blogging is weird.

It’s February 2018, and I’ve not blogged for ages. I feel like it is becoming a regular occurrence that I blog successfully for a few weeks, stop for months, and then start again with a blog post that starts like this one. It’s weird. I don’t know how I feel about it, but I’m going to keep doing it because I like the idea of having a blog.

I often think of blog topics while walking or sitting on a train, then go on to not  write them down, and ultimately forget about them as soon as I sit down in front of my laptop to start blogging. So, maybe that’s what I should write about today.

To be fair, this is how most of my blogging goes – I sit down, think of something, and then essentially free-write for 20 minutes or so. I’m pretty sure this is a good way of getting bad content, but do you know what? It gets my brain thinking in proper sentences, it gets my fingers typing, and helps me feel more enthusiastic about having a blog. All in all, I feel like those are pretty good outcomes.

Furthermore, while I was in a guided writing group session a while ago, that is how we started. Instead of going directly into writing our dissertations, papers, or proposals in the writing group, we were supposed to open a blank document and start typing.

I don’t think I’d ever done that before. So, at first I was quite daunted – how was I supposed to fill a page? What was I supposed to write? Surely, if I didn’t plan my writing properly it wouldn’t be structurally sound or even make any sense?

After a few seconds, maybe a minute, of slight panic and my fingertips gliding over the keyboard without pressing anything, I did however start typing. Even though it wasn’t in a blogging CMS, I started to treat the free-writing as if I were writing a blog post. I had been thinking about what sections I had wanted to write in my dissertation and started on that thought. To get there however, I first wrote out a brief paragraph about what each of my chapters should look like (reading this back after I had actually finished the 15 mins or so free writing we had, I realised that it was complete rubbish and not even accurate).

As soon as I had started to write, my fingers started to move quickly across the keyboard. I didn’t think about what I was writing, and didn’t even properly read the sentences I had just written. I just kept going; barely ever hitting the back button.

Thinking back, I think I started to see the empty document like an empty blog post. This probably says a lot about my blog (but then probably so do my blogpost dates and the number of blogposts that start with something along the lines of ‘so I’ve not blogged for a while, so here’s an update…’), but do you know what. I don’t really mind. This blog is a space for me to get some fingertip-on-keyboard action that only two people actually read: my blogging buddy and myself.

This happens way too often, but while my blogging buddy is sitting next to me thinking and writing about personal experiences, thoughts, and emotions I’m sitting here typing out a stream of consciousness that doesn’t really make sense in the end.

Either way, this disconnected weird blogging style I’m developing is fulfilling its goal and that’s all that really matters. So, there’s that. And that’s this post.

the beginning of the end?

This week has been weird.

I came back from the CIRN conference in Italy on Saturday, saw some friends from Austria on Saturday, and slept a lot on Sunday to catch up from my late nights and early mornings all of last week. So, I decided to write this post today with the creepy title – apologies but also, I’m not actually sorry about it. clickbait. yes.

This week though, was strange. When I came into the office I just couldn’t do very much. I sat at my laptop, working on something, for the whole week but don’t really have much to show for it. I guess that’s normal in a PhD, but it’s just one of those weeks that feels weird. I had a supervision, went to a PGR training session, did some marking, wrote some e-mails, and did quite a bit of writing; but still I didn’t feel like I was being productive…

Yesterday, I decided to re-start my dissertation (again) and had a long think about my research questions; something I’ve been avoiding for months. After my supervision the other day, my supervisor and I decided I would send him something to read in two weeks. While I’ve got quite a few words on paper in a document that has headings and chapter titles and looks like a dissertation, I don’t have a chapter that’s actually completely written from start to finish. Instead of continuing on my messy process towards attempting to write a dissertation, I decided to open a new (yet another) document and actually properly figure out what I wanted to say.

I’m sure it’s going to change again, because it’ll never be finished (ugh), but this time I actually have research questions. I’ve got an overview of my methodology, a detailed dissertation structure, and need to write an overview of the background to introduce the whole thing. This isn’t supposed to be a perfect or finished chapter, instead it’s something that I can send to my supervisor, something to talk about.

We’ve talked about my work a lot, and have had some really fantastic discussions about what it could look like, what chapters can feel like, and how the data could be presented. We’ve talked about pieces of writing I’ve done, but none of that writing has been dedicated ‘dissertation writing’. So, now it’s time for that, I guess.

