vaast, E. (2005) The Emergence of Boundary Spanning Competence in Practice: Implications for Implementation and Use of Information Systems. MIS Quarterly 29, 335-363.
Star, S.L., Griesemer, J.R. (1989) Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science (Sage) 19, 387-420.