Thursday, 23 May 2013

imposter syndrome

I'm at the HEA Social Sciences Cluster Conference (#HEASocSci13) which has as its theme: Teaching Research Methods.  I experienced a painful case of imposter syndrome this afternoon when I attended the opening keynote by John MacInnes (University of Edinburgh) who also happens to be the ESRC Advisor on Quantitative Methods Training.  I'm drawn to qualitative rather than quantitative research.  I'm the girl who ran, weeping with relief, from the room at the end of my O'Level Maths exam (yes, that long ago) and wept with relief again when I was informed I'd scraped a C.  In my mind I never had to think about Maths again.  I'm also the kind of person whose eyes lit up on reading a news article last week on how mild electric shocks to the brain have been shown to improve mental arithmetic skills.  Forget research, life in general would improve measurably (but by what % I hear you cry) without having to constantly revert to a) fingers and thumbs b) pen and paper to work out the minutiae of my personal finances.  No doubt I fall into the 'statistically illiterate' category whose skills are barely basic and certainly don't reach the heady heights of being 'confident at manipulating fractions and decimals to express proportions', attributes John MacInnes listed as as essential for social scientists learning quantitative methods.

I'm not proud of any of this by the way.  But I am content with making the most of the strengths I do have.  I'm a poet and I write fiction (when I'm not writing research papers).  So the speaker's reference to 'the statistical imagination' caught my own.  We must, he said, help students to appreciate the 'excitement of data', to 'learn to see the world in terms of variation and distribution'.  I think I probably already do, in my own way, I just instinctively express my understanding of it in words, rather than numbers.  

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

part-time matters

Yesterday saw the launch of Part-Time Matters, a campaign highlighting the benefits of part-time study to the UK economy, society and the individual.  Backed by a range of stakeholders in part-time higher education including universities, their mission groups and the NUS, the campaign has launched in response to the dramatic 40% decline in part-time applications to higher education following the 2012 reforms to higher education.  Universities UK has already started to conduct a review into the reasons behind the drop.  

The publicity around part-time higher education is not simply timely, it is overdue.  My doctoral research into retention and part-time, mature students, has revealed the dominance of full-time as the 'authentic' model in institutional, policy and media representations of higher education,  despite one third of all higher education students studying part-time.  There is a tendency to lump part-time students in with 'disadvantaged' groups despite their varied profile. 

Why does part-time matter?  As the campaign argues, part-time higher education brings economic and employment benefits to students/employees and employers; it widens access to higher education and it has a positive impact on personal development. I think it matters too, to our higher education institutions and all their students.  Part-time students bring life experience, employment skills and knowledge, alternative perspectives and astonishing motivation and commitment to their study.  This matters, diversity matters, part-time matters.

Are you studying part-time or know someone who is?  Do you teach part-time students?  What do you think are the particular challenges and benefits of this mode of study?

Monday, 13 May 2013

'at home' in higher education?

My reading about retention of students in higher education is taking me in the direction of belonging and from belonging into identity and place.  So I've become particularly alert to the ways in which people use space to create place, to establish connections between the people they are or would like to be, the things they do and the places they inhabit.   

This was illustrated for me yesterday when, in a brief respite from case study research design, I went to visit several makers participating in Stroud International Textiles Festival Open Studios Weekend   Part of the delight involved in these weekends is discovering places on your doorstep you never realised existed.   Of course during Open Studios weekend, the studio becomes a shop window, the artistic process is self-consciously available for public consumption.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed imagining the private creative process taking place within them on a daily basis.   Yesterday's visits revealed two makers' studios tucked away up a narrow, tree-lined path.  One was little more than a lean-to with a view of the garden; the other was a purpose-built garden 'room' with a green roof.  Both were compact, distinctive workplaces. 

It got me thinking about my own 'studio' (derived after all, from the Latin studere, to study): essentially a desk in the spare room, a noticeboard and a shelf of books.  It's the nearest I can get to the garden room with the green roof.  But this workspace has become an important part of my development as a doctoral researcher.  It keeps that part of my life distinct, it's an acknowledgment of the importance of place to the development of a learning identity.  

These observations feed my thinking about the larger questions about learning and social spaces; about the ways in which student populations use campus space - inclusively and exclusively; what it means - and who is allowed - to feel at home in higher education?

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

a matter of life and death

Last week, I felt I'd reached something of a milestone in what I'll call my PhD career.  This week that milestone is forgotten and the future trajectory obscured by life events.  I'm reminded all too abruptly of how studying as a mature student and perhaps particularly as a female mature student, is vulnerable to disruption by events beyond your control.  My elderly mother had a(nother) fall and though not seriously hurt, has simply failed to recover.  This week - and the Bank Holiday weekend - has been dominated by encouraging a reluctant elderly person to eat/get up/dress/bathe, ensuring they take medication on time and daily, weighing up their additional care needs, whether further medical attention is required.  The physical, mental and emotional energy this demands makes starting on what feels like a new phase (writing my Lit Review chapter, planning methodology) impossible for the time being. 
And then today, in piercing sunshine, softened by glorious blossom, I attend the burial of my ex-colleague who has died of cancer in her mid-forties, a year younger than me.  She is buried in a wicker coffin, beneath a graceful stand of trees in South Bristol Cemetery.  Saying farewell to her feels like an invitation to make the most of now, a glib phrase most days, but not today. 
In between the death of a quirky middle-aged woman who died with dignity and the life of an admirably stubborn elderly woman clinging on to life, my PhD seems at once insignificant - and so much more.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

first stop - reading

A couple of times a month I leave the pocket of rural England I currently call home and get on a train to the big smoke for PhD supervision and library raids.  That's what I did yesterday and travelling back via Reading (dappled pink sky, May blossom softening the urban edges of the M4 corridor), I realised that I'd reached my own particular station stop on this PhD journey.  My supervisor had advised me to stop reading (for the time being) and start writing my Lit Review chapter.  
To my surprise, my first reaction was regret!  Last autumn, the idea of 'reading for a year' seemed a) ridiculous, b) impossible, c) profoundly indulgent.  But 'reading' has turned out to mean so much more.  Reading has meant grappling with new technological know how and the virtual abundance of library resources; becoming strategic about database searches and library book renewal; working out an effective notetaking/filing system; learning how to to navigate the highways, short cuts, dead ends and voyages of discovery in every bibliography; discovering the joy of indexes; not being afraid of sentences that begin: A lack of corporeal finality arises from a mutual inherence between psychical interior and corporeal exterior...*; analysing, connecting and getting past the authoritative voices in my field; expressing their relevance to my research in my own words, tentatively at first, then with increasing confidence...
If I'm honest, I'd like at least another six months.  But it's on to the next station stop. 
*McNay, L. (1999) Theory Culture Society, 16:98