It feels weird.

And yes, I’m using that word ‘weird’ again because I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s just…strange, I guess. I generally don’t like finishing things, and sending something that’s written for my dissertation to my supervisor kind of marks the beginning of a long process that is supposed to be the end, or the finishing, of my PhD programme. I’ve been here for almost 4 years now, working on my PhD for roughly 2 years and 2 months now. It’s time to get to the writing.

I’ve done lots and lots of thinking about what it could look like, I have way too many outlines and notecards with potential chapter structures and overall dissertation structures. I’ve talked to all of my supervisors about a number of these different structures and outlines and potential framings, but now it’s time to put words on paper. Useful and meaningful words that will lead me to the finish line.

CHI metadata deadline

Today’s the day we have to submit the CHI2018 metadata for each of the paper that we are going to submit.

Usually this day I’m stressed out. I worry. And I start to re-read and care about every single word that is in my abstract and paper title. Generally, by this point, all I worry about is my paper(s) and spend hours re-reading each of them, changing very little, but feeling like I’ve accomplished something. In reality, all I’ve done is print out the paper, make pencil or pen marks on it, translate those marks into my .docx file, and save the thing as a new draft in the appropriate folder. It doesn’t really do much, to be honest. Don’t get me wrong, the editing process is invaluable (and I actually really enjoy this process), but it gets to a point where all you’re changing are a word every now and again. And then I really wonder how much use it is.

Sometimes it useful though. During some of these 10s of read-throughs, every now and again, I notice that a discussion point doesn’t really make sense, or that I could use a different example to illustrate a point more accurately. So I change a whole column or page of the paper, I re-write paragraphs and shuffle them around.

But sometimes, it really does just end up being something along the lines of: should I use this word or this other word that means pretty much the same thing here?

It’s the kind of editing that resembles the latter that I’m not sure on how useful it is. I don’t think I’m changing the paper very much at that point, but it has helped me feel more comfortable with and confident of what I’ve written. So maybe it’s useful afterall…

Anyway, this year has been weird. I’ve not really felt the ‘chi stress’ that I’ve felt in previous years. I’ve happily worked on my papers, writing, editing, talking to others about it. I’ve been deleting pages worth of stuff and re-writing it and doing superficial read-throughs of the paper to decide which words fit best in which sentences. To be honest, I’m still doing all sorts of reviews and changes on my papers, but I’m enjoying it much more than I have in the past.

On top of this, I’m also doing some very non-CHI related work. It’s a nice alternative to the constant re-reading of paper and paper sections. Instead, it allows me to focus on something completely different for a bit, which then allows me to come back to the papers with fresh eyes.

In a weird roundabout way I also think it’s making it all feel less stressful. Even though I’m technically doing ‘more’ stuff, I feel like I’m stressing less about the individual things I’m doing. I just kind of get on with it. And enjoy it. Since the other things I’m doing are not related to the papers (or even projects I talk about in the papers) I’m writing this year, it really is like taking a little holiday from CHI. Even if it’s just a few hours every day, it seems to make a huge difference.

And dare I say it, I’m a little excited about the coming deadline!
(I guess this might have something to do with my mum coming to visit me on the day after the deadline…but shh)

No, but really. I’m excited to hand in my papers. I’m proud of them and I like what my co-authors and I have written. I’m sure we’ll get some harsh reviews, somebody won’t see the point in the paper, and somebody else will love it. It’s weird though, I’m so curious about what other HCI researchers think about what we’ve written – and what they think about the projects that are represented in the paper.

Bullet Journaling

A few months ago, I got myself a Leuchtturn 1917 notebook because I wanted to start bullet journaling. It was an attempt at getting on top of all the things I have to do while simultaneously forcing myself to have a little bit of creative time in the evenings. Since then, I’ve had some good weeks, some bad weeks, and a few weeks where I didn’t even touch the notebook.

For years I have been watching craft videos on youtube (to be honest, it all started with Corinne and Rob’s Threadbanger website and forum when I was 12 or so…). More recently these craft videos turned into art journaling videos, ‘how to make your own notebooks’ videos, and ultimately bullet journal videos. For roughly a week I had been watching way too many ‘plan with me’ videos on an evening, so I decided I would give it a try.

I had quite a few pens, markers, and coloured pencils at home anyway, so it really was just about getting the right notebook. I know I don’t have to have the Leuchtturm 1917 to bullet journal, but I like notebooks and have never had a dotted notebook so wanted to see what it was like (spoiler: it’s amazing).

