Thursday, 18 July 2013

damn good all over

I've just emerged from a six week writing bubble, working on drafts of my first two thesis chapters. They were submitted to deadline and I've re-entered regular life - temporarily at least.  Drafting each chapter was challenging in different ways. I find writing about themes and ideas comes more naturally than writing about numbers and facts so at times, the context chapter felt dry as dust.  But while writing the theory chapter flowed more easily, I was continuously assailed by the fear I was only scratching the theoretical surface.  

The day after submitting the drafts, I was rewarded with two stimulating posts on different blogs: Pat Thomson on emotional research and Arlene Stein on intellectual craftsmanship.  Both spoke to different aspects of my recent writing experience.

Pat Thomson's post considers the place of emotion, including anger, in research and how this can motivate the researcher to produce engaging, compelling work.  I feel fortunate, a year into my PhD to be more not less interested in my topic (part-time, mature undergraduate retention).  I'm researching it at a time when part-time enrolments in HE have dropped 40% thanks to the funding reforms.  What's happened has made me pretty angry and especially when I read the words of those writing after Dearing in 1997, who felt hopeful about the potential for the HE system to encompass lifelong and flexible learning.  The sometimes dull, sometimes fascinating work of uncovering the context of my research - and my own industry - has fed my motivation further.

Arlene Stein's post addresses the instrumentalising of intellectual activity, the pressure to 'produce', leading to 'the production of routine work that fails to inspire oneself or others'.  She advocates a return to craftsmanship - an engagement with our work, seeing writing as craft requiring technique and playfulness.  My struggles with sense, flow and even elegance have been part of the crafting process, an engagement with my research, my topic so that others might engage with it too.  

Both posts addressed motivation and engagement - key ingredients in this doctoral process - in different ways. What both made me realise is that whether I'm writing about numbers, facts, themes or ideas, compelling, well crafted writing is absolutely necessary because both chapters are doing the same thing: telling the story of my research for a purpose.  Arlene Stein quotes C. Wright Mills' from The Sociological Imagination  - and perhaps I'll put this up on my wall:  'I am trying to make it damm good all over'.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

life on campus

For the last three days I've been cocooned within the leafy surroundings of one of England's 'plate-glass' campus universities, a product of the Robbins era and very much a major player in the contemporary higher education scene.  The campus was devoid of undergraduate students but teeming with the people that make the university business model work...conference delegates.

Conferences are changing...these days at least 50% of delegates have their heads in their iPads during keynotes and presentations, another 25% are checking their phones as if their sanity depended on it.  Are we bored, lonely, curious, or simply unable to leave the office? This conference had live tweets beamed onto the big screen during the introductory speeches.  It provided a distraction when the speeches flagged or disappointed, but really, is this polite?  

The best thing about the last three days has been reconnecting with the other students on my scholarship scheme.  We're based at institutions around the UK and last met in November at an induction event. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and it was good to catch up, eat together, drink together (some more than others!), compare notes, share woes, welcome new members.  We're all on the same track, deadlines biting at our heels, juggling study, work, personal lives.  There's something to be said for a bit of group solidarity now and then. Keep it up guys!

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