So I went to Details Arts Centre to get my supplies. Only, they didn’t have what I wanted! So instead, I went to Ryman’s, a good old regular stationary store, and they had what I needed. In two colours. I picked the teal notebook (because teal is pretty), went to the cashier, and then headed into work.

That evening I sat down for a few hours watching more youtube videos and browsing the #bujo world of instagram. After my head was full of ideas I grabbed my pens and notebook and started making a few lists to start off the journal. I did everything I was supposed to do: a monthly log for june, a weekly log for the week, and then made daily logs for each day that week.

I really enjoyed it, but to be honest, I wasn’t going to do that every month…or every week. It ended up taking me a few hours, which I really enjoyed, but I don’t think I’ll be making that much time to organise what is essentially a glorified calendar.

For the first couple of weeks I really enjoyed it and I sat down on a Sunday afternoon to plan my week ahead. But after that I started to crumble. I had a few weeks where I didn’t do anything, and then had a Sunday where I spent more than 3h working on a weekly spread and daily spreads for each day that week. Since I hadn’t worked on my bullet journal for a while, I really enjoyed that process.

In August, I made a monthly tracker page that I really liked. I used elements from June and July that I really liked and wanted to keep going, and used a different design for my mood tracker. I didn’t use this page. At all. To be fair, I wasn’t at home fore 2.5 weeks that month, but still. I didn’t use the tracker before I went on holiday either. When I came back at the end of August, I used my lovely Leuchtturm 1917 as a to-do list. It really wasn’t an appropriate use of the expensive notebook!

So last week I decided to pick it up again. This time however I spent a little less time on it. I used what I had learnt from the various different types of weekly logs that I had made and created something that combined the best elements of each of these. It’s a new month now, but I don’t have a monthly log. I’m not even tracking everything I’m tracking in a monthly cycle. I’m trying a weekly cycle of tracking. I don’t know how it’ll go. And I don’t know if it’ll work. But I’m giving it a try.

I like the way the spread looks, but it didn’t take ages to set up. It’s got enough space for personalisation (I’ve got two little doodles in the bottom corners of the spread), and I’ve got everything I want to track on the page. I’ve also got a section of ‘notes’ for things I need to do at some point during the week (or at some point later) but that I don’t have a designated day to do the things on. I’ve got a ‘focus’ section for three things I need to focus on this week, and a meal planner (because I liked it the one week I had it and used it previously – I’m not sure if I’ll actually be following / using it…but we’ll see).

For each of the days I have an outlined column to write my daily tasks in: daily tasks are a bit strange for me. I love a good to-do list, and like to be very precise about the tasks that I need to get done when I have a lot of things to remember and get done. But when I’m working on a few different big tasks, that becomes hard to do. So I then go through a cycle of writing down fewer tasks that end up taking more time. It’s weird, and I don’t fully understand why I do those two completely different types of to-do lists, but I do. And this week felt like I’m not going to be writing down every little thing I need to do but rather the big tasks I need to work on. It’s weird because it’s harder to tick things off, which in turn makes me feel less accomplished at the end of the day or week. At the same time though, this kind of meta-to-do list is the only thing I can really do at the moment. I’ve got three big things I’m working on, and while each of those can be split into micro tasks, even those micro tasks will take a few hours each to complete – so I don’t have very ‘much’ on my to-do list this week even though I’ve got a fair bit of work to do.

Okay, that’s enough of a rant on to-do lists. Ultimately, this was just a check-in for myself on my bullet journaling. It’s not been the super productive, beautiful notebook I’d hoped it would be, but it’s been a nice learning journey that I hope to continue. I like the process of setting up the pages (even if I don’t do it properly every evening / week), and I like that I can make it look as pretty and detailed or as to-do list-y as I want. It’s a nice thing to play with, and I really really like the dotted notebook. How have I not ever had a dotted notebook before?!

It’s September – what?

Today is the first of September. And a small part of me wants to take part in the seemingly collective response of: ‘Holy shit?! How is it September already?!’ but a larger part of myself wants to appreciate what I’ve done for the last month, or two, or eight. Now, this isn’t because I think I’m amazing or ahead of the game…actually quite the contrary.

I often feel like I’m not doing enough work (before anyone who knows me starts shouting at me, I know this is untrue), and I often feel like I’m falling behind on things. I rarely finish my to do lists (but that’s because they’re too full and aren’t actually realistic), but also rarely forget to do stuff and/or miss deadlines so I think I’m getting some things right.

But back to it being September.

The internet wants me to constantly be stressed about doing a PhD. It’s the common trope: the frazzled, up late at night working, stressed PhD student. I really don’t want to say that this isn’t the case for a lot of people, but I just hate the idea that that is the norm. Again, I don’ t want to say that this isn’t a real lived experience for a lot (far too many) students, and let’s be honest I’m often in the lab way too long after 5pm too. But when you search anything to do with PhD life, studies, careers, etc. everything that seems to come up are blog posts about how the PhD is the most stressful time of your life, about how supervisors tell students what to do, and about how the pressure is so big.

All these things are probably true. But why are they the norm? And it’s not just the internet that’s perpetuating this image of the PhD student: When I talk to some PhD students I feel guilty for taking weekends off. For not working when I’m at home. For having a good night’s sleep. Too often I even feel bad for being productive. It makes no sense.

I think this ties in with the whole ‘holy shit how is it already September’-itis. We never feel like we have done enough. We always look for our flaws, about how we had too many tea breaks yesterday, and ultimately about how we’re never going to amount to anything unless we stare at this document for the next 5h not really changing much but just avoiding sleep.

And I think that the image of the frazzled and stressed PhD student contributes to this. And I hate that it’s become the norm. I’ve had chats with some others about this, and I’ve definitely felt like I’m ‘doing it wrong’ at stages where I’ve not felt like all the internet tells me I should feel about my PhD.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love PhDcomics and all the other blogs, comics, and sites about how to write your PhD, how to survive your PhD, how to get a job after your PhD, etc. as much as the next PhD student – but where’s the balance? Where’s the alternative? Where’s the positive, the hope?

So that’s why I’m trying not to engage in the ‘holy shit how is it already September’-itis. I’m trying to tell myself I’ve done enough for the month to tick over.

Time waits for no one. Not even stressed out PhD students.

I’ve not completed my to-do list for the month, but I’ve done enough to be happy with what I’ve done. I went on holiday – on an actual, real holiday. That alone should be enough of a success in August! But I’ve also done loads of other stuff – and I’ve got stuff planned for September. It’s going to be a great month; even better than August was. Because that’s what I’m trying to do these days. I’m trying to relax and enjoy the PhD-ride.

So bring it on, September. Bring It On (Again)

 

 

Preparing for trips

Last week I wrote about why I chose to do a package holiday to go horse riding in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and this week I want to go into a little more depth as to why it was so great.

Well, for one, I didn’t have to organise anything. It’s weird because I usually really enjoy the process of looking up things to do, finding obscure museums, streets, or cafes, and narrowing down what I want to do when I’m away. I usually keep my options open with a few things I want to do (always more than I actually have time for) so I can decide spontaneously on the day what I feel like doing.

Going on a package holiday is very different. I didn’t have to organise anything. Still, I bought my trusty Bradt guidebooks to prepare for the trip (reading that history and culture section a few times). The only thing I had to organise was book a flight, sort out my visas, and book the trip itself. It was really weird. But in a sort of liberating way.

Not having to plan anything freed up much of my time before the trip to do more work. yay?
No, I’m joking…a little bit.

Something that was weird about not preparing my own trip was that I should have had more time and energy spent on preparing for it mentally and physically, or even for just making myself extra excited about going. None of that happened though. It was weird. Because I didn’t have to figure out where I was going to sleep, how I was going to get from point A to point B, and because I didn’t really have to find obscure museums and places to eat, I somehow didn’t really prepare for the trip. I let it surprise me…which again, is something I don’t usually do.

It was lovely. It’s not how I want to spend every single holiday or trip I go on (I really really enjoy the process of figuring out what I want to do when I’m away), but it’s definitely something I want to do again the next time I go on a horse trek (let’s be honest, I can’t do this once and never do it again…).

Not having to worry about where you’re going to sleep at night is oddly liberating, and not having to figure out how to get there is just really nice. I will never forget my trip from Skodër, Albania to Kotor, Montenegro and then trying to figure out where to sleep that night (it was easter Sunday and I had forgotten what day it was because I’d been on the road for two months…) – I’ve got a little post about it here, but I think that entire day/evening deserves it’s own in-depth post at some point in the future…

Anyway, not having to think about how to get from Osh in Kyrgyzstan to Murgab in Tajikistan was great, particularly because there isn’t, as far as I could find, any public transport that drives across the border. Acording to the internet that particular border crossing isn’t a great place for hitch hiking (though the rest of the countries seem to be okay-ish?), so I’d have to get a shared taxi – which is fine, but is basically what we did and had organised for us anyway.

Since this was the first proper holiday I’d had in a long long time, I also didn’t really want to have to worry about where I was going to sleep at night and how to get there. There’s a time and place for backpacking and hitch hiking (and I love both), but this wasn’t it. This was a time to not have to worry about things, to relax, and to sit on horseback riding through the jailoos of Tajikistan. And that’s what going on a package holiday let me do without having to worry about it.

So, when I started writing this post, I actually wanted to write about something completely different, namely my trip itself (Osh – Gulcha – Border crossing to Murghab – horse trek – Horse Festival in Murghab – Sari Kul – Osh), but oh well. This was an interesting exploration of what my head and heart does to prepare for trips.

Riding at high altitudes

I’ve been back in Newcastle for just over a week now and am slowly starting to process my holiday. I did something I’ve never done before, but something I’ll hopefully do again: I booked a package holiday.

Okay now before all the travel snobs get mad at me, hear me out.

It has been my dream for years, I’d say more than a decade, to go on a multi-day horse trek. Growing up, I went horse back riding and I’ve had a few short holidays with my mum (and sometimes my brother too) where we would drive into the countryside either while living in Romania or while on holiday back home in Austria (though there we’d drive to the Czech Republic – Znojmo, to be precise. If you’re in the area you need to go visit this lovely little town! It’s just an hour away from Vienna!). While in the countryside we’d usually stay in a little guesthouse or Bed and Breakfast type place that had horses. We’d then go riding for a couple of days having breakfast and dinner at the guesthouse and sleeping in a room there too.

I loved these trips. I loved the feeling of freedom and companionship I got from galloping through fields and forests. The serenity of walking through high grass on horseback and the excitement that overcame the horses and us riders when we had to wade our way through a particularly big river. Since having done the first of these trips when I was a little teenager I’ve wanted to do a horse-trek; but a real one. One where you have a pack horse and you carry your luggage in saddle bags. Where you go camping and ride through mountains, forests, rivers, or fields in what seems like the middle of nowhere.

I’ve done a fair bit of travelling, and almost everywhere I’ve been I’ve tried to find a place I can go horse riding. The thing with horse riding though is that stables are usually not in cities (and that’s a good thing – let horses run around. The need space, and grass, and fresh air!), but stables are also usually not in small towns. From where I’ve looked they’re somewhere in the countryside that is really hard to get to without having a car. Now, I can drive, but I’ve never really had teh organisational prowess, money, and time (all at the same time) to be able to rent a car for myself, find out where these stables are, somehow manage to find them, to then go on a short ride.

It is because of these prior experiences that I booked a package holiday. I knew my next destination had to be Central Asia (again, I’d been wanting to go for ages. Pretty much since I was studying Eastern European and USSR history back when I was doing my IB History course in High School), and I knew I wanted to go horse riding. Since I haven’t really had a proper holiday since I finished my Bachelor’s degree, since I didn’t take any time off last summer, and since I was pretty upset about not having travelled very much last year, I went looking for an adequate destination and stable in Central Asia in November last year. In the end, I realised that all my previous troubles were true here as well, so I started to have a look at holiday packages that are completely organised. In the end, I went through Unicorn Trails and booked their Pamir Mountain Explorer holiday.

It was absolutely amazing. The holiday had everything I was looking for: there was a lot of horse riding, a lot of different terrains to ride through, beautiful nature, camping, we had pack horses (!), and everyone in the team got along nicely. It was the perfect way for me to have a proper break from my PhD, and when I came back I was ready to get on with my work. I looked forward to it, and really wanted to get back to writing. It took me a couple of days to get back into the swing of things, but this trip was not only a perfect break, it was also a way of really acknowledging that I love what I do. That I want to continue to do what I am doing, and that I really missed it whileI was away.

I think I need to write another post about the trip as a whole, but overall I did the thing I never wanted to do (book a package holiday) but absolutely loved it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. In fact, I’m already trying to figure out what kind of horse trek I want to go on next!

The Sprint

Again, I start by saying that I’ve not been blogging recently. This time however I have at least a bit of an excuse: I was on holiday and didn’t take my laptop. I took my phone, but only to take pictures with. No work, no wifi, no electricity. So, that’s my excuse.

Now I’m refreshed and back in the lab, so hopefully my two-posts-a-week schedule will come back soon.

Today I want to write about something I did a long time ago: from the 30th of May until the 5th of June, to be exact. That was the week that things started to get very serious in my project with National Ugly Mugs (NUM). I have been working with them for a long time (since December 2015, actually) to support them in their technology use and development. To do that, I carried out an evaluation of their services that resulted in some small changes in their service delivery (like slightly changing the ways in which they title their alerts), a CHI paper, but also the decision to not only give their current website a new look but rather to redesign their digital systems. With this redesign we hope  to make some of the work that those in the office do every day just a little bit easier. By bringing together a number of different services and technologies that they use we centralise the process and in turn shave off a couple of minutes from each membership sign up, leaving a little more time for the vital parts of service delivery and advocacy work they carry out.

So during this week from the 30th of May until the 5th of June we started working on the website. I guess that’s not really true since I had been working on the website since the beginning of 2016 (what with my considerations for research ethics, field work, thinking, and writing…), but this was the first time that pieces of code were written for the new system. Tom Nappey and I had been working for a while on some design options for the look of the new website, and it was particularly in the weeks running up to the re-development of the website that we finalised all the requirements. This means we worked very closely with NUM staff to compile all the necessary features, all the features we’d like to see on the website. We had been doing this for a while, but now was the time for final decisions; what was initially a two-page skeleton of the website turned into a roughly 30 page requirements document.

This document alongside some mock-ups of pages on the website were what we started the week with. At the end of the week, we had a brand identity document (to outline the new logo and design of the NUM ‘brand’ as well as how to use the new logo), a justification document (that brings together the research I carried out and the design decisions we made as a team), and a half-finished website (the core features and design work is finished and functions as it should).

The core team was made up of 4 people, though we had a little additional help on one of the days from one more person, and of course we had a lot of contact with NUM office staff to make sure they were kept up to date with what we were doing, how we were doing it, and why we were doing things in this way. Throughout the week, we worked for roughly 338h, I visited the office twice, and had 10 phone calls with them.

We documented the week in a number of different ways:

  • we put up a GoPro on the wall of our main working space to create a time-lapse of the week
  • we had a whiteboard on which we wrote the goals of each day, crossed them off, and took a picture each evening
  • we took pictures of the progress throughout the week
  • I took notes on the conversations, phone calls, and impromptu meetings we had
  • we documented much of our work in the shape of screenshots of the website we had made up to that point
  • and finally, we produced the brand identity guidelines and the justification document (though the latter is still not entirely finished as we have a bit of work left to do on the website before its launch).

Overall, it was a really long and tiring week; but also a week in which we got a LOT of work done. We worked until Sunday the 4th of June, after which the three guys I worked with travelled back to Newcastle. I stayed in Manchester for one more night since the NUM board was having a meeting on the 5th of June. I attended a part of this meeting to show them what we had been working on and where we were up to. This resulted in a walk-through of the brand identity guidelines and justification document, as well as a whistle-stop tour of where we were up to on the new system (both the front-facing website, and the admin-login that staff would be working on to manage membership, reports, and alerts).

We’ve still got a long way to go until everything is finished, but things are getting there. We are moving forward and now it’s about delivering. It’s about documenting everything correctly and ensuring that training for current (and new!) staff is appropriate, useful, and complete; about producing documents that outline the technologies used, the reasons for their use, the Special Operating Procedures, and instructions on how to use each of the elements of the website. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we’ve gotten this far, so things are not too bad.

Book chapters are a weird beast to master

I’ve not blogged here for a long time, so again I’m going to say how strange it is to get back into this. This time, I found this title in my ‘drafts’ in the blog post folder, so let’s see where this takes me in the next half hour or so.

Book chapter are a weird beast to master. There are so many different types of books and types of chapters, and it’s all very dependent on discipline and methodology. It’s a weird and complex hodgepodge of words.

Maybe I should explain myself a little before I get too far down the rabbit hole about how weird I think book chapters are. So, essentially I’m a PhD student who’s trying to write words for her dissertation while simultaneously trying to publish my academic work in a number of different formats. I’m working on stuff that is very much at the intersection of HCI and social sciences (and I’m using the term ‘social sciences’ here because I can’t figure out where in the social sciences my work actually fits in quite yet…). Since I’m still not entirely sure whether I want to go into social sciences or HCI after I finish my PhD, I want to try to publish in both spaces, in different formats. I’ve published papers in HCI, and have started going to social science focused conferences recently, but I’ve yet to publish in the social sciences.

That’s about to change!

A few months ago, I received a CfP for a book surrounding sex industry research. One of the sections of the book was something like ‘underresearched areas’ and another one was ‘technologies’. In my head, I think technologies and sex work are generally underresearched so I decided to write an abstract for the ‘underresearched areas’ section of the book.

Writing this abstract took me aaages. I couldn’t quite figure out how I could write what I wanted to write and have it make sense to a social science audience. I hadn’t realised just how much of the language I use in my writing is HCI-specific! So I went through and edited, edited, edited. I re-wrote things, took things out, restructured my abstract until it was the deadline.

To be fair, I probably freaked out much more than I needed to, but I wanted my ‘social science debut’ to be good. A few weeks later I get an e-mail from the editors and as it turns out my abstract was good enough! woop! So I’ll be writing a book chapter for the ‘Handbook of Sex Industry Research’. They did however change my chapter into the ‘technology’ section, which I wasn’t super happy about – but I can see why they did it.

So anyway, a few weeks roll around and I decide to get over my fear and try to figure out how to even start writing a book chapter. I remembered the vast amounts of editing and re-writing it took me to get the abstract into somewhat send-off-able shape, and just tried to have a go at the chapter.

At first, it went really slowly. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, what I was trying to say, or even how to get a start at my chapter. I wrote a few sentences and let it sit for a while. Even though I had months before the deadline, I was starting to get worried that I hadn’t given it a proper go yet, but still couldn’t figure out how to go about doing it. It kept sitting in my head as something that I needed to figure out. It wasn’t something that actively stressed me out or scared me, but it was just this little thing in my mind that, every  now and again, would come up.

One Saturday, pretty randomly, I felt like I wanted to have a proper go at the chapter. I lied in bed thinking about what I wanted to write and it seemed to all make sense. It seemed like I knew what I wanted to write, what pictures I wanted to include, and how I wanted to shape my argument that would be my ‘social science debut’. It would be political and strongly worded, it would be reflexive, show what cool work I’ve been doing, but then also questioning why I did things in a certain way. I got out of bed got ready really quickly and headed outside to go to Pink Lane Coffee. I ordered my flat white, sat down on their brown leather couch, and had a go. I started with writing notes in my notebook, then developed a skeleton for the chapter in a word document and then had a go at writing the thing. I spent hours that day writing away, not really re-reading what I had written – just getting words on the page. I ended up with more than 5,000 words that day and still wasn’t completely finished. But I left it at that.

I don’t really remember what I did the rest of that day, but I’m pretty sure I slept well that night.

After having that start on the chapter, I felt good about it for a few weeks – I thought I had figured it out and was happy with what I had written, knowing that I had a lot of work left on it (I had still to write the conclusion, for example). So I let a few weeks pass again before I had another go at it. This time I picked up a printed out copy of the words I had written that Saturday that I had lying on my desk and started to have a go through it. I put it down almost instantly as I realised how bad the words I had written were.

Instead of being discouraged by this, I told myself: at leat you’ve got words down. Words are editable. You can re-write the whole thing, but at least you’ve got an outline that somewhat makes sense, and at least you’ve got words. You can edit them.

I don’t remember whether it was a few days or weeks later, but I had to go to a cafe again to get this sorted. This time I sat in the Settle Down Cafe and took the chapter and a pen out of my bag. A sip of my flat white, a deep breath, and then I started. I don’t think a single sentence was left in tact from my initial chapter. Almost all the pictures were deleted, and the structure changed drastically. It was a pretty  heavy re-write of what I had done on that long Saturday in Pink Lane Coffee. But this time I actually felt good about it.

I had essentially hand-written the entire chapter through my edits on the printed out page; many of my notes were now only legible to me, and the arrows and asterix’ stopped making sense after a while.

After a change in scenery I decided to try to type up what my hand had spilled on the page – I went through all of my notes, typing things up as I went along. Trying to decipher what I was trying to say wasn’t always easy, and I changed a few things in the process of typing them up, but it kept me going. I had something on paper that I just had to type up – this wasn’t a hard task, it was do-able. Much of the hard work (to this stage) was already done.

So I typed and edited, and had another read over, and changed many things again, and then changed some more before I was happy enough with it to send it to my co-authors and supervisors. It’s still not done, and I’m still not 100% happy with it (and I don’t know if I ever will be), but I’m in a good place with it now.

What was hardest however, was trying to write in such a different style and for such a different audience. A book is written so differently from a paper. Even though I actually have less space in the chapter than I would in a CHI paper, the format makes me want to write more reflexively; it makes me want to explain things more and not cram everything into a single paragraph or sentence. The different referencing format (Harvard as opposed to the ACM CHI format) makes me want to reference fewer papers, but spend more time explaining them and how they relate to my argument. It makes me slow down, think, and really appreciate the words I put on the page.

It’s weird.

I think working on this chapter is helping me re-calibrate the way I write. It’s helped me start to write for my dissertation. I know the dissertation is yet another type of writing with yet another audience and yet another purpose, but the way I want write about my work seems to be closer to how I am working on this book chapter than how I work on CHI papers. I don’t think I can really explain why (yet)…but for now, that’s where I’m going to leave it. An open-ended sense of wonder as to what my dissertation is going to look like, and how writing in different formats has helped me see my work through different eyes. It’s helped me look at different things, and it’s developed me as someone who puts words on a page.

Getting (re)organised

The last couple of weeks have been ridiculous. I’ve been in and out of Newcastle, in and out of the country, and in and out of my academic frame of mind.

It all started with going down to London for a workshop (that you can read about here) followed by the trans-atlantic flight to Denver for CHI. I was in the US for a week and a half, travelled back to Newcastle only to be absolutely jet lagged. I’m not used to travelling across so many time zones. What was nice about that trip however, was that I had the chance to unwind for a few days. I stayed in a lovely lodge a few miles outside Boulder and just walked around for a few days. I met up with Chris Bopp, whom I had been in contact with previously about a(n unaccepted) CHI workshop around working with Third Sector Organisations and had a lovely chat with him at the University of Colorado, Boulder Campus. During our chat, Chris showed me around the stunning campus and showed me the ATLAS institute, which is a pretty amazing interdisciplinary research space (it felt somewhat similar to Open Lab, though they did have different offices for different people and research groups).

After that lovely walk and chat I headed down University Hill and into town via Central Park and the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse (but that’s for another post!) before finding a way to get to my lodging (which, I only realised later really isn’t that far away from Boulder). So I took a bus there, checked in, and had a rest. I was shattered at this point. The conference (and associated parties) really wore me out, and I wasn’t sure whether I was actually over my jet lag yet at this point, or whether it was just starting to set in. Anyway, over the next couple of days I didn’t do much. I did some reading, I did a lot of eating, and walking around Boulder. I also walked in the FlatIrons and  on the Chautauqua trails, as well as the Boulder Creek path; both of which were absolutely amazing.

After this trip to Colorado I came back to Newcastle on a Tuesday afternoon. That week I was tired all the time. Jet lag really hit me quite hard, and I don’t remember much of what I actually did that week. I do remember however, that the sprint I was supposed to go on to get a start on developing the NUM website was pushed back by a week (and lordy was I happy that was moved!).

So the following week I stayed up late every night preparing for the sprint. I drew out mock-ups by hand, had conversations around requirements documents, had lots of conversations with NUM staff about the aforementioned mock-ups and documents and at the same time tried to organise all the materials we needed to go, have meetings with Ed, Rob A., and Tom N. about the trip, and tried to get everything sorted.

The week after that was the sprint. And oh my goodness. We worked all day every day for seven days. After what seemed to be a 90h week, I stayed in Manchester for one more day to present what we had done to the NUM board. We had completed the main functionality of the site, a 40pg brand identity guidelines document and a 95pg (and counting) justification document.

So, while I wanted to write about something slightly different, I’m happy I wrote out everything I’ve done in the last couple of weeks. It’s not an excuse for not blogging and generally feeling unorganised about my life and dissertation at the moment, but it’s a nice way of seeing that, while I feel like I’ve been running around like a headless chicken, I’ve actually been doing a lot of work alongside some other really great people. I’ve been getting stuff done, and just need to find a way of reflecting on this and moving forward.